A group is also a ‘self’

We might well believe that we each have our own unique 'self' but, according to Professor Naomi Ellemers, we would be wrong. The fact that we are part of different groups has an influence on our 'self'. Wittingly or unwittingly. But what is a group? What effect do groups have on us, and what effect do we have on groups? Review in Science.

Emotional affiliation

The group, a complex phenomenon

The group, a complex phenomenon

Naomi Ellemers regards groups as entities with their own 'self', that reflects on the individual group members. In some cases the members of the group share the same characteristics, or need one another to achieve common goals. But it is often mainly a case of feeling some emotional affiliation that cannot be explained through self-interest on the part of an individual. If there is some unpleasant event in the group, the group members experience negative emotions, even if they themselves are not directly involved.

More than simply an assembly of people

A group is often seen as a collection of people with their own motives, aims and skills, who join together because they can better achieve their aims together. But the disadvantage is that you can also lose yourself and your ability to think as an individual. This is one explanation for the behaviour of hooligans, abuse of Iraqi prisoners by soldiers, and even the high-risk tendencies among bankers, for instance. Ellemers has a different view.


Ellemers’ article in the journal Science gives an overview of recent research on this subject, including the work of her own research group. She shows how an individual can be influenced by a group to which he or she belongs. And such individuals can also be directly emotionally affected, although this is often a subconscious process. Is there anyone who has not experienced the feeling of shame during a holiday when confronted with bad behaviour from a fellow countrymen? In other cases we make an active choice to belong to a specific group - a choir or a political party, for example - because we have chosen that particular group. 

Brain activity

Prof. Naomi Ellemers studies behaviour in and around groups, and the consequences of such behaviour.

Prof. Naomi Ellemers studies behaviour in and around groups, and the consequences of such behaviour.

Conscious and subconscious types of group alliances can go together, but this is by no means universal. It appears that subconscious identification with a group can be seen in brain activity: people react positively to individuals in a group with whom they feel some affinity, even if they do not know the other person very well.  This brain activity also predicts their behaviour, including in such situations as donating money to the victims of a disaster, for example. If we do not feel any affinity with the other members or we look down on the group, this brain activity is missing. To give another example: we find it upsetting if we are confronted with images of homeless people. This fact could be used more effectively by charities in their campaigns for donations, that currently primarily appeal to people's generosity. 

Undesirable image

It is unfortunate that we cannot able to steer the way other people look at a group: a group can be subjected to prejudice and may develop an undesirable image. Being a member of such a group, or being treated as a member, is by no means pleasant in such circumstances: if you cornered by other people, you have no opportunity to show your personal qualities. For example, at work, if you want to be treated as a professional, and other people respond mainly to your ethnicity. 

Acceptance and respect

All of us can belong to several different groups, but it is by no means certain that we will be accepted by the group that we find particularly important. This can be a painful experience. The resulting emotions generate the same activity in the brain as physical pain. The same applies if you are trying without success to distance yourself from a particular group, such as the village where you were born, your religion or your social background. The resulting stress can lead to high blood pressure. 

Aberrant behaviour

We assume that everyone has the chance to make good use of his or her particular talents. But the advice to 'just join in' is not always easy to put into practice. It ignores the fact that we have little appreciation for people who behave differently from the rest of their group. Hilary Clinton is a point in case: she was painted as an 'ice queen' for being so cold and controlled when the affair between her husband and Monica Lewinsky was made public. 

Ellemers shows that we can handle these kinds of phenomena more effectively if we bear in mind that humans are ultimately social animals.

N. Ellemers. Review ‘The group self’ in Science, Volume 336, blz. 848-852, 2012


(22 May 2012)


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Last Modified: 22-05-2012