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Motivated identity construction theory

Author: Dr Simon Moss


People join and identify themselves with a variety of groups, from extremist organizations to charitable trusts. Understanding the motivation of individuals to join these groups could, therefore, greatly enhance society. This understanding, for example, may enable government to inhibit the motivation of people to gravitate towards extremist organizations and shift to charitable trusts instead.

Indeed, many theories have been proposed to characterize these motivations to join and identify with groups, such as social identity theory, optimal distinctiveness theory, and subjective uncertainty reduction theory. Specifically, according to these theories, people identify with groups to enhance their self-esteem, sense of distinctiveness, and feelings of certainty as well as to fulfill other motivations. Motivated identity construction theory was developed to integrate and to extend these perspectives (Vignoles, Manzi, Regalia, Jemmolo, & Scabini, 2008& Vignoles, Regalia, Manzi, Golledge, & Scabini, 2006).

Specifically, according to motivated identity construction theory, individuals primarily join or identify themselves with groups to fulfill one of six primary motives: a sense of distinctiveness, meaning, continuity, belonging, self-esteem, and efficacy. That is, people are especially likely to gravitate to groups that facilitate the capacity to feel distinct from other individuals, a sense of meaning, connected to the past and future, accepted among people who matter, positive about themselves, or competent and capable (Vignoles, Regalia, Manzi, Golledge, & Scabini, 2006).

However, two main classes of groups can be distinguished, each of which tend to fulfill distinct motives. Some groups are primarily abstract social categories, such as American or Liberal. In these groups, members may share some characteristic in common. Yet, most of the members do not interact with each other. These groups primarily evolve to enable people to define their identity, fulfilling the needs of distinctiveness, meaning, continuity, and self-esteem (Vignoles, 2011).

In contrast, other groups are not as abstract and involve many interpersonal interactions, such as sporting clubs or residents of the same house. These groups primarily evolve to enable people to enact their identity, fulfilling the needs of belonging, self-esteem, and efficacy (Vignoles, 2011).

Empirical evidence

Research that has examined the motives separately

Many studies have shown that people gravitate to groups to fulfill the six motives that are stipulated by motivated identity construction theory. Yet, many of these studies preceded the development of this theory and, therefore, examined only one or two of these motives at a time. For example, research has shown that people report greater wellbeing if they join or identify with groups that:

Evidence of identification over time

To substantiate motivated identity construction theory, Easterbrook and Vignoles (2012) conducted a study that examines identification of groups over time. In particular, the participants were university students, living in university accommodation. They received a questionnaire during their first week of accommodation and then on Weeks 4, 6, 8, and 10.

First, they were asked to indicate the extent to which they identify with two groups. The first group was their hall of residence. This group is considered an abstract social group, because individuals do not interact with all the other members of this hall. The second group was their flatmates, considered an interpersonal group. Individuals were asked to specify the extent to which they feel loyal to each group, refer to themselves as members of this group, perceive such membership as central, feel happy to be a member of this group, and like members of this group. These items were intended to gauge all the key facets of identification, such as solidarity, involvement, centrality, and satisfaction.

In addition, participants specified the extent to which each group fulfills the six motives. To measure these motives, participants answered the following questions:

The degree to which the groups fulfilled these motives tended to change over time. Specifically, if the halls of residence became more likely to fulfill the motives of distinctiveness, meaning, and self-esteem, the students became more inclined to identify with this hall. This finding confirms the proposition that people gravitate to abstract social groups to fulfill the need to feel distinct, a sense of meaning, and self-esteem. Fulfillment of the need for continuity did not correlate with identification with the halls of residence, perhaps because the formation of this identity was recent rather than established.

Furthermore, if the flatmates became more likely to fulfill the motives to feel a sense of belonging, self-esteem, and efficacy, the students were more likely to identify with this group of flatmates. This finding confirms the premise that people gravitate to interpersonal groups to fulfill the need to experience a feeling of belonging, self-esteem, and efficacy.


Easterbrook and Vignoles (2012) concede these six motives may not be comprehensive. For example, groups may fulfill the need of individuals to experience autonomy, a key feature of self-determination theory. Although whether autonomy attracts people to recent groups is contentious.


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Vignoles, V. L., Regalia, C., Manzi, C., Golledge, J., & Scabini, E. (2006). Beyond self-esteem: Influence of multiple motives on identity construction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 90, 308-333. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.90.2.308

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Last Update: 7/19/2016