The Group Self

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Science  18 May 2012:
Vol. 336, Issue 6083, pp. 848-852
DOI: 10.1126/science.1220987


Although people often tend to consider themselves and others as unique individuals, there are many situations in which they think, feel, and act primarily as group members. This can bring out the best in them, as when they are inspired to help fellow citizens in need, or the worst, as when they show hostility against others simply because they represent another religious or ethnic group. Understanding when and why the group self becomes more important than the individual self, and how this affects people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, can help to prevent and redirect unwelcome aspects of human behavior by addressing them at the appropriate level of self.

The expression “group self” may appear to be a contradiction in terms. It often seems that people who come together in groups or crowds lose their sense of self. Even upright citizens can show a lack of self-awareness and self-control when put together in a group. Societal problems are often explained in this way. These include the aggression of soccer hooligans, the maltreatment of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers, or financial risk-taking by bankers. At the same time, groups—and the ensuing “loss of self”—can also bring out the best in people. Concern for society can help suppress selfish impulses. A focus on shared goals can inspire and encourage people to overcome personal doubts and anxieties that would otherwise prevent them from pursuing desired outcomes.

The group self is that part of people’s self-view that is based on the groups to which they belong (Fig. 1). Rather than implying a loss of self, this indicates a (temporary) transformation of the conception of self from an individual to a group level, at which collective concerns become more important than individual differences (1). Understanding when and how people are driven by concerns relevant to their group helps explain important societal outcomes such as inter-religious or ethnic tensions, as well as individual outcomes, such as physical and mental health hazards deriving from membership in groups that are devalued in society (2).

Fig. 1

Sportsmen, by Kazimir Malevich (dated 1928–1932): This painting depicts four sportsmen who are visually distinct from each other in their colors of dress. Yet they are not articulated as separate individuals with unique facial features, because their common identity as sportsmen is more important here.

Traditional approaches conceive of group behavior as stemming from individual goals, motives, and abilities. These assume that people work together with others because their insights, efforts, or resources can help them achieve attractive goals. They argue that people help each other because this indirectly benefits themselves, because of genetic overlap in families or because of ethnic and cultural similarities. They propose that people are friendly to others because they have agreeable personalities or are socially intelligent, or because they like those particular others. This focus on individual-level dispositions or concerns to explain group behavior is found across different disciplines in science such as law, philosophy, and ethics, but also in biology, sociology, work and organization sciences, and most prominently in psychology (3).

In the 1970s, Henri Tajfel and John Turner (4) took a different approach. Driven by the desire to understand social discrimination, aggression, and conflict between different groups in society, they developed what later became known as social identity theory. The theory specifies basic cognitive processes and social conditions that help understand and predict when and why people may think, feel, and act as group members and when they are more likely to respond as separate individuals. This seminal work (5) has informed analyses of a variety of group issues ranging from participation in political movements to leadership in organizations (6).

The willingness to act in line with group values or to invest effort in the achievement of group goals can shift from one situation to the next (7). The group self (instead of the individual self) can guide people’s behaviors when they realize they are part of the group (cognitive self-definition) or when they are subjectively committed to the group (emotional self-involvement) (8). These two do not necessarily go together. The realization that one is part of a group raises concern about the group’s fate or image. When abroad, it is easy to feel ashamed of the way fellow citizens of one’s home country behave on their holidays. The image of the group also reflects on individual group members, even when they don’t particularly care for the group. Feelings of commitment motivate people to display solidarity toward the group and its goals. This can happen when Peace Corps workers stand up for the rights of groups in need. They invest effort in the group because they care, even if they are not (fully) included in the group whose interests they protect.

Making Sense of the Situation

In theory, anyone can be considered as part of a number of different groups. These include groups people are born into (defined by gender, ethnicity, or nationality) as well as self-chosen affiliations, for instance with a particular professional, religious, or political group. These groups play an important role in how people see themselves and others (Fig. 2, row a), because they help to quickly make sense of a new situation (9). Deciding which group affiliations are situationally relevant (social categorization) helps people understand how others relate to them (social comparison) and determines which distinct attributes and behavioral norms are most relevant for them (10).

Fig. 2

Understanding the group self: roadmap to the relevant processes, their foci, and their implications, as described in the different sections of this Review.

For instance, a study with preschool boys and girls showed they were equally able to remember the details of a video in which different children and adults chose and wore colored Mickey Mouse caps. After they had been asked to distinguish between activities children like (play with toys, eat candy) and activities that adults like (clean things, drink wine), they imitated the behavior of their own age group, regardless of the gender of the model. After having distinguished between activities that boys like and activities that girls like, they imitated the behavior of their own gender group model, regardless of age (11). Thus, when making their own choice, they took into account the group self that seemed most relevant to the situation.

Just as people can conceive of any individual as a member of different groups, each group can be described by referring to a variety of traits and behaviors. Nevertheless, people tend to use a limited number of dimensions to specify how their group differs from other groups (12). They focus on the ability of their group to achieve desired outcomes (competence), its tendency to approach others in a friendly manner (sociability), and its reliance on important values (morality). When forming an impression of unknown individuals or groups, people first seek out moral information, to determine whether others are honest, reliable, and trustworthy (13). The morality of one’s group is a primary source of group virtue, even in situations where competence clearly matters (such as when university graduates are considered by potential employers) (14).

The group self is activated to make sense of complex social situations. Which of different group selves becomes relevant depends on which is most useful to distinguish the self from others in that context. Whether the group self reflects positively or negatively on the individual depends on how the group compares to other groups, primarily in terms of its perceived morality.

What It Means to Be a Group Member

When the group self is activated, this connects the group’s actions and achievements to one’s personal experiences and emotions (Fig. 2, row b) (15, 16). As a result, people may experience guilt and shame when confronted with historical wrongdoings of their group, such as harm done to indigenous populations during times of colonization. These emotions are felt more intensely when people feel more self-involved in the group, even if these are triggered by events that happened before they were born (17). Social identification processes also make people more self-involved in the emotional experiences of other members of their group. Greater levels of arousal, empathy, and attention are elicited when observing the pleasure and displeasure of those who belong to the same group as the self, as compared to the experiences of members of other groups (18). People are more motivated to interpret facial expressions of emotions when displayed by members of their own group than those of other groups and are able to interpret these emotions more accurately (19).

The self-reported intensity of emotions may be unreliable or subject to strategic self-presentation. The introduction of physiological and brain imaging techniques in this area of research offers more direct evidence of self-involvement in the group at very early stages of information processing. For instance, people displayed similar patterns of brain activity indicating the experience of emotion when observing members of their group displaying sad facial expressions, as when considering a personal experience that made them feel sad (20). They also showed similar motor cortex activity during their own actions as when observing another member of their group performing this action (21). Such vicarious activation of neural networks was not found when observing members of another group.

Importantly, evidence of differential brain activity indicating that people can literally think of others in the group as they think about themselves was also obtained with so-called “minimal” groups. Even when people were randomly assigned to racially mixed teams consisting of individuals who did not know each other, functional magnetic resonance imaging revealed more brain activity when viewing novel own-team (versus other-team) faces. The increase in brain activity, which occurred automatically, led people to indicate more liking for individuals who were assigned to their own team, rather than the other team, regardless of their race (22).

The activation of the group self also has important consequences for the way in which people perceive and respond to human suffering. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) is a specific brain area associated with the processing of information about other humans. When African Americans and Caucasian Americans observed victims of a natural disaster, they displayed more activity in this brain area when watching members of their own ethnic group. This also predicted how they responded to humans in need: The increased brain activity was related to more empathy and greater willingness to donate money and time to help this person (23). Different parts of the mPFC are activated depending on how one’s own group relates to the group that is represented and the specific emotions this elicits (Fig. 3). Viewing representatives of a group people tend to distance from the self (such as addicts or the homeless) does not even activate this brain area, suggesting that the group self may make others outside the group seem less than human (24).

Fig. 3

Results of a subtractive analysis of blood oxygen level–dependent (BOLD) activations while participants viewed pictures of social groups representing the four quadrants of the stereotype content model (SCM). Results for the three SCM cells (pride, envy, and pity) showing significant activation in the mPFC are shown. [Reprinted with permission from figure 1 of (24)]

People’s self-involvement in groups makes them respond differently to those who belong to their own group than to those who belong to other groups. Studies with so-called minimal groups demonstrate that these effects cannot be explained by interpersonal (e.g., ethnic or gender) similarity, liking, or outcome dependence. Studies of brain activity show that the group self operates automatically and influences the way people perceive and interact with others in ways that cannot be explained by empathic ability or general concern for human suffering.

Being Included or Excluded

The group self not only determines how people respond to others but also has an impact on how they prefer others to respond to them (Fig. 2, row c). The desire to be valued by others and included in groups is a basic human need (25). However, this does not imply that people relinquish their feelings of individual uniqueness (26). Because people all belong to many different groups, they have some leeway to actively select and promote different group selves in different contexts. Unfortunately, the group self that is most easily visible and clearly salient for others (such as ethnicity or gender) is not necessarily what seems most self-relevant at all times. For instance, people may prefer not to be considered in terms of their ethnicity or gender at school or at work, even when they acknowledge that they belong to the group, value the group, or realize it can yield important benefits (27).

When people are perceived and treated by others in terms of a group that does not converge with their own preferred group self, this causes feelings of (categorization) threat. When others make unsolicited and (subjectively) inappropriate references to the group self, this can have adverse effects on motivation and achievement (stereotype threat), especially when members of one’s group typically do not perform very well in that situation (28). The anxiety and distraction raised in this way increase blood pressure (29) and engage cognitive resources that are needed for demanding tasks (30). As a result, when female students were required to indicate their gender before taking their AP Calculus exam (rather than afterward), their test performance was reduced by 33% (31). Similar mechanisms have been found to result in the underperformance of African Americans on GRE tests. Over time, cycles of stereotypic expectations and underperformance can cause a loss of interest in school performance and lower career aspirations.

Invoking the group self in this way can impair the performance of women in leadership, of elderly adults on memory tests, of students with a mental illness on tests of rational thinking, or of whites on measures of racism (32). Yet individuals often fail to recognize that they personally suffer from their inclusion in a disadvantaged group (33). Indeed, adverse performance effects mainly emerge when references to the group self remain implicit and subtle (as when being asked to indicate one’s ethnicity on a test form or when being the only woman in a group of men). When people are more explicitly addressed in terms of a group self they consider irrelevant to the situation, they are better able to resist confirming group-based expectations (34).

A lack of convergence between one’s preferred definition of self (e.g., as a professional at work) and they way one is treated by others (e.g., as an ethnic minority member) can be psychologically damaging. Longstanding or prototypical group members can be wary of accepting and including those who have a different background (such as second-generation migrants or lower-income students at an Ivy League institution) or individuals who are critical of the group’s set ways (such as whistleblowers). This type of social rejection generates brain activity resembling that seen during physical sensations of pain (35).

Hazing procedures or (informal) initiation rites test the resolve of new group members and keep them “on their toes” while they learn the ways of the group. When their demonstrations of loyalty and commitment are not rewarded, this makes people feel disrespected and reluctant to continue their cooperation (36). Instead, they are easily tempted to display hostility and aggression (37). Analyses of political radicalization or school shootings consider these as extreme consequences of the individual’s desire to get back at the group that excluded them (38). When individuals who do not easily adapt are marginalized or excluded (39), the group loses out too. A group that punishes deviance and is not open to dissent has less potential for innovation and change (40).

When the Group Self Is Under Threat

Most Western societies tend to consider people as separate individuals who can pursue their own goals, depending on their competences and achievements. This creates an “illusion of meritocracy,” suggesting that those who belong to disadvantaged or devalued groups should just break away from the group to improve their own outcomes (Fig. 2, row d) (41). This is easier said than done, if only because others will not necessarily accept or acknowledge those who try to pass into another group, as indicated above.

When group membership is immediately visible, emphasizing differences between the self and other group members may seem the best way to escape negative implications of the group self. Individuals who follow this strategy often suffer, because those who violate stereotypic expectations tend to raise scorn and hostility. When Hillary Clinton controlled her emotions, she was called an “ice queen.” Condoleezza Rice was accused of being an “Oreo cookie” when pursuing her political ambitions: black on the outside, but white inside. The group may also suffer when others in the group are put down in an attempt to lift up the self. For instance, when senior policewomen tried to escape sexist treatment at work by emphasizing their masculine qualities, they also denied that other women in the organization suffered from discrimination (42).

When one’s group membership is less immediately visible, people may try to avoid revealing that they are part of a devalued group, as a way to improve their personal outcomes. Those with a history of mental or physical illness can avoid talking about this period in their lives or make up excuses to hide medical examinations or treatments. Some homosexuals bring cross-sex dates to social events to escape questions about their sexual orientation. Many prefer not to reveal their religious or political preferences at work. In his novel The Human Stain, Philip Roth shows the extreme implications this can have, when his character Coleman Silk breaks all ties with his family to avoid revealing even to his wife and children that he is of African-American descent.

People do this because it seems an efficient way to escape the disadvantages of group-based stigma. But living a lie is not without cost to emotional and physical well-being. Self-denial can turn into self-hate. Failing to reveal who they really are or where they come from deprives people of the support and esteem of others like them (43). The increased mindfulness they invest to monitor what is being said to whom depletes cognitive resources needed for intellectual tasks (44). Homosexuals who fear being exposed may fail to acquire the health care they need (45).

Standing Up for the Group Self

When the group self is under threat, people may also decide to stand up for the group (Fig. 2, row e). They will fight to improve their group’s outcomes or image when sufficiently committed to the group. This may be the case either because they care for the group or because they realize they cannot easily escape being associated with the group (46). Different strategies are available to harness the group self. People adapt their efforts to the situation and its likely opportunities for change.

A lack of resources and political power can make it unlikely that an actual improvement in the societal position of the group can be realized in the near future. If achieving social change is not feasible, people may still redefine the group self in a positive way to increase their collective self-esteem. They can engage in so-called social creativity by emphasizing characteristic achievements of their group, for instance, in music or sports; comparing their group with another group that is even worse off; or reevaluating existing group features (‘‘black is beautiful”; “gay pride”). When status relations between groups are less secure, as is the case with sports teams or political factions, groups will be tempted to compete with each other to demonstrate their superior skill and achievements or to gain the upper hand in obtaining public support and access to resources as a way to improve their group’s standing.

Research examining when people stand up for the group self has mainly focused on emancipation attempts by members of disadvantaged groups. Nevertheless, their attempts at social creativity or social change may in turn threaten and mobilize others to protect their own group’s existing privileges. Attempts to empirically assess these dynamics of relations between social groups have suffered from the ambiguity of self-reported experiences and intentions. Even when explicit statements reflect the desire to appear unprejudiced toward members of other groups, implicit indicators may reveal nonverbal displays of hostility toward them (47). In a similar vein, acknowledging that one’s group is not very successful may either reflect a realistic awareness of current outcomes or indicate a lack of confidence in the group’s ability to improve.

Recent research has started to use cardiovascular reactivity as a more dynamic indicator of the way people respond to and cope with the plight of their group. Specific patterns of change in heart rate and blood pressure can be used to distinguish between the emergence of positive versus negative arousal in members of advantaged and disadvantaged groups. Negative arousal indicates a state of threat, whereas positive arousal indicates a state of challenge and confidence in the ability to adequately cope with the situation. These autonomic responses reveal that belonging to a group with low status is threatening as long as differences between groups seem stable. However, the group’s unfavorable position becomes a source of positive challenge when there is a possibility for change. Conversely, members of groups with high status experience threat when they realize that their group’s current status is unstable (48).

Cardiovascular indicators also help ascertain whether people respond differently to taxing situations, depending on whether they rely on the group self or the individual self. This was demonstrated in a study where women performed a computer task in which they were required to parallel park a car into a tight spot. Those who focused on the individual self (low–gender-identified women) were positively challenged when their individual self-worth had been affirmed. Those who focused on the group self (high–gender-identified women) experienced challenge only after having been reassured of their group’s worth (49).

For members of advantaged groups, changing status relations raise insecurity, even when they are convinced that such change would be legitimate. Individuals who indicate liking and positive attitudes toward a devalued group display cardiovascular patterns of threat when asked to cooperate with members of that group and perform suboptimally during this cooperation (50). After interacting with a black experimenter, white participants displayed more brain activity indicating cognitive control when responding to black and white faces. However, these efforts to suppress automatic bias depleted their cognitive resources and impaired their subsequent task performance (51).

Conclusions and Implications

Efforts at documenting universal principles of human behavior have tended to focus on the individual as the center of self-awareness, self-control, and self-concerns. Such personal concerns or idiosyncratic preferences may seem less important when people feel part of a group. The group self can make people engage in behavior that opposes personal ideals (do no harm) when this seems the only way to acquire important group goals (so that violence seems justified to achieve social change). Likewise, personal interests (such as care for one’s own safety) can be set aside in the pursuit of shared ideals (patriotism). Acknowledging this helps advance scientific inquiry and benefits those who work with groups in practice.

Those who manage others at work may already know that loyalty and commitment to team and organizational goals can be increased when individual workers feel emotionally connected to each other. But they should also realize that the practice of rewarding employees for their personal achievements makes it more difficult to forge such connections, as it fosters competition between co-workers instead of appealing to the group membership that they share.

Members of different groups in society too may benefit by learning about the group self. Our reliance on moral judgments to convey the worth of different groups makes it tempting to consider our own group and its characteristic values as morally superior. Groups that endorse different moral values can elicit hostility (52). Their reluctance to share our moral values makes them seem less human, which justifies aggression against them (53). Understanding the implications of differences in moral values for the group self offers a new perspective on such conflicts and on interventions that will be most effective to resolve them.

A broader group-level approach to socioeconomic differences in the world can also inform social policies aiming to relieve human suffering. Attempts to raise empathy and support tend to provide information about the plight and unfair outcomes of others. However, clarifying how people are connected to those in need and appealing to the group self may be more effective than relying on individual displays of altruism.

This is not to say that it is easy to appeal to a particular group self. Because of the complexity of contemporary multicultural societies, there is often considerable ambiguity as to which group self is at stake. Yet there is added value in trying to understand which group self people find self-relevant. People suffer when others approach them as representatives of a group they do not see as self-defining. The resulting loss of control over their own sense of self can severely affect psychological well-being, academic and professional success, and physical health. Marginalization and disillusionment can be prevented when one’s preferred ways of self-definition are respected by others.

Being acknowledged and valued for what they are gives people the confidence to fit in and meet new requirements. Excluding those who are different from the majority or critical of its ways is costly. At best, this prevents individuals from achieving their full potential. At worst, this can result in extremism and social instability, because they no longer care about a society that does not accept them.

Acknowledging that people can have multiple group selves can help reduce tensions between one’s own and others’ conceptions of self. Respecting and valuing the group self that they find important provides people with the confidence to learn and the motivation to embrace other group selves too (54).

Even when consensual beliefs encourage and expect individuals to take a position in society that reflects their personal merit, achieving this is not always easy. Strategies that can be used to escape negative expectations associated with the group of origin can come at great cost for the individual as well as for other members of the group. More often than not, the achievement of individual potential is possible only when members of disadvantaged groups successfully manage their devalued group identity. This requires more than simply learning appropriate skills, acquiring proper manners, or adapting one’s speech and dress style. Changing who you are and where you belong can easily be interpreted as a sign of rejection by those who stay behind. This puts ambitious individuals from a disadvantaged background in a tenuous position and makes it clear that they need explicit encouragement and support from others to be able to succeed.

Changing relations between groups in society are a source of stress and anxiety. Members of disadvantaged groups can be insecure about their ability to achieve real change. Members of advantaged groups can be insecure about whether they are able to suppress and overcome their biased expectations. Even with the best of intentions, this is emotionally and cognitively taxing. Bringing together individuals from different groups does not necessarily help overcome these concerns. As long as the group self is activated, such interactions may paradoxically exacerbate mutual feelings of discomfort, which make it difficult to get along. In cases as these, searching for commonalities that may forge a shared group identity offers a more productive way forward (55).

As much as the group self can be a source of support and inspiration, it can also undermine self-confidence and raise societal tensions. Reminding people of their personal goals and individual responsibilities is not the most effective way to manage these liabilities. Bringing out the best in each individual requires that we acknowledge and celebrate the group self.

References and Notes

  1. A demonstration of how people start behaving differently when placed in a particular group can be found at
  2. Examples of tests that are used to examine the implicit associations that emerge when thinking of particular groups can be found at
  3. Acknowledgments: This work was supported by the Leiden University Institute of Psychological Research. I thank D. de Gilder and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments.
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