Saturday, July 29, 2023

BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory): How Our Social Identities Affect Our Perceptions

In a study back in the 1970s, researchers found that people are more likely to wear team paraphernalia after “their” team wins than win it loses. Known as BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory), it is a benign and somewhat humorous example of how our social identities impact how we think of ourselves. Decades of research (see references below) has found that our sense of who we are and feelings of self-worth are due, in part, to our group and organizational affiliations. It isn’t only our accomplishments that drive our sense of self; it’s also the accomplishments of the groups with which we affiliate. Our membership in these groups impacts our perceived status in this world and our self-esteem.

Notably, researchers have found that we typically evaluate members of our group better than we do out-group members. Early studies focused on how this phenomenon impacted prejudice, but in recent years studies have examined how it drives political polarization (Mason, 2018; Bail, 2021) and lone-wolf terrorism (Sageman, 2017). Nationalism, or at least its more pernicious manifestations, can also reflect this (see the cartoon above).

Which group membership is salient at a particular time depends on the situation. However, researchers have found it’s easy to “trigger” (activate) a social identity. Consider this quote from Lev Golinkin, a Ukrainian writer living in the U.S.:
President Vladimir Putin of Russia, who denies that Ukraine is a sovereign nation, is waging far more than a physical war: He, like his predecessors in the Kremlin, is working to erase the very concept of Ukraine from existence. With each new report of a Russian bombing, I find myself becoming more Ukrainian, seizing the identity that first the Soviet Union—and now Russia—has long fought to suppress.” (“The Ukraine of My Childhood Is Being Erased”)
In my previous post on social media and political polarization, I note that Chris Bail has found that social media offers us platforms that we can use to “enhance” our self-esteem, which we cannot obtain solely on our own. People who troll others on social media don’t do it to change the minds of others but to impress those within their online “communities,” regardless of how small or large they are.

Documenting this phenomenon doesn’t solve problems such as prejudice, terrorism, or political polarization. However, the more we know about it, the less likely we will succumb to it mindlessly.


Bail, Christopher A. 2021. Breaking the Social Media Prisim: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Cialdini, Robert B., Richard J. Borden, Avril Thorne, Marcus Randall Walker, Stephen Freeman, and Lloyd Reynolds Sloan. 1976. “Basking in Reflected Glory: Three (Football) Field Studies.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 34:366-75.

Mason, Lilliana. 2018. Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Miller, Kevin P., Marilynn B. Brewer, and Nathan L. Arbuckle. 2009. “Social Identity Complexity: Its Correlates and Antecedents.” Group Processes & Intergroup Relations 12(1):79-94. doi: 10.1177/1368430208098778

Sageman, Marc. 2017. Misunderstanding Terrorism. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Sherif, Muzafer, O. J. Harvey, B. Jack White, William R. Hood, and Carolyn W. Sherif. 1988. The Robbers Cave Experiment: Intergroup Conflict and Cooperation. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

Tajfel, Henri. 1970. “Experiments in Intergroup Discrimination.” Scientific American 223(5):96-103.

Tajfel, Henri, and John C. Turner. 1982. “The Social Identity Theory of Intergroup Behavior.” Pp. 7-24 in Psychology of Intergroup Relations, edited by S. Worchel and W. G. Austin. Chicago, IL: Nelson-Hall.

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