Social Identity Theory

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Prejudice is a negative feeling towards a certain individual based on their group membership (Baumeister & Bushman, p 403). Social Identity Theory explains how prejudice can result from intergroup relations that involve identification with the in-group and negative attitudes towards the out-group (Nesdale & Flesser, 2001, p 506). People classify themselves within various groups based on age, race, organizational affiliation, etc. and these categories help a person to define their environment. Groups to which a person categorizes themselves in are called in-groups, and individuals who don’t fit into this group are classified as out-group members. Individuals perceive themselves as similar to other members of the in-group. Social Identity Theory explains how intergroup relations, more specifically how identifying positively with the in-group and negatively judging the out-group helps individuals gain self-esteem (Stets & Burke, p 226). Self esteem can be enhanced when a person evaluates members of the in-group more favorably than members of the out-group (Stets & Burke, p 225). The need to evaluate in-groups more positively than out groups forms the basis for social competition that is motivated by a need for self-esteem, rather than just fulfilling one’s personal interests. However, the evidence for the role of self-esteem is mixed (Rubin & Hewstone, 1998), and in recent years, the need for self-esteem as the sole drive for Social Identity Theory has been downplayed and researchers have investigated other motives. One motive is self- regulation which explains how when in-group identification is activated, an individual matches their behavior to group standards in order to confirm membership with their group (Stets & Burke, 2000, p 232).

The preference for members of an in-group that favor other members of the in group can be called the “loyal member” effect (Castelli, DeAmicis, &Sherman, 2007, p 1348 ). Studies have shown that the loyal member effect and Social Identity Theory in general can be applied to young children as well as adults (Nesdale & Flesser 2001,p 506). These studies involving young children show how “members of a majority group are treated differently by other in-group members as a function of the degree to which they interact with and accept minority out-group members” (Castelli, DeAmicis, &Sherman, 2007, p 1348). Social rejection may result if in-group members befriend out-group members.


In a study conducted by Vaughn, Tajfel, and Williams (1981), the child participants were randomly divided into two groups, the intergroup and the interpersonal group. The children in the intergroup were told that they belonged to either a Blue or a Red group and that they had to divide up pennies between members of the Blue and Red group. Later, the children in both groups had to choose one out of three coin cards in front of them and then they were asked to place coins in a Red or Blue money box. The results show that participants gave more coins to their in-group than to the out-group, indicating high in-group bias among children even though they were categorized artificially (Vaughn, Tajfel, & Williams,1981, p 41).

In another study (Castelli, DeAmicis, & Sherman, 2007), participants were young children between the ages of 4 and 7 who were interviewed about their daily life. They were then presented with two drawings, one in which both children were white, the other in which one child was black, and the other was white. The participants were told that the children in both scenarios were playing happily. The white children in both drawings are considered in-group members and the participants had to pick which one they would consider a playmate. The participants were then asked to rate the white children in the drawings using either positive traits or negative traits. The results indicated a stronger preference for the white child in the drawing that played with another white child rather than a white child who played with a black child (74% vs. 26%). Even very young children preferred to interact with in-group members and they evaluated their peers who interacted with in-group members more favorably than those who interacted with out-group members, indicating the loyal member effect.


The data in support of Social Identity Theory is conclusive in showing how in-group members favor other in-group members and may evaluate out-group members negatively. However some important factors must be noted. Negative feelings towards out-group members or prejudice, is more likely to occur when individuals draw a large sense of identity from their group membership, this identity is threatened, and there is a conflict between the in group and the out-group (fore a review, see Hewstone, Rubin, & Willis, 2002). Negative feelings about those in-group members who had positive interactions with out-group members were decreased when an external and powerful figure, such as a teacher was present to create contact between the in-group and the out-group. Respected external figures who do not attempt to control all interactions may help foster more positive inter-group contact.


Baumeister, R., & Bushman, B. 2008.Social Psychology and Human Nature. Belmont, CA: Thomas Wadsworth, 403.

Castelli, L., De Amicis, L., & Sherman, S. J. (2007). The loyal member effect: On the preference for ingroup members who engage in exclusive relations with the ingroup. Developmental Psychology, 43(6), 1347-1359.

Duckitt, J., & Mphuthing, T. (1998). Group identification and intergroup attitudes: A longitudinal analysis in South Africa. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74(1), 80-85.

Hatch, M. J., & Schultz, M. 2004. Organizational identity: A reader. Oxford, U.K.: Oxford University Press, 134-135.

Hewstone, M., Rubin, M., & Willis, H. (2002). Intergroup bias. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 575-604. doi: 10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135109

Nesdale, D., & Flesser, D. (2001). Social identity and the development of children's group attitudes. Child Development, 72(2), 506-517.

Rubin, M., & Hewstone, M. (1998). Social identity theory’s self-esteem hypothesis: A review and some suggestions for clarification. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 2, 40-62. doi: 10.1207/s15327957pspr0201_3

Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2000). Identity theory and social identity theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63(3), 224-237.

Vaughan, G. M., Tajfel, H., & Williams, J. (1981). Bias in reward allocation in an intergroup and an interpersonal context. Social Psychology Quarterly, 44(1), 37-42.

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