Social Identity Theory

In the 1960s and 1970s Henri Tajfel conducted a series of studies in which participants were randomly divided into two groups. As a participant, the group you were assigned to was the “in-group” and the other group was designated the “out-group”. Participants were asked to allocate rewards between members of their group (in-group) and the other group (the out-group). These studies showed that participants exhibited substantial favoritism for members of their in-group.

What makes this interesting is that these were ad hoc groups. They were not formed based on any commonality between the participants. Attraction didn’t play a part, neither did taste in music or religious affiliation. Subjects were merely told that they were members of one or the other group and yet they behaved in ways that indicated that they were interested in the group’s welfare as well as their own.

According to the “The Sage Handbook of Social Psychology” (Sage Publications Ltd):

Social identity theory holds that self-esteem reflects both personal identity and social identity. The former is based on one’s personal accomplishments while the latter is based on the groups to which one belongs and the value one attaches to those groups. People are motivated to maintain a positive self-evaluation and want to view their individual achievements and personal qualities as favorably as they can, as they similarly want to see the groups that they belong to in the most positive possible light.

This seems as good a place as any to begin our exploration of the mechanisms which lead to the type of us vs. them behavior we experience as part of the Mac/PC debate. The next step will be to look at J.C. Turner’s working of social identity theory into self-categorization theory.

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