Identifying with a Group

People can increase their sense of security by identifying with a group, which can then exert considerable pressure on them to conform

In addition to their family ties, people are also members of many other social groups.  The term ‘groups’ is used here to describe collections of people who have some basis for commonality, such as ethnicity or shared interests, and who may constitute small communities or be part of a larger community.

Amitai Etzioni’s article, Strength in numbers,[1] described the supportive value of communities, and their role in governance:

“Many communities are confessional, ethnic or both. They tend to command a strong sense of loyalty and mutual responsibility – like families writ large. Critics often call them ‘tribal’.”

“Communities, importantly, also provide informal social controls that reinforce the moral commitments of their members and, in turn, help make for a largely voluntary social order. The most effective way to reinforce norms of behaviour is to build on the fact that people have a strong need for continuous approval from others, especially from those with whom they have affective bonds of attachment (members of their communities). Communities can consequently strengthen adherence to social norms.”

The penalties for non-compliance take the form of moral sanctions, which can be very effective.  Stigmatising bad behaviour puts pressure on people who are transgressing and ostracising them can have a profound impact.

Personal identity and self-esteem can be based on identifying with a group.  An active religious affiliation is an example of such a group (  Jeffrey R. Seul quoted social identity theory in a paper, ‘Ours Is the Way of God’: Religion, Identity, and Intergroup Conflict, when noting that “Religions frequently supply cosmologies, moral frameworks, institutions, rituals, traditions, and other identity-supporting content that answers to individuals’ needs for psychological stability in the form of a predictable world, a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and even self-actualization.”

In some cases, individual judgement is almost completely suppressed by the desire to conform to the group’s instructions – as demonstrated in The Milgram shock experiment, described on the Simply Psychology website:

“Stanley Milgram was interested in how easily ordinary people could be influenced into committing atrocities, for example, Germans in WWII.”

He researched “how far people would go in obeying an instruction if it involved harming another person”, in this case administering an electric shock.  “65% (two-thirds) of participants (i.e., teachers) continued to the highest level of 450 volts,” which had been explained to them as “Danger: Severe Shock”.

Many people, particularly the young, feel that their popularity in social networks such as those provided by Facebook – where they seek to be ‘liked’ – is very important to their happiness, as described in an article: Why Do We Get So Obsessed With ‘Likes’ On Social Media?



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/4322a.htm.

[1] Amitai Etzioni’s article, Strength in numbers, was published in the RSA Journal, Autumn 2009, (pp. 24-27).  It has been taken off the Internet.