OPINION8 January 2020

In praise of social identity theory

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Behavioural science Opinion

Crawford Hollingworth explores how social identity theory can be used to influence people’s behaviour, from increasing voter turnout to encouraging more physical activity.


Human beings are social creatures; our attitudes and actions tend to be heavily influenced by those of others, and in almost all societies there are unwritten rules about what behaviours are acceptable (or not) within specific group settings. Consequently, the power of social norms in behavioural change and social influence is widely recognised and is a popular tool among practitioners.

Recognising that behavioural change is an inherently social process, research from social psychology indicates that, for lasting change to occur, people need to internalise norms and use them as guides for their own behaviour. Most behavioural interventions to date have successfully used social norm awareness to nudge people towards a desired behaviour, for example, ‘92% of your neighbours reduced their water consumption over the past year’. However, for a more sustainable behavioural change, particularly for regular/habitual activities, the research suggests it may be more effective to go beyond norm awareness to norm internalisation. 

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