08.04 Identities and Networks #2: How psychological processes relating to social identities and social networks interact to sustain cooperation

Project info

Project consists of following studies
This project capitalizes on the key (process) differences between the social identity and social network bases of cooperation, to examine how these can compensate for the negative tendencies of each other as routes to cooperation (vs. conflict) but also complement each other, and strengthen positive tendencies for cooperation over time (i.e., sustainability)
Project start
End date
Behavioral theory
Bleen Abraham
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Prof.dr. Andreas Flache
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Prof.dr. Russell Spears
Rijksuniversiteit Groningen
Work package
  • Work
Sustainability threat
  • Spillovers
  • Reconfiguring-roles-and-relationships
Theoretical background
Social identities and social networks are both sources of mutual influence and cooperation on the one hand, but also point to processes that undermine cooperation, especially in the long run. Shared identities and the connections and interaction with proximal others in social networks are likely to foster cooperation. However, those on the “other” side of category boundaries and excluded from networks provide no basis for trust and cooperation but can foster mistrust and even conflict (prejudice, discrimination, outgroup derogation. etc.). In this project we focus on the social psychological mechanisms and conditions under which social identity and network-based processes complement and compensate for each other, with a largely (lab’) experimental focus. The sister project (8.3) based in sociology focuses more on the network structural conditions with a more field based methodological focus. Both social identities and social networks provide potential answers to the question of why (sustainable) cooperation can be fostered but also why it is undermined. A key strength of social networks is that they foster interpersonal bonds and the interdependence/reciprocity associated with these can promote cooperation reinforced by proximity/accountability in the network. However, network approaches have also embraced broader social motives in line with the social identity approach (e.g., the role of homophily) and exploring this interaction is central to the current integration. Nevertheless, interdependence, when narrowly conceived can also be a weakness to the extent that it reinforces an instrumental mindset (tit-for-tat) making instrumental motives salient as a driver of relationship formation. This is predicted to be more typical for low group identifiers who are less focused on shared group identity and more on personal identity and interests (Milovanovic, 2020). The surveillance needed for sustaining reciprocity defined in this way is also costly and can thus become unsustainable (negative feedback loop). It is therefore important to differentiate instrumental and more social bases of relationship formation. The social identity approach has contrasted itself from (narrowly conceived) interdependence explanations and has focused on shared group identity (as a level of self, distinct from the personal self, implicated by interdependence/reciprocity), to explain group cooperation. The social identity approach, by contrast, proposes that the group defines not just the context in which the exchange of information and resources occurs, but also the level of identity relevant to this context (i.e., group/social identity). While the presence of a shared group identity can mitigate problems created by instrumentality and narrowly conceived individual self-interest, it creates other problems for sustainable cooperation, however. Specifically social identities and social categorization create group boundaries that stimulate ingroup bias, outgroup derogation and reduced cooperation (a negative spillover effect). The aim here is to take the insights from both approaches and investigate whether and when the strengths of the one approach can compensate for, and complement, the weaknesses of the other. Compensation. The value of having a shared group identity for fostering trust and cooperation and reducing a focus on individual self-interest is well established (Kramer & Brewer, 1984; Spears & Otten, 2017). However the problem here is that this cooperation does not generalize to outgroups and can even result in hostility towards them. Moreover, although some have argued that the social identity approach only predicts and explains “ingroup love” and not “outgroup hate”, our recent research shows that the latter can also be normative for the ingroup (Iacoviello & Spears, 2022). The group boundary issue is thus a major impediment to broader and more sustained cooperation. A key question is whether network relations traversing these group boundaries can help, by serving to blur or undermine them. Complementarity. A second aim of the project is to examine the complementarity of the social identity and network/interdependence approaches to understanding cooperation. These two traditions, often framed in competition with each other, could have complementary effects. Some recent evidence of this has emerged from our own research in the realm of social influence (Spears, 2021). This suggests that accountability is unnecessary for mutual influence if group identification is high and group identity salient, but also that accountability, when present under these conditions, is interpreted positively (i.e. not in terms of costs/benefits), reinforcing ingroup bonds, rather than creating an instrumental mindset detrimental to long-term cooperation. Rather than simply representing alternative bases of influence and cooperation, interdependence and identity process could thus complement each other both when one form is absent, but also when both are present. This is theoretically important because it casts interdependence based on narrowly conceived individual self-interest, in a less instrumental light. This is promising for the prospect of sustainable cooperation, but remains to be tested by research that examines cooperation directly (i.e., not influence) and assesses how lasting and sustainable this can be (see below).
Research design
Compensation. The proposed research will focus on issues most relevant to sustainability that have hitherto received less attention namely whether contact/network ties also include: 1) accountability/surveillance (i.e., whether cooperative behavior is visible and accountable), 2) communication: the degree of and possibility for communication, and 3) time: whether this occurs over time (versus “one shot”). A key question then is whether cooperation across group boundaries that requires accountability in the short term, persists once surveillance is removed, pointing to more sustainable cooperation. Possible mechanisms could be the establishment of trust among network contacts (an interpersonal process consistent with the reciprocity/ interdependence), or perhaps foster recategorization as one common ingroup (in line social identity principles). These themes will be investigated in a series of experiments, where the presence of contact/communication/accountability traversing group boundaries in early phases is removed later on to test whether cooperation persists. Complementarity. Our proposal is that the nature of interdependence can change in contexts characterized by a strong identity, and be driven by stronger group level morality-based identity motives (e.g., duty, obligation, self-sacrifice) than some notions of interdependence and reciprocity grounded in economic self-interest. This is theoretically important because the conditions under which the interdependence/reciprocity-based explanation can be transformed in this way, points towards a more sustainable basis for cooperation that does not require external monitoring (accountability, surveillance etc.) to keep it in place. These themes will be investigated in a series of experiments in lab and field (see Spears, 2021; Spears 2022, for analogous research directed at social influence).
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