Group identity: the need to feel part of something
Jul 16, 2021
Probably humanity's most important advantage as a species is their willingness to work in society, in a group. However, the weapon appears to be double-edged, since, at times, it seems that such social behavior may be the one that leads the species itself to its inevitable end.
And, there is an unexpected side effect that natural selection did not have when deciding how beneficial social behavior: the appearance of groups. However, this way of life does not regulate itself. In practice, when it comes to socializing, we often do from a feeling of group identity which leads us to consider the other person our equal or, on the contrary, someone with whom we do not identify.
- Related article: "Stereotypes, Prejudices and Discrimination: Why Should We Avoid Prejudging?"
Gregariousness in humans: a survival resource
Yes, the human species has managed to rise as the dominant species on its planet (and whether this is a merit to be proud of or not, would give us for another article), although social conflicts, discrimination, inequality and hatred are a price that seems very high.
But why does all this occur? There are countless reasons that lead us to be part of groups. Sometimes they are common interests, for which we end up being part of the group of cyclists, geeks or vegetarians. Other times, they are ideological issues, so we can belong to the group of anarchists, feminists or atheists, and other times Sometimes they are "mere" physical or biological differences, so that, objectively, we can be men, women, blacks, white ...
This does not seem so far-fetched, after all, everyone is the way they are and the differences, in any case, should be cause for celebration and not hatred... but, why not?
Well, all part of a phenomenon that Tajfel coined as a social identity, which is related to self-concept, that is, the way we see ourselves.
- You may be interested: "Self-concept: what is it and how is it formed?"
Tajfel and his research on collective identity
Social identity is the set of aspects of individual identity that are related to social categories to which we believe we belong. In this way, when we consider ourselves, say, Spanish, all the behaviors and norms that, as we understand, are typical of the Spanish, become ours. In this process there is already an error of logic, which is to consider that all the members that belong to a group share the same behavioral or psychological characteristics.
They are the famous stereotypes, which are nothing but heuristics, or mental shortcuts, which fulfill the function of simplifying our environment and saving psychological resources that could be oriented to other tasks, but which, as we say, are unfounded. With them, prejudices come hand in hand, that is, the display attitudes towards a certain person based on the social group to which they may belong.
Anyway, as far as we have counted, there does not seem to be a major problem either. If we stayed there, we would simply live in a tremendously ignorant world that wastes an immense potential regarding the benefits that interculturality can bring. So yes, why, in addition to developing a social identity, do we compete with other social identities?
Tajfel demonstrated, with some experiments that he called the “minimal group paradigm”, how the most trivial and superficial difference can lead to competition. Classifying the participants into two groups as to whether they liked one or the other painting more, each of them was invited to distribute resources (money) between her group and the other.
The results showed that the participants preferred to earn less money as long as the difference between money received with the other group was maximum... In other words, if I have chosen Klee's painting, and I can choose that both my group and Kandinsky's win 20 euros, I will prefer to win 18 if they win 10... as long as the decision is anonymous.
- You may be interested: "The 8 most common types of racism"
Emotions and group identity
If something as frivolous as choosing a painting or the color of a shirt already leads me to harm other groups, what will I not do when deeper elements such as ideologies or families?
The mechanisms that are related to all this are closely related to self-esteem. If I consider that the qualities of my group apply to me, if my group is valuable, it will be that I I am valuable... and as always, value is relative, and it is only possible to adjudicate through comparison.
Therefore, current social conflicts are based on the search to feel valuable (self-esteem) through my group (social identity) as a result of making other people less valuable than (prejudices) belong to another group different.
Following the discourse that we have led here, the logical conclusion is that this is a war that cannot be won, because it is based on the perceptions of each of the sides, and perhaps the solution is to achieve self-esteem through our behaviors and not our color, sexual organs, or the very arbitrary geographic feature of our birth.
It is true that it is not realistic to try to fully control the psychological dynamics behind the sense of identity and self-concept in general. In the same way, it is not possible to develop one's own identity separate from society; For better and for worse, we see ourselves reflected in others, either to try to imitate behaviors or to distance ourselves from them.
However, to a certain extent, it is possible to question the logics and forms of reasoning that lead us towards one type of group identity or another. It is always good that, in order to focus our attention on certain groups and collectives, we do so with those with a positive inspiring potential; And in the same way, it is also necessary to ensure that the fact of not feeling identified with others does not become a gratuitous hatred and generator of discomfort in ourselves or in others.
- Anderson, B. (1983). Imagined Communities. Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verse.
- Leary, M.R.; Tangney, J.P. (2003). Handbook of self and identity. New York: Guilford Press.
- Platow, M.J.; Grace, D.M.; Smithson, M.J. (2011). Examining the Preconditions for Psychological Group Membership: Perceived Social Interdependence as the Outcome of Self-Categorization. Social Psychological and Personality Science. 3 (1): https://doi.org/10.1177/1948550611407081
- Turner, J.C. (1987) Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.