Professor Marilynn B. Brewer
Ohio Eminent Scholar in Social Psychology
The Ohio State University
Human social behavior presents us with a paradox. On the one hand, we assert our individuality, long to stand out from the crowd, and resist being “pigeon-holed” based on roles or stereotypes. On the other hand, we proudly wear our school colors, cringe with embarrassment if we are out of fashion, and seek to belong and “fit in.” If we are categorized as members of large, inclusive social groups, we speak of “losing our identity”; but if others fail to recognize or validate our group memberships, we speak of “losing our identity.”
According to a theory of optimal distinctiveness, such apparent contradictions reflect adaptive mechanisms that bind human beings together in social groups. The theory posits that humans are characterized by two opposing social needs. The first is a need for assimilation and inclusion, a desire for belonging that motivates immersion in social groups. The second is a need for differentiation from others that operates in opposition to the need for immersion. Opposing motives hold each other in check, with the result that human beings are not comfortable either in isolation or in huge collectives and instead gravitate to social groups that are both bounded and distinctive. These motives underlie group loyalty, cooperation, and trust, but at the same time lay the groundwork for inter-group distrust and conflict. Research in the laboratory and the real world documents both the constructive and destructive consequences of us-them distinctions and leads us to explore the important question of whether humans can reap the benefits of group belonging without the costs of exclusion.