Self-categorization Theory
Self-categorization theory is a theory of social categorization that includes categorization of the self as a key feature. The theory was developed by John Turner and colleagues, and along with social identity theory it is a constituent part of the social identity approach
Social identity approach
The term social identity approach refers to research and theory pertaining to two intertwined, but distinct, social psychological theories. These being: social identity theory and self-categorization theory....

. Indeed, the theory was developed to address questions that arose in response to social identity theory about the mechanistic underpinnings of social identification. A provocative tenet of the theory is that the self should not be considered as a foundational aspect of cognition
In science, cognition refers to mental processes. These processes include attention, remembering, producing and understanding language, solving problems, and making decisions. Cognition is studied in various disciplines such as psychology, philosophy, linguistics, and computer science...

, but rather the self should be seen as a product of the cognitive system at work. In short, the self is an outcome of cognitive processes rather than a "thing" at the heart of cognition.

Self-categorization theory has been influential in the academic field of social psychology
Social psychology
Social psychology is the scientific study of how people's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors are influenced by the actual, imagined, or implied presence of others. By this definition, scientific refers to the empirical method of investigation. The terms thoughts, feelings, and behaviors include all...

. Beyond academia
Academia is the community of students and scholars engaged in higher education and research.-Etymology:The word comes from the akademeia in ancient Greece. Outside the city walls of Athens, the gymnasium was made famous by Plato as a center of learning...

, as part of the social identity approach the theory has been applied to areas such as leadership
Leadership has been described as the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task". Other in-depth definitions of leadership have also emerged.-Theories:...

, communication
Communication is the activity of conveying meaningful information. Communication requires a sender, a message, and an intended recipient, although the receiver need not be present or aware of the sender's intent to communicate at the time of communication; thus communication can occur across vast...

, and influence
Influence may refer to:In science and technology:*Sphere of influence , the region around a celestial body in which it is the primary gravitational influence on orbiting objects...


Levels of abstraction

In line with the contributions of social identity theory, self-categorization theory notes that self-conception occurs on multiple levels of inclusiveness. That is, humans may categorize the selves as a singular “I”, or as a more inclusive “we”. In the latter case the self will be cognitively grouped as identical and interchangeable to other stimili within that category. It is argued that it is this variation in self categorization that underpins the intergroup behaviour described in social identity theory.

To demonstrate the notion of varying levels of abstraction
Principle of abstraction
The principle of abstraction is a grouping principle, whereby a hierarchy is adhered to with higher levels of abstraction placed near the top with more specific concepts underneath....

 and inclusiveness, three types of self category are often given as examples. The lowest level of abstraction is given as a personal self, where the perceiver self categorizes as “I”. A higher level of abstraction is given as a social self, where the perceiver self categorizes as “we” in comparison to a salient outgroup (them). A highest level of abstraction is given as “we humans”, where the salient outgroup would be perhaps animals or other non-humans. A common misconception is that these three example categories represent the self categories that humans use. Instead, the theory posits that there are innumerable self categories that a perceiver may use (see, online category formation), and in particular that there are a myriad of different personal and social identities that a perceiver may invoke in his or her day-to-day life. The misconception may also be attributable to the early writing of Turner where a singular social identity was contrasted against a singular personal identity. This however predates the formal statement of self-categorization theory.


Importantly, social categorization as envisaged in self-categorization theory does not simply involve the redescription of characteristics and categories present in social stimuli. Rather, salient social categories form the basis of a social world that is enriched with meaning. This is achieved through a non-conscious process of accentuation, where differences between social categories are accentuated along with the similarities within social categories. The resulting augmentation of social content allows the perceiver to interact with others with greater confidence and ease.

The accentuation component of self-categorization theory stems from prior research which demonstrated an accentuation effect for categorized non-social stimuli. Consistent with the idea that an efficient cognitive system would, where possible, use the same systems regardless of the social or non-social nature of the stimuli, self-categorization theorists have demonstrated similar effects for social stimuli.


In self-categorization theory depersonalization describes the process by which a perceiver will directly base their behaviour and beliefs on the norms, goals and needs of a salient ingroup. In such situations a perceiver will view themselves as categorically interchangeable with other group members and adopt the beliefs and behaviors of the salient ingroup through a process of self-stereotyping
The term self-stereotyping was coined as part of self-categorization theory and describes a process by which a perceiver will come to see themselves in a way more consistent with stereotypes about their in-group than they otherwise would...

. Importantly, depersonalization is not a loss of self, but rather a redefinition of the self in terms of group membership. A depersonalized self, or a social identity, is every bit as valid and meaningful as a personalized self, or personal identity. A loss of self is sometimes referred to using the alternative term deindividuation
Deindividuation is a concept in social psychology regarding the loosening of social norms in groups. Sociologists also study the phenomenon of deindividuation, but the level of analysis is somewhat different. For the social psychologist, the level of analysis is the individual in the context of a...

. Further, although the term depersonalization
Depersonalization is an anomaly of the mechanism by which an individual has self-awareness. It is a feeling of watching oneself act, while having no control over a situation. Sufferers feel they have changed, and the world has become less real, vague, dreamlike, or lacking in significance...

 has been used in clinical psychology
Clinical psychology
Clinical psychology is an integration of science, theory and clinical knowledge for the purpose of understanding, preventing, and relieving psychologically-based distress or dysfunction and to promote subjective well-being and personal development...

 to describe a type of disordered experience, this is completely different from depersonalization in the sense intended by self-categorization theory authors.

The concept of depersonalization is critical to a range of group phenomenon including social influence
Social influence
Social influence occurs when an individual's thoughts, feelings or actions are affected by other people. Social influence takes many forms and can be seen in conformity, socialization, peer pressure, obedience, leadership, persuasion, sales, and marketing...

, social stereotyping
A stereotype is a popular belief about specific social groups or types of individuals. The concepts of "stereotype" and "prejudice" are often confused with many other different meanings...

, in-group cohesiveness, ethnocentrism
Ethnocentrism is the tendency to believe that one's ethnic or cultural group is centrally important, and that all other groups are measured in relation to one's own. The ethnocentric individual will judge other groups relative to his or her own particular ethnic group or culture, especially with...

, intragroup cooperation
Cooperation or co-operation is the process of working or acting together. In its simplest form it involves things working in harmony, side by side, while in its more complicated forms, it can involve something as complex as the inner workings of a human being or even the social patterns of a...

, altruism
Altruism is a concern for the welfare of others. It is a traditional virtue in many cultures, and a core aspect of various religious traditions, though the concept of 'others' toward whom concern should be directed can vary among cultures and religions. Altruism is the opposite of...

, emotional empathy
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B...

, and the emergence of social norms. For example, the influence processes predicted by self-categorization theory is founded on the idea that perceivers will be motivated to address discrepancies between themselves and other members of a salient in-group.

Determinants of categorization

In self-categorization theory the formation and use of a particular social category will be predicted by an interaction between perceiver readiness and fit, with the fit component broken down into comparative fit and normative fit. This predictive interaction was heavily influenced by Bruner’s
Jerome Bruner
Jerome Seymour Bruner is an American psychologist who has contributed to cognitive psychology and cognitive learning theory in educational psychology, as well as to history and to the general philosophy of education. Bruner is currently a senior research fellow at the New York University School...

 accessibility and fit formula. A social category that is currently in use is said to be a salient social category, and in the case of a self category is said to be a salient social identity. The latter should not be confused with “level of identification”, which is a component of perceiver readiness.

Perceiver readiness

Perceiver readiness, which Turner first described as “relative accessibility”, “reflects a person’s past experiences, present expectations, and current motives, values, goals and needs”. It is the relevant aspects of cognition that the perceiver brings to the environment. For example, a perceiver who categorizes frequently on the basis of nationality (e.g. “we Americans
The people of the United States, also known as simply Americans or American people, are the inhabitants or citizens of the United States. The United States is a multi-ethnic nation, home to people of different ethnic and national backgrounds...

”) will, due to that past experience, be more likely to formulate a similar self category under new conditions. Accordingly social identification, or the degree to which the group is valued and self-involving, may be thought of as one particularly important factor which affects a person’s readiness to use a particular social category.

Comparative fit

Comparative fit is determined by the meta-contrast ratio (MCR), which states that a collection of stimuli are more likely to be categorized as an entity to the degree that the differences between those stimuli are perceived to be less than the differences between that collection of stimuli and other stimuli. For predicting whether an individual will be categorized as an ingroup or outgroup member, the MCR may be defined as the ratio of the average similarity of the individual to outgroup members over the average similarity of the individual to ingroup members. Importantly, the MCR is dependent on the context, or frame of reference, in which the categorization process is occurring. That is, the ratio will be a comparison based on whichever stimuli are cognitively present. For example, if the frame of reference is reduced such that the potential outgroup members are no longer cognitively present then the individual will appear less similar to the ingroup members and be less likely to be categorized as belonging to that group.

Normative fit

Normative fit is the extent that the perceived behaviour or attributes of an individual or collection of individuals conforms to the perceiver’s knowledge-based expectations. Thus, normative fit is evaluated with reference to the perceiver readiness component of the categorisation process. As an example of the role of normative fit in categorization, although a collection of individuals may be categorized as an entity on the basis of comparative fit, they will only be labelled using the specific social category of “science students” if they are perceived to be hard working. That is, they fit the normative content of that category.

Online category formation

Self-categorization theory provides a model for social cognition where the social categories that a perceiver invokes are infinitely variable and fluid. This variability occurs in response to the changing context in which the perceiver is situated. As an example, self-categorization theory would predict that the category of psychologists can be perceived quite differently if compared to physicists as opposed to artists (with variation perhaps on how scientific
Scientific method
Scientific method refers to a body of techniques for investigating phenomena, acquiring new knowledge, or correcting and integrating previous knowledge. To be termed scientific, a method of inquiry must be based on gathering empirical and measurable evidence subject to specific principles of...

 psychologists are perceived to be). In self-categorization theory contextual changes to the salient social category is sometimes referred to as shifting prototypicality.

Although the theory accepts that prior categorization behaviour will impact present perception (i.e. as part of perceiver readiness), self-categorization theory has key advantages over descriptions of social categorization where categories are rigid and invariant cognitive structures that are stored in comparative isolation prior to application. One advantage is that this perspective removes the implausibility of storing enough categorical information to account for all the nuanced categorization that humans use on a day to day basis. Another advantage is that it brings social cognition in line with a connectionist approach
Connectionism is a set of approaches in the fields of artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience and philosophy of mind, that models mental or behavioral phenomena as the emergent processes of interconnected networks of simple units...

 to cognition. The connectionist approach is a neurologically plausible model of cognition where semantic units are not stored, but rather semantic information is formed as a consequence of network pattern activation (both current and prior).


In social psychology a category prototype
A prototype is an early sample or model built to test a concept or process or to act as a thing to be replicated or learned from.The word prototype derives from the Greek πρωτότυπον , "primitive form", neutral of πρωτότυπος , "original, primitive", from πρῶτος , "first" and τύπος ,...

 may be thought of as a “representative exemplar” of a category. Self-categorization theory predicts that what is prototypical of a category will be contingent on the context in which the category is encountered. More specifically, when the comparative context changes (i.e. the psychologically available stimuli change) this has implications for how the self category is perceived and the nature of subsequent depersonalization. To continue with a prior example, when physicists are a psychologically available comparison group to psychologist, those psychologists are more likely to adopt behaviours that reflect a perception that the ingroup is comparably unscientific. However when artists are the psychologically available comparison group, those same psychologists will be more likely behave in a manner that highlights the scientific aspects of the category. To rephrase the above process in the language of the theory, self-categorization theory predicts individuals to adopt the features of a salient self category (self-stereotyping), and the content of that category that is adopted will be dependent on the present comparative context.

Prototypicality may also be applied to the perception of others and individuals may be viewed in terms of their degree of group prototypicality, whether they be an ingroup member or outgroup member. An individual’s degree of prototypicality will also vary in accordance to the above principals. Indeed, gauging levels or prototypicality is the purpose for which the meta-contrast ratio is more often used for. This is often performed in the context of the social identity approach to leadership and influence.

Meta-theoretical debate

The social identity approach explicitly rejects the metatheory of research that regards limited information processing as the cause of social stereotyping. Specifically, where other researchers adopt the position that stereotyping is second best to other information processing techniques (e.g. individuation), social identity theorists argue that in many contexts a stereotypical perspective is entirely appropriate. Moreover, it is argued that in many intergroup contexts to take an individualistic view would be decidedly maladaptive and demonstrate ignorance of important social realities.

Category hierarchies

Early incarnations of the theory emphasised the role of category hierarchies in social perception. That is, much like a biological taxonomy
Taxonomy is the science of identifying and naming species, and arranging them into a classification. The field of taxonomy, sometimes referred to as "biological taxonomy", revolves around the description and use of taxonomic units, known as taxa...

, social groups at lower levels of abstraction are subsumed within social groups at higher levels of abstraction. A useful example comes from the world of team sports
Team sport
A team sport includes any sport which involves players working together towards a shared objective. A team sport is an activity in which a group of individuals, on the same team, work together to accomplish an ultimate goal which is usually to win. This can be done in a number of ways such as...

, where a particular social group such as Manchester United
Manchester United F.C.
Manchester United Football Club is an English professional football club, based in Old Trafford, Greater Manchester, that plays in the Premier League. Founded as Newton Heath LYR Football Club in 1878, the club changed its name to Manchester United in 1902 and moved to Old Trafford in 1910.The 1958...

Fan (person)
A Fan, sometimes also called aficionado or supporter, is a person with a liking and enthusiasm for something, such as a band or a sports team. Fans of a particular thing or person constitute its fanbase or fandom...

 may be an ingroup for a perceiver and he or she may compare with a relevant outgroup (e.g. Liverpool
Liverpool F.C.
Liverpool Football Club is an English Premier League football club based in Liverpool, Merseyside. Liverpool has won eighteen League titles, second most in English football, seven FA Cups and a record seven League Cups...

 fans). However, at a higher level of abstraction both social groups may be subsumed into the singular category of football fans. This is known as a superordinate category and in this context those Liverpool fans who were once considered outgroup members will now be considered to be fellow ingroup members. The new salient outgroup might instead be rugby
Rugby union
Rugby union, often simply referred to as rugby, is a full contact team sport which originated in England in the early 19th century. One of the two codes of rugby football, it is based on running with the ball in hand...

 fans. Awareness of category hierarchies has led to the development of social interventions where conflict at one level of abstraction (e.g. between Manchester United fans and Liverpool fans) might be ameliorated by making salient a more inclusive superordinate ingroup.

It has been noted, however, that very few social groups can be described in hierarchical terms. For example, Jewish people
The Jews , also known as the Jewish people, are a nation and ethnoreligious group originating in the Israelites or Hebrews of the Ancient Near East. The Jewish ethnicity, nationality, and religion are strongly interrelated, as Judaism is the traditional faith of the Jewish nation...

 in Germany
Germany , officially the Federal Republic of Germany , is a federal parliamentary republic in Europe. The country consists of 16 states while the capital and largest city is Berlin. Germany covers an area of 357,021 km2 and has a largely temperate seasonal climate...

 cannot be always considered to be a subordinate category of German’s, as there are Jewish people throughout the globe. Accordingly it has been proposed that the thoery’s use of hierarchies as an organizing principle must be relaxed. The alternative proposition is that social psychologists should look to Venn
Venn diagram
Venn diagrams or set diagrams are diagrams that show all possible logical relations between a finite collection of sets . Venn diagrams were conceived around 1880 by John Venn...

 like structures for descriptions of social structure. The awareness of crossed cutting social categories has allowed for the development of further intergroup conflict reduction strategies.

Out-group homogeneity

Self-categorization accounts for the outgroup homogeneity effect as a function of perceiver motivation and the resultant comparative context. Comparative context being a description of the psychologically available stimuli at any one time.

It argues that when perceiving an outgroup the psychologically available stimuli include both ingroup and outgroup members. Under these conditions the perceiver is naturally motivated to accentuate intergroup differences as well as intragroup similarities as part of a sense making process. However, when perceiving an ingroup the outgroup members may not be psychologically available. In such circumstances there is no such accentuation. Indeed, accentuation of intragroup differences may occur for the same sense making reasons.

Inline with this explanation it been shown that in an intergroup context both the ingroup and outgroup will be perceived as more homogenous, while when judged in isolation the ingroup will be perceived as comparatively heterogeneous
Homogeneity and heterogeneity
Homogeneity and heterogeneity are concepts relating to the uniformity or lack thereof in a substance. A material that is homogeneous is uniform in composition or character; one that is heterogeneous lacks uniformity in one of these qualities....

. This is also congruent with depersonalization, where under certain circumstances a perceiver may see themselves as an interchangeable member of the ingroup. The self-categorization theory account eliminates the need to posit differing processing mechanisms for ingroups and outroups, as well as accounting for findings of outgroup homogeneity in the minimal group paradigm.
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