Self-categorization: I and us

We have had a couple of recent posts looking at the social identity approach in action, and our last post introduced a pathway for using social identity ideas. I therefore think we are due for another theory post; let’s continue the categorization story.

Here is where we left off: cognitive categorization is a key, if not the key, cognitive process underlying perception. This process, where we go about “understanding what something is by knowing what other things it is equivalent to and what other things it is different from”,[1] allows us to derive meaning from the unstructured noise of our sensory experience. In other words, meaning is an outcome of classing things and then accentuating the similarities within classes and the differences between classes.

We spent some time with my cutlery draw, but this was just laying the foundation. What we really want to talk about is the cognitive categorization of people, or ‘social categorization’. Even more specifically, we want to start looking at social categorization where one of those people is ourselves, or ‘self-categorization’.

So what is self-categorization?

The extension in thinking is pretty simple. Just as we categorize non-social stimuli (e.g. spoons) to understand things, we also categorize social stimuli (e.g. humans) to understand people.[2] It just happens to be the case that sometimes those people include ourselves.[3]

This shouldn’t surprise anyone. Self-categorization is in our language all the time. Think about how often you refer to yourself as ‘we’. ‘We women’, ‘we teachers’, ‘we Australians’, and ‘we cricket fans’, are all clear examples of self-categorization.

Just in case though, let’s delve back into my cutlery draw just to make sure that this idea of self-categorization as a cognitive process is super clear.

In the below figure we sketch out the parallel between cognitive categorization generally and self-categorization. On the left we have my spoons, categorized in two different ways. We can either categorize by type of handle, isolating the far left spoon in its own class, or we can categorize by size, grouping the two left most spoons together as the large spoons. The stimuli remain the same, but the meaning changes depending on the categorization scheme applied. The same applies to people. The perceiver can categorize in terms of height, isolating herself in her own class, or can categorize herself in terms of gender, grouping ‘we’ females with ‘they’ males.

God I have some ugly spoons.

God I have some ugly spoons.

We can also use this figure to make clear another key aspect of self-categorization: self-categories can vary in their level of inclusiveness. Social identity theorist refer to this as differences in the “level of abstraction”,[4] and what we mean here is that a self-category can include many people or it can include only a few. At one extreme it can include only one person (or perhaps even a part of a person[5]) and at the other extreme it can include all people. This is what we have above. When categorizing in terms of height our perceiver’s self-category is very exclusive; her self-category conveys how ‘I’ is different from ‘they’. When categorizing in terms of gender the self-category is more inclusive; it conveys how ‘we’ are the same as each other and also different from ‘they’.

It is the inclusiveness of self-categories that has received the most attention from social identity theorists. This is because it explains a lot of otherwise puzzling social behaviour. Remember when we said that “self-categorization is foundational to social stereotyping, group cohesion, ethnocentrism, cooperation, altruism, empathy, collective action, normative behaviour, social influence, and more”? Inclusive self-categories are the crux of this. When we include others in our self-category we perceive others as equivalent to ourselves. Following the accentuation principal, the differences between us are no longer of interest to us, and we instead emphasise our similarities. In sum, we view those who are in the same social category as us as interchangeable with ourselves.

I can’t overstate how significant this is, and you need look no further than the research to get a sense of this.

One powerful example comes from the work of Arthur Aron and colleagues.[6] Those researchers do no less than use self-categorization ideas to explain and understand close relationships. They make a strong case that, in a cognitive sense, a relationship with a loved one is an outcome of including that person in our own self-concept. For instance, in an early study they showed that having someone close to us is associated with an unconscious, but measurable, confusion as to which are our own characteristics and which are that other person’s characteristics.[7]

Personally, I think that there is something poetic there.

Looking to start a fight? Get your partner to complete the ‘Inclusion of the Other in the Self Scale’.[8]

Looking to start a fight? Get your partner to complete the ‘Inclusion of the Other in the Self Scale’.[8]

Strangely though, it is exclusiveness that self-categorization, and the social identity approach, is most well known for. If you pick up an introductory textbook on social psychology, or one on organizational behaviour, I will bet you good money that you will see self-categorization denigrated as a source of conflict and a source of bias. Even in peer reviewed journals self-categorization is most often portrayed as the irrational source of mistreatment toward those from other groups.

Self-categorization also gets the same bad wrap outside academic circles. Keep an ear out in the discussions you have with your friends, as well as an eye out in the commentaries and blogs you read. I give it a week before someone blames some conflict or social issue on ‘us vs. them thinking’.

Sometime soon, in another post, we will spend some time on why self-categorization gets such negative press. In the meantime I will simply say that self-categorization really isn’t a positive thing or a negative thing. It is wholly neutral; yet at the same time it is central to both conflict and cooperation.

Actually, let’s leave it here. We have explained self-categorization as a particular but straight forward case of cognitive categorization, and have made spent some time on the degree of inclusiveness as a critical aspect of self-categorization. That’s pretty good for today.

Stay tuned though. We are still only just beginning. For instance, there are a heap of implications of self-categorization for us to discuss. We have already mentioned some, and want to bring you up to speed on these and more. We also want to bring you up to speed on the predictors of self-categorization. In other words, we want to fill you in on the factors that determine the particular social categorization scheme that someone will use. When will someone see themselves as a woman, a teacher, an Australian, or a Wallaby fan?

There is another thing. This social identity perspective challenges popular notions about ‘the self’. Specifically, it challenges the idea that we have a “core self”, or “true self”. No spoilers this time, but take a look back at our above figure. What is the true self for our perceiver? Is it ‘I’ the shortest, or ‘we’ females?

I’ll leave you with that question.


[1] McGarty, C. (1999). Categorization in social psychology: Sage Publications Ltd. p. 1

[2] Tajfel, H. (1957). Value and the perceptual judgment of magnitude. Psychological Review, 64(3), 192.

[3] Tajfel, H. (1974). Social identity and intergroup behaviour. Social Science Information, 13(2), 65-93.

[4] Turner, J. C., Hogg, M. A., Oakes, P. J., Reicher, S. D., & Wetherell, M. S. (1987). Rediscovering the Social Group: A Self-Categorization Theory. Blackwell: Oxford, p. 45.

[5] Skorich, D. P., & Mavor, K. I. (2013). Cognitive load privileges memory-based over data-driven processing, not group-level over person-level processing. British Journal of Social Psychology.

[6] Aron, A., Mashek, D., McLaughlin-Volpe, T., Wright, S., Lewandowski, G., & Aron, E. N. (2005). Including Close Others in the Cognitive Structure of the Self. In M. W. Baldwin (Ed.), Interpersonal Cognition (pp. 206-232). New York: The Guilford Press.

[7] Aron, A., Aron, E. N., Tudor, M., & Nelson, G. (1991). Close relationships as including other in the self. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 60(2), 241.

[8] Aron, A., Aron, E. N., & Smollan, D. (1992). Inclusion of Other in the Self Scale and the structure of interpersonal closeness. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 63(4), 596-612.

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