By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
The social identity theory describes how our group identity influences how we feel about ourselves. First, you feel good when members of your in-group succeed, even if their success has nothing whatsoever to do with you. So, if a person who attended your high school, grew up in your small town, or attended your college gets an award, it makes you feel better about yourself.
We Won but I Wasn’t There
Psychologist Robert Cialdini referred to this feel-good feeling at the success of someone in our group, and obviously, that means group in a loosely construed way—–“basking in reflected glory”. This is why fans of particular sports teams tend to say, “We won,” even if they actually had nothing to do with the win at all.
But this desire to feel good about ourselves based on our in-groups can also lead us to blame members of out-groups when things don’t go well, even if they bear no responsibility. This is one reason why prejudice and discrimination tend to increase during economic downturns.
A study published in 2018 found that during the economic recession that began in the United States in December 2007, whites adopted more negative attitudes toward blacks and were more likely to condone the use of stereotypes.
This tendency to blame out-group members for negative events is an example of displaced aggression. In fact, many of the factors that contribute to the creation and maintenance of stereotypes and prejudice—from social learning, to out-group homogeneity, to frustration—also contribute to aggression.
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Social Identity and Aggression
It’s far easier to behave aggressively when you see people in the out-group as both inferior and “all the same.” This aggression against people in the out-group is especially common during times of war in which people on the other side are all seen as evil and as indistinct from one another, regardless of whether they are soldiers or civilians.
We also learn to behave aggressively just like we learn everything else—we watch those around us. So, when parents show aggression—yelling at a waiter, honking at a slow driver—their children often model that behavior themselves. This is also exactly how the cycle of domestic violence can be passed down through generations.
It’s also why psychologists came to the realization that spanking and other forms of physical discipline are a bad idea. The intended goal might be to create negative consequences for bad behavior. But physical discipline actually serves to model and thereby reinforce aggression.
Research on the negative effects of physical discipline led to a 2018 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics stating that parents should avoid all forms of aversive disciplinary techniques, including corporal punishment as well as yelling at and shaming children. These negative strategies not only tend to be ineffective in the short term, but they can also lead children to behave more aggressively later on at home and at school.
Another factor that contributes to both stereotyping and aggression is frustration. As described by frustration-aggression theory, people who are frustrated in some way often act out aggressively, which explains why traffic jams can lead to instances of road rage. When we feel frustrated because we can’t achieve our intended goal, we may displace this tension on whatever target is available. If you have a bad day at work, you may come home and yell at your kids.
Frustration can be especially acute when you feel like other people are advantaged in some way. Anyone with a sibling, or is the parent of siblings, can probably remember the intense feelings of frustration that kids experience when they are certain that their brother or sister is getting some kind of preferential treatment.
But it’s not just frustration. According to the cognitive-neoassociation theory, any type of unpleasant condition—noise, crowding, heat, and so on—that causes negative feelings can lead to aggression.
Heat is a clear example that appears consistently in the literature: As the temperature increases, so does the rate of aggression, including murder, rape, and assault. We see evidence for this heat-aggression link in all kinds of studies: more violent crimes occur in the summer than the winter, more violence occurs in hot cities than in cool cities throughout the year, hotter regions of the world experience consistently higher rates of aggression, and so on.
Global Warming and Murder
Moreover, researchers comparing the link between temperature and different types of crimes in cities across the United States found a clear positive correlation between temperature and violent crime—murder, rape, assault.
This correlation between temperature and violent crime holds true even when researchers statistically control for other factors that could influence this relationship—age, poverty, and incarceration rates. Moreover, there’s no correlation between temperature and nonviolent crime—burglary, and motor vehicle theft; it’s the aggressive crimes that increase with temperature.
Lab-based studies in which people are randomly assigned to a hot or comfortable room also show that hotter temperatures lead to more aggression. Now here’s a practically important question: Given the effects of climate change on temperatures worldwide, should we expect the effects of global warming to include higher rates of aggression? In a word, yes.
Researchers in 2016 estimated that each one-degree Celsius increase in average temperature, a relatively modest prediction in terms of climate change, will lead to a nearly 6% increase in rates of violent crime, meaning an estimated 25,000 more serious and deadly assaults each year in the United States alone.
Common Questions about How Social Identity Influences Our Feelings Toward Others
According to the social identity theory, how we feel about ourselves is influenced by our group identity. Therefore, when the group we identify achieves something, we feel as though we have achieved the same thing, like when sports fans say, “We won.”
Children model their parents’ behavior in many aspects, including aggressive behavior like screaming at another driver. The person can grow up and show displaced aggression against their out-group, which is part of their social identity.
The theory suggests that when people get frustrated, they tend to act more aggressively, even when their aggression is displaced. Such as when traffic jams lead to road rage. This frustration and displaced aggression can be influenced by one’s social identity.