Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 1
RUNNING HEAD: Three Kinds of Self-Categorization
Social Categorization in Intergroup Contexts: Three Kinds of Self-Categorization
Geoffrey J. Leonardelli
Soo Min Toh
University of Toronto
This is the pre-peer reviewed version of the following article, which was published in
final form at http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/spc3.v9.2/issuetoc
Leonardelli, G.J. & Toh, S.M. (2015). Social categorization in intergroup contexts: Three kinds
of self-categorization. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 9(2), 69–87, DOI:
Word Count: 7585
Author note. This research was funded by the first author’s SSHRC grant. Thanks to members of
the Self and Identity Lab (SAIL) for discussions on the topic, and to Cindy Pickett, Marilynn
Brewer, Matthew Hornsey, Craig McGarty, and Dominic Abrams for comments on previous
versions of the paper. Address correspondence to the first author,
Geoffrey.email@example.com, Rotman School of Management, 105 St. George St,
Toronto ON, M5S 3E6, CANADA, +416-946-0731.
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 2
In reviewing self-categorization theory and the literature upon which it is based, we conclude
that individuals’ attempts to form social categories could lead to three kinds of self-
categorization. We label them intergroup categorization, ingroup categorization, and outgroup
categorization. We review literature supporting these three types and argue that they can help to
explain and organize the existing evidence. Moreover, we conclude that distinguishing these
three kinds of self-categorization lead to novel predictions regarding social identity, social
cognition, and groups. We offer some of those predictions by discussing their potential causes
(building from optimal distinctiveness and security seeking literatures) and implications (on
topics including prototype complexity, self-stereotyping, stereotype formation, intergroup
behavior, dual identity, conformity and the psychological implications of perceiving
uncategorized collections of people). This paper offers a platform from which to build theoretical
and empirical advances in social identity, social cognition, and intergroup relations.
Key Words: Social Categorization, Self-Categorization, Intergroup Relations, Meta-Contrast,
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 3
Social Categorization in Intergroup Contexts: Three Kinds of Self-Categorization
Because of the centrality of self in social perception, social categorization
involves most fundamentally a distinction between the group containing the self,
the ingroup, and other groups, the outgroups – between the “we’s” and the
“they’s”” (Dovidio & S. Gaertner, 2010).
We couldn’t agree more, or so we thought until recently. Building on Sumner’s (1906)
classic distinction between ingroups and outgroups, Dovidio and Gaertner (2010) highlighted
what we consider to be two well-founded assumptions about social categorization: 1) intergroup
contexts entail an ingroup and outgroup(s), with the self on one side of that divide (ingroup); and
2) ingroups and outgroups are both social categories. And yet, in revisiting the literature on
categorization theory, self-categorization theory, and the literature on social cognition and
intergroup relations that those theories have helped generate, we have observed that in intergroup
contexts, ingroup-outgroup categorization is only one of three possible kinds of self-
categorizations. The other two possible kinds are what we call “one-group categorizations”,
where only one group, the ingroup or the outgroup, is perceived to be a social category.
Moreover, we argue that all three self-categorizations have meaningful consequences for social
cognition, and intragroup and intergroup dynamics, but only one of these could be truly
construed as differentiating ingroup categories from outgroup categories.
A Brief Review on Category Formation
Categorization has a long history in psychological science (Allport, 1954; Bruner, 1957).
Contemporary definitions, benefiting from advances in theory and research over the years,
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 4
describe it as the cognitive process of “understanding what something is by knowing what other
things it is equivalent to, and what other things it is different from” (McGarty, 1999, p. 1). In
social psychology, it is the application of this cognitive process to people, called social
categorization, which has particular explanatory prominence in intergroup relations (Tajfel et al.,
1971; for recent reviews, see Gaertner & Dovidio, 2010; Yzerbyt & Demoulin, 2010) as well as
other domains (e.g., Brewer, 1988; Fiske & Neuberg, 1990; Johnson, Freeman, & Pauker, 2012).
It is in this domain that social categorization is also self-referential, where perceivers see the
categorization context as an intergroup context, of seeing the categories as “us versus them.”
Perhaps it is the knowledge-informing nature of social categorization coupled with a self-
referential intergroup context that has led some to conclude that social categorization is the
process by which individuals perceive collections of people as groups (Wilder, 1981).
Self-categorization theory (Turner, 1987, 1999; see also Turner & Reynolds, 2012)
offers a framework within which to understand how people categorize themselves and others.
Similar to the categorization process, self-categorizations are defined as “cognitive groups of
oneself and some class of stimuli as the same (identical, similar, equivalent, interchangeable, and
so on) in contrast to some other class of stimuli” (Turner, 1987, p. 44, Assumption 4). Although
a full review of this theory is not possible here, some of the theory’s standard assumptions help
to structure our discussion. First, self-categorizations exist as part of a nested hierarchy of
increasingly inclusive (and more abstract) self-categories (Turner, 1987, Assumptions 5 and 6).
More inclusive categories contain, in their entirety, more exclusive ones. Categories are
organized by their level of abstraction, and there are at least three levels important to self-
categorization (ordered by increasing abstraction): personal self-categorizations (a subordinate
categorization describing the individuals themselves; for more information, see Turner et al.,
Readers will also benefit from understanding the theory as situated in history; please see Hornsey (2008).
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 5
2006), ingroup-outgroup categorizations (of intermediate categorization) and human self-
categorization (a superordinate category).
Second, social categorization is dependent on social comparison processes (Turner, 1987,
Assumption 7). Categorization depends on comparing stimuli to each other, of identifying those
similar to each other and different from others. Such comparisons necessarily result from “the
available contrasts provided by the salient stimulus field” (Turner, p. 47). Stated otherwise,
categorizations form as a result of the comparisons among salient stimuli; in a room full of
people (the salient stimulus field in this example) wearing red and blue shirts, a naturally
occurring comparison would be between different shirt colors. Turner also proposed that what
determined the salient stimulus field would be determined by a more inclusive (abstract)
categorization. Therefore, personal self-categorizations are formed by individuals comparing
themselves to other ingroup members (i.e., ingroup membership determines the comparison
context); ingroup-outgroup categorizations are formed by comparing ingroup members to other
human beings; and the human self-categorization is formed by comparing humans to members of
Building on self-categorization theory, and specifically how social comparisons lead to
category formation, we have concluded that in intergroup contexts, self-categorization need not
be characterized as “us versus them,” but instead could be an “us” or a “them”, and that each
type of self-categorization has unique implications for social cognition, identity, and intergroup
behavior. It may seem difficult to believe. After all, as we consider the literature on intergroup
relations, we have concluded that researchers have implicitly assumed that category formation
entails the formation of (typically) two psychologically relevant social categories, such as White
and Black Americans, men and women, locals and foreigners, or as an example of what might
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 6
occur under minimal group conditions, Kandinsky or Klee group members. Categorization
necessarily requires differentiation one category and another.
Yet, read the literature on social categorization, and the literature upon which it is based,
and categorization is not merely a function of boundaries and differentiation. In self-
categorization theory (Turner, 1987; see also earlier research by Bruner, 1957; Campbell, 1958;
Rosch, 1978; Tajfel, 1969; Tversky & Gati, 1978), Turner proposed that ingroups and outgroups
manifest as a result of meta-contrast (Assumption 7.1; see also Campbell, 1958), namely that:
any collection of stimuli is more likely to be categorized as an entity (i.e.,
grouped as identical) to the degree that the differences between those stimuli on
relevant dimensions of comparison (intra-class differences) are perceived as less
than the differences between that collection and other stimuli (inter-class
differences)” (Turner, 1987, p. 47).
In other words, individuals will be perceived as comprising a category to the extent that
the differences among them are perceived as less than the differences from other people. This
could be indexed as a ratio: differences from others divided by differences among individuals
(e.g., McGarty, Turner, Hogg, David, & Wetherell, 1992). Similar notions, albeit with different
labels (Rosch, 1978; Tversky & Gati, 1978), are also evident in the categorization literature.
Such differences necessarily depend on features upon which people can be differentiated.
Such differences may depend on frequently relied upon categories (gender, race, age; Kinzler,
Schutts, & Correll, 2010), which include a constellation of features differentiating one category
from others. Categories can also be based on, but are not limited to, features that are physical
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 7
(e.g., body features, markings, piercings, hair styles; e.g., Jetten, Branscombe, Schmitt, &
Spears, 2001), spatial (the closer together, the more likely stimuli will be categorized together;
Campbell, 1958 and Bernardo & Palma-Oliveira, 2012), vocal (e.g., language, accents, speaking
speed; e.g., Rakić, Steffens, & Mummendey, 2011 and Maass, Arcuri, & Suitner, 2014),
behavioral (e.g., attends church, reads comic books, plays golf), attitudinal or ideological (e.g.,
gun rights, pro-choice, small government; e.g., Heit & Nicholson, 2010 and Bliuc, McGarty,
Reynolds, & Muntele, 2007), or dispositional, based on trait inferences (e.g., happy, anxious,
pessimistic; for example, classifying someone as a “Pollyanna”, “Nervous Nelly” or “Debbie
Downer”). It is remarkable how wide-ranging the features can be that are used to classify people,
although it is possible that more salient and perceptible properties could be a greater basis for
categorization (Fiske, 1998; Fiske et al., 1999), perhaps especially so when categorization is
conducted by children (Quinn, Anzures, Izard, Lee, Pascalis, Slater & Tanaka, 2011).
To provide greater clarity, it is helpful to distinguish the words “feature”, “dimension”
and “category.” For meta-contrast to occur, individuals perceive a category when the differences
among individuals are less than the differences of these individuals from others. Those
differences are features, and features fall along a dimension of comparison. As an example, let’s
consider social categorization by eye color, which Jane Elliott (Peters, 1970) has used to great
effect since the 1960s to demonstrate to her class of school-age children, and others, the
powerful effects of prejudice. Categorizing by eye color refers to a dimension, or what we
consider the general domain upon which categories are based, but it does not inform whether
individuals have formed one, two or more categories. On the basis of eye color, individuals may
observe that people have brown eyes, blue, green, and so on. Dimensions may also be
continuous; for example, attitudes about social welfare, with a spectrum of positions possible,
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 8
and those with similar positions differentiated from those who have more dissimilar positions
(McGarty et al., 1992).
A single feature is presumed to be sufficient to form categories, assuming individuals
observe meta-contrast: noting that some individuals have brown eyes, and these individuals
differ from those with blue eyes, would lead to the formation of a “brown-eyed” people category.
That said, the social categories people form can be based on multiple features (e.g., Arcuri, 1982;
Biernat & Vescio, 1993; Brewer, Ho, Lee, & Miller, 1987; Crisp & Hewstone, 2006, 2007;
Stangor, Lynch, Duan, & Glass, 1992). Categories based on nationality, for example, could
incorporate features based on language, accent, residency, and a designation of citizenship, or
cultural characteristics. Such categorizations may be relatively impoverished for some (based on
accent alone, such as the Canadian use of “eh”) or complex (hockey fans, multicultural values,
and saying “eh”). Regardless of the number of features, individuals perceive categories when
features are observed in meta-contrast, as being shared by some and delimited to them.
We use this as the foundation of our theorizing. What we consider striking is that the
formation of two social categories is not a necessary by-product of meta-contrast. Rather, meta-
contrast applies to categories individually. In a context where individuals perceive a difference
between themselves and another (e.g., scanning the room and observing that they have a red shirt
and someone else has a blue one), four outcomes are possible: the observer’s feature (red shirt),
the other person’s feature (blue shirt), both, or neither, may be perceived as social categories. Of
these outcomes, social categorization occurs in the first three, two of which entail the formation
of a single category (an ingroup or an outgroup).
Although research in social psychology tends to presume two (or more)-category
contexts, evidence – to different degrees – suggests the manifestation of one-group
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 9
categorizations, either via spontaneous manifestations or through explicit experimental
manipulations (e.g., Dovidio et al., 2010; Simon & Pettigrew, 1990; Zhong, Phillips, Leonardelli,
& Galinsky, 2008). Below, we propose a theoretical framework for intergroup psychology,
where we differentiate between three kinds of self-categorization, in an effort to organize
existing evidence and offer new directions for future research.
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization
Consider the self in an intergroup context, where individuals see themselves on one side
of a divide, with a feature different from another. We argue that individuals could perceive one
of three different kinds of self-categorization, depending on whether the perceiver’s feature(s),
the feature(s) of another, or both are perceived to exhibit meta-contrast (see Table 1).
Ingroup-outgroup (hence called “intergroup”) categorization: Meta-contrast is
observed for the perceiver’s feature(s) and the feature(s) of others, resulting in both
perceived as social categories. This perception is likened to, as Dovidio and Gaertner
(2010) have already noted, a mindset of “us v. them.” Here, social categorization
leads to the formation of ingroup and outgroup categories. The literature has typically
focused on two-group categorizations, although technically intergroup categorization
could expand to contexts including multiple outgroups.
Ingroup-only (hence called “ingroup”) categorization: Meta-contrast is observed for
the perceiver’s feature, but not the feature of others. That is, the perceiver identifies
other individuals as similar to himself/herself on some dimension of interest (thereby
perceiving an ingroup category), but fails to identify others who are not similar to the
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 10
perceiver as forming a discernible or salient category. If ingroup-outgroup
categorization is characterized as “us v. them”, then the psychological relevance of
ingroup-only categorization could be characterized as simply “us.” As an example,
consider a categorization of “my family.” While on occasion they may be considered
intergroup categorizations (such as the Capulets and Montagues from Shakespeare’s
Romeo & Juliet, or the Hatfields and McCoys from 19th Century U.S. Appalachia),
we suspect that most people would consider their family an ingroup with no clear
Outgroup-only (hence called “outgroup”) categorization: Meta-contrast is observed
for others’ feature, but not for the perceiver’s feature. Individuals perceived to be
different from the perceiver are seen as an outgroup category, comprising of
individuals who are similar on some dimension. Those who are not in this category
are not seen as sufficiently similar to each other to form a discernable or salient
category. To capture the psychological relevance of outgroup-only categorization, we
describe it as “them.” Consider the 2004 U.S. Presidential election. In that election,
the Republican Party supported George W. Bush’s attempt at re-election, and the
Democrats were attempting to get U.S. Senator John Kerry elected. However, Kerry’s
supporters were less likely to characterize themselves as pro-Kerry as they were to be
against George Bush. In this context, George Bush became a defining feature of both
parties: either for or against Bush.
We consider the three types of self-categorization compatible with existing assumptions
we previously reviewed about self-categorization and social category formation. First, these
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 11
three kinds of self-categorization form out of meta-contrast. Second, we have described these
categorizations as self-categorizations, in that they are self-referential social categorizations,
referencing ingroups and outgroups. A strong interpretation of Turner’s (1987) definition of self-
categorization (i.e., as a cognitive grouping of the self as interchangeable with other members of
the class) requires an ingroup category be formed, thus excluding the outgroup-only
categorization as a self-categorization. However, Turner’s (1987) description of self-
categorization theory allows for the formation of a single category, including categorizations that
are outgroup-only. Moreover, we argue that outgroup categorizations are self-categorizations, in
that they are self-referential (an outgroup is an outgroup because the perceiver is not a part of it).
Third, these three types of self-categorization describe an “intermediate” level of
abstraction (Turner, 1987). That noted, some may question whether all three self-categorizations
would be considered psychologically real intergroup contexts. At this point, it is helpful to
understand what is it that categorization adds to individuals’ perceptions of groups beyond the
acknowledgment of the mere presence of others. Categorization helps perceivers know what
something is (i.e., it adds definition, description, or cognitive association by identifying features
held in common by members of that category). Relative to individuals who remain
uncategorized, individuals perceived to be a social category have greater definition (Bruner,
1958, in that it is perceived to be known or have meaning; self-definition in the case of self-
categorization). A parallel can be made to the concept of entitativity (Campbell, 1958), that is,
whether a group is perceived as an entity, something more than the sum of the individuals within
(see also Brewer & Harasty, 1996; Castano et al., 2002; Lickel et al., 2000). Categorization is
presumed to lead to greater entitativity of groups (Campbell, 1958; especially when those
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 12
categorizations are considered meaningful, McGarty, Haslam, Hutchinson, & Grace, 1995). It is
also possible that it might lead to suprahumanization (Trawalter, Hoffman, & Waytz, 2012).
Based on this literature, then, the most likely psychologically-real intergroup context
would be that produced by intergroup categorizations, with both classes of people considered to
be categories. One-group categorizations are more complex, in that only one category is evident.
Such categorizations could be considered from the perceiver’s perspective what Simon (1993)
has called “quasi-intergroup” contexts (see also Allen, 1985). Even in one-category contexts, a
contrast between features, a requirement according to self-categorization theory, requires
perceivers to acknowledge that people exist outside the category. Under such circumstances,
individuals may still perceive ingroups and outgroups, and such groups may differ in
categorization (we return to this in a moment). Whereas categorized individuals share definition,
uncategorized individuals do not. What may be known about uncategorized individuals is that
they are unknown or undefined, a characteristic that may prove threatening or worthy of
inattention. It is in this lack of definition and uncertainty that lies the possibility of an entity.
Uncategorized individuals are not known to have, but could possibly share, common interests
and coordinate activity. The uncategorized may have little psychological significance to the
perceiver or become increasingly more meaningful.
The phenomenal experience for different kinds of self-categorization also benefits from
greater elaboration. In a two-category context, from the perspective of self-categorization theory,
individuals are ascribed an identity resulting from the perceiver’s intergroup categorization, and
thus create a phenomenal experience described as “us” versus “them.” In the one-category
contexts, how do perceivers identify or describe individuals who are not classified?
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 13
Allowing ourselves to speculate, we think that ingroup and outgroup categorizations may
yield diverging perceptions of unclassified individuals. On the one hand, with an ingroup
categorization, features observed in meta-contrast demarcate those who are ingroup members
and those who are not, thereby making it less likely to consider unclassified individuals as a
basis of comparison. They are not a category and may be psychologically less prominent. They
may still be acknowledged and labeled “not us,” “outsiders,” or for the particularly well-
informed lay person, an “outgroup,” but in all cases, the outgroup still lacks meta-contrast. Yoga
people – i.e., those practicing yoga - will perhaps see non-yoga people as an undifferentiated
outgroup rather than a defined one.
Alas, there is a danger of the unknown and undefined; in the absence of knowledge,
people can make assumptions about what features are common among those outside their group.
Perhaps they may assume that outsiders share a common objective against yoga people, are
dimwitted, or hide batwings underneath their shirts. Turner (1991, as described in Abrams, 1992)
suggested this interpretation of “us” versus “not us”, indicating that “not us” may still be a
category were perceivers to assume that those who are “not us” share features in common with
each other, and such features differentiate “not us” from “us.” The validity of such assumptions
is irrelevant; if perceivers believe outsiders do, in fact, hold a feature (or features) in common,
something that could differentiate outsiders from the ingroup, perceivers shift their self-
categorization from an ingroup one to an intergroup one. We believe such a shift in self-
categorization is possible and discuss potential causes later in the paper.
Outgroup categorizations entail a category that does not include the perceiver. The
phenomenal experiences of outgroup categorizations appears more diverse. It is possible, as
Simon (1993) has argued, that such a perception could form a phenomenal experience likened to
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 14
“me v. not me”, where individuals take an egocentric perspective to the classification. We also
thought it possible that other interpretations exist. Some evidence indicates that individuals feel
distinctive when described by what they are not (Zhong et al., 2008). In this regard, the relative
salience of the outgroup category and the distinctiveness it confers on perceivers via negation
may create a phenomenal experience likened to “them v. not them,” wherein the self is defined
by what has been called a “negational identity” (Elsbach & Bhattacharya, 2001; Jin et al., 2013;
Simon & Pettigrew, 1990; Zhong et al., 2008; Zhong, Galinsky, & Unzueta, 2008). A third
possibility would be that outgroup categorization produces a phenomenal experience integrating
the two, where perceivers see an outgroup category in contrast to their personal self-category (a
“me” v. “them” categorization). Future research would benefit from exploring which of these
manifest, and under what conditions.
At a surface level, similarities exist between this work and the conclusion reached by L.
Gaertner et al. (2006). According to Gaertner et al., ingroups may form in the absence of an
outgroup. Their theory may appear similar to what we call ingroup categorization, where an
ingroup is perceived to be a category, but people outside the group are not. It is helpful to note
two important differences. First, they argue that ingroup formation results from intragroup
dynamics (entailing interaction and interdependence) rather than categorization processes,
whereas we propose circumstances under which some people – to which the perceiver belongs –
are perceived to be a category, but that people outside the ingroup are not perceived to be a
category. It should be noted that we see ingroup-only categorization as a phenomenon that could
be complementary to what Gaertner et al. propose, potentially creating a bidirectional source of
influence. That is, intragroup dynamics may result in or from ingroup-only categorization. At
least according to our current understanding of their theory, categorization and intragroup
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 15
dynamics could be considered complementary processes. A second difference lies in conclusions
reached over the presence or absence of an outgroup. Gaertner et al. are explicit in their
conclusion that ingroups are formed in the absence of an outgroup. By contrast, for reasons noted
above, in an ingroup-only categorization, there is greater latitude in terms of how those outside
the ingroup are perceived. At times, perceivers with an ingroup-only categorization may not even
realize that there are people outside of the ingroup, a psychological experience perhaps similar to
what Gaertner et al. propose; at other times, it may be acknowledged that individuals exist
outside the group, and even though they are not considered a category, they may or may not be
considered an outgroup.
Overall, then, we argue that meta-contrast applies individually to categories, allowing for
three kinds of self-categorization: intergroup, ingroup-only, and outgroup-only. Moreover, such
self-categorizations integrate with what is assumed in self-categorization theory about levels of
self-categorization and the integration of social comparison and categorization processes.
Although beyond the scope of the existing paper, we expect these self-categorizations to be a
result of characteristics of the situation and the person, including motivational intent of the
individual (some of which is discussed below) and to allow for a dynamic transformation of self-
categorization (Bodenhausen, Kang, & Peery, 2012; cf. Smith & Conrey, 2007). Given that it is
reasonable to assume that there are three kinds of self-categorization, what are the potential
causes of such self-categorizations, and what implications might they have? The rest of the paper
addresses each issue in turn.
We think it helpful to consider the conditions under which such self-categorizations
manifest and the implications resulting from them. That said, self-categorization does not
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 16
existing in a vacuum, with its manifestation and consequences dependent on the individual and
the context (Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 2002; Turner, 1987; Turner, Oakes, Haslam, &
McGarty, 1994), such as category salience, normative fit (Oakes, 1983), the meaningfulness of
categorization (Simon, Hastedt, & Aufderheide, 1997), and the level of the perceiver’s social
identification (e.g., Spears, Doosje, & Ellemers, 1997). Holding all else constant, our review of
the literature points to some conditions under which the three kinds of self-categorizations may
Given the importance of group membership to human life and survival (Caporael, 1997;
Brewer, 2007), it may be tempting to conclude that outgroup categorization will be negatively
valued, but under some conditions, individuals may even prefer perceiving an intergroup context
as outgroup-only (Simon, 1993). Although self-categorizations are to some degree imposed by
the social context (Cadinu, Galdi, & Maass, 2013; Oakes, 1987), perceivers’ needs and
motivations can also shape individuals’ type of self-categorization. We explore how some
theoretical perspectives may predict the three self-categorizations.
Optimal distinctiveness theory. Derived from the theory’s predictions (Brewer, 1991;
Leonardelli, Pickett, & Brewer, 2010), we argue that members of minority and majority groups
take different self-categorizations to their group membership (see also Mullen, 1991; Mullen,
Johnson, & Anthony, 1994). According to optimal distinctiveness theory (Brewer, 1991;
Leonardelli et al., 2010), individuals seek to simultaneously meet opposing needs for inclusion
and differentiation as a means to seeking sustained intragroup cooperation (Brewer, 2003).
Research has established that the needs for optimal distinctiveness and groups that meet these
needs play a substantial role in group identification, social cognition, and intergroup behavior
(e.g., Abrams, 1994, 2009; Badea, Jetten, Czukor, & Askevis-Leherpeux, 2010; Leonardelli &
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 17
Brewer, 2001; Pickett & Brewer, 2001; Pickett, Bonner & Coleman, 2002). Importantly, one
way to meet the needs for inclusion and differentiation is through membership in optimally
distinctive groups – moderately inclusive numerical minorities – as these groups are
simultaneously distinctive from the larger majority group and also have high degrees of inclusion
within the group. In intergroup contexts that differentiate a sufficiently small numerical minority
from a majority, members of the numerical minority are presumed to take an ingroup-only
categorization, as the benefits derived from an optimally distinctive ingroup is one of sustained
intragroup cooperation (Leonardelli & Loyd, 2014).
By contrast, membership in numerical majorities, while meeting the need for inclusion,
lack distinctiveness because of their large size. There are two ways, we have previously argued
(Leonardelli & Brewer, 2001; Leonardelli et al., 2010), that majority group members could
consider as ways of increasing distinctiveness. First, they could reduce identification with the
majority, thereby reducing the perception that the majority is a social category, and increasing
their individual distinctiveness. As noted earlier, such a shift away from majority categorization
need not affect perceptions of the minority as an outgroup category. Thus, reducing identification
with the majority group could manifest an outgroup-only categorization. However, to the extent
that majority group members are induced to identify with their group, we have argued
(Leonardelli & Brewer, 2001; Leonardelli et al., 2010) they will seek to increase the
distinctiveness of their group relative to the other. Under such conditions, majority group
members are expected to form an intergroup categorization, an “us v. them” mindset, and in this
context, will seek to accentuate differences between their group and the other group.
Although these predictions have not been directly tested, some evidence indicates that the
needs for optimal distinctiveness are related to different types of self-categorizations (Zhong et
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 18
al., 2008). In one study, Zhong et al. explore under what conditions individuals would describe
themselves negationally, which we argue could be used as a proxy for outgroup-only
categorization. The research reveals that individuals motivated by a need for differentiation,
relative to those motivated by inclusion needs or those in a control condition, were more likely to
describe themselves negationally. Making a parallel to majority group memberships, those in a
majority group may find that they can meet their need for differentiation were they to
differentiate themselves from their ingroup, and take an outgroup-only categorization.
The above set of predictions suggests a potential dynamism of self-categorizations, where
depending on the circumstances, people may be motivated to shift their self-categorization from
referencing one category to two, or two to one. After all, the dynamic shift in self-categorization
(from outgroup to intergroup) may occur for some intergroup contexts, not others. For example,
consider the categorization used by Zhong et al. (2008), wherein they placed participants into
laboratory-created groups (using the minimal group paradigm; Tajfel et al., 1971) labeled either
“Type M” or “Not Type M.” Such negational categorizations, being described by what one is
not, we argue creates an outgroup categorization (the “Type M” outgroup is viewed as an
outgroup category, but the “Not Type Ms” are not perceived as an ingroup category). It may be
harder to shift from an outgroup categorization to an intergroup categorization resulting from
negational categorization than it would be for a majority group to do so. Negational
categorization does not identify features its members hold in common, whereas in a numerical
majority outgroup categorization is presumed to result from the group members’ needs to
differentiate themselves from the ingroup that has features held in common.
Certainly, more research is needed here, and we think these predictions point to more
generally the notion that the types and strength of motivation can shape their perceptions within
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 19
an intergroup context. We also think other causes matter too – such as individuals’ security
Security seeking. A great deal of research indicates that individuals seek security in their
social interactions (Bowlby, 1969; Brewer, 2003; Mikulincer & Shaver, 2001; Smith, Murphy, &
Coats, 1999; Tyler & Blader, 2003). Depending on the perspective, different theories advocate
for different types of groups that meet individuals’ needs for security. That noted, a common
characteristic they share is that, once achieved, they produce expectations of trust and
cooperation, where individuals feel they can depend on others, whether to meet their needs in
times of stress (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2001; Smith, Murphy, & Coats, 1999), reciprocate
cooperative acts (Brewer, 2003), or provide identity security and respect (Tyler & Blader, 2003;
for some empirical support, see Blader & Tyler, 2009). This research concludes that individuals
will turn to those groups that most strongly creating these feelings of security. Moreover, when
such feelings of security are not met by the group membership, security seeking has been known
to have strong implications for interdependence and intergroup behavior, leading to a greater
focus on social comparison (Gu, Bohns, & Leonardelli, 2013; Leonardelli, Bohns, & Gu, in
press), greater outgroup avoidance (Shah, Brazy, & Higgins, 2004; Sassenberg et al., 2007) and
less intergroup cooperation (Leonardelli & Toh, 2011). Security needs affect individuals’
preferences for category memberships and the intergroup behaviors they manifest when
members of groups. As such, we expect it to shape the kinds of self-categorizations individuals
manifest in systematic ways.
For social categories that are most likely to provide feelings of secured interdependence –
that is, interpersonal trust, interdependence and reciprocity – we expected group members to
self-categorize as ingroup-only. Were a social category perceived to be successful in meeting
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 20
individuals’ security needs, it will focus the attention of individuals to the intragroup dynamics
of the groups they consider, and less on others who are outside of the group. For example,
Brewer (2003) has argued that membership in optimally distinctive groups is most likely to be
defined by expectations of trust and cooperation, where members expect their cooperative acts to
be reciprocated by other group members. In this regard, then optimally distinctive groups
provide secured interdependence within the group, mutually reinforcing the notion that optimally
distinctive groups will be perceived as ingroup categorizations. The group engagement model
(Tyler & Blader, 2003) also argues that group members who are treated fairly by the group’s
authorities are more likely to identify with the group and cooperate on its behalf because of the
“identity security” and respect they feel as a result of the fair treatment. It is the intragroup
dynamics that lead individuals to identify with and cooperate on behalf of the group, and again
focusing attention on the ingroup with the categorization of an outgroup less relevant.
By contrast, in intergroup contexts, were individuals made to be vigilant of or focused on
security needs, individuals may be more likely to form or shift self-categorizations to those that
differentiate the perceiver from an outgroup (i.e., intergroup or outgroup-only categorizations).
Some research supports this prediction. Recent research (Shah et al., 2004) has investigated the
effects on intergroup behavior of regulatory focus (Higgins, 1997; see also Scholer & Higgins,
2008), which refers to two ways that individuals can approach a desired end or goal. On the one
hand, they may approach it with a focus on safety and security (a prevention focus) or they may
do so by focusing on growth and opportunity (a promotion focus). Shah et al. revealed that group
members with a prevention focus were more likely to exhibit ingroup bias (i.e., preferential
treatment for the ingroup over the outgroup) in a particular way, by avoiding the outgroup,
suggesting the notion that outgroups form a larger focus in intergroup contexts when individuals’
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 21
needs for security are aroused (see also Miller, Maner, & Becker, 2010). Also of interest was that
individuals with a promotion focus were also likely to exhibit ingroup bias by approaching the
ingroup. This suggests the possibility that, under conditions where individuals have their security
needs met and are instead in a state of growth an exploration, they will be more likely to prefer
an orientation that takes an ingroup focus (ingroup-only or intergroup categorization).
Additional research conducted by Gu et al. (2013) supports this thinking too. Gu et al.
investigated regulatory focus in interdependent decision-making contexts. Although their
contexts was not explicitly interdependence between groups, it offers insight into what might
occur in intergroup contexts. In their rsearch, participants were to decide on how best to
distribute outcomes to themselves and another party, and to do so in a prevention or promotion
focus. What was striking regulatory focus did not predict differences in how prosocial or proself
participants were likely to be. Rather, individuals with a prevention rather than a promotion
focus exhibited a stronger preference for what were called relative outcomes, outcomes that
either maximized the difference in value in the participant’s favor (relative gain) or that
minimized the difference in outcomes between the parties (equality). This research, we think
suggests that a security focus in an intergroup context would maintain attention intergroup
differentiation, and thus provoking the formation of intergroup or outgroup-only categorizations.
These ideas are speculative, and would benefit from rigorous testing. Overall, then, the degree of
optimal distinctiveness and interdependent security are expected to yield different kinds of self-
categorizations, and explain when they shift.
We argue that such differences in social categorization necessarily entail psychologically
relevant shifts in self and other perception. Moreover we argue that these differences in
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 22
categorization have implications for social cognition, intragroup dynamics, and intergroup
dynamics. We offer some possibilities for future research.
Prototype complexity. It is probable that the degree of specificity and descriptiveness of
the group prototype may differ between one and two category perceptions. Research (Rosch &
Mervis, 1975) has demonstrated that a stimulus is judged more prototypical of a category when it
has features that are most likely ascribed to members of the category and least likely ascribed to
members of other categories. Using natural objects for purposes of categorization (such as
furniture and cars), they explored which features of participants were likely to associate with
members of each category (e.g., chair, sofa, and table for furniture, and car, truck, and bus for
vehicles). They found that members considered most prototypical of each category were most
defined by features held in common by many members of the category, and were also not held in
common by members of a contrasting category. Applying such evidence to self-categorization,
we argue that member prototypicality in a two-category context will necessarily be constrained
by the prototype(s) of the other category(ies), thus yielding more complex category prototypes
than those originating from one-group categorizations.
Consider categorizing high school students as jocks and nerds. Prototypes readily come
to mind as we consider these categorizations, one of a big dumb athlete and another of a spindly
brainiac. Features affirmatively describing one (big and strong for the athlete, smart for the nerd)
are also applied to the other (the jock is dumb, the nerd is weak). Separately, however, the
categories are not obligated to delimit their prototype by the other category’s features. High
school athletes, when considered alone, can be smart, and smart adolescents athletic. Consistent
with this rationale, any attempt at redefinition in judgments of prototypicality will be in part
dependent on changing the comparison group (Hogg & Terry, 2000). By contrast, with one-
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 23
group categorizations, the features that are most shared in common within the prototype of the
single category are not constrained by features of those outside the category, nor are there
additional features that do not apply. Holding all else equal, such prototypes may have: 1)
features more determined by subgroups or exemplars than via comparison with other categories
(Krueger & Clement, 1994), 2) fewer features, at a given level of self-categorization,
determining judgments of prototypicality, and 3) greater malleability in how the prototype is
defined (see also Tajfel, 1969).
Self-stereotyping. According to self-categorization theory (Turner, 1987; Hogg &
Turner, 1987), self-categorization entails self-stereotyping, wherein an individual “systematically
biases self-perception and behaviour to render it more closely in accordance with stereotypic
ingroup characteristics and norms” (Hogg & Turner, 1987, p. 326). Research has indicated that
the more salient a self-categorization, the more individuals are likely to self-stereotype, by
describing themselves by the characteristics of the group prototype (e.g., Hogg & Turner, 1987;
Pickett, Bonner, & Coleman, 2002; Simon & Hamilton, 1994; Spears, Doosje, & Ellemers, 1997;
Yang et al., 2013). Self-stereotyping has been assumed to occur by indexing the degree to which
group members not only define themselves by the characteristics of the ingroup but also reject
the characteristics of the outgroup (e.g., Cadinu et al., 2013; Brown & Turner, 1981; Turner,
1982; Simon & Hamilton, 1994).
However, we think that the three kinds of self-categorization can fundamentally affect
self-stereotyping by affecting the basis of comparison. Whereas self-stereotyping resulting from
intergroup categorization will result in comparisons with the ingroup or outgroup, whichever is
the category. For example, self-stereotyping may take the form of embracing ingroup
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 24
characteristics (with no reference to an outgroup) or rejecting outgroup characteristics (without
any reference to ingroup characteristics).
Stereotype formation. Stereotypes form when individuals perceive categories (Allport,
1954/1979; Devine, 1989; Gilbert & Hixon, 1991; Johnson, Freeman, & Pauker, 2012; Tajfel,
1969). In this regard, one-group categorizations thus yield asymmetrical stereotype formation,
with one group, but not the other, described in terms of stereotypes. Unclassified collections of
people are undefined – either unknown or with no discernable features held in common – and
consequently, no stereotype can be applied to them. However, if individuals shift classification
from ingroup-only to intergroup categorization, then they also simultaneously form or pull forth
a stereotype of that categorization.
Entititativity. The lack of definition in the unclassified may make it perceived as “less
like a group.” It might be assumed that non-categorized are less coordinated, and less likely to
work together. In the outgroup-only context, the individual lacks the definition to understand
what the un-categorized stand for and to organize collective action if needed. In the ingroup only
context, the non-categorized may be viewed as less threatening to the extent to which the ingroup
concludes that the non-categorized too are unlikely to make concerted efforts against them.
Conformity. The presence of prototypes may also have implications for conformity.
Research (Abrams & Hogg, 1990; Abrams et al., 1990; McGarty et al., 1992; Turner & Oakes,
1986; Wetherell, 1987) has established that a social category’s prototypical response (rather than
the average response of group members) about an attitude can lead to greater conformity (and
thus group polarization). There is an interesting possibility that, in an outgroup categorization,
because no such prototype exists upon which unclassified individuals can approach, no
conformity or polarization would occur. However, a distinct possibility could be that the
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 25
outgroup categorization creates mutual contrasting away from the outgroup prototype. This
would be an interesting direction for future research as well as for the domains of norm
compliance more generally (Cialdini et al., 1990).
Levels of categorization. One interesting implication of a prototype with fewer features
is that it may be easier to self-stereotype and feel included within an ingroup. Thus, an ingroup
derived from an ingroup-only categorization we believe will have fewer features that define the
group prototype than an ingroup in an intergroup categorization. There is also interesting
downstream potential of this explanation for the manifestation of dual identities (Crisp et al.,
2006; Dovidio, Gaertner, & Saguy, 2009; Gonzalez & Brown, 2003; Hornsey & Hogg, 2000;
Leonardelli et al., 2011; Leonardelli & Toh, 2011), wherein group members simultaneously
identify as a member of a superordinate ingroup as well as a member of a subgroup within that
superordinate. Perhaps it will be easier to allow the formation of different subgroups while
maintaining superordinate identification when the superordinate ingroup results from an ingroup-
only categorization rather than an intergroup categorization. These subgroups themselves may
also be likely to be ingroup-only, thereby allowing additional layers of nested hierarchies of
groups. Work life in organizations, for example, often comprises multiple nested layers of a
hierarchical group structure, with work teams nested within functional areas (e.g., Human
Resources, Accounting, IT) nested within the organization itself. It would be interesting to
explore the consequences of how far multiply nested self-categorizations (and the corresponding
nested identities) might go.
Intergroup behavior. The type of self-categorization may affect the type of favoritism
that is likely to manifest. Ingroup favoritism, typically defined as preferential treatment for the
ingroup over the outgroup, has been widely studied and considered a consequence of social
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 26
categorization, even under the most minimal of circumstances (Tajfel et al., 1971; see also
Brewer, 1979, and for a meta-analysis, see Mullen, Brown, & Smith, 1992). That noted, there
exist different types and functions for ingroup favoritism (Scheepers, Spears, Doojse, &
Manstead, 2006). Early evidence indicated that social categorization produced what could be
called “relative” ingroup favoritism, where group members sought to maximize the differences
of their group’s outcome above and beyond that received by the outgroup (Tajfel et al., 1971; see
also Turner, 1975). Such favoritism could be distinguished from absolute ingroup favoritism,
where group members seek to maximize the outcomes on behalf of their group, regardless of
how much the outgroup receives. As stated elsewhere (Leonardelli & Brewer, 2001; Leonardelli
et al.,2010), although we do not believe that self-categorization alone determines ingroup
favoritism (rather, favoritism requires motivated behavior and self-categorization is cognitive),
we think that it can shape the type of favoritism exhibited by group members. In this regard,
perceiving ingroup-only categorizations are more likely to shape the expression of favoritism so
that it is absolute rather than relative favoritism, whereas perceiving an intergroup categorization
is more likely than ingroup categorizations to produce relative ingroup favoritism. Some
evidence supports this. Research has indicated that members of numerical minorities, who we
have argued are likely to take ingroup categorizations, are more likely to exhibit absolute
ingroup favoritism, whereas members of a numerical majority are more likely than minority
group members to exhibit relative ingroup favoritism (Leonardelli & Brewer, 2001; Sachdev &
Outgroup categorizations are a different beast. Over a decade ago, Brewer (1999) made a
now classic distinction, arguing that the preferential treatment of ingroups (ingroup favoritism) is
not the same as outgroup derogation, the negative treatment of outgroups, and expression of one
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 27
does not necessarily imply the presence of the other. In this regard, group members may exhibit
ingroup love without hatred of the outgroup. Resonating with this argument, we propose that
individuals observing outgroup categorization are more likely than individuals in other self-
categorizations to exhibit outgroup derogation. Evidence reported by Zhong et al. (2008)
supports this prediction, finding that individuals in a negational categorization (defined by what
they were not, who we consider to be adopting an outgroup categorization) exhibited greater
outgroup derogation than individuals in an affirmational category (what we expect to create an
There was an interesting twist in the evidence collected by Zhong et al. (2008). In
addition to exhibiting outgroup derogation, members of the negational identity also exhibited
ingroup favoritism to similar degrees exhibited by members of the affirmational category. So far,
we have concluded that the kind of self-categorization shapes the expression of intergroup
behavior, and an outgroup categorization emphasizes differentiation with the outgroup. Such
differentiation may occur negatively (via derogation) or positively (via expressions of
favoritism). Too, such favoritism may suggest support for the phenomenological interpretation of
outgroup categorization as “me versus them.” Future research would benefit from exploring how
best to explain this evidence.
Interpreting the uncategorized. With one-group categorizations, individuals are either
categorized or not. In this regard, it speaks to former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s
perhaps infamous distinction between the “known knowns” and the “known unknowns.” One
side of the between-class divide is well—defined, the other is not. How individuals respond to
the uncategorized group of individuals may depend on how threatening or secure individuals
feel. On the one hand, when threat systems are engaged, individuals in an ingroup-only
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 28
classification are unable to define the outgroup, potentially making the experience of an
uncategorized group more threatening. However, if threat systems are not engaged, then
individuals operating with ingroup-only classifications may ignore the uncategorized. By
contrast, in outgroup-only classification, individuals have no way to create a sense of attachment
or commonality to a group. “Not them” is accurate, it can even be distinctive (Zhong et al.,
2008), but it is not sufficiently self-defining. If individuals feel secure in the outgroup-only
context, the lack of definition of the uncategorized is comfortable. However, if threatened, a need
for definition may arise to provide security.
In our reviews of categorization and social categorization theory, we conclude that there
are three kinds of self-categorizations that may occur: ingroup-outgroup categorization, ingroup-
only categorization, and outgroup-only categorization. The paper reviews the manifestations,
causes, and some consequences of these self-categorizations. The paper attempts to more clearly
define alternatives to the intergroup categorization most studied in the literature. We propose that
in one-group categorizations, the other group is not psychologically relevant. In such cases, what
we understand and accept as likely reactions to an intergroup context is called to question. Given
the novelty of what has been presented, the one-group categorizations are in need of further
theoretical and empirical development to fully understand and verify the causes and
consequences we have presented here as well as others that we have not anticipated. Admittedly,
this discussion was limited to focusing on contexts wherein one or two categories are likely to
manifest. These, we conclude, are certainly psychologically relevant and have great potential for
future research, but such contexts fail to acknowledge that there are also contexts wherein there
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 29
can be three, four or more categories. Perhaps these too offer psychologically relevant intergroup
contexts, and it would behoove us to consider them as well.
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 30
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Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 45
Kinds of Self-Categorization
(Us and Them)
Note. Table represents category formation as a result of meta-contrast. Meta-contrast
indicates that perceivers believe individuals share the feature(s) and the feature(s) are
perceived as different from others, resulting in categorization. Perceivers could observe
categories of their own feature(s), another’s feature(s), for both or for neither.
Three Kinds of Self-Categorization 46
Geoffrey Leonardelli Biography
Geoffrey J. Leonardelli (Ph.D. in Social Psychology, The Ohio State University) is an
Associate Professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management and
Department of Psychology. His research targets teams and groups, leadership, and negotiations,
with special focus on social categorization. He has published over 20 papers, including some in
outlets such as Psychological Science, Journal of Applied Psychology, and Personality and
Social Psychology Bulletin, and he serves on the editorial board of the Journal of Experimental
Social Psychology. Geoff has been featured in media outlets internationally, and his research was
included in the 2008 New York Times Year in Ideas. He has held visiting appointments at the
University of Amsterdam (1999), Kellogg School of Management (2002-2004), and University
of Queensland (2011). (Add.: 105 St. George St, Toronto ON M5S 3E6, Canada; e-mail:
Soo Min Toh Biography
Soo Min Toh (Ph.D. in Management, Texas A&M University) is an Associate Professor at the
University of Toronto’s Department of Management at Mississauga and the Rotman School of
Management. Her research focuses on the role of culture in women leader emergence,
expatriate/immigrant adjustment, workplace aggression, and knowledge transfer. Her research
has been published in major academic and practitioner journals in the disciplines of management
and psychology, and frequently featured in the media such as the New York Times, Reuters,
FT.com, Estada (Brazil), and The Times (UK). (Add.: 3359 Mississauga Rd N, Mississauga ON
L5L 1C6, Canada; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)