Encyclopedia of Evolutionary Psychological Science

Living Edition
| Editors: Todd K. Shackelford, Viviana A. Weekes-Shackelford


  • Niloufar LuekeEmail author
Living reference work entry

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DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-16999-6_2427-2


Social Identity Personal Identity Crowd Behavior Outgroup Member Ingroup Member 
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Self-categorization theory posits that self-conception is formed through the process of categorizing or cognitively grouping the self, as either similar to or different from another class of stimuli. Contextual salience of various categories, ranging from personal (self-concept in terms of idiosyncratic attributes) to social (self-concept in terms of social category membership), and their relative influential strength at a given moment underlie the possibility for categorization at different levels of inclusiveness. The theory posits that different levels of self-conception are not only distinct from each other but also represent equally valid and authentic expressions of the self. Self-concept is characterized as an on-the-spot reflexive categorizing of the self in relation to an ever-changing and contextually-dependent frame of reference, which gives coherence to fluidity of the self and variation in human behavior.


Self-categorization theory (SCT; Turner et al. 1987) has been characterized as the as “the social identity theory of the group” (Turner et al. 1987, p. 42), as it provides a social-cognitive account of intragroup process (e.g., group identification and behavior) through group-based construal of self and others. Self-categorization theory holds that the cognitive mechanism that gives rise to group-level processes, such as group cohesion and solidarity, is embedded in the shifting of self-concept from personal to social identity. This entry is a brief delineation of self-categorization theory’s view on self-concept, underlying factors that generate shared social identity, and how the ability to experience a subjectively shared self-concept could have an evolutionary advantage.

Fluidity in Self-Concept

The theory assumes that through the process of self-categorizing, one’s self-concept is generated. Categorizing refers to the grouping of the self as identical to some class of stimuli in contrast to another. As with all natural categories, categorization can operate at varying levels of abstraction based on the process of class inclusion. Self-categorizing can occur at levels more inclusive than that of the individual level, as “we” and “us,” or at levels less inclusive than the individual, as “the real me,” or “the me I was yesterday as opposed to today.” Cognitive representations of the self are proposed to operate on three main levels of inclusiveness: the superordinate category of the self as human being (or human identity), a level that differentiated the self from other species; the intermediate social level of self as an ingroup member, a level that differentiated the self from outgroup members (social identity); and the subordinate personal level, which defines the individual as a unique person, distinct from other ingroup members (personal identity). The theory emphasizes that each level of self-conception is representative of a distinct, yet equally valid, and authentic expression of the self.

The process of self-categorizing is considered to vary in relation to contextual factors, as perceived similarities and differences operate in parallel to the perceiver’s self-appraisal in relation to an ever-changing frame of reference. Individuals that are perceived and categorized as different in one context (e.g., biologists vs. physicists in the science department) can be perceived as similar in a different context (science faculty vs. art faculty in a university) without any actual change in an individual’s own position. Simply put, the extension of a perceiver’s frame of reference also extends the degree to which a target person is seen to share a common categorical identity with the perceiver, in a manner predicted by the meta-contrast principle, which proposes that category formation and distinction are contingent on maximized perception of intercategory differences relative to intracategory differences (Turner et al. 1987). The perception of the self or others, as either similar or different, is therefore not fixed or based on absolute relationships, but rather determined by the level of inclusiveness that one categorizes themselves in a given context. The theory explains that as the content of self-concept varies across levels of categorization, so will the meaning of a particular stimulus to the perceiver and subsequently their behavioral response to it. This is corroborated with evidence showing that the same information may be accepted or rejected by the same person in different social contexts, depending on how they have categorized themselves and others at the time. For example, group polarization studies have shown that the same information is rejected when it comes from an outgroup member, but accepted when it is received from an ingroup member (Turner et al. 1987).

It is noteworthy that the abovementioned fluid and variable process of self-conception contrasted with the dominant view of the self, which was portrayed as a unique and relatively fixed mental structure, stored in memory in an invariant state until activated by a specific circumstance, leading to consistent behavior despite situational variability (e.g., Markus and Wurf 1987). Turner and colleagues challenged this characterization and argued that rather than being preconceived and in a ready-to-be-activated state, self-concept is generated reflexively and on the spot to fit the perceiver’s relationship to an ever-changing social context and reality. Context-driven category formation was posited to rely on an on-the-spot self-appraisal made possible by the recruitment of cognitive resources (e.g., long-term knowledge, implicit theories, cultural beliefs, social representations) that interacted with the specific set of instances being represented (Turner et al. 1994).

Formation of self-concept, at any instance, is proposed to be subjected to multiple salient categories that reinforce or conflict each other. Self-perception is thought to be influenced and shifted based on the relative strengths of competing self-categorizations at the personal and group level (Turner and Oakes 1989). The self-concept that emerges is therefore noted to reflect the compromise in self-perception made when choosing among several competing and alternative ways of categorizing the self in any given situation. Category salience is considered to be dependent largely on the interaction between accessibility (the readiness of a perceiver to use a particular category) and fit (the match between the category and reality) within a given situation (Oakes 1987) and is thought to be reflective of an individual’s past experiences, present expectations, and current motives, values, and needs (Turner et al. 1994). Accessibility of categorizations can be due to their frequent use (chronic accessibility) or relevancy to a particular situation (situational accessibility). Fit, which has two aspects, refers to whether categorization accounts for relevant similarities and differences between individuals or stimuli in a particular context as defined by the principle of meta-contrast (comparative fit) and whether categorization is based on beliefs and theories about the meaning of the category (normative fit).

Social Identity

Self-categorization theory substantially revised the conception of social identity. This was done by differentiating it from personal identity, stating that it can sometimes function to the relative exclusion of personal identity, and generated through a different level (of inclusiveness) of self-categorization. Prior to SCT, “social” selves and “social identities” were not regarded as selves that were in a subjective sense psychologically shared with others. Rather, “social” identity was considered to mean an outward impression that was perceived by others, whether or not it corresponded to the inner, private self. Terminology such as “global,” “collective,” “public,” “interdependent,” or “relational self” that existed in mainstream self-literature all referred to the personal self, meaning the self-concept as a representation or collection of representations of the perceiver as an individual person, understood to be different from other individuals (for a review, see Tyler et al. 2014). In sum, there was no self outside of the private, inner, idiosyncratic self.

Self-categorization theory postulates that perceiving ourselves through the lens of our social identity (e.g., in terms of “we” and “us”), as opposed to our personal identity (e.g., in terms of “I” and “me”), is a normal and authentic variation of the self, arising from the same general processes that give rise to personal self. Self-conception at the social level is thought of as defining and experiencing the subjective self as similar or equivalent to a social group in contrast to another. When an individual experiences themselves through their social identity (as opposed to their personal identity), at that moment “the self is defined in terms of others who exist outside the individual person doing the experiencing and therefore cannot be reduced to personal identity. The self can be defined and experienced subjectively as a social collectivity (Turner et al. 1994, p. 454). The social collectivity becomes self, through a process known as depersonalization, which refers to individuals perceiving or defining themselves, and other members of primed social group, less as differing individual persons and more as interchangeable exemplars of the group prototype. Turner and colleagues argue that depersonalization is the psychological process underlying group behavior. Previous research has shown depersonalization as an explanatory variable for major group phenomena, specifically group formation and cohesiveness, cooperation, competition, social influence, social stereotyping, and crowd behavior (for a review, see Turner and Onorato 1999).

The notion of group prototype is important when considering group processes, as it represents fuzzy sets of attributes that define a group and its members and distinguish them from other groups by maximizing ingroup similarities and intergroup differences. Prototypes describe and prescribe group attitudes, beliefs, feelings, and behaviors that are appropriate in a given context, thereby generating stereotypical expectations and encouraging stereotype-consistent interpretation of ambiguous behavior. By accentuating intragroup similarities and intergroup differences, prototypes serve to define groups as distinct entities. Categories are however not defined by a fixed but rather context-dependent prototype, driven by the particular outgroup that is contextually salient and serving as a comparative point of reference or vary based on what dimension or attribute of the group gains importance. For example, as groups become more polarized (i.e., a group becomes more extreme in an intergroup setting), the more extreme members of that group will gain relative prototypicality (Turner 1991), which in turn will shift the meaning of a self-category based on the contextually dependent change in its representative members. The fluidity of prototypes is yet another element that contributes to the variability of self-concept.


A shared social identity implies a shared mental representation of the self – a shift in self-concept from personal to social identity – which transforms and aligns thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and behaviors to group prototype, thereby engendering a sense of solidarity and connectedness which enables collective and unified behavior. From an evolutionary perspective, the transition of the self-concept, from personal to social (group persona), has many adaptive benefits that include, but are not limited to, positive ingroup attitudes and cohesion, cooperation, altruism, emotional contagion and empathy, collective behavior, and mutual influence (Hogg and Terry 2000). Group identification and group-related processes may have been fostered by our early evolutionary environment, in which individuals relied on group formation in order to gain greater access to resources, heightened defense against predators, and greater reproductive success (Buss and Kenrick 1998), all of which enhance survival and fitness. Given that individual survival is directly linked to group survival, the well-being and progress of any group are dependent on the engagement of its members in pro-social and cooperative behavior, in other words, the ability to compromise self-interest for the benefit of the group. Forgoing self-interest is conceivably contingent upon the ability to expand the sense of self – to be able to depersonalize and experience a sense of oneness with others – or the ability to see ourselves as interchangeable members of a social category. In this way, serving the group can be experienced as serving the self. The theory’s conceptualization of the self-concept, as variable, and able to operate at social or higher levels of inclusiveness, captures the psychological prerequisite for non-selfish mentality and behavior. It may be our ability to shift our self-concept from personal to social that enables the generation of emotion such as empathy for strangers or non-kin members, as one can identify with or share a sense of self with any target, to the degree that merging point of relatedness can be conceived of.



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© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Ball State UniversityMuncieUSA

Section editors and affiliations

  • Carey Fitzgerald
    • 1
  1. 1.University of South Carolina - BeaufortBlufftonUSA