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Social Identity Theory: I, You, Us & We. Why Groups Matter

Social Identity TheoryAs humans, we spend most of our life working to understand our personal identities. The question of “who am I?” is an age-old philosophical thought that resonates with all of us and is particularly difficult to answer.

Cooley (1902/2022) discussed the concept of our social selves as a looking-glass self-concept:

“Each to each a looking-glass
Reflects the other that doth pass.”

Our personal identities are shaped from the moment we are born. Our family, upbringing, environment, genetic makeup (psychological and physical), and social interactions all play a role in identity formation.

Research on individuals and groups contributed to the social identity theory, which has provided information and insight into this concept of identity. Let’s investigate the basis of this theory below.

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What Is Social Identity? A Definition

Social identity is the aspect of an individual’s self-concept that comes from membership in a specific social group (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). It is the “we” categorization that can either be something someone is born into, such as gender and ethnic identity, or something assigned, such as a sports team.

A range of identity categorizations have been proposed. Some scholars argue there are six, and some have listed up to 12. To provide an example of these identification categories, Elon University has identified “the big eight” (Zeno, 2023), which include:

  • Ability
  • Age
  • Ethnicity
  • Race
  • Gender
  • Religious affiliation
  • Socioeconomic status
  • Sexual orientation

Social identity can provide a sense of belonging, purpose, self-worth, and identity (Turner & Reynolds, 2010). Being part of a group can help individuals feel connected and unified. Groups also tend to have shared goals and meaning. They create a framework to understand ourselves within the context of society, defining values, attributes, and beliefs.

Social identity theory was created to explore intergroup behavior and the phenomenon of an in-group and an out-group (Turner & Oakes, 1986).

Understanding Social Identity Theory

Understanding Social Identity Social identity theory predicts behaviors within a group based on perceived group status, which impacts the sense of self (Turner & Oakes, 1986).

Individuals change their own behavior to conform to the norms of a group, feel accepted, and find a sense of belonging. This includes modifying self-identity, or the part of self-concept that is psychologically and emotionally attached to the group.

Historical background

Henri Tajfel (1970) and colleagues conducted a series of studies known as minimal-group studies (more on that below) that gave rise to social identity theory. After World War II, psychologists wanted to understand intergroup relationships and how the horrors of the Holocaust could have happened.

Minimal-group studies assigned participants into groups designed to be arbitrary and meaningless and then asked them to assign points to each other. Participants systematically awarded more points to in-group members than to out-group members.

This demonstrates that the simple act of arbitrarily categorizing people into groups can be enough to create a sense of group membership rather than as individuals. Social identity theory was developed based on the conviction that group membership provides people with meaning in social situations (Tajfel, 1970).

In other words, group membership helps people define who they are and how they relate to others.

Building on these foundational ideas, a student of Tajfel, John Turner, explored cognitive factors involved in social identification. Turner looked at how people interpret their position in different social contexts and how it affects perception and behavior (Turner & Oakes, 1986). Stereotyping and ideas of social influence create self-categorization theory, or the social identity theory of a group (Turner & Oakes, 1986).

Cognitive processes

According to social identity theory, there are three cognitive processes central to creating and defining an individual’s place in society.

These include (Tajfel, 1981):

  • social categorization,
  • social comparison and
  • social identification.

Social categorization is how people perceive themselves and others in terms of particular social categories (Tajfel, 1981). It is a way of labeling group members rather than thinking of them as unique individuals. For example, categorizing John as a football coach and father.

Social comparison is how people determine their social standing or value based on a particular group (Festinger, 1954). This can be seen in career fields and socioeconomic circles in society today. For example, doctors may be given a higher social standing than fast food workers.

Social identification is the idea that people perceive social situations based on who they are and how they relate to others (Tajfel, 1981). How people view a situation is influenced by the groups around them and how they view other people inside and outside of these groups.

These three cognitive processes are grounded in an individual’s knowledge of what social group they belong to. Social identity gains power through this knowledge, and the level of emotional attachment and value membership in the group holds.

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Social Identity Theory in Life

Social identity theory determines much of a person’s behavior as it plays out in everyday life.

Identification with a specific group is heavily influenced by social media, social contacts or members of your social network, television, and life experiences on a daily basis. Once an individual finds ideas, beliefs, and other people they relate to or feel they can offer status or power to, they begin to align their identity with that particular group (Turner, 1975).

Individuals are motivated to improve their social status, both within these groups and the group as a whole. Motivation to improve social status can be organized into three strategies demonstrated in day-to-day life (Van Bezouw, van der Toorn, & Becker, 2018). These include individual mobility, social competition, and social creativity.

Individual mobility

Bullying in school is an example of an attempt at individual mobility. In order to improve social status within a group, members will often bully, demean, or put down “lesser” members in order to feel more powerful.

Hazing in fraternity is another example. Incoming members generally must go through an “initiation” phase to prove their worth and membership in the group.

Social competition

Team sports offer a great example of the social competition aspect of social identity theory, for example, claiming to be the most devoted follower of the best football team.

Social competition is a group-level strategy where members come together to improve performance and succeed at a common goal. Teams share training sessions and tactical plans and work in harmony to win a game or achieve a championship. Teams show unity through uniforms, team chants, team songs, mascots, and other rituals that help them bond for a more successful outcome.

Political parties also demonstrate social competition during election cycles by promoting their own belief systems publicly and attacking opposing viewpoints in order to win favor and votes.

Social creativity

Social creativity is the component of social identity theory that suggests people modify their perceptions of the group in order to create distinctiveness from other groups (Van Bezouw, van der Toorn, & Becker, 2018).

An example would be if rich people declared how “friendly” people in the working class are. People in this economic group might adopt the characteristics of “we are not rich, but we are friendly” in order to maintain a positive social identity.

Understanding In-group vs. Out-group

Ingroup vs outgroupAccording to social identity theory, the groups individuals identify with are known as “in-groups,” and people outside are known as “out-groups” (Turner, 1975).

When an individual decides which group(s) could be considered the “in-group,” they tend to define themselves less as an individual and more as a member of a shared category (Turner, 1975).

Identifying with a group creates emotional significance that leads to comparisons between the “in-group” and the “out-group.” This helps build self-esteem and self-image and has important consequences for both individuals and the groups they belong to.

In-groups are a critical source of pride and self-esteem, and therefore beliefs, behaviors, actions, and characteristics of the in-group are favored, while out-group members are negatively judged (Turner, 1975). In many cases, “in-group” favoritism is followed by negative “out-group” derogation, bias, hostility, stereotypes, and prejudice.

What Are Threats to Social Identities?

Social identity theory posits that group members may receive threats to their identity. These occur anytime a group’s status is devalued or their perceived competence and ability is questioned (Hackel et al., 2017).

Types of threats may include:

  • Questioning moral values (often seen in political groups and different cultures)
  • Being treated or labeled as a member of a different group (such as a woman addressed by her gender rather than her profession as a pilot)
  • Threats to group distinctiveness (workers in a small organization taken over by a larger company and losing their small business identity)

Individuals will respond differently to threats based on how strongly they identify with the group and how the threat was personally perceived.

3 Fascinating Research Findings on Social Identity Theory

Social identity theory researchResearch on social identity theory began in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The most famous of this early research, known as “minimal-groups studies,” was when Tajfel (1970) explored the minimal possible reason people demonstrate loyalty.

Minimal-group studies

Tajfel (1970) assigned 14–15-year-old boys into two random groups and asked them to assign points (or “money”) to other groups.

The assumption was that it would be fair to assign points evenly to groups, but the participants allocated more points to members of their own group than to others. This study was one of the first to demonstrate in-group favoritism.

COVID-19 and discrimination

More recently, a study examined personal and group discrimination as it relates to identity and social support among Chinese Canadians during COVID-19 (Mantou et al., 2023).

The study found that Chinese Canadians who identified more strongly as Chinese experienced less adverse group discrimination than those who identified more strongly as Canadians. The long-lasting racism that continued after the pandemic among these Chinese Canadians can be attributed to the same in-group and out-group mentality that social identity theory is based upon (Mantou et al., 2023).

Long-term health and wellness identification

A longitudinal study on the role of social identity and mental health examined Australian workers who transitioned into retirement (Haslam et al., 2023).

Researchers looked at preretirement group membership and postretirement membership, as well as measures of health and wellbeing. Social group memberships before retirement, which valued physical health and wellbeing, led to retirees maintaining these values after retirement.

This demonstrates the adoption and maintenance of shared values based on group membership.

The Intersectionality of Social Identity Theory

Part of social identity theory includes the concept of intersectionality. As individuals identify with specific groups as part of social identity theory, some of these identities intersect and influence how life is experienced (Crenshaw, 1991).

Intersectionality was first conceptualized by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), a social theorist, civil rights activist, and scholar of critical race theory. Intersectionality is a framework to understand a person, group of people, or social problem affected by multiple discriminations and disadvantages. It helps account for overlapping identities and experiences to paint a more accurate picture of the complexity of prejudices and privileges faced.

For example, an individual may identify as a woman, Black, an academic, and a mother. These multiple group memberships and identities create conflicting experiences that cause challenges that a single group membership or identity would miss. It may be more difficult for a Black woman in academia than a white man, or to balance being a mother with work.

All people identify with more than one group, and throughout their lifespan, they will experience multiple identities.

This video further explains the concept of intersectionality:

Social Identity and Social Interaction

How Social Identity Shapes Personal Behavior

Social identity shapes personal values, beliefs, and behaviors. Some of the main ways this happens are through in-group favoritism, stereotypes and prejudice, intergroup conflict, and a sense of belonging (Hackel et al., 2017).

In-group favoritism occurs when individuals seek positive self-esteem and therefore promote their own groups rather than members of other groups. This may manifest in making choices that benefit one particular group over another, such as providing resources (time, money, and energy) to one’s own group at the expense of others.

As individuals categorize people into groups, they are more likely to overemphasize similarities within groups and differences between them, which leads to stereotypes and prejudice.

Personal behavior can become hostile, aggressive, and violent when competition or perceived threats exist between groups. Intergroup conflict can also occur when resources are scarce, leading to behavior that is manipulative or harsh.

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4 Interesting Books on the Topic

Books discussing social identity provide a deeper understanding of the theory, its applications, and the importance it has for individuals, groups, and society at large.

1. Social Identity and Intergroup Relations – Henri Tajfel

Social Identity and Intergroup RelationsWritten for students, teachers, and researchers in the field of social psychology, this book examines the relationship between social groups and conflict.

Based on empirical research and theoretical guidance, it provides readers with insight into the psychological processes of group affiliation and how conflicts arise from them.

Find the book on Amazon.


2. Identity Theory – Peter J. Burke and Jan E. Stets

Identity TheoryThe authors explore identity theory, which is a foundational aspect of social identity theory.

The book helps the reader understand the emotional, behavioral, and psychological processes that work together to form identity and how being members of groups can shape these identities.

With a wealth of information, it is written in a way that all readers can understand and relate to.

Find the book on Amazon.


3. The Impact of Identity: The Power of Knowing Who You Are – Irina Nevzlin

The Impact of IdentityUnderstanding personal identity can help individuals find purpose, meaning, and joy in life. This book helps readers do just that.

Understanding identity and who we are can help individuals as they examine their relationship to others in society, including membership in organizations and groups.

Find the book on Amazon.

 


4. After Identity: Rethinking Race, Sex and Gender – Georgia Warnke

After IdentityThis contemporary text challenges social identity and encourages individuals to understand they are more than just race, sex, age, or the “group” they belong to.

It expands to political theories that discuss the implications of getting stuck in social identity and focusing only on group membership.

Find the book on Amazon.

Resources From PositivePsychology.com

PositivePsychology.com offers several resources for examining identity and self-concept.

Our self-concept article further explores self-concept and the labels, categories, and groups that people may identify with. Looking at self-concept is another avenue for exploring social identity theory.

The Who Am I worksheet explores internal and external self-awareness to help clients gain a better understanding of who they are. Through a series of questions, clients are encouraged to reflect, journal, and share their thoughts, beliefs, desires, passions, and values while exploring their identity.

Core beliefs are central to personal identity and how we relate to the world. This Core Beliefs worksheet examines the deeply held beliefs that clients have about themselves and how they relate to others in the world. These foundational beliefs play a large role in the groups that individuals identify with.

If you’re looking for more science-based ways to help others develop self-compassion, check out this collection of 17 validated self-compassion tools for practitioners. Use them to help others create a kinder and more nurturing relationship with the self.

A Take-Home Message

Social identity theory helps to explain much of human behavior. Group membership and affiliation can play a role in defining personal identity and have both positive and negative consequences.

While many characteristics and traits shape our social identity, they are not fixed, and our identity has the capacity to change with time and experience.

Knowing that values, beliefs, and behaviors are shaped by the social groups we align ourselves with can help each of us make more informed choices about who we connect with.

Group membership matters and has a lasting impact on both individuals and society at large.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download our three Self Compassion Exercises for free.

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  • Hackel, J., Zaki, B., & Bavel, S. (2017). Social identity shapes social valuation: Evidence from prosocial behavior and vicarious reward. Social Cognitive Affective Neuroscience, 12(8), 1219–1228.
  • Haslam, C., Lam, B., Ghafoori, E., Steffens, N., Haslam, A., Bently, S., Cruwys, T., & La Rue, C. (2023). A longitudinal examination of the role of social identity in supporting health and well-being in retirement. Psychology and Aging, 38(7), 615–626.
  • Mantou, L., Kimberly, N., Shachi, K., Doris, Z., & Young, H. (2023). COVID discrimination experience: Chinese Canadians social identities moderate the effect of personal and group discrimination on well-being. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 29(2), 132–144.
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  • Turner, J. C., & Reynolds, K. J. (2010). The story of social identity. In T. Postmes & N. R. Branscombe (Eds), Rediscovering social identity: Core sources (pp. 13–32). Psychology Press.
  • Van Bezouw, M. J., van der Toorn, J., & Becker, J. C. (2018). Social creativity: Reviving a social identity approach to social stability. European Journal of Social Psychology, 51, 409–422.
  • Zeno, M. (2023, September 27). Big 8 identities workshops offer an introduction to social identities. Elon University. https://www.elon.edu/u/news/2023/09/27/big-8-identities-workshops-offer-an-introduction-to-social-identities/

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