AP Psychology Study Resource: Social Identity Theory

We are all social by nature. However, our social identity isn’t always such smooth sailing. Let’s take a look at social identity theory, a psychological study into the way we as humans behave in social settings and groups.

The rise of social media has led us to share everything and be hyper-social.

We find our identity in our friend groups and broader social groupings that we can find common ground with.

It’s essential for our sense of identity and self-esteem to be able to assimilate successfully with some part of society. It’s inherent to who we are as human beings.

What is the Social Identity Theory?

So, what is social identity theory? Saul McLeod explains that social identity theory is an individual’s idea of who they are in accordance to the social groupings that they belong to.

Social identity theory proposes that the social groups an individual belongs and subscribes to are an important source of their pride and self-esteem. Being a part of a social group gives us, as a human, a sense of social identity and belonging in the world.

We use the social groups we are a part of to increase our self-image.

This works both ways – we also improve the status of our social groups to build ourselves up. An example of this is believing that the country we are from is the best country in the world.

Similarly, we can also use the opposite approach to make ourselves feel important. We can be quick to put down and act prejudiced against other countries, or groups that we don’t belong to.

A History of Social Identity Theory

Let’s take a little look at the history of social identity theory. Wikipedia explains that the term “social identity theory” was first used in the academic sphere in the 1970’s. However, the basic underlying concepts associated with this theory were already used by the early 20th century.

Social psychologists John Turner and Henri Tajfel came up with this theory in the 1970’s to explain the correlation between an individual’s personal identity and their intergroup behavior.

Initially, a collectivist perspective was taken on social identity theory, when it was first proposed as a concept in the 20th century. This implied that all social variables within a group were interlinked, meaning they moved and changed together, influencing one another.

However, when Henri Tajfel began his study of social identity theory, he approached it from an entirely different angle. He believed that the different characteristics found within group behavior weren’t interconnected.

Instead, he believed that these different aspects moved haphazardly through time and changed regardless of one another.

Since the 1970’s, social identity theory has primarily reflected a desire to move back towards a more collectivist perspective, especially concerning social psychology of social groups and the individual.

Ingroup Favoritism in Social Identity Theory

Let’s explore some of these different characteristics with social identity theory.

BC Campus explains that Henri Tajfel demonstrated how influential the role of self-preservation and concern is in group settings and perceptions. He found that merely dividing people into groups produced the concept of ingroup favoritism.

Ingroup favoritism is the tendency for individuals to respond more positively to other people within their own group, than to individuals outside of this group.

This characteristic of social identity theory begins at a young age. Children quickly develop a sense of identity within their own group. This “group” is typically characterized by race and gender. These feelings of ingroup identity will begin to influence the child’s behavior.

Young children have shown a greater liking for other children that fall into their own race and gender categories. After the age of three, children will typically play exclusively with individuals who are the same sex as them.

What’s interesting about this theory is that individuals also favor other people within their group that are more likely to express their own ingroup favoritism. What’s even more interesting is that babies as young as nine months old can also favor people who discriminate in this way.

Stereotypes in Social Identity Theory

Another interesting characteristic of social identity theory is stereotypes. Psychologie explains that stereotypes are often used to put people into categories based on an over-simplified perspective.

Stereotypes typically come about as a result of an individual situation applied to the entire group or community that the individual belongs to. Stereotypes are usually used to create a separation between groups and establish social superiority.

A typical example of this concept is the different stereotypes separating Native Americans and cowboys. The popular stereotype of cowboys states that they are civilized and modern, while Native Americans are dull and uncouth.

This stereotype results in the marginalization and establishment of the superiority of cowboys over Native Americans. This particular example reiterates itself in role-playing games that children play, wherein a fight between these two groupings, the Cowboys emerge champion over the Native Americans.

The stereotype concept is a characteristic of social identity theory that reinforces the similarities between ingroup individuals and the differences between these individuals and people of other groups.

Aspects of Social Identity Theory

We’ve discussed a couple of characteristics associated with social identity theory. Now, let’s summarize the three most common elements:

  • Social Categorization: Our first aspect is one that we’ve covered briefly already. Learning Theories explains that social categorization is the way we put people into boxes to identify and understand them better.

Examples of social categories include Democrat, student, professor. Belonging and understanding the groups that we belong to can give us detailed insight into who we are as individuals. We can also define what’s appropriate and what’s not appropriate when it comes to behavior, according to the groups that we belong to.

  • Social Identification: When we adopt the identity of the social group that we belong to, we begin to emulate ourselves and act in ways that we think other members of the group would. As an example, if you identify as a Democrat, you’re likely to adopt the behaviors you most associate with and see within this group. As a result, you may develop an emotional connection to this identity, and your self-esteem may end up depending on it.
  • Social Comparison: Once we’ve developed a strong sense of identity within our chosen group, we begin to compare ourselves to other members of the group and find differences in people outside of this group. To maintain the self-esteem you’ve developed, you and other members of the group will compare against other groups in favor of yourselves. This helps to explain concepts like discrimination and prejudice.

Positive-Negative Asymmetry and Intergroup Similarity

Now that we’ve covered the fundamental characteristics found within social identity theory, let’s look at a couple of potentially controversial aspects. Aspects that may result from this type of social behavior.

The first is positive-negative asymmetry.

Wikipedia explains that this phenomenon is when members of a group prefer to punish individuals outside of their group circle. Instead of rewarding those within the group to develop their self-esteem.

The result of this idea means that social identity theory is unable to deal with bias when it comes to negative dimensions. For ingroup favoritism to occur, the social identity of a group must be psychologically dominant.

The second idea that exists as a result of social identity theory is an intergroup similarity.

This is the concept that when two groups are similar, there is a higher degree of motivation to establish themselves as different and separate from one another.

The reason why this second concept is so interesting is that it proposes an argument against the first theory.

Whether ingroup encouragement is more prevalent than outgroup discrimination to build up one’s self-esteem and sense identity is anyone’s guess. While both of these theories are valid and demonstrative, they also create an inconsistency in social identity theory.

An In-Depth Look at Social Identity Theory

As individuals, we can often find it hard to navigate our often harsh, cruel world.

However, other individuals around us consistently show similar patterns of behavior. This, in turn, helps us to feel solidarity in our struggles. And, encourages us to be more social to grow a strong sense of self.

Building our self-esteem from social interactions is a form of human behavior. It has been around much longer than the term “social identity theory.”

To learn more about ourselves as individuals and develop a strong sense of identity, we seek out those who are similar to us. Those who can shed light on who we are. When we function in these social groups, we end up isolation other individuals around us.

To build ourselves up individually, we bring others down.

This particular pattern of human behavior is so inherent that it lies on a subconscious level. We can’t help but feel influenced by the people in our social groups.

Featured image: CC0 Public Domain johnhain via Pixabay