Tag Archives: social identity theory

Obama, Osama, and the Cult of Conspiracy

By: Christopher C. Duke, PhD

In the 1950s, a group of psychologists led by Leon Festinger sought to better understand what happens when people are faced with conflicting thoughts and information. To study this, they infiltrated a doomsday cult that believed the world would soon be ending on an exact date and that the cult members would be rescued by an alien spaceship. The psychologists wondered what would happen when the cult members’ belief that the world would end conflicted with the evidence that the world was still here, spinning peacefully around the sun. Would the cult members concede that maybe they were wrong about the whole end-of-the-world-with-aliens thing? The night they expected the world to end, the cult spent the night praying together. When morning came and nothing happened, most of the cult members’ beliefs were strengthened rather than shaken. Instead of believing the world was never in danger, they believed they had prayed so hard they saved the world from destruction through their faith. Why?

In Festinger’s (1956) book When Prophecy Fails about his experience infiltrating the cult, he postulated that when people have conflicting thoughts (called cognitive dissonance), this is uncomfortable, and they seek to resolve the conflict by adjusting one thought, or by ignoring the thoughts. If they have already committed themselves to one thought by investing their time, public statements, and money to it, they are unlikely to abandon it when conflicting evidence arises. Cult members had given up jobs, families, and wealth to follow their beliefs about aliens and the end of the world, making it painful and very difficult to go back on these views. The nature of cognitive dissonance is still debated by researchers, but it is certainly true that once people have committed themselves to certain beliefs, evidence to the contrary may not convince them otherwise. According to Festinger, when people have not made commitments that are difficult to undo, or when they do not have friends who also share the refuted beliefs, they are more likely to be persuaded by evidence.

We can observe this kind of process happening with the conspiracy theorists who believe Barack Obama was born outside the United States. In April of 2011, two large-scale polls revealed that only 1/3 of self-identified Republicans said they believe Obama was born in America. The “birthers” have claimed the president is foreign-born and that they need evidence to be convinced otherwise. At first, the Obama released his official birth certificate (the “short-form” certificate), but the birthers believed this was somehow fraudulent. When announcements of Obama’s birth were found in Hawaiian newspapers from 1961, birthers claimed these were faked in the 1960s as an elaborate ploy. When Obama released the long-form birth certificate this month, conspiracy theorists were quick to decry it as a forgery, though with divergent explanations. For those who have not made strong commitments about the President’s birth, the new long-form certificate may be more persuasive. For those who have irrevocably committed themselves to the belief that the president was not born in America, no amount of evidence will convince them. Each piece of new evidence, no matter how genuine, will be viewed as further “proof” of the conspiracy.

Of course, like in most situations, the conspiracy theories about Obama are not a clean demonstration of one particular theory or effect. The conspiracy theories lift up the curtain on an entire circus of intertwined social psychological phenomena. Although Obama’s role as President suggests he is the leader of the American people, many Americans perceive his leadership as illegitimate in part because Obama does not conform to their perceptions of what the national ingroup “should” be, perhaps because of his ideological beliefs, political party, intellectual grounding, and/or race. Likewise, many liberals perceived President Bush to be an illegitimate leader for similar reasons. With both Obama and Bush, the official leader of the country seemed fundamentally different from what the ingroup “should” be to some segments of the nation, leading to perceived illegitimacy.

In support of this, the beliefs about why Obama is supposedly ineligible for the presidency are ever-shifting and mutating. Prominent birthers have claimed Obama is actually Kenyan, British, Indonesian, or some other nationality, providing a multitude of often mutually exclusive claims. These nationalities are very different from each other in geography and culture. This represents a kind of large-scale outgroup homogeneity bias. For opponents of Obama that see him as “Other” (that is, fundamentally opposed to their perceived ingroup) the nature of that Otherness is almost inconsequential. This can lead to nonsensical claims that Obama is surely Kenyan or Indonesian; atheist or radical Muslim; fascist or communist – anything but a member of the ingroup. As people commit and invest more and more in these claims, it will be increasingly harder for conspiracy theorists to walk back from these beliefs, no matter how absurd the beliefs appear to be. For those who have only flirted with conspiracy theories, it will be much easier to accept the birth certificate as valid.

With the recent death of Osama bin Laden, expect to see the same trend in conspiracy theorists. The “true believers,” who may believe bin Laden was already long dead or is still alive, will claim to need evidence, but any evidence given will be unlikely to dissuade them from beliefs into which they have psychologically invested themselves. Interestingly, for those who do believe Obama killed bin Laden and were only marginally committed to birtherism, bin Laden’s death may dissuade them of their birther beliefs, as bin Laden’s death will bolster Obama’s perceived legitimacy as their national leader.

Festinger, L., Riecken, H. W., & Schachter, S. (1956). When Prophecy Fails: A Social and psychological study of a modern group that predicted the destruction of the world. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Hehman, E., Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2010). Evaluations of presidential performance: Race, prejudice, and perceptions of Americanism. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 47, 430-435.

We’re all in this together… doing it in our own way

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

Yep, this picture is kind of cheesy.For better or for worse, global issues like climate change are bound up with existing social identities (Recap: a social identity is any type of social group in which someone is a member and feels a psychological sense of identification with the group.) This means that the practical scientific issues become entangled with social psychological issues. Protection of the natural environment has become associated with particular identities – you can imagine the stereotype of an environmentalist, and the many epithets this evokes (“granola eater,” “tree hugger,” etc.) This means people who identify as an environmentalist may be spurred to further positive action, but people who do not identify with the stereotype of an environmentalist may be put off from taking positive environmental action. In America, belief in climate change is segregated by party lines.

For issues like climate change, a small group of people, no matter how committed, just won’t be enough to cut it. We need all types of people, especially people that are psychologically repelled from the issue because of antagonism towards the stereotype of environmentalists. This is a problem, but it can be overcome. For example, Cohen (2003) experimentally demonstrated that people did not support political policies based on whether the policy matched their stated political views. Instead, the biggest factor was whether people identified with the political party that proposed the policy – if “we” support it, it must be good, but if “they” support it, it must be bad.

Ultimately, this means that dissimilar people are much more likely to get on board for taking action on climate change if their leaders forge their own self-determined path to promote the issue of climate change. Importing a disliked outgroup’s “brand” of environmentalism can backfire spectacularly. Disparate social groups need their own unique style of environmentalism. Fortunately, that is already happening. For example, Carbon Nation is a new documentary about climate change, aimed at politically conservative people who are typically resistant to the conventional image of environmentalism, and would not respond to a movie like An Inconvenient Truth. In Carbon Nation, the people who speak about climate change are a former CIA director, a conservative Alaskan, an army colonel, and a Texan farmer. To be sure, we need people like Al Gore and the self-identified tree huggers, but – like it or not – we especially need the hunters, the blue collar workers, and the truck drivers if we are to see effective public action on climate change. You can see the trailer for Carbon Nation here:

If you want a more detailed look at these kinds of issues, my PhD research uses experimental studies to investigate social identity’s role in environmental issues.

Cohen, G.L. (2003). Party over policy: The dominating impact of group influence on political beliefs. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(5), 808–822.

Duke, C. C. (2010). Social identity and the environment: The influence of group processes on environmentally sustainable behaviour.

‘Will Carbon Nation succeed where An Inconvenient Truth failed?’ The Guardian.

Uprising in Egypt: Social Identity in Motion

By: Christopher C. Duke, Ph.D.

Shared identity in action in Egypt

The recent sustained uprising in Egypt has captured the world’s attention in evocative and dramatic form, with the final resolution still in question. The uprisings are also a case-study of psychology in motion, touching on topics of intergroup conflict, collective crowd behavior, and leadership, to name just a few. The situation in Egypt is enormously complicated and prone to oversimplification, but I would like to explore a few of the underlying events through the social identity approach, which is comprised of Self-Categorization Theory and Social Identity Theory.

First, a little background… According to Self-Categorization Theory, people belong to many different social groups (their nation, employer, or school, for example). When people identify with a group and that particular identity is made salient, people are more likely to act as a stereotypical ingroup member and less as an individuated person. You can see this at a sports game where fans dress and act more as a single social group rather than an aggregate of individuals. Right now in Egypt, a very salient identity is that of a self-determined national people. Other group differences, such as those of ethnicity, class, or sex, are likely to recede in the face of the shared salient identity, supported by this account. The norms, thoughts, and actions typical of the salient social group will be particularly influential on group members (the Egyptian public) as long as that identity remains activated.

Social Identity Theory relates to how different groups interact with each other. Once a social identity is active, the group is seen as an extension of the self. While early crowd behavior theorists, such as Le Bon, believed crowds to be mindless and violent mobs, crowds can be better understood through the lens of social identity, acting toward group goals.  In contrast to the image of a violent mob, people in crowds often display extraordinary restraint and vigilance as they look after the well-being of fellow ingroup members. Until the recent arrival of violent pro-Mubarak supporters, it was amazing how peaceful an emotionally-charged crowd of over one million people acted, going to great lengths to peacefully protect fellow members and ancient artifacts. However, once Mubarak fades from power, the unified national identity will likely recede, and other identities may come to the fore, such as those based on ethnicity, religious beliefs, or political alignment. With some skill, Egypt’s leaders will be able to cultivate a unified over-arching national identity that will encompass the nation’s different peoples and minimize conflict in what is sure to be chaotic times ahead. On the other hand, if intergroup differences are inflamed, national stability could be further threatened.

Political outcomes like this are always difficult to predict, and complicated by many non-psychological factors, so I will not make any claims as to Egypt’s future. We can, however, better understand who the Egyptian people are most likely to view as legitimate leaders. According to the social identity approach, the best leaders gain social influence by being entrepreneurs of social identity. They tend to exemplify the norms and common features of their social group, such as through their dress, speech, and actions. They build upon and affirm ingroup identities so that group members can take pride in their identity. And, sometimes nefariously, they sharpen intergroup boundaries (the “us” and the “them”), bolstering ingroup identification at the expense of the outgroup. Egypt’s fate — and it’s leaders fates — will heavily depend on the types of identity-management strategies that are deployed in the weeks ahead. Any prospective leader of Egypt will need to exemplify the essence of the prevailing national social identity, or they will be in for a very bumpy ride indeed.

The psychological theory is much more nuanced than can be explained in a blog post, so check out the references below for more.

Reicher, S. D. (1996). ‘The Battle of Westminster’: developing the social identity model of crowd behaviour in order to explain the initiation and development of collective conflict. European Journal of Social Psychology, 26, 115-134.

Reicher, S. D., Haslam, S. A., & Hopkins, N. (2005). Social identity and the dynamics of leadership: Leaders and followers as collaborative agents in the transformation of social reality. The Leadership Quarterly, 16, 547-568.

Haslam, S. A., Reicher, S. D., & Platow, M. J. (2010). The new psychology of leadership: Identity, influence, and power. Psychology Press.