Social Identity Theory

Did you ever feel instantly connected with someone because you shared a hobby? Or maybe because you had the same favourite music style? Maybe you felt the opposite. Perhaps you and another person never got along because of discrepancies in your views of religion or politics, for example. This phenomenon in which humans engage is what the social identity theory explains. Why do people perceive similarities with some groups and discrepancies with others, and how does this influence prejudice

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Contents
Table of contents
    • This explanation will start by introducing Tajfel's social identity theory.
    • Then, the social identity theory experiments will be reviewed.
    • Moving on from this, the explanation will evaluate the social identity theory.
    • The social identity theory and the politics of identity will be explored.
    • Last, an example of the social identity theory is presented.

    Tajfel's Social Identity Theory

    Henri Tajfel was a British psychologist who lost his family in a concentration camp. Fortunately, he attended a French school to exit the concentration camp. After this, Tajfel was interested in how individuals develop their identities in groups or societies. According to Tajfel, groups make individuals perceive a sense of belonging, which is crucial for social beings.

    Tajfel (1979) proposed that individuals tend to group things based on certain criteria. This is a common cognitive process that is called stereotyping. And when engaging in stereotyping, individuals tend to overemphasise the differences between groups and the similarities within a group. This way, the theory detects two groups: the in-group (us) and the out-group (them).

    According to the Social Identity Theory (1979), individuals within a group tend to enhance other groups' negative characteristics to boost their image.

    There are plenty of examples of in-group and out-group tightness. In football, for example, there are significant differences between team supporters such as Liverpool and Manchester United. In politics, labour and conservatives also tend to remark on their differences. The same can be seen in social class, in the differences between the middle and working class, for example.

    Tajfel (1979) described three cognitive processes when establishing whether other individuals belong to a person's out - or in-group.

    1. Categorization refers to the process by which individuals are put into social categories. Examples of categorisation are social categories based on nationality, such as English, Scottish, Irish, German, Spanish, Italian, etc.
    2. Social Identification refers to the cognitive process in which individuals assess which category they feel identified with. For example, an individual may be Welsh and therefore present emotional significance to such category over other categories.
    3. Social comparison is the last cognitive process individuals engage in. It refers to the comparison individuals make of the other categories they do not belong to. In line with the example, the social comparison would be comparing French and Welsh and finding characteristics that encourage the favourable perception of the in-group and diminish the out-group.

    The theory has been used to explain discrimination. Discrimination is the manifestation of prejudice towards certain people or groups of people. Discrimination usually involves treating individuals differently because they belong to another religious, ethnic, or nationality group, for example. Discrimination usually manifests as favouritism to the in-group and negative bias toward the out-group.

    Basic psychology, Social Influence, Photo depicting one the application of the social identity theory, StudySmarter.Fig. 1. Picture showing the use of the social identity theory, nationality

    Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory Experiment

    Tajfel ran two different experiments testing the Social Identity Theory. The studies had the aim of finding out what causes prejudice. To assess this, Tajfel tested whether categorisation was sufficient for discrimination against the out-group.

    Experiment on Social Categorisation (1971)

    This experiment included a sample of 64 teenage boys from a comprehensive school in Bristol. The study showed a between-group comparison with two conditions. Each condition presented 4 groups of 8 individuals.

    Participants walked into the room to perform a visual judgement task. Clusters containing a given amount of dots were flashed on a screen. Participants had to estimate the number of dots they had seen per screen. They kept a written record of their answers in a booklet.

    Two experimental conditions emerge based on what participants were told after this phase. The researchers told participants in condition one (neutral condition) that certain individuals tend to overestimate the number of dots on the screen in such types of experiments. In contrast, others tend to underestimate such numbers. Further, researchers specified that such over/underestimations were unrelated to accuracy.

    Condition two (value condition) is different in that the teenage participants were told that in such experiments, some participants perform consistently more accurately than others.

    Reward Allocation Task

    After this first phase of the experiment, participants were told they would be put into different groups based on the criteria described above. In reality, participants were randomly assigned to the groups. This reflects the process of categorisation.

    To assess the effects of categorisation, participants were told which group they were in. The groups were the following:

    • Group including boys who estimated high.

    • Group including boys who estimated low.

    • Group including boys who guessed accurately.

    • Group including boys who guessed less accurately.

    Participants' task in this second part of the experiment was to assess the answer booklets and to offer monetary rewards and penalties for the scores. The booklets were anonymised, so participants did not know whose booklets they were reviewing.

    Tajfel compared the results from the two conditions: neutral and value condition. Although there was no significant difference between neural and value conditions in the assessment of the booklets, there was a tendency to favour the in-group and a negative bias towards the out-group.

    Building on such results, Tajfel conducted a second experiment.

    ‘Klee and Kandinsky’ Experiment (1971)

    The second experiment aimed to test whether participants would favour and give more points to the in-group members than to the out-group.

    Forty-eight students aged 14 to 15 from the same school in Bristol participated in this study. Researchers divided participants into two groups and told them that the experimenters would explore their art preferences.

    During the experimental part, participants were shown twelve pictures of Klee or Kandinsky and told to indicate which they liked better. Participants were unaware of which artist had created pictures since the names were covered. After this, participants were told they would be divided into two groups based on their preferences, but again, the group allocation was random.

    Reward Allocation Task

    In the second part of the experiment, participants were asked to assign points to other participants which would later be converted into prizes. Although participants did not know the exact person whose answer they were reviewing, they did know whether the person was in their group to not.

    In this second experiment, the scoring was different. Participants were given pairs of teenagers (one from their group and one from the other group). Scores had to be split between the two pair members. For example, a pair would be given a score of 14, which needed to be divided in two. The participant could then decide how to split sich scoring. He may give 7 points to each participant, 10 points to one and 4 to the other, or 2 to one and 12 to the other, and so on.

    This type of scoring allowed researchers to test three different variables:

    1. Maximum joint profit: this meant that teenagers could give the largest rewards to either a member of their group or to a member of the other group.
    2. Largest rewards to ingroup: boys could choose the largest possible reward for the member of their own group regardless of the rewards given to a boy in an outgroup.
    3. Maximum difference: boys could decide what the maximum difference between the scores of the two groups was.

    The results suggested that participants gave higher scores to members of their own group as compared to the out-group (maximum joint profit). This was in their best interest since they were told they would receive a prize for the points.

    Furthermore, participants chose to assign points to other boys in their in-group and did so consistently, ignoring the fair alternative, i.e., they favoured their in-group.

    The boys even failed to maximise their gains only to disadvantage the out-group (negative out-group bias).

    Conclusion

    Taken together, these findings provide evidence of inter-group discrimination. Tajfel demonstrated that categorisation leads to group discrimination. This was concluded from the fact that in both experiments more money was assigned to those individuals in the in-group than in the out-group. Furthermore, the second experiment also provided evidence that individuals find value in maximising group differences.

    Social Identity Theory Evaluation

    When it comes to the evaluation of a theory there are always strengths and weaknesses

    Strengths

    • The theory has been widely used not only in explaining prejudice but also in explaining individual differences in prejudice. Some individuals, for example, have stronger needs for social acceptance than others.
    • Another strength of the theory is that it does not assume that intergroup conflict needs to take place for discrimination to occur. General knowledge would make it tempting for some to argue that conflict is required for discrimination, but the theory successfully proved this statement wrong.

    Weaknesses

    • Among the weaknesses of the theory, there is the fact that although social identity theory explains how discrimination occurs, it fails to predict behaviour.
    • Secondly, the theory fails to consider factors that may be crucial when groups engage in discrimination such as the cultural expectations of the social constraints.

    Social identity Theory and Politics of Identity

    Identity politics refers to the political approach that includes movements to stop the discrimination of certain social groups due to their race, nationality, religion or sexual preferences. The field of politics has greatly benefited from the application of the social identity theory. There is evidence that the social identity theory is not only used to explain in-group and our-group conflict but that it can explain social actions and change1. This, in turn, makes the theory especially relevant for identity politics and for discrimination policies.

    Social Identity Theory Examples

    One of the examples with which almost all humans can see themselves in line with the theory of social identity is race and ethnicity. Differences in race and ethnicity are to an extent biological, but differences can also be social. In multi-racial societies, those individuals of the same race usually feel an affinity towards those who share the same race, and therefore perspectives and traditions as them. This exemplifies the in-group similarities. On the other hand, out-group differences can be extensive when it comes to race. In some Islamic countries, the catholic religion is strongly undesired. Similarly, certain Islamic characteristics are disliked by western countries. This is how social identity theory can be applied to race and ethnicity.

    Social Identity Theory - Key takeaways

    • Tajfel proposed a theory to explain stereotyping and discrimination.
    • The social identity theory (1971) explained that individuals establish whether they belong to a group or not through three different cognitive processes: categorization, social identification and social comparison.
    • The theory was tested by Tajfel in two different experiments which provided evince of inter-group discrimination.
    • The social identity theory has been widely used in politics and although it explains prejudice but fails to predict behaviour.

    References

    1. Raskovic, M. (Matt). 2020. (Social) Identity Theory in an Era of Identity Politics: Theory and Practice. AIB Insights, 21(2). https://doi.org/10.46697/001c.13616.
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    Frequently Asked Questions about Social Identity Theory

    What is Tajfel's social identity theory?

    Tajfel and Turner (1979) suggested that the formation of groups causes prejudice.

    • First, belonging to a social group leads to in-group self-categorisation.
    • Self-categorisation leads to favouritism for one’s in-group ( preferring it over out-groups).
    • Favouritism leads to hostility toward the out-group.
    • The in-group begins to feel superior to the out-group.
    • Individuals’ self-esteem increases due to belonging to the ‘superior’ in-group.
    • Individual status increases.

    This process explains prejudice against out-groups.

    Where did Tajfel go wrong in his social identity theory?

    The weaknesses of Tajfel’s study were that it had reduced validity because it claimed to have measured grouping effects without the history of the competition. In contrast, it may have created competition by introducing winning prizes with the points. Demand characteristics may also have affected validity.


    There were problems with population validity because the sample consisted only of high school students.

    is social identity theory a useful framework to understand groups?

    Yes, it is a valuable framework for understanding groups because it shows how being in a group can cause favouritism to one’s in-group and cause negative out-group bias, hence, explaining how prejudice forms.

    How does social identity theory explain group relationships?

    Social identity theory explains that when a person belongs to a group, they develop favouritism to that in-group and a negative bias towards the out-group. This is how prejudice forms.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    Who came up with the social identity theory?

    What is one of the applications of the social identity theory (1970)?

    Is the following statement true or false: Social identity theory is especially relevant for identity politics and for discrimination policies.

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