Predicting self-categorization 3: Perceiver readiness

Two posts ago, when we started this series on the predictors of self-categorization, I mentioned in passing that we were starting with something “akin to a ground up approach”. Now that we have come to the third of our predictors, perceiver readiness, it is actually worth taking a second to explain what I mean by ground up.

If you look back to the posts introducing comparative fit and normative fit you will see that each is engaged with the role of social stimuli in determining which social categories and groups come to be self-defining for us. Social stimuli, or the people in our field of awareness, can be thought of as a kind of raw data; something to be refined, interpreted, and made sense of. That’s what I mean by ground: social stimuli here represent a kind of base from which we build our self-categories.

Why mention the metaphor here? Well, if categorization is an act of category construction, what then of the builder? Or, in other words, what role do we have in shaping our own self-categories?

This is where perceiver readiness comes in.

Perceiver readiness

Firstly, for the sake of any of you who might be navigating the original sources, it is important to point out that, strictly speaking, perceiver readiness is not part of either social identity theory or self-categorization theory. It is instead more like an addendum; something developed since the publication of those two constituent theories of the social identity approach.

It actually replaces something called “relative accessibility”, which was the precursor to perceiver readiness found in the original statement of self-categorization theory.[1] This isn’t to say that the two concepts are very different. In fact, they overlap a lot. For example, both are inspired by Jerome Bruner’s idea of an ‘accessibility by fit’ interaction in determining categorization outcomes,[2] and both focus on the perceiver’s role in that equation. Both also share creators (John Turner and colleagues[3][4]), which makes it easy for us to consider perceiver readiness to be canonical to the social identity approach.

The difference between the two is mainly in their respective views on the connection between our self-categories and our memory. While relative accessibility suggested that our self-categories are stored in memory, ready for application and use, perceiver readiness rejects this idea; instead emphasising the need for self-categories to be formed, or built, on each occasion that they are used.

We can unpack this difference further another time. For the moment it is enough to say that perceiver readiness and relative accessibility both describe perceivers’ input on the self-categorization process, but perceiver readiness is the more up-to-date concept.

So what does it look like? Well, part of perceiver readiness is our expectations and theories about how we fit into the world, where the source of information on this the self-categories that we have used to define ourselves in the past.

This is easy for our minds to achieve. All we need is for our prior self-categorizations to leave some residual impression in our minds. Something like a footprint that makes it more likely that we will use similar self-categorization schemes again.

This gives us our first functional principle of perceiver readiness. The idea here is that if in the past I have spent a lot of time understanding myself as an Australian, then, given the right stimuli, I am going to be more likely to think of myself as an Australian again. Or, let’s say that I have spent a lot of time skiing, and thinking of myself as a skier in comparison to snowboarders. Put me back on the slopes and here too we would expect me to think of myself as ‘we’ skiers on this new occasion. Or in other words, I would be more ready to use that categorization scheme in comparison to the many other ways of understanding myself and the people around me (e.g. males vs. females, older vs. younger, beginner vs. expert).

Now, this might seem like stating the obvious. That is, aren’t we just saying that previous self-categorization predicts future self-categorization?

Well yes, to some extent that is what we are saying, but there is more to it than that. That’s because self-categorization is never just going to be a case of activating one of our old self-categories. Remember, our current self-categories are an outcome of the interaction between perceiver readiness and normative and comparative fit, which looks something like this:

This figure is based on similar figures created by Craig McGarty, as well as Alex Haslam, Tom Postmes and Naomi Ellemers, who talk about these relationships.

This figure is based on similar figures created by Craig McGarty,[5] as well as Alex Haslam, Clare Powell and John Turner,[6] and Alex Haslam, Tom Postmes and Naomi Ellemers,[7] who also describe these relationships.

Here our current self-categories are distinguished from the mental residue of our past self-categories. The former gets the label ‘self-category salience’, referring to the current cognitive impact of any particular self-category, while the latter gets the label ‘social identification’, referring to our longer-term, and pre-existing, connection and commitment to those same self-categories.

Another way of putting this is that social identification represents a latent theory that we have about how we fit into the social world, where that latent theory is based on where we have found ourselves to fit in the past. That theory is then used when trying to navigate whatever new social situations we come to be faced with. Or, going back to our building metaphor, social identification can be thought of as a tool for category construction.

It’s not, however, the only tool. Perceiver readiness isn’t just our self-categorization history. It is in fact our complete toolkit for self-categorization.

So what other tools are in there then?

At this point we can start thinking of perceiver readiness as containing the full ambit of our theories about how the social world works and the relationships between social and non-social stimuli.[8] In other words, there are any number of notions or ideas that contribute toward the lens through which we view others and ourselves. For example, my understanding of skiers, and myself as a skier, is impacted by my understanding of geography, social strata, demographics, politics, climate, and so on; this knowledge having been obtained via a lifetime of learning and experience.

Incidentally, that learning and experience will also have been heavily influenced by my history of salient self-categories; but that is to start getting into the complex reflexivity of the self, which we don’t need to worry about here.

Instead, for the present purposes, it is enough to go back to the image of perceiver readiness as our toolkit of theories and expectations that we use to build meaning out of the raw materials that is the world around us.

But wait, that’s not all…

Perceiver readiness isn’t just the toolkit; it is also the design brief and funding.

What I mean by this is that perceiver readiness also includes the role of our current motivations, goals, and purposes in determining categorization. In other words, perceiver readiness includes the way things that we are trying to do at any particular time impacts the way we look at ourselves. For example, am I trying to Eat? Seek shelter? Impress the girl? Ski? In each case, how does it make sense to categorize myself?

Or to take a non-social example, is this wooden four-legged thing in front of me a stool or a chair? Well do I need to change a light bulb, or are my legs tired? For what purpose am I trying to build understanding?

This maps on to the classic idea that cognitive activity is fundamentally concerned with action. Or to use the popular quote from William James: “My thinking is first and last and always for the sake of my doing.”[9]

One goal or motivation of perceivers that has received a lot of research attention is the goal of maintaining a positive sense of self, otherwise known as the drive for ‘positive distinctiveness’.[10] This is one of the few motivational assumptions of the social identity approach and plays a big part in the social identity analysis of intergroup relations. Expect more on that another time, as it’s about time to bring this post to a close.

Today we have introduced perceiver readiness as the perceiver’s contribution to the categorization process. This includes the expectations and theories that are used to interpret the raw data of our social stimuli, as well as whatever our current impetus is at the time. Accordingly, we can summarize perceiver readiness as follows:

Perceiver readiness is readiness of a perceiver to adopt any particular categorization scheme. This readiness is a function of the theories, expectations, and knowledge of the perceiver, as well as the goals, motivations, and purposes of the perceiver.

Now, there is obviously a lot packed in there, and it is fair to say that to some extent perceiver readiness is acting as a sort of catch all. That is, it covers all parts of the self-categorization process that are not otherwise covered by comparative fit and normative fit. This is potentially a problem, as to introduce such a densely packed and undifferentiated concept as perceiver readiness raises questions about the predictive power and falsifiability of the social identity approach.

That is yet another topic that we will have to return to. For now, it will suffice to say three things. First, perceiver readiness need not remain unstructured. Indeed, the concepts of social identification and positive distinctiveness represent steps toward the specification of this perceiver end of the process. Second, in terms of predictive power, there is reason for optimism. As will be apparent elsewhere in the blog, the associated empirical work seems to readily demonstrate the utility of a social identity understanding of self-categorization.

And finally, what is the alternative? I certainly don’t see an opportunity to simplify the model. Any trimming down in my view would remove something necessary for capturing the reality of the self-categorization process.


[1] Turner, J. C. (1985). Social categorization and the self-concept: A social cognitive theory of group behavior. Advances in group processes: Theory and research, 2, 77-122.

[2] Bruner, J. S. (1957). On perceptual readiness. Psychological Review, 64(2), 123-152.

[3] Turner, J. C., Oakes, P. J., Haslam, S. A., & McGarty, C. (1994). Self and collective: Cognition and social context Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 20, 454-463.

[4] Oakes, P. J., Haslam, A. S., & Turner, J. C. (1994). Stereotyping and Social Reality. Oxford: Blackwell.

[5] McGarty, C. (1999). Categorization in social psychology. Sage.

[6] Haslam, S. A., Powell, C., & Turner, J. (2000). Social identity, self‐categorization, and work motivation: rethinking the contribution of the group to positive and sustainable organisational outcomes. Applied Psychology, 49(3), 319-339.

[7] Haslam, S. A., Postmes, T., & Ellemers, N. (2003). More than a metaphor: Organizational identity makes organizational life possible. British journal of management, 14(4), 357-369.

[8] Brown, P. M., & Turner, J. C. (2002). The role of theories in the formation of stereotype content. In C. McGarty, V. Y. Yzerbyt & R. Spears (Eds.), Stereotypes as Explanations: The formation of meaningful beliefs about social groups (pp. 67-89): Cambridge University Press.

[9] James, W. (1890/2011). The principles of psychology. Digireads. com Publishing.

[10] Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations, 33(47), 74.

One response to “Predicting self-categorization 3: Perceiver readiness

  1. Thanks for a great series, it was super clear and informative! I was wondering if the ideas presented in the social identity approach would be consistent with a state-trait perspective on identification? Could self-category salience be equated to a state-level of identification (reflecting the extent to which someone views a certain self-category as an important part of who they are in the moment), and social identification to a trait-level (reflecting the degree to which someone tends to view that self-category as an important part of who they are across situations)? I was thinking this could be similar to Rousseau’s distinction between situated and deep-structure identification, but if I understand correctly, her notion of situated identification just involves perceiving that you are a member of a category (without seeing it as self-defining or part of your self-concept). I would love to know what your thoughts are on this!

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