What is Social Identity Theory?

Identity exists along a spectrum that ranges from the personal to the social. The personal end of this spectrum is constituted by the distinctive combination of attributes that an individual deems relevant to his or her self-concept (e.g., being shy or tall). The  social  end  of  this  spectrum,  in  contrast,  is constituted by the extent to which a person aligns himself  or  herself  with  being  a  member  of  particular  social  groups  (e.g.,  my  sports  team,  being Canadian). One’s position along this identity spectrum  varies  across  contexts—certain  situations make  salient  personal  attributes  whereas  others highlight  membership  in  specific  social  groups. Developed  by  Henri  Tajfel  and  John  Turner,  two European psychologists based at the University of Bristol,  social  identity  theory  explains  the  mechanisms  by  which  people  come  to  function  at  the social end of the identity spectrum as well as the personal  and  collective  implications  that  derive from identification with social groups.

Research Findings and Their Implications

In their early work in this area, Tajfel and Turner found that group membership—indeed even group membership established on the basis of quite arbitrary and trivial criteria (e.g., a coin flip)—can substantively  shape  and  mold  individual  behavioral patterns.  For  instance,  through  use  of  a  minimal groups paradigm whereby individuals are assigned to one of two groups at random, participants not only  tend  to  rate  members  of  their  own  group (referred to as in-group members) more favorably than members of other groups (referred to as outgroups) but also demonstrate behavioral responses that reflect a sense of in-group bias (e.g., allocating  more  resources  to  in-group  members  relative to out-group members).

When a person’s membership in a social group is made salient, he or she becomes more motivated by  factors  that  reflect  the  interests  of  this  group. Under some circumstances, this may even involve sacrificing  self-interest  for  the  betterment  of  the group. In the context of sport teams, highlighting the common social identity of the team can provide an  invaluable  basis  for  enhancing  the  degree  to which members work collaboratively in pursuit of a common set of team-level objectives. For example, when the social identity of the team is under-scored,  players  may  become  less  concerned  with their  individual  performance  statistics  (e.g.,  personal points per game) and more concerned with the  team’s  success  as  a  whole  (e.g.,  winning  the game). From a leadership perspective, an enhanced common social identity can allow coaches and others in position of authority to harness what Turner referred  to  as  “power  through”  the  group  rather than “power over” the group. That is, if members are highly united, and motivated, in pursuit of the group’s  instrumental  objectives,  then  leaders  do not need to operate through coercion and instead can rely on players’ team orientation to help maximize group performance.

Although  highlighting  the  social  identity  of  a team  holds  the  potential  to  increase  the  performance  of  this  group,  it  also  carries  with  it  the possibility of severely limiting its decision-making ability, which in turn may debilitate its capacity to function  effectively.  Individuals  who  function  at the social end of the identity spectrum may create an  environment  in  which  groupthink  flourishes, whereby alternatives and counterproposals are not voiced due to an increased desire for group unity. If  members  of  this  team  are  tasked  with  making decisions about the best course of action during a sporting  event  (such  as  when  a  golfer  and  caddy confer),  coaches  and  players  are  responsible  for deriving  a  strategy  during  a  pivotal  moment  in  a game  (such  as  when  a  basketball  coach  attempts to  draw  up  an  appropriate  play  with  his  or  her point  guard)  or  managers  must  devise  a  plan  for an upcoming game (such as when the managers of a baseball team meet to discuss the team they will face later in the week), groupthink may restrict the number of options considered and, ultimately, the team-level outcome achieved.

Most, if not all, people possess membership in multiple  social  groups.  These  groups  can  range from  the  very  specific  (or  subordinate;  e.g.,  fans of the local basketball team) to the very broad (or superordinate;  e.g.,  fans  of  basketball),  and  these differing  levels  of  inclusiveness  can  have  important implications for intergroup relations. A great example of this comes from a couple of experimental studies conducted by Mark Levine and his colleagues. In this research, they assessed the extent to which soccer fans helped an injured stranger on the basis of the shirt this stranger was wearing. In one study,  Manchester  United  Football  Club  (MUFC) supporters  observed  the  stranger  (actually  a  confederate) slip and fall, ostensibly writhing in pain. Dependent on the condition being operationalized this stranger was wearing either a MUFC shirt, a Liverpool  United  Football  Club  (LUFC;  historical rivals of MUFC) shirt, or a non-branded sports shirt.  Participants  were  found  to  display  significantly greater helping behavior toward the stranger when he was wearing an in-group (i.e., a MUFC) shirt relative to when he was wearing an out-group (i.e., a LUFC) shirt, or a plain sports shirt.

In a subsequent study, the same research design was  utilized  but  with  one  noteworthy  exception. Specifically, a more inclusive (superordinate) social group  was  made  salient  by  emphasizing  participants’  social  identity  as  soccer  fans  in  general rather than as Manchester United fans in particular. By getting participants to think of themselves as soccer fans rather than MUFC fans, they were found to help this stranger more if he was wearing a  soccer  jersey—irrespective  of  whether  it  was  a MUFC or LUFC shirt—relative to those wearing a plain sports shirt. From the perspective of informing theory-driven interventions, the results of this study  suggest  a  potential  mechanism  to  reduce intergroup conflict and discrimination. That is, by emphasizing superordinate social identities, it may be possible to get bitter rivals to see each other as human beings, rather than as despised members of separate subordinate groups.

A key tenet of social identity theory is that, when people are either allocated to, or self-select membership in, specific social groups they not only look to differentiate themselves from other groups but also identify and create ways of demonstrating the superiority of their own group. Tajfel and Turner referred to this as a motivation to display positive distinctiveness. The underlying intent in displaying positive distinctiveness is to bolster feelings of self-worth. In the context of sport, such distinctiveness arises when teams not only distinguish themselves through  their  physical  appearances  (e.g.,  team uniforms  and  logos)  but  also  through  developing intrateam  rituals  (i.e.,  team  songs)  and  a  unique language  or  dialogue.  Parenthetically,  the  utilization  of  strategies  designed  to  reflect  positive  distinctiveness  is  theorized  to  bolster  team  cohesion and  has  been  frequently  used  as  a  practical  team building  strategy  to  maximize  team  functioning. More  recently,  those  concerned  with  increasing adherence behaviors within the context of exercise classes have sought to make use of distinctiveness strategies  (e.g.,  allocation  of  a  group  name,  class T-shirts)  to  foster  a  sense  of  group  cohesion  and thereafter  sustained  involvement  in  those  classes among group members.

In sport, the drive to display positive distinctiveness is not only evident among athletes on teams but also by supporters (i.e., fans) of those teams. An  interesting  phenomenon  that  illustrates  this process  is  referred  to  as  BIRGing,  or  “basking in  reflected  glory.”  In  one  of  the  first  studies  to examine BIRGing, university students were found to have a much greater tendency to wear clothing that reflected the university’s colors and name after the university’s (gridiron) football team had won, rather than lost, a game. By associating themselves with the success of their university’s football team, students  sought  to  positively  distinguish  themselves  from  those  students  at  other  universities (which, in this case, represented the relevant outgroups). Conversely, if sports fans have developed a particularly ingrained social identity with a given team, and this team experiences a lack of success, this  increases  the  likelihood  of  those  fans  attributing failures to external (e.g., biased officiating), rather than internal (e.g., a lack of talent) factors, in the interest of maintaining a sense of self-worth. If, on the other hand, a person’s social identity is only weakly aligned with that of a failing team, he or she may well engage in a process of CORFing, or “cutting off reflected failure.” That is, this person  may  seek  to  distance  himself  or  herself  from the underperforming team, again in the interest of protecting a sense of self-worth.

Across  diverse  life  contexts,  social  identity theory  has  also  been  utilized  to  understand  and ameliorate   prejudice   between   social   groups. Within  the  domain  of  sport,  this  is  particularly pertinent  in  relation  to  race  and  gender  disparities. From the perspective of social identity theory, when  the  boundaries  between  social  groups  are perceived to be impermeable (i.e., one cannot easily shift between social groups, as is the case with race and gender), group members may engage in a process of social creativity, whereby they make use of  strategies  that  emphasize  the  positive  qualities of the in-group. For example, in sport this might involve emphasizing the unique athletic, aesthetic, and  competitive  qualities  of  women,  who  in  the past have been deprived access to participation in various  elite  sporting  endeavors.  Another  strategy  that  is  sometimes  implemented,  when  people perceive  the  basis  for  status  differences  between groups  to  be  illegitimate,  is  social  competition. This  involves  low-status  group  members  directly challenging  high-status  social  groups  in  order to  redress  the  balance  of  power  and  redistribute available  resources.  This  is  evident,  for  example, when  women  have  challenged  the  lack  of  equity in  prize  money  allocations  within  professional sports (especially golf and tennis) or when athletes from  racial  minority  groups  have  challenged  the legitimacy of being selected only for marginalized (rather than focal) playing positions.


In  summary,  the  groups  with  which  we  identify significantly  impact  our  thoughts,  emotions,  and behavior.  Within  the  context  of  sport  and  exercise,  identifying  with  a  team  or  physical  activity group  fosters  a  sense  of  cohesion  and  holds  the potential  to  enhance  group-level  performance and  individual-level  exercise  adherence,  respectively.  A  consideration  of  social  identity  theory allows for a better appreciation of why this is so. Furthermore, a consideration of this theory offers insights as to why fans often behave the way they do,  coaches  sometimes  make  the  wrong  call,  and members of marginalized groups come to focus on their strengths instead of their weaknesses and/or demand  equality.  Thus,  social  identity  theory  has proven valuable in explaining the groupness of our existence.


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