Self-Categorization Theory

Self-Categorization Theory: Explanation of the Psychology of Individuals in Crowds

Self-categorization theory assumes that people in groups tend to stress similarities in the group over individual differences (Vider 2004). Although this sounds somewhat like Le Bon’s contagion theory Opens in new window, self-categorization theory differs in that people shift their focus from individual identity (which reflects personal values, attitudes, and beliefs) to the identity of the collective (which reflects its values, attitudes, and beliefs).

Through this process, the crowd comes to some understanding of appropriate behavior for that collective. These behaviors may range from standing to applaud at the end of a concert to turning over cars and setting them ablaze. How does this happen?

People socially identify with others around them and take on the voice of the collective we. This process is influenced both by the individual and by the collective. For example, snowball fights break out during the winter on many university campuses across North America. These snowball fights usually pit one dorm against another, with residents of each respective dorm socially identifying with others who live in the same building. But what causes the snowball fights to break out in the first place?

In terms of self-categorization theory, identifying as a resident of a specific dorm is both the cause of the snowball fight and an outcome of the snowball fight. Individuals in a crowd before the snowball fight starts may be prompted to throw snow at other individuals who identify themselves as living in another dorm. As the snowball fight breaks out and more people join, they are drawn to the collective that is defined by the dorm in which they live, thus feeding the cycle of cause and effect.

Whereas Le Bon’s theory suggests that rules don’t exist for mobs and riots, self-categorization theory states that members of the mob or riot feel as though new rules apply to their collective based on the attitudes and beliefs of that collective. These new rules develop into norms, which are more loosely defined than norms that small groups develop.

Many people in mobs or riots assume these norms are acceptable through two main ways:

  1. First the individual projects personal attitudes and behaviors onto others in the crowd and interprets any similar attitude or behavior as substantiation of this perspective, although this may or may not be the case.
  2. Second, bystanders who are not involved with the mob or riot often support violent or destructive actions through cheering, egging on, and pointing out new targets.

Members of the mob or riot often interpret lack of condemnation as tacit support for what they are doing. This manifests itself among rioters as well, who are reluctant to point out to others that their behaviors would normally be considered inappropriate. These instances are examples of the false consensus effect.