The Psychology of Cultural Affirmation
This post is part 1 of a series.
It happened more than 30 years ago, but I vividly remember reading an illustrated children’s book to my 5-year-old daughter. In the book, white-skinned elephants and black-skinned elephants go to war and destroy each other. A smaller group of gray-skinned elephants see what is happening and escape into the hills. When they emerge after the dust has settled, one big-eared elephant says to another big-eared elephant, “Hey, have you noticed that some elephants have small ears?”
Not your typical bedtime story, is it? In my opinion, the book conveys a message that some may find controversial, but others accept as the unfortunate truth. to humHumans naturally fall into different social categories and inevitably treat their own group better than other groups once separated. (Please note that by “natural” I don’t mean morally desirable or correct.)
Years ago, social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner put forward a theory of ingroup favoritism (aka ethnocentrism) and its bosom friend, cultural affirmation. Their much-noticed explanatory model is called Social Identity Theory (Tajfel & Turner, 2001).
Social Identity Theory
The first part of the theory concerns the construction of our self-image. We are not born with an image of ourselves. Instead, we construct a mental picture based on two sets of interpersonal experiences—how other people treat us and how we differ from other people.
The early social psychologist and philosopher George Herbert Mead (1934) said that the child develops a sense of self when and only when the child (1) becomes aware of others and (2) becomes aware of the reactions of others. According to Mead, we cannot know our “self” directly because there is nothing to know at first. We get to know each other indirectly by internalizing the reactions of others.
If a child is told they are intelligent and Italian, they are likely to think of themselves as intelligent and Italian. If a child is treated as if they are good at sports, they will likely think they are good at sports. We build our self-image partly based on how other people treat us.
If someone asked me to describe myself, I might say I’m a highly educated, native Californian, and a Bonnie Raitt fan. Notice what I did. I have described myself as different from most other people. (I’ve also divided myself into three social categories that have psychological implications, which I’ll discuss below.)
The way in which we resemble others is not usually an important feature of our self-image (McGuire & Padawer-Singer, 1976). I don’t describe myself as bipedal and full of hair, but if my legs had been amputated and I was bald, I would probably incorporate those traits into my self-image.
identities and self-esteem
The second part of social identity theory states that self-esteem (self-worth, self-esteem) is based on (1) the value of one’s personal identity plus (2) the combined value of a person’s many social identities. When these values are higher (or lower), we experience higher (or lower) self-esteem.
For each group we identify with, we have a distinct social identity. If you identify as a fan of a particular sports team, that’s a social identity. If you identify as a member of a specific ethnic or religious group, that is a different social identity.
One of the ways we can increase our self-esteem is by convincing others that we belong to a respected, desirable group. As a member of the Beloit College community, I am motivated to increase the perceived value of Beloiters as a group. I can do that (or at least try) by making public the many achievements of the Beloites. Did you know that gun smoke Star James Arness, Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz, Freedom Rider Jim Zwerg, billionaire businessman John Sall, jazz cellist Helen Gillet and NFL tightend Derek Carrier all graduated from Beloit College?
If I can convince people that being a Beloiter is pretty cool, then one of my (many) social identities will be valued because I belong to a cool group. This in turn boosts my self-esteem. I feel better and more valuable because I am connected to a valued group.