Social Identity Theory

Crea8tSocial Identity Theory argues that a person has not just one “personal self”, but rather several social selves that correspond to group membership. According to the theory, we need to understand who we are and know our value in social contexts. This is why we categorize ourselves in terms of group membership. So when an individual talks of himself as a male, Australian, a student, member of a swimming team and a surfer, he refers to his social identities. If the same person also said he played on the rugby team that won the last game, we will know that he can boost his self-esteem through both his personal achievement but also through affiliation with this successful team.

ATL: Be reflective

Sometimes one of our "social selves" can become more salient - that is, we can become more aware of that facet of identity. Social Identity Theory predicts that when one of our social identities becomes salient, it will have an influence on our behaviour.

So, for example, as an American living in the Czech Republic, I find that I may take seemingly contradictory positions. When Americans put down the Czech Republic, I find myself defending the Czechs. In other words, my relationship to this country becomes more salient to me in this situation and this part of my identity responds to the insults. If, however, the Czechs are being very critical of Americans - for example, saying that they are all not intelligent - then my American "self" takes over.

Why do our identities sometimes become salient?

Think of a time that you were very aware of your national or cultural identity.  How did that affect your behaviour at the time?

Social Identity Theory was proposed by Tajfel (1979). He identified three psychological mechanisms involved in the creation of a social identity: Social categorization, social comparison and the tendency for people to use group membership as a source of self-esteem.

Social identity theory is based on the cognitive process of social categorization.  Social categorization is the process of classifying people into groups based on similar characteristics, whether it be nationality, age, occupation, or some other trait. This categorization gives rise to in-groups (us) and out-groups (them). Tajfel argues that even when people are randomly assigned to a group, they automatically think of that group as their in-group (us) and all others as an out-group (them).

Tajfel found that when people are randomly assigned to a group - by the flip of a coin, the drawing of a number from a hat, or by preference for a previously unknown artist - they see themselves as being similar in attitude and behaviour, and this is apparently enough for a bond to be formed among group members. In the famous Kandinsky versus Klee experiment, Tajfel et al. (1971) observed that boys who were assigned randomly to a group, based on their supposed preference for the art of either Kandinsky or Klee, were more likely to identify with the boys in their group, and were willing to give higher awards to members of their own group. This is what Tajfel referred to as in-group favouritism.

Research in psychology: Tajfel et al (1971)

A sample of 48 boys, aged 14 – 15 years old, was asked to rate 12 paintings by the abstract painters Paul Klee and Wassily Kandinsky. They were not told during the test which artist had painted which painting. The boys were then randomly allocated to groups and then told that they had preferred either Klee or Kandinsky.

Each boy was then given the task to award points to two other boys, one from his same group and one from the other group. The only information that each boy was given was code numbers and the name of the group of the two boys they were supposed to award. There were two systems of awarding points that were employed by the researchers.

Tajfel created a point allocation system to test how  specific variables could influence the boys’ choices of reward: (1) maximum joint profit (giving the largest reward to members of both groups), (2) maximum in-group profit (giving the largest reward to a member of the in-group), or  (3) maximum differences (giving the largest possible difference in reward between a member of the in-group and a member of the out-group.

The way that this actually worked is as follows:

  • If a Klee member chose a high value for another Klee member, it would give a higher profit to the out-group.
  • If a Klee member chose a mid-range value for another Klee member, it would give the same points for the other group.
  • If a Klee member chose a low value for another Klee member, it would award only 1 point to the other team.

The results showed that maximum joint profit had very little effect on the boys' choices. However, when the boys had a choice between maximizing profit for all and maximizing the profit for members of their in-group, they clearly favoured their own group. When they had the choice of maximizing the difference in reward against profit for all, the boys were willing to give their own team fewer points with the goal of maximizing the difference between their in-group and the out-group.  This was a bit surprising since it meant that the boys left the study with less money than if they had all given each other the most amount of money possible.

Tajfel concluded that out-group discrimination is very easy to trigger and that once it has been triggered, we have norms of behaviour which include discriminating against the out-group. One of the most obvious conclusions that we can draw from this experiment is the natural tendency of members of a group to favour their in-group. Tajfel demonstrated that a "minimal group" is all that is necessary for individuals to exhibit discrimination against an out-group.

The Tajfel study is a highly controlled experiment. It is also highly standardized, so it is replicable in order to establish reliability. However, the task was highly artificial and may not reflect how the boys would have interacted in a more natural setting. In addition, the boys have interpreted the task as supposed to be competitive and tried to win - thus showing demand characteristics. Finally, the study was done using British schoolboys - so it may be difficult to generalize the findings of this study to other ages and cultures.

Once we categorize people into “us” and “them”, self-esteem is maintained by social comparison—that is, the benefits of belonging to the in-group versus the out-group. Cialdini et al. (1976) demonstrated this phenomenon among college football supporters. After a successful football match, the supporters were more likely to be seen wearing college insignia and clothing than after defeats. It is assumed that our need for a positive self-concept will result in a bias in these intergroup comparisons so that you are more positive towards anything that your own group represents. Tajfel calls this “the establishment of positive distinctiveness”.

There have been many applications of social identity theory – both to explain behaviour and to change behaviour.  An example of how SIT can be used to explain behaviour is a study carried out by Abrams et al (1990)  Abrams did a replication of Asch (1956) to see if, as Social Identity Theory predicts, people are more likely to conform to the behaviour of people in their in-group. Fifty introductory psychology students (23 males and 27 females) thought that they were taking a test of visual accuracy. At the start of the experiment, three confederates were introduced either as first-year students from the psychology department (in-group) or as students of ancient history (out-group).

The participants were shown a stimulus line, and then three other lines - one of which was the same length as the stimulus line. The task was to identify which of the three lines matched the stimulus line. There were 18 trials. In nine of the trials, the confederates gave the correct response. In nine of the trials, the confederates gave a unanimous, incorrect response. Abrams and his team found that the participants conformed to the erroneous confederate judgments more often when they believed the confederates were from their in-group. The average number of conforming responses was 5.23 in the in-group condition and only 0.75 in the out-group condition. The participants also revealed in the post-experimental questionnaire that they had been less confident about their own judgment in the in-group condition. The results seem to indicate that social categorization can play a key role in one’s decision to conform.

An example of how SIT has been applied is in crowd control during emergency evacuations.  Drury et al (2009) carried out an experiment using a virtual reality simulation of a fire in the London underground. Participants could either push people out of the way to get out as quickly as possible, or they could help others, but this would slow their escape from the fire. In one condition, the participants were given a “shared identity” – for example, all fans of the same football team.  In the other condition, they were not given a shared identity – for example, “you are on your way back from buying a pair of shoes.”  The team found that those who shared a common identity were more likely to help one another, even at risk to their own safety.  Drury has argued that making a collective identity salient by making announcements to “All customers” or “Real Madrid Fans” or “Americans”, will cause people to act as a group and not panic in an emergency situation.  This is better than using sirens or other emergency signals.

Social identity theory appears to be a useful way of understanding human behaviour in a number of areas. However, there are some limitations to the theory. First, it describes but does not accurately predict human behaviour. Although the theory argues that whichever identity is most salient is most likely to determine our behaviour, why is it that in some cases our personal identity is stronger than the group identity? Second, using the theory in isolation is reductionist—it fails to address the environment that interacts with the “self.” Cultural expectations, rewards as motivators, and societal constraints such as poverty may play more of a role in behaviour than one’s own sense of in-group identity.

ATL:  Thinking locally

Many schools make use of pep rallies in order to get their students “psyched up” days before an upcoming sports tournament. At a pep rally, students cheer and praise the members of their own team and they mock or criticize the members of the other team.

Do you think that pep rallies are effective? Why or why not? Support your answer using knowledge from this chapter.

Checking for understanding 

What does it mean when we say that a social identity has become "salient"?

Salience is an important concept in SIT.  It says that when a social identity becomes more salient - that is, when we are made more conscious of this aspect of our identity - it is more likely to have an effect on our behaviour.


Which of the following is not a component of social identity theory?

Tajfel argued that social categorization was the first step, followed by social comparison to those in the out-group.  This then leads to an in-group bias and sense of increased self-esteem. Modern SIT questions whether self-esteem is necessarily the outcome.  Social learning theory is a different theory that looks at how we learn by imitating a model.


What were the findings of Tajfel & Turner’s “Kandinsky vs Klee” study?

As a result of their groupings, the boys were trying to maximize the point difference between the two gropus - an example of in-group favoritism.  The debriefing did not find that the boys were in any way hostile to the boys in the out-group.  The researchers also did not measure the levels of self-esteem of the boys before and after the activity. 


Which of the following is a limitation of Social Identity Theory?

SIT does not have high predictive validity in that it cannot predict an individual's behaviour.  However, it can predict a trend in behaviour. It has many applications and the studies have been replicated.  The theory can also be tested  - and has been tested - with many different studies.


How did Abrams manipulate the IV in his study on SIT and conformity?

The IV was whether the confederates were part of the participant's in-group or an out-group.  Since Abrams only used psychology students, he decided that "ancient history students" would be an appropriate out-group. However, the confederates were same in all of the conditions.


How did Drury test the role of SIT in helping behaviour?

The study was an experiment that used virtual reality. There were two conditions - either the participant was made aware of an in-group identity, or he was made to feel highly individualistic.


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Social Cognitive Theory

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