To understand conflict between groups, or harm and violence that targets groups based on their identity, it’s important to have a baseline understanding of social identity.

Social identity refers to our sense of who we are based on our group membership/s  and it is a powerful source of individual pride and self-esteem.

Humans are social creatures and depend on groups for survival. Perhaps for this reason, humans find and form groups automatically, even subconsciously. Studies show that individuals can feel a sense of group belonging from things as simple as putting on the same color t-shirt as others.¹

While we choose some of our groups, society may assign us to other groups. Society may assign us to groups based on “sticky” factors -- those factors we cannot change about ourselves: our religion or ethnicity, where we were born, or the color of our skin, for instance. Even if not initially, some identities may eventually become sticky as conflict dynamics evolve. For example, in a conflict based on ideology, someone’s ideology might be presumed based on their profession (for instance, professors/teachers were targeted by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia).²


Once we are part of groups, we want them to survive. Without knowing it, we tend to favor groups we are part of and exaggerate differences with other groups.³,⁴,⁵ We magnify the similarities between people within our group and, because our self-esteem is linked to the group, are motivated to maintain a positive impression of our group in comparison to others.⁵ We also tend to overestimate the differences between our group and others.


We are all part of multiple groups – what makes some groups become more important to our identity than others?

1: When our group is under threat from another group (also referred to as an “outgroup”) -- be it a threat to jobs, power, identity, or culture, and be it perceived or actual, from another group -- we are more willing to take actions that help our group and, sometimes, harm the “other” group. When our group is threatened by an out-group, we tend to experience greater empathy for the pain and suffering of our in-group members compared to out-group members. This heightened in-group empathy can increase willingness to take actions to protect our own group, and decrease concern for the out-group.⁶,⁷

2: Our level of commitment to our group helps determine our willingness to take actions to either protect our group or harm threatening out-groups. When we are more highly committed - or “fused” - to our group, or when we feel insecure about our membership in the group, we are more likely to take these actions.⁸ Feeling fused with a group, or wanting to be accepted by the group but feeling unsure of our status, increases our commitment to – and willingness to act in favor of – our own group.⁹

3: Intergroup Contact: While contact between groups can positively impact intergroup conflict under certain conditions, in other conditions it can have significant negative effects.¹⁰,¹¹,¹² For example, when perceiving competition or threat, being exposed to other groups can actually increase the strength of our identification with11 and favoritism towards our own groups.¹³,¹⁴,¹⁵,¹⁶,¹⁷,¹⁸,¹⁹
This may be because exposure to an outgroup makes our own identity more salient.

Dangerous speech (speech that increases the risk of violence)²⁰ and/or conflict can push us into a singular and rigid version of our social identity, usually just based on one dividing demographic or ideological feature -- like race, religion, or political ideology.

And that’s what can become problematic. When we lose all our many crosscutting identities in favor of very singular and rigid identities, social norms become even more powerful within those groups because we don’t have multiple social spaces (with various sets of norms) to be in. This is particularly challenging when it happens based on those “sticky” identities, which means we also end up being perceived to be part of a group whether we want to or not.

Amidst conflict, extreme polarization, or the one-sided targeting of a certain group or groups for harm, it is thus especially important to be aware of the identities made salient and the identities subsequently being obscured.

Thankfully, human design includes powerful tools for defusing the dangerous dynamics outlined above. First, is the ability of our identities to shift and change in terms of salience; second, humans have a propensity for forming new groups. Activating existing cross-cutting and unifying identities (such as all being residents of the same city) can strengthen the social fabric of a society, which in turn reduces the risk that people will mobilize around a singular identity to cause harm to others. Where cross-cutting and unifying identities cannot be made salient or do not exist, new identities (identities around being peacekeepers, for instance) can be created and mobilized to counteract conflict and harm.


  1. Our social identities inform our sense of who we are based on our group membership/s. They are a powerful source of our pride and self-esteem. Humans are hard-wired to be part of groups and research has shown that humans form social identity groups automatically.
  2. Everyone has multiple identities. Identities are made more or less salient depending on context. Some of the key factors that influence which identities are most salient include a group being threatened, individual “fusion” with a group, and contact (and the nature of that contact) with other groups.
  3. In conflict, people often get pushed into one singular and rigid identity. When we don’t feel connected to multiple different groups, or when our group memberships are “sorted” such that they all share the same beliefs,²¹ there is more clarity around group norms and more social pressure to maintain them  (for instance, not calling out dangerous rhetoric by an in-group’s leadership or to commit harms against another group).
  4. Just as social identity can fuel dangerous dynamics, it can also be used to defuse them through building cross-cutting and unifying identities.


  1. Consider which identities are being mobilized in the conflicts within which you operate. How are these identities being made rigid?
  2. What are some potential reasons why these identities are becoming more relevant?
  3. What competing cross-cutting or unifying identities exist?
  4. How can you create or leverage cross-cutting or unifying identities?
  5. How can you build shared goals and aspirations between different identity groups?
  6. How is contact between groups already happening, or being made? Are the risks associated with strategies based on ‘contact theory’ being considered?

¹  Levine, M., Prosser, A., Evans, D., & Reicher, S. (2005). Identity and Emergency Intervention: How Social Group Membership and Inclusiveness of Group Boundaries Shape Helping Behavior. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31(4), 443–453.

² Dowling, P. (2019, December 6). The Khmer Rouge destroyed education in Cambodia – now the country is fighting back. The Independent. Retrieved from

³ Brewer, M. B. (1999). The psychology of prejudice: Ingroup love or outgroup hate? Journal of Social Issues, 55(3), 429–444.; Mackie, D. M. (1986). Social identification effects in group polarization. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 50(4), 720–728.

⁴ Scherer, A. M., Windschitl, P. D., & Graham, J. (2015). An Ideological House of Mirrors: Political Stereotypes as Exaggerations of Motivated Social Cognition Differences. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6(2), 201–209.

⁵ Waytz, A., Young, L. L., & Ginges, J. (2014). Motive attribution asymmetry for love vs. Hate drives intractable conflict. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 111(44), 15687–15692.

⁶ Avenanti, A., Sirigu, A., & Aglioti, S. M. (2010). Racial Bias Reduces Empathic Sensorimotor Resonance with Other-Race Pain. Current Biology, 20(11), 1018–1022.

⁷ Bruneau, E. G., Dufour, N., & Saxe, R. (2012). Social cognition in members of conflict groups: Behavioural and neural responses in Arabs, Israelis and South Americans to each other’s misfortunes. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 367(1589), 717–730.

⁸ Swann, W. B., Gómez, A., Seyle, D. C., Morales, J. F., & Huici, C. (2009). Identity fusion: The interplay of personal and social identities in extreme group behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96(5), 995–1011.

⁹ Ginges, J., Hansen, I., & Norenzayan, A. (2009). Religion and Support for Suicide Attacks. Psychological Science, 20(2), 224–230.

¹⁰ Dixon, J., Durrheim, K., & Tredoux, C. (2005). Beyond the optimal contact strategy: A reality check for the contact hypothesis. The American Psychologist, 60(7), 697–711.;

¹¹ Paolini, S., Harwood, J., & Rubin, M. (2010). Negative Intergroup Contact Makes Group Memberships Salient: Explaining Why Intergroup Conflict Endures: Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 36(12).;

¹² Pettigrew, T. F. (2008). Future directions for intergroup contact theory and research. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 32(3), 187–199.

¹³ Craig, M. A., Rucker, J. M., & Richeson, J. A. (2017). The Pitfalls and Promise of Increasing Racial Diversity: Threat, Contact, and Race Relations in the 21st Century. Current Directions in Psychological Science, 27(3), 188-193.

¹⁴ Giles, M. W., & Evans, A. (1986). The Power Approach to Intergroup Hostility. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 30(3), 469–486.

¹⁵ Hogg, M. A. (2016). Social identity theory. In S. McKeown, R. Haji & N. Ferguson (Eds.), Understanding peace and conflict through social identity theory: Contemporary global perspectives; understanding peace and conflict through social identity theory: Contemporary global perspectives, 3-17. Springer International Publishing.

¹⁶ Jost, J. T., & van der Toorn, J. (2012). System justification theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (vol. 2); handbook of theories of social psychology (vol. 2), 313-343. Thousand Oaks, CA, US: Sage Publications Ltd.

¹⁷ Knowles, E. D., Lowery, B. S., Chow, R. M., & Unzueta, M. M. (2014). Deny, Distance, or Dismantle? How White Americans Manage a Privileged Identity. Perspectives on Psychological Science: A Journal of the Association for Psychological Science, 9(6), 594–609.

¹⁸ McGuire, W. J., McGuire, C. V., Child, P., & Fujioka, T. (1978). Salience of ethnicity in the spontaneous self-concept as a function of one’s ethnic distinctiveness in the social environment. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 36(5), 511–520.

¹⁹ Outten, H. R., Schmitt, M. T., Miller, D. A., & Garcia, A. L. (2012). Feeling Threatened About the Future: Whites’ Emotional Reactions to Anticipated Ethnic Demographic Changes. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(1), 14–25.

²⁰ Dangerous Speech: A Practical Guide. (2020, August 4). Dangerous Speech Project.

²¹ Mason, L. (2018). Uncivil Disagreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago, IL, US: University of Chicago Press.