Group Identification Acts as a Protective Measure

The Basic Idea

Social connection is a basic human need; our sense of wellbeing is improved when we have people to lean on in times of hardship. Group identification - also known as group identity, in-group identity and intragroup identification - is defined as individuals’ collective awareness of the social distinction of their group.7 Critically, it is conceptually different from social identity, and cohesion. Group identification has many implications on the individual level and has been linked to increased self-esteem and life satisfaction.

A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.

Theory, meet practice

TDL is an applied research consultancy. In our work, we leverage the insights of diverse fields—from psychology and economics to machine learning and behavioral data science—to sculpt targeted solutions to nuanced problems.

Our consulting services

Key Terms

Cohesion: the forces that influence members to remain in the group. These forces come from two sources: the group’s attractiveness, and the group’s ability to help members achieve their goals.7

Social identity: people’s identification with broad social categories such as race and gender. It is also sometimes applied to interpersonal roles, such as husband, student, or friend.7

Group identity: the distinctive identity of a group as a collective.7

Group identification: the collective awareness of a group as a distinct social entity.7

Self-categorization theory: an extension of social identity theory developed by John Turner.  This theory explains why and how people form cognitive representations of themselves in relation to different social groups.11

Social identity theory: developed by Henri Tajfel and John Turner in the 1970s. Describes the cognitive processes underlying social identity and how social identities impact intergroup behavior. It describes the conditions by which one’s social identity becomes more important than one’s personal identity.6

In-group: this is the group in which an individual identifies. This may include a fanbase of a particular sports team, like the New England Patriots, or a demographic of people, such as Catholics or Jamaicans.8

Out-group: this is the group in which an individual does not identify.8


Social psychologists have historically examined how individuals are influenced by different social groups and relations among group members. Consider Harold Kelley and John Thibaut, both social psychologists. In the late 1950s, they found that relations among group members were often a function of interpersonal exchanges. In other words, social comparison, or rather, the comparing of oneself to others, was found to develop common bonds among group members.5

In contrast, John Turner, a social psychologist well known for his work in intergroup relations and stereotyping, explained why members identify with groups through self-categorization theory. He argued that people join groups that represent social categories, and that members of those groups are easily influenced by common group behaviors and beliefs. Consider two political groups in Canada: The Liberal party and the Progressive Conservative party. Each of these parties have a set of beliefs and expectations, and people are drawn to one or the other based on their own beliefs. The consistency of the beliefs in the Liberal party, for example, is in direct contrast to those of the PC party; thus, there is a form of consistency within each party, and diversity between the two.

Discussion surrounding in-group membership - membership within a particular social group - , began with Henri Tajfel and his conceptualization of social identity theory. Formulated in the 1970s, social identity theory refers to the process and conditions by which social identity becomes more important than one’s own identity as an individual. It also explains how social identity can influence group behavior. In-group membership is often used as a method to explain group identification. Therefore, it is likely that group identification was developed through a combination of research interests at the time (i.e., social influence and social categories), as well as discussion surrounding in-groups and social identity theory. It is important to note, however, that although similar, group identification and social identity theory are separate research streams.


Henri Tajfel

A Polish social psychologist known for his work on social identity theory and cognitive aspects of prejudice. Tajfel also was one of the founding members of the European Association of Experimental Social Psychology.6

John Turner

A social psychologist well known for his work on group cohesion, intergroup relations, stereotyping, group processes, and more. He, along with Henry Tajfel, developed social identity theory in the 1970s, and self-categorization theory in the 1980s.9


Group identification has many positive implications. For example, Brandscombe and colleagues (1999) found that the negative consequences associated with perceiving oneself as a victim of racial prejudice can be alleviated to a degree through identification with one’s minority group. Moreover, group identification has many advantages at the individual level. For example, there is an abundance of research to support that we tend to receive the best support from members of groups with which we identify.

Levine and colleagues (2014) examined the benefits of in-group behavior by using a fake emergency scenario and intergroup rivalries among soccer fans. They found that when an injured individual wore a jersey indicating membership to the Manchester FC fanbase, participants were more likely to assist the individual than if they wore an unbranded shirt or a jersey from a rivalry team. These findings indicate that shared identity between a victim and a bystander can increase the support a victim receives.10

Group identification has also been linked to improving satisfaction with life (SWL). SWL is one of two facets often employed in psychological research as a measure of wellbeing, with the second facet being emotional. Belonging to groups can improve an individual's sense of wellbeing, in part because of a sense of meaningfulness we derive from our social connections. Moreover, group identification has also been found to act as a buffer in everyday interactions, especially in the face of everyday stressors. Groups provide us with a sense of meaning and security, factors which, together, promote SWL.10, 12


According to some, the concept of group identification has become muddled over many years. Terms such as social identity, cohesion, and common fate have been inaccurately used interchangeably with group identification. Henry and colleagues (1999) argue that there is general confusion about what constitutes group identification -  it is sometimes referred to as social identity, or an aspect of social identity.

Consider Conover and Feldman (1984), who were interested in identifying what determines one’s political beliefs. Throughout their entire paper, they consistently suggest that “group identification” is merely an aspect of “social identity” and use the two interchangeably. Group identification is sometimes also referred to as “cohesion”.3  This inconsistency in reference to group identification is incredibly confusing, and as described by Henry and colleagues: “Such differences in usage and measurement make it difficult to know what group identification means. Is it unitary or multidimensional? Is it a group-level construct, like cohesion? Is it an individual-level construct, like social identity?

Henry and colleagues (1999) also argue that group identification has been measured using a number of scales, but rarely consistently. In response, they developed the tripartite view of group identification with an accompanying scale. They propose that group identification has three sources:

  1. The cognitive source refers to the process of self-categorization. Categorizing yourself as part of a group is an important cognitive source of group identification.
  2. The affective source refers to cohesion and interpersonal attraction. Henry and colleagues argue that, if members of a group are attracted to another, they may prefer to spend more time together and interaction will likely lead to goal attainment.
  3. Lastly, the behavioral source refers to interdependence, and the need to coordinate and organize actions among group members when fulfilling group objectives.

Henry and colleagues then recruited 965 undergraduate students and had them complete five sets of trial items for their measurement. They continued to do so until the validity and internal consistency of the items was high. The final scale included three items that targeted the cognitive component, five items targeting the affective component, and five items that targeted the behavioral component.7

Case Study

Self-esteem and prejudice

Experiencing prejudice has many negative consequences, particularly for one’s self-esteem. For example, if members of a stigmatized group conclude that the prejudice is a form of rejection, then the group may internalize negative feelings and develop a lower self-esteem.

Moreover, according to Branscombe and colleagues (1999), acknowledgement of prejudice against one’s group can encourage in-group favoritism, such that group members tend to stay with whom they feel valued. To examine whether in-group identification is a protective measure against prejudice, the authors employed survey data composed entirely of African American respondents. They found that prejudice had a direct harmful effect on well-being, and increased African Americans’ general hostility toward non-African Americans.

Importantly, they also found that engaging in minority group identification actually enhanced psychological wellbeing. In other words, the negative effects of perceiving oneself as a victim of racial prejudice can be mitigated through identifying strongly with the minority group. This finding suggests that group identification may act as a protective factor against harmful stressors, such as prejudice. 1

Marketing for unsuccessful groups

Why do fans maintain their support for sports teams that are known to consistently lose? Fisher and Wakefield (1998) explored this question by examining how group success influences the factors associated with group identification. They conducted a field study, wherein two professional hockey teams were selected; one very successful, the other unsuccessful. They administered a survey to fans of each team, measuring group support behaviors, group identification, domain involvement, perceived group performance, and group member attractiveness.

Fisher and Wakefield found that the most important element that leads to group identification among successful groups is perceived group performance, but that the same factor is not true among not unsuccessful groups. They found that members of unsuccessful groups identify with a group on the basis of their involvement and the attractiveness of group members.

The authors argue that these findings have important implications for marketing, particularly for organizations that depend on member support. For instance, they suggest that marketers should promote successful and unsuccessful groups differently. Unsuccessful groups gain the most from strategies that engage and involve members in that particular domain. For example, a soccer team that holds youth training clinics would increase participants’ interest and involvement in soccer, as well as their identification with the local team. Moreover, successful clubs would benefit from advertising the achievements of star members to make fans identify with them, which would increase loyalty, thus increasing group identification.4

Related TDL Resources

In-group bias, explained. If you are interested in learning more about in-group bias, this article outlines why we seem to prefer people in our in-group than our out-group and why this bias matters for political  situations.


  1. Branscombe, N. R., Schmitt, M. T., & Harvey, R. D. (1999). Perceiving pervasive discrimination among African Americans: Implications for group identification and well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 77(1), 135-149.
  2. Conover, P. J., & Feldman, S. (1984). Group identification, values, and the nature of political beliefs. American Politics Quarterly, 12(2), 151-175.
  3. 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.
  4. Fisher, R. J., & Wakefield, K. (1998). Factors leading to group identification: A field study of winners and losers. Psychology and Marketing, 15(1), 23-40.<23::aid-mar3>;2-p
  5. Group identity. (2016, January 22). Psychology.
  6. Henri Tajfel. (2007, January 21). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved April 16, 2021, from
  7. Henry, K. B., Arrow, H., & Carini, B. (1999). A tripartite model of group identification. Small Group Research, 30(5), 558-581.
  8. In-group and out-group. (2005, August 25). Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved April 15, 2021, from
  9. (n.d.). John C. Turner.
  10. Levine, M., Prosser, A., Evans, D., & Reicher, S. (2005). Identity and emergency intervention: How social group membership and inclusiveness of group boundaries shape helping behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(4), 443-453.
  11. Self-categorization theory definition. (2016, November 1). Psychology.
  12. Wakefield, J. R., Sani, F., Madhok, V., Norbury, M., Dugard, P., Gabbanelli, C., Arnetoli, M., Beconcini, G., Botindari, L., Grifoni, F., Paoli, P., & Poggesi, F. (2016). The relationship between group identification and satisfaction with life in a cross-cultural community sample. Journal of Happiness Studies, 18(3), 785-807.

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

Read Next

Notes illustration

Eager to learn about how behavioral science can help your organization?