We know we are ultra-social animals and yet have a consistent blind spot about how truly social we are. Our naïve realism leans us toward a self-image as individual, atomistic rational agents experiencing life as though peering out on the world through a window. And like the fish that swims unaware of the water in which it is suspended, we struggle to see the social reality in which our actions are meaningfully conducted.
Contrary to this view, psychology has shown repeatedly how deeply permeated each of us is by a social identity. This is an important corrective to our illusory self-image and gives us a better insight into our social natures. But even where our social identity has entered the picture it is often crucially misunderstood.
Social identity has been explored in earnest ever since the Second World War in an attempt to understand how it was possible for ordinary people to commit, or at least to allow, genocidal horrors. Much of this work has suggested, such as the Milgram experiments on obedience, that if you dial up the social you dial down the thinking individual. Henri Tajfel’s minimal group experiments divided boys into two arbitrary groups (each group was affiliated with a painter they had never heard of) and showed how quickly they started to discriminate against boys in the other group to their own. All it took was the creation of a meaningless boundary to create an ingroup, an outgroup, and the conditions for favoritism and conflict. But this important insight, explored in many other contexts over the decades, has led to a partial understanding of social identity and to unfortunate misinterpretations. Phrases like the bystander effect, diminution of responsibility, groupthink, herd- or mob-mentality, and so on have encouraged the thought that as we become parts of groups we lose our minds and become highly malleable toward irrational or regrettable actions.
But this view gets it backwards to some extent. To introduce the social is not to add distortion to otherwise clear thinking. For good and for ill, our social identities are minded not mindless. Two social psychologists Steve Reicher and Mark Levine looked at when British football fans were willing to help an injured fan of the opposing team. They found that if the subjects thought in terms of being fans of Manchester United they would not be inclined to help a Liverpool fan, but if they were put in the category of football fans generally they would stop and help. Contrary to the typical thought of fans being prone to acting as mindless thugs, they are highly minded depending on which group they see themselves as belonging to.
The important point here is that social identities can change, and as they do the logic of who is seen as "one of us" changes too. My sense of myself as a father, a publisher, a Londoner, a manager or as someone with Arabic heritage and family shapes the decision space around what it is rational for me to think and do quite profoundly. My allegiances, self-esteem, prejudices, willingness to be led or influenced, sense of fairness, sense of solidarity, biases about "people like me," all are to an extent shaped by the collective self that is salient to me at the time. This is not to deny my individuality, it is to recognise how it is irreducibly expressed through a social lens, and that my social identity changes the way it makes sense for me to engage with the world.
This matters because when we see ourselves purely as rational, individual actors we miss the fact that the social is not just providing the context in which we act. It is deeply constitutive of who we are. But if we to turn to the collective view and merely see irrational action, whether "mad" rioters, "crazy" extremists, or "evil" people who have different ideological commitments to our own, we are condemned to judging others without any chance of comprehending them. A better understanding of our truly social identities would equip us not only with the tools to understand better those who we might ordinarily dismiss as irrational, but also to help us better understand our ultra-social selves.