Identity and Groupthink

In identity

collaboration by Laura Golben from the Noun Project

Humans are reflective individuals – we have the ability to reflect and define ourselves using categories, classifications and names. It provides a sense of clarity and definition of the ‘self’. It gives us a sense of ‘self-identity’.

One theory on personal identity is that it is largely reliant on a group.

A theory of social identity

There are many theories on social identity, but one in particular has been derived by Tajfel and Turner, in 1979. They define social identity as a sense of who you are based on a group membership. Tajfel proposed that groups which people belonged to were an important sense of self-esteem, and gave people a sense of belonging. Naturally, in order to raise our own self-esteem and self-image, we tend to enhance the status of our group(s).

Three mental processes exist:

  1. SOCIAL CATEGORISATION: We categorise objects to understand them better. In the same way, we categorise people (including ourselves). As social animals, when we assign ourselves to categories, we find out more about ourselves. We define appropriate behaviour, decisions, and prejudices by reference to the norms of the category or group. An individual can belong to many different groups, or social identities (and therefore many things can influence him/her). For example, I categorise myself as a doctor, a Birmingham resident, and a writer.
  2. SOCIAL IDENTIFICATION: We then, in the second stage, identify with the group – social identification. We adopt the identity of the group. If you have categorised yourself as a student, chances are you will start acting like a student. More than likely you will conform to the norms of the group.
  3. SOCIAL COMPARISON: Once we have categorised ourselves and identified with the group, we tend to compare that group with others. In order to maintain one’s self-esteem and self-image, our group (in-group) needs to compare favourably against the other groups (out-group). This is critical to understanding prejudice. Therefore competition need not be for simply resources, but about competing identities.

Comparison also works between individuals, and within a single individual, who tends to compare himself with self-standards.

Tajfel states that social identity involves placing people into categories/groups and trying to enhance the status of the in-group versus the status of the out-group. In doing so, we tend to exaggerate the difference between groups and also the similarity of things within groups.

Self enhancement

For the purposes of self-esteem, self-enhancement is important. Individuals utilise various strategies to enhance their personal selves. The same goes with the social self, or social identities. People try to adopt the traits of the group that they think they are a part of, regardless of whether they are positive or negative. In the same way that individuals try to maintain a positive personal identity by comparing themselves to other people, group members are also motivated to hold a collective sense of identity and therefore favourably compare with other groups. This can lead to inter-group bias, as in-group and self are connected, but out-group is disconnected.

Interestingly, in the ‘extended contact effect’, when an in-group member is friends with an out-group member, reduces prejudice for the entire in- group. This is because, when they see the in-group member with the out- group member, it creates an overlap. Consequently, they slowly start seeing the out-group member as the self, and eventually the out-group as the self too. This is important, as it means the feelings of the in-group will also become feelings of the out-group – empathy.


What happens when in-group members see their group as negative? They adopt certain strategies to maintain their positive social identity. To preserve self-enhancement one can dis-identify or disengage. e.g. if a group performs inadequately in a task, the group members are likely to distance themselves from the group (even if they themselves were not involved in the task) – cutting off reflected failure.

By contrast, if a group was successful, members derive a positive sense of self, even if they had nothing to do with the success (basking in reflected glory). They then engage/identify more with the group.

What is strikingly obvious with this theory is that personal identities are defined by groups, and so precludes the possibility of a distinct, continual  and stable personal ‘self’ separate from a group. 

If our individuality is dissolved within a group identity, and our sense of self-esteem is in alignment with the self-image of a group, how are we to know whether we make autonomous choices, or unwittingly are making choices based on the group – something known as groupthink.

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