Cross pressure refers to that social situation in which an intrapersonal conflict arises when the motives affecting a decision are incompatible. Two broad categories of such conflicts can be distinguished—attitudinal and affiliative. Attitudinal conflict may occur when a person is faced with a choice between alternative beliefs or courses of action under conditions which bring into play attitudes motivating different and opposing choices. Affiliative conflict can result from a person’s attachment to several groups which have preferences for different alternatives. These two types of conflict can be illustrated by voting behavior, the field of study to which the cross-pressure hypothesis has most frequently been applied. If a voter who generally agrees with the foreign policy of one party prefers another party’s domestic policy, his voting decision will be affected by attitudinal cross pres-sure. If his personal friends belong to one party and his business associates to another, his voting choice may be subject to affiliatwe cross pressure. While the two types of cross pressure are not mutually exclusive and frequently occur together, they are based on different psychological mechanisms. In attitudinal conflict the individual is assumed to be striving for consistency between his actions and the various relevant parts of his attitude structure, whereas in affiliative conflict he is trying to adjust satisfactorily to various relevant parts of his social environment.
The concept of cross pressure is typically used to link the choice-behavior of individuals to social processes. This implies that the sources of cross pressures are part of the social world. That is, in the case of attitudinal cross pressure the conditions to which the individual responds must have objective reality. To illustrate, the specific domestic policies which motivate a person to vote for a political party must actually be the policies of that party or at least the policies which public opinion generally attributes to that party, not merely those the individual alone attributes to it. In the case of affiliative cross pressure, the attitudes which the individual imputes to his various relevant groups must actually be the attitudes which characterize them. Again, the voting preferences a person imputes to friends or business associates must be their real voting preferences. If this assumption of objective social reality were not made, there would be no reason to treat cross pressure as a special phenomenon apart from the general field of internal psychological conflict.
While the causes of attitudinal cross pressure include a large variety of social, individual, and situational factors, the etiology of all kinds of affiliative cross pressure reduces itself to what Riecken (1959, p. 178) calls “social transition.” The term covers both vertical and horizontal mobility, as well as certain processes of culture change, i.e., acculturation and cultural evolution.
There are special problems of definition with respect to affiliative cross pressures. In Simmel’s usage the term “social circle” (which Bendix translated as “group”) referred to any kind of social aggregate, from the most intimate primary group to the community and from involuntary social groups to voluntary associations (Simmel  1955, pp. 127–130). More recent writers have sometimes broadened or restricted the meaning of the term “group.” In their Erie County voting study, Lazarsfeld, Berelson, and Gaudet (1944) dealt chiefly with broad social strata such as classes, religious sects, and residents of urban or rural areas. In their more recent study in Elmira, N. Y., Berelson, Lazarsfeld, and McPhee (1954, pp. 118–127) put greater stress on the voter’s personal associates (his friends, family, co-workers). They believe that these personal associations translate the more abstract group memberships into concrete personal experience and thus make them effective. The mechanism which accounts for conflict, then, is that of primary group attachment, i.e., the individual’s need to maintain a sense of belonging to groups of close associates by conforming to their basic values and attitudes. Yet another version of the affiliative cross-pressure hypothesis holds reference groups accountable for the generation of conflicts. Campbell et al. (Michigan, University of … 1960, pp. 370–380) regard the individual as subject to cross pressure if he identifies with a social stratum to which he does not belong according to objective criteria. Other definitions of cross pressure include conflict between group norms or preferences and internalized values and between group and mass-media pressures.
Effects on individuals. Simmel ( 1955, pp. 140—143) saw cross pressures as the social mechanism which leads to the development of individuality. In a complex society, he argued, each person stands at the “intersection” of a large number of social circles. To the extent that the “interests” of these “circles” are not identical—to the extent that they are in conflict—the person has freedom of choice, and the particular set of choices he makes establishes him as an individual distinct from all others. Thus, in Simmel’s view cross pressures stimulate innovation, although he acknowledged that they may also have inhibitory effects and occasionally lead to “psychotic breaks.”
Some researchers dealing with acculturation processes support Simmel’s views. Thus Lerner (1958, pp. 49–54) describes the “transitional”— the person exposed to both the traditional and the contemporary culture—as the chief agent of change. There are, however, other reports which point to the destructive or debilitating effects of cultural cross pressures (cf. Opler 1959).
Students of voting behavior have shown that cross pressures are associated with a reduction of partisanship and interest in both the election campaign and its outcome. Voters under such cross pressures tend to make up their minds late in the. campaign; they tend to split their ticket; and more of them fail to vote than in the general population.
Effects on society. Cross pressure is believed to reduce social tensions and political conflict, since cross-pressured individuals serve as bridges between social and political groups.
For instance, an individual who identifies with a social class different from his own tends to vote according to the norms of the chosen class rather than those of his social environment (Michigan, University of … 1960, pp. 369–375). This prevents the polarization of society into status groups. Similarly, cross pressures arising from multiple-group membership tend to restrain interest groups from extreme and uncompromising stands (Truman 1951, p. 158). Workers whose locus in society keeps them in a state of relative isolation are more strike-prone than workers subject to social cross pressures (Kerr & Siegel 1954). And since individuals under cross pressure are likely to be the members of society who are most directly involved in processes of social change, their presence in the system makes for flexibility and ability to accommodate to new conditions (Parsons 1959, p. 98).
Second, cross pressures are believed to stabilize the political system by strengthening dominant opinion. Cross-pressured voters tend to resolve their conflicts in favor of the party or policy which commands majority support or is otherwise dominant in the community (Berelson et al. 1954, p. 100). Lipset et al. (1954, pp. 1133–1134) further believe that the cross-pressure mechanism contributes to the maintenance of existing power relations, since lower-class people are subject to the pressures of both their lower-class culture and the upper-class-controlled mass media; for upper-class people, there is no such divergence between affiliative and mass-media pressures.
Critique. The main burden of the cross-pressure hypothesis is the postulated decrease in interest, partisanship, and other forms of involvement as the pressures upon the individual become more evenly balanced: the notion is that such pressures then tend to cancel each other. This physical analogy carries over into the realm of social and political relations: the lower the aggregate energy potentials carried by all its members, the less the tensions in the society.
The seeming obviousness of this physical analogy may have prevented theorists from specifying the exact conditions under which the hypothesis can be expected to hold. Clearly, it is possible to imagine cases in which a strong attachment to a congruent set of attitudes or to groups with congruent attitudes goes with low interest in both the decision process and the outcome. Thus, a person firmly attached to the moral conventions of his society or to a variety of groups committed to society’s ethical code may routinely choose the conventionally correct alternative course of action without evincing any involvement in either the decision process or its outcome. Conversely, a person not so firmly attached and thus experiencing greater conflict may be more deeply involved.
Therefore, two conditions appear to be necessary for the cross-pressure hypothesis to be applicable: the outcome of the impending decision must have emotional significance; and the outcome must be delayed or uncertain. Emotional significance in social decisions is usually supplied by the presence of social dissensus over norms or policies. Delay or uncertainty gives rise to the anxious expectations or anticipations of reward which stimulate involvement. The cross-pressure hypothesis thus applies mainly to situations of social conflict or political competition.
If so restricted, the cross-pressure hypothesis may seem a tautology: it argues that people whose attitudes or group attachments make them hesitate between two alternatives are not very partial to either of them. Certain psychological theories suggest, however, that the reaction to internal conflict can be, quite to the contrary, an exaggerated commitment to one of the alternatives. In such a case, the unpleasant consequences of internal conflict are eliminated by blocking out the other alternative—for example, by selective perception or selective exposure to the situational stimuli (Festinger 1957, pp. 123–176).
This possibility is clearly present in cases of attitudinal conflict. In a less direct way, it may apply to affiliative conflict as well. Some individuals experiencing strong internal conflict may overcome their discomfort by selective perception of their associates’ attitudes or by one-sided selection of primary groups. Others, similarly conflicted, may rationalize their indecision by (rightly or wrongly) attributing divergent views to the members of their several primary groups. The existing evidence on voting behavior does not preclude such interpretations, since it relies exclusively on the reports of subjects about their associates, not upon direct testing of these associates themselves (Luce 1959, pp. 349–352). Thus, some individuals whose primary groups do in fact diverge in their attitudes may escape from the psychological pressures resulting from such affiliations by taking extremely partisan positions and falsely attributing similar positions to all of their associates.
Neither version of the cross-pressure hypothesis contains any theoretical notions, nor are there any data that might help in deciding how an individual will react to cross pressure—by an increase in, or a reduction of, one-sided commitment. Thus, it is not possible to assert unconditionally that cross pressures will always reduce social and political tensions. Three types of response to cross pressures seem possible: (1) withdrawal or alienation (as hypothesized in the voting studies); (2) over-reactive affirmation of, or extreme commitment to, one of the alternatives (Festinger’s hypothesis); and (3) careful weighing of all alternatives with possible innovation as a solution (Simmel’s hypothesis). Which of these responses will actually occur may be a matter of the individual’s ability to tolerate internal conflict. It has been suggested that such ability to tolerate “ambiguity” or “dissonance” is a part of personality structure (Frenkel-Brunswik 1949; Festinger 1957, pp. 268–270). Furthermore, threatening social situations may reduce such ability among the general population. Both the frequency of personality types with high and low conflict-tolerance and the frequency of threatening situations may have historical antecedents and thus be rooted in a given culture. If this is true, then it is not possible to predict any particular effects on the individual or society only from the knowledge of patterns of cross pressures. Rather, certain personality characteristics, the frequency of their occurrence in a given society, and their distribution over the structure of social roles must be considered contributory sources of variability.
Frank A. Pinner
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"Cross Pressure." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 17, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/social-sciences/applied-and-social-sciences-magazines/cross-pressure
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