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Social Identity Theory: Our Sense of Self Is Influenced by the Groups We Belong To

15 February, 2016 - 10:55

In our discussion of social comparisons, we have seen that who we compare ourselves to can affect how we feel about ourselves, for better or worse. Another social influence on our self-esteem is through our group memberships. For example, we can gain self-esteem by perceiving ourselves as members of important and valued groups that make us feel good about ourselves. Social identity theory asserts that we draw part of our sense of identity and self-esteem from the social groups that we belong to (Hogg, 2003; Oakes, Haslam, & Turner, 1994; Tajfel, 1981).

Normally, group memberships result in positive feelings, which occur because we perceive our own groups and thus ourselves in a positive light. If you are an Arsenal F.C. fan, or if you are an Australian, or if you are a Muslim, for example, then your membership in the group becomes part of what you are, and the membership often makes you feel good about yourself. The list that follows presents a measure of the strength of social identity with a group of university students. If you complete the measure for your own school, university, or college, the research evidence would suggest that you would agree mostly with the statements that indicate that you identify with the group.

A Measure of Social Identity

This 10-item scale is used to measure identification with students at the University of Maryland, but it could be modified to assess identification with any group. The items marked with an R are reversed (so that low numbers become high numbers and vice versa) before the average of the scale is computed. The scale was originally reported by Luhtanen and Crocker (1992).

For each of the following items, please indicate your response on a scale from 1 (strongly disagree) to 7 (strongly agree) by writing a number in the blank next to the question.

  1. ___ I identify with the group of University of Maryland students.
  2. ___ I am glad to belong to the group of University of Maryland students.
  3. ___ I make excuses for belonging to the group of University of Maryland students.
  4. ___ I consider the group of University of Maryland students to be important.
  5. ___ I feel held back by the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  6. ___ I criticize the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  7. ___ I see myself as belonging to the group of University of Maryland students.
  8. ___ I try to hide belonging to the group of University of Maryland students. (R)
  9. ___ I feel strong ties with the group of University of Maryland students.
  10. ___ I am annoyed to say that I am a member of the group of University of Maryland students. (R)

Kay Deaux and her colleagues (Deaux, Reid, Mizrahi, & Ethier, 1995) asked U.S. college students to list the groups that they identified with. As you can see in Table 3.1, the students reported belonging to a wide variety of groups and claimed that many of these groups provided them with social identities. The categories that they listed included ethnic and religious groups (e.g., Asian, Jewish), political affiliations (e.g., conservative, Democrat), occupations and hobbies (e.g., gardener, tennis player), personal relationships (e.g., husband, girlfriend), and marginalized groups (e.g., gay, homeless). You can see that these identities were likely to provide a lot of positive feelings for the individuals.

Table 3.1 Varieties of Social Identities



Political affiliation






Welfare recipient


Divorced person


Political independent

Unemployed person



Military veteran


Homeless person





Retired person




Old person

New Yorker




Fat person





Deaf person





Person with AIDS

Asian American





African American


Head of household
















Business person





















This table represents some of the many social identities reported by a sample of college students. Data are from Deaux and colleagues (1995).

Which of our many identities is most accessible for us will vary from day to day as a function of the particular situation we are in (Yakushko, Davidson, & Williams, 2009). Seeing our national flag outside a government office may remind of us our national identity, whereas walking past our local soccer stadium may remind us of our identification with our team. Identity can also be heightened when it is threatened by conflict with another group—such as during an important sports game with a rival team. We each have multiple social identities, and which of our identities we draw our self-esteem from at a given time will depend on the situation we are in, as well as the social goals we have.

Figure 3.9 Social identity refers to the positive emotions we experience as a member of an important social group. 

In particular, we use occasions when our social groups are successful in meeting their goals to fuel our self-worth. Robert Cialdini and his colleagues (Cialdini et al., 1976) studied the idea that we can sometimes enhance our self-esteem by basking in the reflected glory of our ingroups, which occurs when we use and advertise our ingroups’ positive achievements to boost our self-esteem. To test this idea, they observed the clothes and clothing accessories that students at different U.S. universities wore to classes on Mondays. They found that when the university’s football team had won its game on Saturday, students were likely to emphasize their university membership by wearing clothing, such as sweatshirts and hats with the symbols of the university on them. However, they were significantly less likely to wear university clothing on the Mondays that followed a football loss. Furthermore, in a study in which students from a university were asked to describe a victory by their university team, they frequently used the term “we,” whereas when asked to describe a game in which their school lost, they used the term “we” significantly less frequently. Emphasizing that “we’re a good school” and “we beat them” evidently provided a social identity for these students, allowing them to feel good about themselves.

When people in our ingroups perform well, social identity theory suggests that we tend to make intergroup social comparisons, and by seeing our group as doing better than other groups, we come to feel better about ourselves. However, this is not generally what happens when we make intragroup comparisons—those between ourselves and other ingroup members. In this case it is often not advantageous to bask in the glory of others in our ingroups, because in some cases the other person’s successes may create an upward comparison and thus more negative emotions. Self-evaluation maintenance theory (Tesser, 1988) asserts that our self-esteem can be threatened when someone else outperforms us, particularly if that person is close to us and the performance domain is central to our self-concept. This theory leads to the interesting implication that these threats will often occur in the context of our family relationships, and they have been shown to be an integral part of both family functioning in general (Tesser, 1980) and marital relationships in particular (Beach et al., 1996).

When threats occur, the theory states that we will typically try to rebuild our self-esteem using one of three main strategies. The first is distancing, where we redefine ourselves as less close to the person in question. For example, if a close friend keeps beating you at tennis, you may, over time, seek out another playing partner to protect your bruised ego. Interestingly, people who are more narcissistic are more likely to use this tactic than people who are lower in these characteristics (Nicholls & Stukas, 2011). The second option is to redefine how important the trait or skill really is to your self-concept. For instance, you may decide that tennis ability just isn’t that important a part of who you are, and choose to take up another hobby instead. The third strategy is try to improve on the ability in question. In the current example, this would mean practicing more often or hiring a coach to improve your tennis game. Notice the clear parallels between these strategies that occur in response to threats to our self-esteem posed by the behavior of others, and those that are triggered by feelings of self-discrepancy, discussed earlier in this chapter. In both cases, we seek to rebuild our self-esteem by redefining the aspect of ourself that has been diminished.