Evaluate social identity theory, making reference to relevant studies.


  • Outline the purpose of your essay 
    • This essay will attempt to make an appraisal by weighing up the strengths and limitations of the social identity theory, with studies supported. 

  • Introduce social identity theory (SIT) 
    • Social identity theory (SIT) proposed by Tajfel and later developed by Tajfel and Turner (1971) to understand intergroup relations and group processes.
    • SIT is based on the assumption that individuals strive to improve their self-image by trying to enhance their self-esteem, based on either personal identity or through various social identities (in-groups/out-groups). 
    • SIT is based on 4 main concepts which will be further discussed in the following essay.


Interrelated concepts

  • SIT is based on 4 main concepts 
    • Social categorization 
      • Tendency to divide and therefore categorize individuals into ingroups (us) and outgroups (them)
      • Category accentuation effect - Exaggeration of intergroup differences and intragroup similarities 
        • Underestimates (to rate or rank too low) perceived difference within ingroup and outgroups 
          • E.g. Nerds all wear glasses 
        • Overestimates (to attribute too high an estimated value) variability between the ingroup and outgroups
          • E.g. We are different from them because we like books and they do not 

    • Social identification 
      • We adopt the identity of the group we have "categorized" ourselves as belonging to, which means we may adopt some of the values and behaviours of that group.
      • Self-concept based on membership to social groups
      • When relating to another as a member of a social group, our social identities affect our behaviour towards them 
      • Individual identities partly come from group memberships 
      • Having this social identity enhances our self-esteem 

    • Social comparison and positive distinctiveness
      • Social identity contributes to our self-image so we seek positive social identities to maintain and enhance self-esteem.
      • We compare our in-group with out-groups of a similar status to enhance thus establish the superiority of our group. 
      • SIT states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image. 
      • Positive social identity is achieved by social comparison
      • Positive distinctiveness is motivation to show that our ingroup is better and more preferable to an outgroup 
      • Need for positive distinctiveness --> Social comparison --> Positive self-concept 

 Supporting Study 1: Cialdini et al. (1976) 

Introduce study: 

  • This can be seen in a study by Cialdini et al. (1976). 
  • To investigate the tendency to associate one"s self publicly with successful others, referred to as “basking in reflected glory” (BIRG). 
Method A: 
  • Fans from large U.S. prestigious football universities were participants in a field experiment (in large lecture halls across 7 different schools) where they observed student clothing/apparel on a Monday following a big football game. 
Results A: 
  • Students tended to wear more apparel associating themselves with their own university (e.g. jersey or sweatshirt) when the football team won compared to when they lost. 
Method B: 
  • Based on these findings, researchers decided to call students and interview them about the performance of their schools football team following a game. 
Results B: 
  • People tended to use the pronoun "we" more to describe their team when they won and "they" more when the team had lost. 
  • In some experiments, researchers manipulated the feelings of the participants via distraction tasks and giving positive/negative feedback. 
  • The researchers were able to show that people tend to associate with positive others most closely when their own public image is threatened. 
  • Demonstrates that people seek a positive social identity and that their social identity is affected by being a part of their group so that you are more positive towards anything that your own group represents. 
  • Membership to a social group affects the behaviour of an individual. 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study supports the SIT as it demonstrated the concept of social identity. 
    • People"s self-image was affected by their in-group in that the victory gave a sense of "positive- distinctiveness" for the group and therefore enhanced self-esteem. 
Intergroup behaviours based on social identities
  • Social identity is used to explain social phenomena in terms of intergroup behaviours such as
    • Ethnocentrism - ingroup SSB
      • positive behaviours attributed to dispositional factors 
      • negative behaviours attributed to situational factors 
      • vice versa for outgroups 
    • Ingroup favouritism 
      • Favouring of ingroup as opposed tutgroups
        • E.g. Our sporting team wins more than them, therefore, we are better 
      • Intergroup differentiation - emphasising differences between ingroups and outgroups 
    • Stereotypical thinking 
      • Ingroup and outgroup members are perceived according to relevant stereotypes 
    • Conformity to group norms
      • Behaves in accordance to standards of behaviour defined by the ingroup

Key Study: Tajfel (1970) – The minimal group paradigm

Introduce study --> link to question:
  • Tajfel found that when people are randomly assigned to a group – either by the flip of a coin, the drawing of a coin, the drawing of a number from a hat, or by preference for a previously unknown artist – they see themselves as being similar in attitude and behaviour + automatically think of that group as their in-group and all others as an out-group, therefore a bond is formed among group members, even if they did not know each other before their assignment to the group. 
  • To demonstrate the minimal group paradigm in creating in group bias 
  • Schoolboys from Bristol were randomly allocated into groups (though they were told it was off a basis for a preference of artwork for Kandinsky or Klee). 
  • Told they were participating in a decision making experiment 
  • They individually assigned points based off a matrix to their group or another group. 
  • They were allowed no face to face contact or communication. 
  • Boys tended to favour ingroup members over outgroup members (ingroup favouritism) 
  • Boys maximised differences between groups (category accentuation effect), even if it was potentially disadvantageous to their own group 
  • The idea of being in a group is enough to induce own group bias (minimal group paradigm) 
  • Limitations 
    • Unusual task in an artificial environment --> Lacks ecological validity
    • Might have been influenced by demand characteristics of the situation and acted in the way that they thought was expected of them.
    • Tajfel"s study has reduced this complex psychological phenomenon down to a very simple level, focusing just on minimal groups and performance of a simple experimental task.
    • Participants can"t be generalized to the wider population
      • All boys 
      • Same age range & Country 
    • Ethics:
      • Deception 
        • Participants were told it was a study on decision making, when it was actually about group bias 
      • Consent 
        • Participants did not give informed consent as they did not know the true aim of the study

Connection of study to question 
  • This study supports SIT because the participants showed ingroup favouritism and category accentuation effect, which is an intergroup behaviour and concept of SIT 
Supporting Study 2: Jane Elliot (1968) - "Blue eye/brown eye" (optional) 

Introduce study --> link to question: 

  • Another study which demonstrates SIT to increase self-esteem is by Jane Elliot"s (1968) Blue-eye/Brown- eye study. 
  • To emphasise the effects of discrimination and group bias on personal traits and self-esteem. 
  • Segregated primary school class into two groups based on eye colour. 
  • Told blue eyes meant you were smarter, quicker and more successful. 
  • Brown eyes meant you were lazy, untruthful, and stupid. Blue eyed children were given privileges. 
  • A few days later the roles were reversed. 
  • Blue eyed children became bossy, arrogant, and smarter + showed discriminatory behaviour towards brown eyes. 
  • Brown eyes became timid, submissive and performed less well academically. 
  • The same thing happened when roles were reversed. 
  • This was despite any personal traits that may have been present previously 
  • Being part of a group affects how you view yourself, and your behaviour towards out groups. 
  • Lacks ecological validity 
  • Participants 
    • People with brown and blue eyes 
    • Primary school students 
  • Task was unrealistic to real life 
  • Some children were given negative labels, which caused stigmatization 
Connection of study to question 
  • This study relates to SIT because social identities affected intergroup behaviour 
    • People with blue eyes discriminated against the group of people with brown eyes 

Evaluation of SIT

    • Supported by hundreds/high amounts of empirical studies 
    • Demonstrates the role of social categorization in intergroup behaviours 
    • Difference between personal identity and social identity 
    • Explores how basic need to belong affects social interaction 
    • Contributes to explanation of other areas of social psychology 
      • E.g. stereotypes, conformity, groupthink, etc. 
      • Explains intergroup conflict in situations where there is no need for conflict 
    • Original SIT has been expanded on and continues to generate further research 

    • Applications of SIT are restricted by the methodological limitations (e.g. low EV), unrepresentative samples and reductionist principles adopted in its supporting studies. 
    • Self-esteem hypothesis is no longer central to SIT 
      • Some studies indicate that increase in self-esteem from positive ingroup is too short to have long-term effects on personal identity
      • Social comparison to make ingroup superior does not change personal identity 
    • Aim of SIT to favour situational factors rather than dispositional is not supported by evidence. 
      • Platow et al. (1990) found that competitive participants showed greater ingroup favouritism than co-operative participants 


  • Social identity theory states that the in-group will discriminate against the out-group to enhance their self-image 
  • Main concepts 
    • Social categorization
    • Social identity
    • Social comparison and positive distinctiveness 
  • SIT is supported by Tajfel (1970), Jane Elliot (1968), and Cialdini et al. (191976) 
  • Supported by large amount of research 
  • Demonstrates the role of social categorization in intergroup behaviours 
  • Difference between personal identity and social identity 
  • Contributes to explanation of stereotypes, conformity, groupthink, etc. 
  • Original SIT has been expanded on 
  • Social comparison to make ingroup superior does not change personal identity 
  • Aim of SIT to favour situational factors rather than dispositional is not supported by evidence 

  • Therefore, SIT can be used to explain how we form our individual and group identities in terms of "in" and "out" groups. It can also be used to explain why prejudice exists in all human societies.