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> Polarization


Polarization, as you might guess, has something to do with poles. Now, a pole can be a concrete thing, like the South Pole, but it can also be an abstract thing, an extreme, or, as my dictionary puts it,

Either of two antithetical ideas, propensities, forces, or positions.

Polarization, then, is when things are, or are made to be, polar, i.e., at the poles.

A concentration, as of groups, forces, or interests, about two conflicting or contrasting positions.

What I want to write about here is not polarization itself, but rather the idea that asking questions can cause polarization.

Here's how it works. Suppose you ask me a question on some subject that I don't really have an opinion about. It's possible I'll say “gee, I don't know, I never thought about it”; more likely I'll think about it briefly and superficially and then come up with some answer. And there's the problem! Having produced an answer, I'll start to rationalize it, to justify it to myself … to move myself toward the chosen extreme. And, even without rationalization, if you asked me the same question again, I'd probably give the same answer just to be consistent.

The process is similar to the one that occurs in formulation, but the emphasis is different. In formulation, it's the development of a rote answer that is important; in polarization, it's the associated change of opinion or belief. The following thought was tangential in Formulation, but is central here.

I remember reading once that people, when asked a question to which they don't know the answer, tend to just make things up and then take the made-up things as fact.

Finally, for what it's worth, here's a funny thing. The process I described above is also similar to a physical process … but that process is measurement, not physics.polarization.

Here's how that works. Say you have a particle with spin ½ with its spin pointing in some horizontal direction. If you measure the component of spin in the vertical direction, you don't get zero, as you'd expect; you get one of the two values ±½, at random. If, however, you measure the same component again, you always get the same value as the first time. Strange but true! (But, see the footnote.)

I really hate it when people try to apply the laws of quantum mechanics to human affairs, so let me point out that that is not what I am doing here. I am just making a funny analogy. It may be true that asking questions can cause people to change their opinions, but it is certainly not a physical law.


  See Also

  Spin and Measurement

@ July (2002)