Understanding Social Identity Theory and Its Impact on Behavior

Intergroup Conflict
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Social identity is the part of the self that is defined by one’s group memberships. Social identity theory, which was formulated by social psychologist Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s, describes the conditions under which social identity becomes more important than one’s identity as an individual. The theory also specifies the ways in which social identity can influence intergroup behavior.

Key Takeaways: Social Identity Theory

  • Social identity theory, introduced by social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s, describes the cognitive processes related to social identity and how social identity impacts intergroup behavior.
  • Social identity theory is built on three key cognitive components: social categorization, social identification, and social comparison.
  • Generally, individuals wish to maintain a positive social identity by maintaining their group’s favorable social standing over that of relevant out-groups.
  • In-group favoritism can result in negative and discriminatory outcomes, but research demonstrates that in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination are distinct phenomena, and one does not necessarily predict the other.

Origins: Studies of In-Group Favoritism

Social identity theory arose from Henri Tajfel’s early work, which examined the way perceptual processes resulted in social stereotypes and prejudice. This led to a series of studies that Tajfel and his colleagues conducted in the early 1970s that are referred to as minimal-group studies.

In these studies, participants were arbitrarily assigned to different groups. Despite the fact that their group membership was meaningless, however, the research showed that participants favored the group they were assigned to — their in-group — over the out-group, even if they received no personal benefits from their group membership and had no history with members of either group.

The studies demonstrated that group membership was so powerful that simply classifying people into groups is enough to make people think of themselves in terms of that group membership. Furthermore, this categorization led to in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination, indicating that intergroup conflict could exist in the absence of any direct competition between groups.

On the basis of this research, Tajfel first defined the concept of social identity in 1972. The concept of social identity was created as a means to consider the way one conceptualizes the self based on the social groups to which one belongs.

Then, Tajfel and his student John Turner introduced social identity theory in 1979. The theory aimed to illuminate both the cognitive processes that lead people to define their group memberships and the motivational processes that enable people to maintain positive social identity by favorably comparing their social group to other groups.

Cognitive Processes of Social Identity

Social identity theory specifies three mental processes individuals go through to make in-group/out-group classifications.

The first process, social categorization, is the process by which we organize individuals into social groups in order to understand our social world. This process enables us to define people, including ourselves, on the basis of the groups to which we belong. We tend to define people based on their social categories more often than their individual characteristics.

Social categorization generally results in an emphasis on the similarities of people in the same group and the differences between people in separate groups. One can belong to a variety of social categories, but different categories will be more or less important depending on social circumstances. For example, a person can define themselves as a business executive, an animal lover, and a devoted aunt, but those identities will only come up if they are relevant to the social situation.

The second process, social identification, is the process of identifying as a group member. Socially identifying with a group leads individuals to behave in the way that they believe members of that group should behave. For instance, if an individual defines herself as an environmentalist, she may try to conserve water, recycle whenever possible, and march in rallies for climate change awareness. Through this process, people become emotionally invested in their group memberships. Consequently, their self-esteem is impacted by the status of their groups. 

The third process, social comparison, is the process by which people compare their group with other groups in terms of prestige and social standing. In order to maintain self-esteem, one must perceive his or her in-group as having a higher social standing than an out-group. For example, a movie star might judge himself favorably in comparison to a reality TV show star. Yet, he may see himself as having lower social standing in comparison to a famous classically-trained Shakespearean actor. It’s important to remember that an in-group member won’t compare themselves with just any out-group — the comparison must be pertinent to the situation.

Maintenance of Positive Social Identity

As a general rule, people are motivated to feel positively about themselves and maintain their self-esteem. The emotional investments people make in their group memberships results in their self-esteem being tied to the social standing of their in-groups. Consequently, a positive evaluation of one's in-group in comparison to relevant out-groups results in a positive social identity. If a positive evaluation of one's in-group isn’t possible, however, individuals will generally employ one of three strategies:

  1. Individual mobility. When an individual does not view her group favorably, she can attempt to leave the current group and join one with a higher social standing. Of course, this won’t alter the status of the group, but it can alter the status of the individual.
  2. Social creativity. In-group members can enhance the social standing of their existing group by adjusting some element of the between-group comparison. This can be accomplished by choosing a different dimension on which to compare the two groups, or by adjusting value judgments so that what was once thought to be negative is now considered positive. Another option is to compare the in-group to a different out-group—specifically, an out-group that has a lower social status.
  3. Social competition. In-group members can attempt to enhance the group's social status by collectively working to improve their situation. In this case, the in-group competes directly with an out-group with the objective of reversing the group's social positions on one or more dimensions.

    Discrimination Against Out-Groups

    In-group favoritism and out-group discrimination are often viewed as two sides of the same coin. However, research has shown that this is not necessarily the case. There is not a systematic relationship between the positive perception of one’s in-group and the negative perception of out-groups. Helping in-group members while withholding such help from out-group members differs significantly from actively working to harm out-group members.

    In-group favoritism can result in negative outcomes, from prejudice and stereotypes to institutional racism and sexism. However, such favoritism does not always lead to hostility towards out-groups. Research demonstrates that in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination are distinct phenomena, and one does not necessarily predict the other.