A social identity is chosen membership in a social group or category. Most of the answers to the question: “who are you?” are social identities. In my case, if I say I am a man, a father, a husband, an immigrant, and so on, these are all examples of broader social categories which make up much of my identity. But notice the irony here–we need to identity with larger social groups in order to answer the question of who we are at a personal level. Why do human beings have to do this? Why are we drawn to identify with social groups?
Different disciplines give different answers; not necessarily competing answers, but each contain individual pieces of the puzzle. Evolutionary historians stress the role of pro-social behaviour, social psychologists point to the need for humans to maintain positive self-valence, and philosophers point to values and recognition. My purpose in this essay is to bring my readings in these disciplines together to provide a broader answer to why human beings identify with social groups; to cast a wider net in answering this question than these individual disciplines do. In my reading of these literatures, there are at least six fundamental reasons why human beings form social identities, all of which have been created and driven by evolutionary processes. These six, however, fit fairly well into two broad categories: self-esteem and efficiency.
Before discussing each of the six categories, I will restate that all six work primarily because they were instilled by pro-social evolution. Human beings are social animals that evolved in the context of group living. We are exceptionally adapted to group living and are unequipped to survive outside a group context (Brewer, 1991, p.475). This has led to behaviour that often encourages people to value the group over themselves, i.e. to the detriment of individual welfare. Although this is plainly seen in everyday life, and throughout history, it is also confirmed by many experimental designs. In such designs, manipulating the availability of a group identity significantly increases individuals’ likelihood to sacrifice self-interest in behalf of collective welfare for the group (Hogg & Abrams, 1990). Without this ingrained impetus, no human social group would be able to function, as individuals would always prioritize self-interest over group-interest, and thus the group would swiftly dissolve.1
Pro-social behaviour as driven by evolutionary forces does not fully answer the question of why social identities exist however. Consider that a social identity can be pro-social for only a small group, but anti-social in regards to a whole society. Neo-nazi groups in the United States, for example, might be caring and nurturing towards other members of their relatively small, isolated group, but are obviously damaging to the greater social makeup of the country as a whole. The key point to understand here is that social identities are not only about establishing pro-social behaviour, they also help distinguish one’s group from other groups. Wilson (2012) calls this “interaction of two levels of selection”, where individuals have to work harmoniously with other individuals in order to form a group, but also have to interact as group members to compete with (or trade with) other groups. Wilson believes that groups that could master these two levels of selection tended to succeed more, survive more, and thus pass on their genes more.2
A social identity, therefore, is an evolutionary adaptation that both encourages pro-social behaviour and allows individuals to distinguish (and usually prefer) their own group from other groups.3
What I am calling efficiency is simply the evolutionary drive to conserve energy, whether mental or physical. Thus, when there is an easy way of doing things that conserves cognitive resources, that is probably the direction in which human beings will adapt, all else equal. The following three criteria loosely fall into this category of miserhood.
What makes me the person or individual that I am? A social identity helps answer that question; it serves as a marker or set of markers that I use to help define myself. Appiah (2005, p.22) would say social identities provide ‘scripts’ for the individual; narratives that individuals use in shaping their life projects and telling their stories.4
A social identity is thus an easy way for individuals to avoid spending precious cognitive resources on constantly wondering who they are, what they want, and what they will do in life. They are defined by their membership in social groups; what they want is what their group wants; and the appropriateness of their life goals are determined by the norms of the group in which they reside.
Appiah (2005, p.24) tells us that identities provide values. There are many things of value in the world, but ranking their value to an individual can be difficult, and so one way to help establish value is if one can adopt the attitudes towards things that one’s group does. What they value, you value. They can serve as a value in two ways (p.25). Firstly, they determine that prosocial actions towards the group help give satisfaction towards one’s life because that action is seen as valuable. And secondly, it gives value to individual achievement. When a blind person climbs Everest, the value to them is that they did it as a blind person (at least in part), and the value to other blind people is similar. You take pride in the achievement of the group. We could add two additional psychological mechanisms explaining why this value-added component might be useful to a person. I think there are two plausible options. First, human beings dislike uncertainty and ambiguity (de Berker et al., 2016), and so being able to access a ready-made set of values and preferences helps alleviate those concerns. Secondly, adopting group values are a form of cognitive miserhood; they make taming the information tide easier.
Evolution has not only left us with a mental predisposition to enjoy identification with groups because of a need to save resources, it has also left us with a desire to feel good about ourselves.5
Indeed, self-esteem maximization is typically the only motivation given behind social identity formation in the social sciences (see summary in Brewer, 1991, p.476-477) ; my approach here of postulating six different reasons for identity adoption is thus something of an outlier. I do agree, however, that maximizing self-esteem is probably the key element in why human beings find comfort in social groups. I see, however, various manifestations of this, which I will identify in the three categories given subsequently.6
The Need to Belong
This could arguably be in its own section, but I will explain why I believe it also fits under self-esteem. First, what is a “need to belong?” This phrase is from a provocative paper written by Baumeister and Leary (1995). In it, The authors argue that the need to belong is a fundamental human motivation; belonging being discussed mostly in terms of having strong, stable interpersonal relationships.7
One of the major implications of their theory is that belonging might substitute for the need to maximize self-esteem in theories of group identity. I don’t see why they cannot work in concert, however. Couldn’t a need to belong be part of one’s self-esteem evaluation? It seems as if seeking higher self-esteem could still be the reason we want to have strong and stable relationships with others and belong to groups, or at least be part of the motivation.
This is yet another theory that is often presented as an alternative motivation for social identification, but which I think fits more appropriately under self-esteem. It was Marilyn Brewer (1991) who first suggested optimal distinctiveness theory as the motivation behind social identity formation. In her telling (see Brewer, 1991, p.477-479) human beings have to balance the dueling needs for validation and similarity (on the one side) and uniqueness and individuation (on the other side). A social identity is a compromise between these dueling needs. Validation and similarity are met through membership in the social group, while uniqueness and individuation is met through intergroup comparison. Brewer gives the examples of teens. They dress alike to maintain assimilation with their ingroup, but consciously dress differently from their parents to differentiate themselves from that group. I consider Brewer’s theory as still under the umbrella of theories of self-esteem, however, as the most optimal level of distinctiveness is that which will provide the highest benefit to one’s self esteem.8
Our identities are shaped by the recognition, misrecognition, and lack of recognition we receive from others about their validity, meaning, and appropriateness (Taylor, 1994, p.25). This recognition is a vital human need; we need our identities to be recognized (Taylor, 1994, p.26). As Taylor puts it “each consciousness seeks recognition in another” (p.50), and lack of recognition causes anger and hostility.
Appiah (2018, p.154) describes this same phenomenon by substituting in the word ‘respect.’ He says that a desire for respect (both self-respect and the respect of others) is a central human goal, and we want our identities to be respected as well since we consider them a part of who we are; they define us in some way. Both Taylor and Appiah’s descriptions of human beings craving recognition and respect seem to fall under the broader motivation of wanting to enhance one’s self-esteem. Why, ultimately, do we want recognition of our identities? Because we consider them part of who we are, and when those identities aren’t recognized or respected, it subsequently makes us feel bad about ourselves.
So why do human beings identify with social groups. We do so because we evolved to do so; because being part of groups increases efficiency and positive self-valence. This identification process helps tell us who we are, where we stand in relation to others, and provides values, belonging, opportunities for distinctiveness, and recognition. Small wonder so much of our talk then these days is about identities.
Akerlof, G. A., & Kranton, R. E. (2000). Economics and Identity. The Quarterly Journal of Economics, 115(3), 715–753.
Appiah, A. (2005). The ethics of identity. Princeton University Press.
Appiah, A. (2014). Lines of descent: W. E. B. Du Bois and the emergence of identity. Harvard University Press.
Appiah, K. A. (2018). The Lies that Bind: Rethinking Identity: Library Resources.
Appiah, K. A., Taylor, C., Appiah, K. A., Habermas, J., Rockefeller, S. C., Walzer, M., & Wolf, S. (1994). Identity, Authenticity, Survival. In A. Gutmann (Ed.), Multiculturalism (REV-Revised, pp. 149–164). Princeton University Press.
Brewer, M. B. (1991). The Social Self: On Being the Same and Different at the Same Time. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 17(5), 475–482.
Copp, D. (2002). Social Unity and the Identity of Persons. Journal of Political Philosophy, 10(4), 365–391.
de Berker, A. O., Rutledge, R. B., Mathys, C., Marshall, L., Cross, G. F., Dolan, R. J., & Bestmann, S. (2016). Computations of uncertainty mediate acute stress responses in humans. Nature Communications, 7(1), 10996.
Hogg, M. A., & Abrams, D. (1990). Social identity theory: Constructive and critical advances. Springer-Verlag.
Spears, R. (2021). Social Influence and Group Identity. Annual Review of Psychology, 72(1), 367–390.
Taylor, C., Taylor, C., Appiah, K. A., Habermas, J., Rockefeller, S. C., Walzer, M., & Wolf, S. (1994). The Politics of Recognition. In A. Gutmann (Ed.), Multiculturalism (REV-Revised, pp. 25–74). Princeton University Press.
It is obviously speculative to suggest that human beings had to evolve in a group setting for survival, but group life must have offered many advantages to solitary life in a harsh prehistoric world (see Alexander, 1976; Wilson, 2012). This included greater protection from predators, higher success rates in obtaining food, more efficient division of resources and labour, more opportunities for recreation and leisure, and greater access to a larger group of breeding partners. In sum, these benefits led to a greater chance of survival and for passing on genetic makeup to subsequent generations, which are the key drivers for any organism. Thus the more cooperative and social humans were the ones who survived at higher rates, and so by natural selection over the course of many generations, the genes of sociality were passed on far more than genes of isolation (Wilson, 2012).↩︎
Wilson here is echoing a sentiment made earlier by Charles Darwin. In The Descent of Man, Darwin writes:
“There can be no doubt that a tribe including many members who, from possessing in a high degree the spirit of patriotism, fidelity, obedience, courage, and sympathy, were always ready to aid one another, and to sacrifice themselves for the common good, would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. At all times throughout the world tribes have supplanted other tribes; and as morality [or self-sacrificing altruism for the group] is one important element in their success, the standard of morality and the number of well-endowed men will thus everywhere tend to rise and increase.” (Darwin 1871, pp.159-60).
Alexander (1974) identifies two vital benefits to being able to make this identifying distinction. The first is reciprocity. With all social animals, reciprocity is more common among genetic relatives. With reciprocity, animals take risks for the group because they expect the same behaviour to be reciprocated later. Secondly, groups have historically shared genetic kinship, and thus aiding other group members enhances the possibility that they will pass on the common genetic heritage of the group. There is usually enough genetic overlap with other ingroup members to encourage altruistic behaviour. Thus being able to behave pro-socially towards one’s own group led to better outcomes in passing on common genes. This process is obviously facilitated enormously by the ability to identify oneself with one’s immediate social group, and be able to distinguish one’s own group from other existing social groups. In this way, identity truly is “at the heart of human life” (Appiah, 2005, p.268). It is our past, present, and probably future too. It has left human beings with an unassailable, unconquerable desire to belong to groups (Baumeister & Leary, 1995).
Tied up with this individualism is authenticity, with each person seeking to express their authentic self. Collective identities play into this in that these identities are part of the authentic self that you seek to express, and it is because you seek to express yourself that you seek recognition of your broader social identities (Appiah, 2005, p.106).
In opposition to this belief that a social identity is an individual marker is Marilyn Brewer. She acknowledges that this is the prevailing view in American scholarship, but prefers the interpretation that is more common in European scholarship. That is, that a social identity does not exist to help further define a personal identity; instead, a social identity depersonalizes the self-concept and moves the person towards a social category and away from the perception of self as a unique person (Brewer, 1991, p. 476). Perhaps that is how social categorization works in practice, but I suspect that the vast majority of people believe that their membership in social groups does indeed help make part of their personal identity; they are the building blocks of their social self. So, I believe that despite their opposition, these two interpretations can both be valid. People can believe that social groups are important for differentiating their personal identities while in fact surrendering these identities to the we (not I) of collective identities.↩︎
Indeed, much of social psychology leverages this motivation. In a meta-review, Tom Pyszcznyski and colleagues (2004, p.435) conclude:
“The idea that people are keenly motivated to maintain high levels of self-esteem and that this motive underlies a great deal of human behavior has been a central theme in psychological theorizing, stretching from the very beginnings of scientific psychology to the current day (e.g., Crocker & Wolfe, 2001; Fein & Spencer, 1997; Horney, 1937; James, 1890; Kernis & Waschull, 1995; Sullivan, 1953; Tesser, 1988). Indeed, the notion that people are motivated to sustain high levels of self-esteem is so pervasive and widely accepted that most theorists use it as a postulate or paradigmatic assumption without providing justification or explanation. Such diverse forms of behavior as altruism and aggression, love and hatred, and conformity and deviance, have all been explained as ultimately rooted in the human need to see ourselves as valuable.”
Many philosophers who study identity reach a similar conclusion, although they don’t use the terminology of self-esteem maximization. For example, Copp says we choose a narrative about ourselves (the putative facts we believe about ourselves) that grounds our basic emotional attitude about ourselves (2002, p.376). This can include beliefs about ourselves that can cause feelings of shame as well as beliefs that cause feelings of pride (Copp, 2002, p.378). Although Copp himself does not suggest this, I think most people are driven to minimize feelings of shame and embrace an identity that causes mostly pride. It’s not that simple though, some identities that others give us (and which we accept) come with negative connotations. In this case, these identities need to be redefined, justified, or minimized. In any case, what Copp calls our “basic emotional attitude” fits into the emotional framework of seeking a positive emotional attitude about ourselves.
And although he doesn’t use the term ‘self-esteem’ specifically, Appiah (1994) channels this in his discussion of authenticity. He uses Taylor’s notion of authenticity, which is tied up in our identities and recognition (i.e. commitment to our identities make us feel authentic to ourselves, and we demand recognition of those identities from others) (p.152). Another way to say this as our identities shape our authentic selves, and because of that we seek recognition of our identities (p.153).
Appiah (2018, p.154) at a different time describes this same phenomenon by substituting in the word ‘respect.’ He says that a desire for respect (both self-respect and the respect of others) is a central human goal, and we want our identities to be respected as well since we consider them a part of who we are; they define us in some way. Appiah’s definition is perhaps not very distinct from social psychologists’ self-esteem maximization motivation. So, whether we call it respect or recognition, a social identity is in some way a vehicle to express what we see as our own authentic selves or personal identity.
Furthermore, in terms of our life plans, collective identities provide norms, models, and ‘scripts’ that shape them, especially those who make these collective identities central to their individual identities (Appiah, 1994, 159). Appiah feels this transcends Western identity–all people want their lives to have a certain narrative unity, to be able to tell stories of their lives that makes sense (p.160). I’m sure that varies by culture but I think the overall sentiment is probably correct in that it taps into self-esteem maximization. Akerlof and Kranton (2000, p.739) have some interesting confirmatory evidence here; they discuss how, in a previous era, unemployed men would often adopt the identity of a social street corner idler and gambler, since their identity as a provider was now only a source of guilt. Changing their identities helped these men overcome a crippling sense of failure and guilt. It provided a correction to a life plan that had dived precipitously into chronic unemployment.
Identities also provide the comfort of giving meaning to life’s actions. Appiah calls this as the tendency for identity to “give you reasons for doing things…there are things that people do and don’t do because they are [insert identity group]” (Appiah, 2018, p.9). Appiah’s point is perhaps closer to the idea that identity provides the rationale for many actions, and the component of comfort is one I would add. That is consistent with other psychological theories, however. Human beings don’t like uncertainty, randomness, or arbitrariness (see de Berker et al., 2016) . We like narratives and reasons for the actions we take, or the actions that are taken by others. Group identities can provide the rationales and narratives we crave. I don’t eat Pork because I am Muslim would be an example. What is “meaning to life’s action” if not another form of feeling good about yourself? So, I would situate this point firmly in the self-esteem maximization camp.
In relation to self-esteem, collective identities also provide positive emotional significance and a boost to self-worth by conferring meaning to individual achievements. For W.E.B Du Bois, graduating with a PhD from Harvard was doubly special because he was the first person of his identity group to achieve that. Similarly, the achievements of another member of your group stimulates feelings of pride.
All of these examples fit into the criteria of self-esteem maximization. Whether you approach it from a psychologist’s or a philosopher’s perspective, there is broad agreement that we want to identify with social groups simply because we like to feel good about ourselves.↩︎
That is one of the few drawbacks in the paper–the fact that belonging is a little ambiguous. They mostly discuss belonging in terms of the need for strong interpersonal relationships, but what kind of belonging is that? Belonging to other people? It would be more clear if the authors said that human beings seek out interpersonal relationships or that they seek to belong to groups. Those two things are not identical.↩︎
This is unaddressed in Brewer’s article, but certainly there will be individual differences in where the level of optimal distinctiveness should lie based on personality characteristics. Some individuals might enjoy the notoriety of being perceived as extremely different, and others might gain more solace from being firmly ensconced within a group. On average, however, I think her claim is correct. As she puts it succinctly on p.478 “we are uncomfortable in social contexts in which we are either too distinctive or too undistinctive.↩︎