As the fall season nears, the spooky-loving souls of the world begin decorating their houses with ghouls and goblins, making orders for pumpkin spice lattes, and busting out old VHS tapes of “Hocus Pocus” for their annual rewatch. For some, the movie’s backdrop in Salem, Massachusetts, evokes thoughts of the Salem witch trials. 

Suddenly, their minds are riddled with questions: Who were the accused? How did the trials end? And the biggest question of them all—why did the Salem Witch trials happen in the first place? 

History suggests a combination of factors, including a smallpox epidemic in the region, economic disparities, and the looming threat of Native American attacks. However, there’s another potential factor at play: group polarization. 

Grab your favorite fall-flavored beverage as we discuss the concept of group polarization and how it may have played a role in the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. 

What Is Group Polarization, Anyway? 

Can you remember a time when you experienced peer pressure as a child? Maybe your friends asked you not to talk to the new kid in class or they convinced you to ditch your plans in favor of hanging out with them. Whatever the case may have been, peer pressure is a form of group polarization, a situation that refers to how people adopt more extreme positions when they’re part of a group. 

Other examples of group polarization in different contexts include: 

  • Changing your behavior when you’re around your coworkers or friends 
  • Taking on different roles in a group depending on who you’re with 
  • Altering your opinions based on the influence of others 

The Salem Witch Trials: A Brief Overview 

The Salem witch trials began in 1692 when a few young girls in Salem Village, Massachusetts, began exhibiting strange behaviors. When doctors could find no scientific cause for their outbursts, the girls accused social outcasts Sarah Good and Sarah Osborne, along with Tituba, a servant of the Puritan town minister, of witchcraft. These accusations sparked mass hysteria in the religious and superstitious little town. 

The trials soon followed, and when Tituba confessed, it only added to the town’s hysteria. At the conclusion of the trials in 1693, more than 150 people had been accused, leading to 19 hangings, one pressing, and five deaths in jail. 

Everyone Drank the Potion: Group Polarization During the Salem Witch Trials 

With only 550 people living in Salem Village at the time of the trials, it’s not difficult to see how group polarization may have played a role in the convictions of numerous village citizens. Below, we discuss some of the ways group polarization may have wormed its way into the minds of the people of Salem. 

Conforming to Social Norms 

Many Salem Village townspeople were Puritans who conformed to the religious belief that witchcraft was God’s punishment for committing sins. Those who outspokenly deviated from that belief were more likely to cast themselves in a negative light in the eyes of the rest of the community. 

So, instead of forming their own opinions of the accused, many individuals may have felt pressured to conform to the belief that the women were sinners, and therefore witches, even if they didn’t necessarily agree with that sentiment. 

Echo Chamber Effect 

As citizens became swept up in the gossip of the accusations, it created an echo chamber effect, which occurs when people only hear one side of a story. In this case, it happened to be that the accused women were, without a doubt, witches. 

Many of the townsfolk already believed this to be true, so when they heard similar stories from others, the gossip only solidified their opinions. If someone had decided to question the complainants’ stories and stand up on behalf of the accused, some townsfolk may have come to a different conclusion: Maybe the women weren’t witches. Perhaps, they were innocent. 

Public Pressure 

The judges of the trials were probably under immense scrutiny to take action against the potential threat of witchcraft. A combination of building pressure from the community mixed with the desire to be seen as righteous problem solvers could have pushed them over the edge in terms of their judgment of the accused. In the end, this form of group polarization may have led the judges to make more extreme decisions than they were comfortable with. 

Fear and Hysteria 

While many of us appreciate the occasional rerun of “The Exorcist” or “The Craft” around Halloween, the idea of witchcraft and the devil was a tangible fear for the people of Salem in the 1600s. With the number of accusations increasing weekly, this growing fear created an atmosphere of complete panic. This rising dread may have caused moderately minded individuals to become caught up in the town’s collective sense of hysteria, resulting in people forming less rational judgments and pointing fingers at innocent neighbors. 

Join the Bandwagon: Earn Your BA in Psychology at UTPB 

Not every aspect of group polarization holds a negative connotation. Under the right circumstances, it can also lend itself to solving problems, fostering positive changes, and encouraging individuals to explore and expand their values. 

If you’re interested in broadening your ethical understanding of the world around you and enlightening others, The University of Texas Permian Basin offers an online Bachelor of Arts in Psychology program that’ll help you develop fundamental skills and knowledge in the expanding field of psychology, including: 

  • Reasoning about empirical research that apply to psychological phenomena 
  • Writing strong, cohesive arguments 
  • Thinking critically about the theoretical and applied aspects of psychology 

With a degree in psychology, you’ll be one step closer to achieving your dream profession, whether you aspire to be a clinical or counseling psychologist, a behavioral scientist, a researcher, or something else entirely. Your future is up to you to decide—so, start today by exploring all that our online psychology program has to offer