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Patty Kleban: Group Opposition Dynamics and the Penns Valley RAM Community Centre

by on March 29, 2012 9:30 AM

It must be human nature.

I’ve been following the discussions out in Penns Valley about the RAM Community Centre.  I don’t have a dog in the fight since I don’t live in Penns Valley, but the process and the discourse is something that is all too familiar.

A group of elected officials make a decision and some people in the community are opposed to that decision.   

In 2005, it was the planned renovations of State College Area High School. It’s been the approval of zoning decisions such as height limits on West College Avenue.  It’s been about where to put the dump in northern Centre County.  There was a fight about the county prison.  It happened with the decision about what to do with Rockview lands and who got to oversee the green space.

A group (usually of elected officials) make a decision and people organize against that decision.  The next thing you know?  Us against them.

With the Ram Community Centre (RCC), the controversy seems to be where the center will be located and how and who was involved in the decision versus the actual need for a community center.  From what I have read, most people like the idea of a community center, but some have concerns about funding and location.  The decision to put a community center on school district property is murky for some people.  The fact that some of the same people were in on the decision to lease school district land also serve on the board of the RCC makes it questionable for others.

Yard signs that say NO and others that say YES.

Neighbors, family members and co-workers disagreeing or taking sides.

Rhetoric on the internet which indicates the decision has become very emotional.

Change the names and the issue and it could be any town.  The finger pointing and public comment are the same.  It’s a vocal minority who are opposed.  Someone is personally gaining from the decision.  The decision makers only want what’s best for their community.  The opposition is uninformed and uneducated. 

In looking at group dynamics, we know that a group coming together to make a decision is a process that has been studied for decades.  When individuals come together to make decisions as a collective, what happens?  What influences the decision?

The research on group decisions versus individual decisions is fascinating.  We do things as groups that we might not do as individuals.  We make decisions in groups that are more risky, less risky, more cautious, less cautious than we sometimes report we would make if we were deciding on our own.  Sometimes, we become more emphatic about our group’s decisions when faced with opposition. 

That is, when people question a decision that we made as part of a group, we sometimes hold on to it even more enthusiastically because of our affiliation with that group and because we’ve been questioned. 

In other words, the common enemy serves to inflame, encourage and heighten our response to the decision.  It’s called group polarization.

The discussion becomes disagreement and people start taking sides.  People might not support or oppose the Ram Centre as much as they support the group for which they are now affiliated.  Similarly, the YES and NO groups may have moved even further in their respective directions now that the “others” have become the enemy.

Human nature is a funny thing.  We sometimes dig in and hold our ground when questioned, especially if we have linked arms with others.

Group polarization has been studied as a factor in the political process, in the military and surprisingly, in university communities (i.e. students affiliated with Greek organizations versus independents).  People who have opinions and then who meet with other people who have similar positions or who are brought around to the group’s position often become more extreme in those positions.

For example, I may consider my position to be left, right or in the middle, but joining with others who have come to the same position might make me even more emphatic about that decision.

Recent research has suggested that the Internet has been like fuel on the fire in terms of one group’s opposition to the views of another.   If you want an example, check out political statements on Facebook.  With the “power” of their perceived group behind them, people seem to be using their keyboards to take on more extreme party positions than they might as individual voters.  

Robert Sutton, Professor of Management Science at Stanford, identified the secondary group dynamic of “too invested to quit” in polarized groups.   As individuals we have a greater tendency to walk away and stop, as they say, from throwing good money after bad, when we are given information that our investment of time, talent or treasure is questionable.  Groups, on the other hand, because of the group influence, will reportedly stick with something, long after it’s financially or rationally sound, because of group polarization.

With each newspaper article, letter to the editor or comment made at public meetings, the lines in the sand become deeper.

The antidote to group polarization, according to the research, seems to be diversity in group membership and education and information about the subject at hand.  Like-minded people make like-minded decisions.  Research has indicated that new groups with new tasks, as well as groups with limited outside or diverging perspectives are more at risk for circling the wagons against those who have a different opinion. 

Healthy groups accept opposing opinions as part of the process and one of the steps in getting to a good decision.

Looking back to November of 2005, I have often wondered what would have happened if the sitting State College Area School Board had decided, after the first of several meetings where the new $102 million price tag was announced and people started to ask questions, to take a break.

I wonder, if instead of saying “It’s a done deal” and digging in its heels, what would have been the public’s reaction to an extended hand and an invitation to be involved in the process? 

Instead we had opposition groups, yard signs, community meetings and neighbor against neighbor.  Sadly, the new SCASD board majority seems hell bent on a return to the faction (AKA group polarization) mentality that cost us almost $5 million in 2007 in lost tax dollars. 

Kudos to the powers that be in Penns Valley.  They seem to be learning from the examples of others.

As of last week, the Penns Valley School Board seemed to be saying, “We need to bring all parties to the table” and, “We have to deal with the anger” before moving any further.   Ideally, formulating a new “Community Center for Penns Valley” committee, with faces from both sides, might generate a plan that everyone could embrace.

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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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