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The Dark Side of Cultural Affirmation

Cheering for the home team sometimes slides into denigrating others.

Key points

  • We engage in cultural affirmation when we broadcast positive, valuable aspects of belonging to a particular cultural group or social category.
  • Because we experience higher self-esteem when we belong to a valued group, we’re sometimes motivated to devalue other groups.
  • A better way to increase self-esteem is to build a strong personal resume of acquired skills and individual accomplishments.

In a recent post, I discussed a prominent theory of ingroup favoritism (social identity theory) and the psychological benefits of “cheering for our team” (cultural affirmation). In this post, I discuss the social inequities and societal costs associated with cultural affirmation.

In 1971, social psychologist Henri Tajfel and colleagues reported the results of a now-famous experiment in which British schoolboys estimated the number of dots flashed on a screen for a split second. After doing this many times, the experimenter told some boys they were “overestimators” and told others they were “underestimators.” Neither group was more accurate, claimed the experimenter; they just had different response tendencies. In fact, the boys had been randomly divided into two groups and did not differ from each other.

In the second phase of the experiment, some of the boys were asked to distribute points (worth money) to two anonymous boys. The experimenter explained that one of the potential recipients was an overestimator, and the other was an underestimator. From the distributor’s point of view, he had to decide how much money to give to a “mate” (someone with the same response tendency) and how much to give to a non-mate.

The schoolboys in the study consistently gave more money to their mates, with whom they shared a social identity. Not a lot more money, but more. Here’s the kicker: Compared to the boys who had no opportunity to allocate money, the distributors typically reported higher levels of self-esteem after the experiment (Tajfel et al., 1971). Despite receiving no money themselves, they had acted in a way that favored their fellow estimators and, as a result, felt better about themselves individually.

Additional Studies, Similar Results

Tajfel’s findings in the schoolboy experiment have been replicated several times in studies that use different grouping variables and participants from different countries. Individuals typically give slightly more “goodies” to ingroup members and slightly fewer to outgroup members.

Ethnocentrism has even been observed in four- and five-year-olds. In three preschool classrooms, developmental psychologists Meagan Patterson and Rebecca Bigler randomly gave a red T-shirt to some kids and a blue T-shirt to other kids. The teachers never mentioned the colors or grouped the kids by shirt color.

The preschoolers didn’t segregate themselves and sometimes played with each other at recess. But when asked which color team was better to belong to or which team might win a race, they almost always chose their own color. They never showed hatred for each other, but when Reds were asked how many Reds were nice, they’d answer, “All of us.” When asked how many Blues were nice, they’d answer, “Some.” The Reds also said some Blues were mean and some were dumb, but none of the Reds were mean or dumb (Patterson & Bigler, 2006).

Notice how trivial the shared identities are in these experiments. Who cares if someone underestimates or overestimates the number of dots on a screen? Or wears a different color T-shirt?

The Dark Side of Cultural Affirmation

We engage in cultural affirmation when we broadcast to others the positive, valuable aspects of belonging to a particular cultural group or social category. We march in a parade, wave the flag, and cheer for the home team, so to speak. According to social identity theory, cultural affirmation benefits every individual who waves the flag. Given that we experience a higher level of self-esteem when we belong to a valued group, we’re motivated to declare and affirm the value of our social identities.

Unfortunately, this means we sometimes disparage and even vilify other groups–police officers, protestors, evangelical Christians, Muslims, Boomers, Gen Z, Democrats, Republicans–because, by devaluing their social identity, we add value to our own—and that makes us feel better about who we are. This is the dark side of cultural affirmation.

At this point, it sounds like the news is mostly bad. In one sense, it is. Under the best conditions, people inevitably divide themselves into “us” and “them” and treat their homies more favorably.

But the news isn’t all bad. Remember the schoolboys in Tajfel’s original experiment? They could have given all the money to their mate and no money at all to the other boy, but they didn’t. They usually gave almost half to the other guy. Were they motivated by ethnocentrism? Yes, but they were also motivated by a basic sense of fairness. I find that encouraging.

Finally, there’s another way to enhance one’s self-esteem that doesn’t require cultural affirmation or denigration. According to social identity theory, the single largest contributor to a person’s self-image is their personal identity, not any particular social identity. Whenever possible, we should help children and young people develop their talents and gain useful skills.

Someone with an impressive resume–I have a master’s degree, speak two foreign languages, know how to cook, and can play the trombone!–has little motivation to boast about their ingroup or make others look bad. When we’re confident and secure in our own accomplishments, we don’t need to broadcast the supposed virtues of our country, ethnic group, or alma mater. We can just be ourselves.


Patterson, M. M., & Bigler, R. S. (2006) Preschool children’s attention to environmental messages about groups: Social categorization and the origins of intergroup bias. Child Development, 77(4), 847-860.

Tajfel, H., Billig, M. G., Bundy, R. P., & Flament, C. (1971). Social categorization and intergroup behaviour. European Journal of Social Psychology, 1(2), 149-178.

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