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The Origins of the Social Self
Issue 81: We describe the origins of the social self idea and the APA William James Book Award (which we received last week)
This month, we attended the American Psychological Association annual convention in Washington, DC and gave a joint talk on THE POWER OF US. This is the primary book award for the society: “The William James Award is intended to honor and publicize a recent book published within the last two years that brings together diverse subfields of psychology and related disciplines. This work should provide a creative synthesis of theory, fact and themes that serve to unify or integrate the field.”
William James was a leading thinker of the late 19th century, one of the most influential philosophers of the United States, and widely considered the "Father of American psychology". In 1890 wrote the landmark book “The Principles of Psychology where he developed the a concept of the social self that became the core theme of our book. (You can read James’ ideas here).
William James divided the "Me" part of self into: a material, a social, and a spiritual self. For him, the social self is who we are in a given social situation and people change how they act depending on the social situation that they are in. James believed that people had as many social selves as they did social situations they participated in. For example, a person may act in a different way at work when compared to how that same person may act when they are out with a group of friends.
James also believed that in a given social group, an individual's social self may be divided even further. At work, for example, people would act differently than at home or out with their friends. But they would also differ at work when interacting with their boss versus a colleague.
His understanding of the self anticipated the Social Identity Approach that would emerge in the 1970s and would become the central focus of our book (and this newsletter) 130 years later! In other words, our conversations about identity are all standing on the shoulders of William James.
In honor of William James and his pioneering work on the self, we decided to share our APA award application this week—which includes a description of our book—and will include a summary of our address in the newsletter later this month. We hope you enjoy the back stage look into the award process.
“Our book explains the dynamics of shared identities and how these shape our beliefs and behavior. What causes people to develop an identity? What happens to people when they define themselves in terms of group memberships? And how can our identities instead be harnessed to improve performance, increase cooperation, and promote social harmony? We explain how key principles of social identity are key for understanding the biggest societal challenges, including racism, polarization, group conflict, misinformation on social media, economic inequality, climate change, and democracy.
Our work synthesizes psychology research to develop a coherent framework for understanding identity. Weaving together research from social and personality psychology, decision-making, political science, and cognitive neuroscience we offered a set of foundational principles about human identity. Our book also challenges some of the most foundational studies in the field taught in Introduction to Psychology textbooks to millions of students each year. We present evidence that famous studies like the Stanford Prison Experiment, Milgram Shock Experiments and the Asch conformity experiments must be understood through the lens of social identity.
Our book argues that groups are central to how we define ourselves. The most important groups in people’s lives and thus their most central social identities are often quite stable. And yet we also have a readiness for solidarity — even with complete strangers — which allows us to find common cause around new shared identities. Different identities become salient at different times — and when a particular social identity is active, it can have profound effects on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
When an identity is active, people experience the world through the lens it provides, embrace a shared reality with fellow group members, and find joy in group symbols and traditions. People will sacrifice, even fight, to protect the interests of the group. These shifts in perceptions, beliefs, feelings, and actions often align people with the norms of the group. And when leaders lead and others follow, it is inspiring a shared sense of “who we are.” These identities can also be the foundation for human coordination, collaboration, and pro-sociality.
But there is a flipside to this: cooperation and generosity are often bounded. Social identities can make people want to help members of their own groups, but it can also make them want to harm or avoid helping people in other groups.
Despite their power to shape our thoughts and behaviors, human identities are also the site of our agency. Our book provides a lens for psychologists to understand one of most important insights from William James, who wrote this about people: “by changing the inner attitudes of their minds, can change the outer aspects of their lives.” Whether by rejecting or embracing a particular conception of ourselves, by challenging our groups to be better, or by organizing in solidarity to change the world, we take control of who we want to be.”
Fun Fact: William James grew up with his siblings (author Henry James and diarist Alice James) a couple blocks from Jay’s office, near Washington Square Park. You will recognize his home if you ever watched the zombie movie “I am Legend” (Will Smith’s character lived a few feet from the James’ house).
News and Updates
We recently learned that THE POWER OF US is now available at the beautiful new Calgary Public Library in the main promenade just beside the stairs. Photos are courtesy of an old college friend, Janis Isaman, a movement and nutrition coach in Calgary, Alberta.
Learn more about THE POWER OF US
If you like our newsletter, we encourage you to check out our award-winning book “The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony”. You can learn more about the book or order it from the links on our website (here or scan the QR code below). We keep the newsletter free, but are extremely grateful if you have a chance to purchase the book or buy it for a friend who wants to learn more about group psychology.
Catch up on the last one…
Last week’s newsletter previews Minette Norman’s newly released book, Boldly Inclusive Leaders which she wrote as a guideline to help organizational leaders promote inclusivity in the workplace.
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