Some people feel almost entirely fused with a social community or collective, such as a religious organization or political faction. That is, whenever they reflect upon themselves, they experience a powerful urge to support this collective. This fusion seems to increase the likelihood of violent, radical behavior (Swann, Gamez, Seyle, Morales, & Huici, 2009). That is, individuals become willing to die or murder to protect their collective or community.
According to social identity theory, individuals tend to form a diversity of identities. Sometimes, they might be aware of their unique or distinct qualities, called a personal identity. Other times, they might primarily direct their attention to the collectives in which they belong: a political faction, a sporting club, an ethnic category, a religious organization, an interest group, or many other possible communities, called social identities.
One of the key assumptions of social identity theory is that only one identity tends to be salient at any time, called functional antagonism. When individuals are aware of their distinct qualities and characteristics--their interests, appearance, or strengths, for example--they are not as cognizant of their social identities. They are not as likely, for example, to adopt the norms of these collectives. In contrast, when individuals are aware of their social identities, they are not as likely to demonstrate their usual personal inclinations& their typical interests, for example, are not as likely to govern their behavior (e.g., Turner, Hogg, Oakes, Reicher, & Wetherell, 1987).
In contrast, according to Swann, Gamez, Seyle, Morales, and Huici (2009), in some instances, the personal and social identities of individuals are entirely fused. That is, they do not distinguish between the personal and social identities. Any events that prime their personal identity will also activate their social identity and vice versa.
For example, after they consider their unique values, these fused individuals become more likely to follow the norms of this social identity or community, contrary to the assumptions of functional antagonism. Similarly, after they consider their communities, a sense of personal responsibility is evoked. They will, thus, feel the need to act as an agent or responsible representative of the group.
When the personal identity and social identity of individuals are fused, they are often more inclined to engage in radical, extremist behavior. To illustrate, individuals will sometimes feel their social identity is threatened. Their religion might be mocked, or their nation might experience economic turbulence, for example.
In these instances, like many people, they feel the need to defend this collective. However, unlike other people, their personal identity is also activated. Because both the social and personal identities are activated, they demonstrate two unique inclinations.
First, unlike other people, they cannot shift their identity to curb their emotions. If their social identity is threatened, they cannot orient their attention to their personal identity instead, such as their unique attributes. They cannot, therefore, neglect this threat to their social collective. Orientation of attention to their personal identity merely amplifies their social identity, intensifying their emotions.
Second, because their personal identity is still primed, they will feel a strong sense of personal responsibility or agency. These intense emotions, coupled with the sense of agency, often translates into quite vigorous, and even aggressive or violent, courses of action
Swann, Gamez, Seyle, Morales, and Huici (2009) collected data that confirm this set of propositions. Individuals reported the extent to which they feel their personal identity and social identity--in this instance, their allegiance to their nation--overlapped. Specifically, five pairs of circles, with varying levels of overlap, were presented. Participants specified which of these pairs represented the extent to which their personal and social identities overlapped. This method was derived from the self expansion model (e.g., Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992).
In particular, one of these pairs of circles overlapped entirely. Participants who chose these circles were assumed to demonstrate a fused identity.
When fused individuals received information that diverged from their perception of themselves, they endorsed items that imply a willingness to die or murder to protect their nationality. In one study, for example, participants specified five of their negative traits. Another person then, putatively, received a description of these traits. In one condition, this person maintained that most of these descriptions were positive--which diverges from the perception of participants. In another condition, this person maintained that most of these descriptions were negative.
Thus, only some of the participants received feedback that contradicts their perceptions of themselves (see self verification theory). This contradictory feedback tends to evoke a sense of unease. That is, this information challenges the personal identity of individuals.
If fused participants received this contradictory feedback, they often contended they were willing to die or murder to protect their nation. If other participants received this contradictory feedback, they did not express this willingness to die or murder to protect their nation.
Presumably, when the personal identity of fused participants is challenged, they also feel their social identity is compromised. That is, their personal and social identity are, in essence, equivalent to each other. Hence, they will strive to restore this social identity, while still feeling a sense of agency and power, sometimes translating into radical violence.
Swann, Gamez, Dovidio, Hart, and Jetten (2010) extended these findings. This extension was intended to show that fusion increases a preference towards personal sacrifice, rather than some other means, to protect their group.
In one study, participants first indicated the extent to which their personal identity overlaps with the national identity--that is, their connection to their nation, in this instance Spain. Participants who indicated that two overlapping circles best represents this association between their personal and national identity were designated as fused.
Next, participants read a variant of the classic trolley problem (Foot, 1967). Specifically, they were asked to imagine a runaway trolley soaring down a track. The were informed the trolley will kill five other Spaniards, working alongside the track. Participants were then asked whether or not they would be willing to jump from a bridge into the path of this trolley, to save the five Spaniards. Approximately, 75% of the fused participants reported a willingness to sacrifice their life to save these Spaniards& only 24% of the other participants reported this willingness to sacrifice their lives.
The second study was similar, except the scenario was changed slightly. Participants were told the trolley will kill five other Europeans rather than specifically Spaniards. In addition to sacrificing their life, participants were also granted the option to flip a switch that would divert the trolley, saving the five other Europeans but killing one Spaniard, working near the diverted track. Again, fused participants were more than twice as willing to sacrifice their own life to save the five Europeans. They were not as likely as other participants to either abstain from intervening or sacrifice another Spaniard.
The third study was similar except participants were also granted the option to sacrifice their life to save five Americans instead of five Europeans. None of the participants, regardless of whether they were fused, were prepared to sacrifice their life to save Americans.
The final study showed that fused participants were willing to sacrifice their life even after they were informed that another Spaniard would be prepared to sacrifice his or her life instead. That is, fused participants were almost twice as likely to prefer to sacrifice their own life than permit another Spaniard to sacrifice his or her life. Presumably, a fused identity also entails a personal identity, eliciting a sense of personal agency and responsibility.
Swann, Gamez, Huici, and Morales (2010) revealed that fusion can increase the likelihood that individuals will donate money to support a disadvantaged member of their community. In their study, participants first completed a measure that gauges whether or not they feel fused with their nationality, in this instance Spain. Participants who indicated that two entirely overlapping circles represent the association between the personal and national identity were assumed to be fused. Next, some participants engaged in physical exercise. Finally, at the end of this study, participants were granted an opportunity to donate money to needy Spaniards or to a high school party. Fusion increased the likelihood of donations to needy Spaniards, especially after exercise.
Fusion also affects the responses of individuals to ostracism or rejection. Specifically, when fused people are rejected or excluded--either by members of their own group or by members of other groups--they tend to feel even more compelled to behave aggressively and obsessively to assist this collective or community (Gomez, Morales, Hart, Vazquez, & Swann, Jr., 2011).
Specifically, when fused individuals are rejected or excluded, they obviously feel vulnerable. To overcome this feeling of vulnerability, they attempt to buttress or reinforce their identity. Because their identity is fused with the group, these individuals strive to reinforce their connection to the group. They become more loyal and willing to sacrifice their interests to enhance this group. In contrast, when people who are not fused are rejected, they do not necessarily exhibit these tendencies. Indeed, they tend to distance themselves from the source of this ostracism.
Gomez, Morales, Hart, Vazquez, and Swann (2011) conducted a series of studies that substantiate these propositions. In the first study, Spanish participants were first asked the extent to which their identity overlaps with their nationality. Second, they were informed they may participate in an online chat with people around the world. However, to elicit a sense of ostracism or rejection, some of these participants were then told the other people did not want anyone from Spain. Finally, participants were asked to indicate the extent to which they would fight someone, or even sacrifice their life, if their nation was threatened . Ostracism increased the likelihood that individuals would sacrifice their safety to support their nation, but only in fused participants.
The second study was similar, except individuals were excluded because their interests did not match the other people in the chat room. Nevertheless, the effect of exclusion in fused participants remained unchanged. The third study was similar, except the participants were excluded by members of their own group: other students from their university. Still, if participants were fused with their nation, exclusion increased their willingness to sacrifice for their nation. The fourth study showed that fused participants, when excluded, also become more willing to donate money to support this collective.
Swann, Gamez, Huici, and Morales (2010) showed that increases in autonomic arousal amplify the effects of fusion. That is, when individuals experience a sense of arousal, such as an increased heart rate, they feel a stronger sense of agency--a feeling of responsibility. Hence, the usual inclination of fused individuals to protect their group is magnified.
Swann, Gamez, Huici, and Morales (2010) conducted a series of studies that vindicate this possibility. First, individuals completed measures that assess whether or not they feel fused with their nationality, Spain. That is, participants who indicated that two entirely overlapping circles represent the association between the personal and national identity were assumed to be fused. The extent to which they feel a sense of identity to Spain was also measured.
Next, some but not all participants completed a task that was intended to increase arousal. They undertook a sport called dodgeball for five minutes.
Finally, participants were asked to indicate the degree to which they would be willing to fight to protect Spain. Typical questions include "I would fight someone physically threatening a Spaniard" or "Hurting other people is acceptable if it means protecting the group". Fused participants were more likely than other participants to endorse these violent actions, particularly after they engaged in dodge ball. Identification did not moderate the effect of arousal on endorsement of violent action.
The second study was similar, but showed that exercising alone also generated the same effect. Furthermore, this study demonstrated that participants would be willing to endorse extreme behavior to protect only the groups to which they were fused. If they were fused with Spain, they would hurt other people to protect Spaniards but not Europeans in general. If they were fused with Europe in general, they would hurt other people to protect Europeans. The third study was similar, but showed that fusion with Spain increased the willingness of individuals to donate money to support needy Spaniards, especially after exercise.
As Swann, Gamez, Huici, and Morales (2010) showed, the extent to which individuals feel a sense of agency or responsibility mediates the association between fusion and various behaviors. In one study, participants first completed a measure that gauges whether or not they feel fused with their nationality, Spain. Participants who indicated that two entirely overlapping circles represent the association between the personal and national identity were assumed to be fused. Next, some participants engaged in physical exercise. Then, participants completed a measure that assessed their level of agency or responsibility towards their nationality. Typical questions were "I feel responsible for what happens to the group" and "I have as much control over the group outcomes as my own actions".
Finally, participants evaluated the extent to which they would agree to engage in extreme actions, like violence, to protect their group. In addition, they were asked whether they would donate money to needy Spaniards.
Fusion did increase the likelihood that participants would engage in violent action and donate money to needy Spaniards, especially if they had previously engaged in exercise. These associations were mediated by a sense of agency and responsibility. Thus, because their personal identity is also evoked when their social identity is salient, they experience a sense of personal agency, promoting action.
In general, to assess whether the personal and social identities of individuals are fused, five pairs of circles, with varying levels of overlap, are presented. For each pair, one circle represents the personal identity of participants. The other circle represents their social identity, such as their ethnicity. Participants specify which of these pairs represent the extent to which their personal and social identities overlap. This method was derived from the self expansion model (e.g., Aron, Aron, & Smollan, 1992).
One of these pairs of circles overlap entirely. Participants who choose these circles are assumed to demonstrate a fused identity.
Importantly, as Swann, Gamez, Huici, and Morales (2010) showed in a pilot study, this measure of fusion is distinct from the degree to which a person identifies with the group. That is, individuals can identify appreciably with a group but not demonstrate fusion. Specifically, in this study, in addition to a measure of fusion, participants were also asked the degree to which their group is important to their identity. In addition, they were asked to specify the extent to which they felt committed to this group. Finally, participants were asked to indicate whether or not they would engage in extreme behavior to protect their group.
Fusion was associated with extreme behavior, even after importance and commitment to the group were controlled statistically. Thus, fusion cannot be reduced to level of identification, as represented by importance and commitment.
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Last Update: 7/17/2016