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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