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Explaining Group Influence: The Role of Identity and Emotion in Political Conformity and Polarization


Evidence has accumulated that people often conform to political norms. However, we know little about the mechanisms underlying political conformity. Whose norms are people likely to follow, and why? This article discusses two phenomena—social identity and “self-conscious” emotions—that are key to understanding when and why people follow the crowd. It argues that adherence to in-group norms is a critical basis of status among in-group peers. Conformity generates peer approval and leads to personal pride. Deviance generates disapproval and causes embarrassment or shame. These emotional reactions color an individual’s political perspectives, typically generating conformity. These same mechanisms can spur between-group polarization. In this case, differentiation from the norms of disliked out-groups results in peer approval and pride, and conformity to out-group norms disapproval and embarrassment or shame. This framework is supported by the results of two experiments that examine the influence of group opinion norms over economic and social aspects of citizens’ political ideologies. One exogenously varies the social identity of attitudinal majorities; the other primes the relevant emotions. In addition to contributing to the study of political conformity and polarization, this article adds to our growing understanding of the relevance of social identity and emotion to political life.

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  1. 1.

    While political scientists often associate norms with behavior, group norms may be behaviors, thoughts, or even feelings that are typical within a group (Hogg and Reid 2006, p. 8).

  2. 2.

    Many types of groups are relevant, ranging from face-to-face (e.g., workplace, neighborhood) to broader demographic (e.g., race, sex, religious) groups. A person who identifies with a group perceives it to be an important element of his or her personal self-concept (Tajfel and Turner 1986).

  3. 3.

    This article focuses on descriptive norms (an opinion held or behavior engaged in by the majority), not injunctive norms (opinions or behaviors considered socially desirable or even morally correct). Note, however, that the line between descriptive and injunctive norms is unclear. Like injunctive norms, descriptive norms typically suggest to people how they ought to behave (Theiss-Morse 2009), signaling opinions and behaviors “appropriate” for group members (Turner et al. 1987). Also similar to injunctive norms, descriptive norms can be enforced via social-psychological rewards and sanctions (Scheff 1988).

  4. 4.

    See also work by Elster on adherence to social norms (e.g., 1999).

  5. 5.

    Many definitions of polarization exist. In this article, polarization refers to the phenomenon whereby the norms of two or more groups increasingly differ from one another over time.

  6. 6.

    The borders of social identity theory are ambiguous, in large part because it has spawned an enormous literature. A common error is to attribute theoretical propositions and empirical insights associated with self-categorization theory to social identity theory, particularly in the arena of social influence (see Haslam et al. 2010). Such confusion is understandable given the overlapping themes (social identity) and authorship (Tajfel and Turner). And, in some cases, authors explicitly use the “social identity theory” label to refer to both theories, while clarifying that there exist two separate branches of the theory (e.g., Huddy 2001; Huddy and Khatib 2007). In this article, the term “social identity perspective” is used as an umbrella term to refer to both theories together along with newer theories that build on their insights.

  7. 7.

    These studies do not argue that homophily does not contribute to within-group similarity; rather, they argue that group influence over the individual and homophily both are reasons for within-group similarity but also that their effects can be disentangled through experimentation.

  8. 8.

    Defining emotion is notoriously difficult. Lazarus (1991) says that “emotion is an integrative, organismic concept that…unites motivation, cognition, and adaptation in a complex configuration” (40). Cognitive appraisals of whether and how a situation is relevant to an individual’s goals set in motion (ideally) adaptive action tendencies and coping mechanisms. Much of this psychological and physiological activity occurs automatically and subconsciously, but some may be conscious, including subjectively felt “feelings.”

  9. 9.

    Self-categorization theory also includes this idea, but Turner casts it in cognitive terms (Turner 1985, p. 261) and does not incorporate it into his explanation for conformity and polarization. Turner’s de-emphasis of the self-esteem plank of social identity theory may stem from uneven empirical support for this proposition (see Brown 2000). The self-esteem hypothesis discussed in this article is related but clearly distinct from that discussed as a part of social identity theory.

  10. 10.

    While Lazarus argues that the main difference between these two emotions is intensity level (Lazarus 1991), note that some argue for differences in kind as well as degree (e.g., see Miller 2007).

  11. 11.

    Intergroup emotions theory, a broadly applicable theory developed by Smith and Mackie (see, e.g., Mackie et al. 2009), argues that, when social identity is salient, people will appraise situations and experience relevant emotions in accord not with their personal identities but, rather, with their social identities. For example, when a social identity is highly salient, an out-group attack on the in-group is experienced as an attack on the self, and fear or anger directed at the out-group is generated as a result. Luhtanen and Crocker (1992) provide an updated take on social identity theory’s “need for positive distinctiveness” with their construct “collective self-esteem,” i.e., that part of an individual’s self-esteem that is derived from the status of one’s in-group(s) within society at large. This concept is distinct from what they call “membership esteem,” that part of self-esteem stemming from one’s status as an individual within the group. While collective self-esteem may be the cause of many important intergroup phenomena (including prejudice and people’s desire to “exit” low status groups), emotions scholars have made clear that within-group conformity hinges on membership esteem.

  12. 12.

    Many distinguish between “informational influence” (“true” influence based on information) and “normative influence” (surface compliance due to an effort to ingratiate oneself with peers) (Deutsch and Gerard [1955] 1965) but others have challenged this dichotomy (e.g., Turner et al. 1987; Hogg and Reid 2006). This article suggests that what many would call “normative influence” can in fact cause the “true” influence often associated with informational influence.

  13. 13.

    It is common for causal variables to be both mediators and moderators in a theoretical framework. This is the case with respect to self-conscious emotions in the model proposed herewith (see the “An Integrated Perspective on Social Influence” section). Because the critical test of emotions’ causal influence in Study 2 below involves exogenous arousal, a moderation test is performed. However, one could argue that—taken together—the two studies test mediation: Group norms arouse self-conscious emotions in Study 1, and their causal effects are demonstrated in Study 2 (see Bullock et al. 2010; Imai et al. 2012).

  14. 14.

    While a religious person’s opinions on social issues are also influenced by religious doctrine, religious leaders, etc., the focus here will be specifically on religious peer influence.

  15. 15.

    Reflecting the demographic attributes of the participating Archdiocese, the sample is more racially homogeneous (98 % white) and upper-income (50 % middle-class; 40 % upper-middle class) than U.S. Catholics as a whole. (National statistics from Pew Research Center 2008.)

  16. 16.

    American Evangelicals and Catholics tend to be mutually exclusive groups (Putnam and Campbell 2010). Only one participant, removed from the sample, identified as Evangelical. In the post-test, participants rated Evangelicals 25 points lower than Catholics on average on a 100-point scale. (Ratings were not influenced by experimental treatments.)

  17. 17.

    The questions that make up the identity measure reflect the social identity perspective’s definition of “identification”: “the extent to which the category is valued and contributes to an enduring sense of self” (Haslam et al. 2010, p. 349). By design, the measure is somewhat out of sync with self-categorization theory’s exclusively cognitive focus (the “importance” question has an affective component). However, the measure admittedly does not emphasize affiliative, emotional attachments to the same extent as those of some authors, such as Theiss-Morse (2009).

  18. 18.

    Because the information does not challenge de facto assumptions, it is unlikely to influence participants.

  19. 19.

    Note that confidence intervals surrounding two estimates that are significantly different from one another may still overlap somewhat. (Confidence intervals are wider than standard errors.)

  20. 20.

    Statistical tests assessing experimental group balance on demographic and political variables showed that randomization was successful and, therefore, no control variables were used.

  21. 21.

    One-tailed tests are employed throughout this section given the directional nature of the hypotheses. Note p-values for the following additional contrasts: Catholics conservative vs. Catholics progressive (p = .07); Catholics conservative vs. Evangelicals conservative (p = .08).

  22. 22.

    Similar results are obtained if this treatment effect is estimated separately for those with Catholic identities above vs. at/below the scale midpoint. Those with strong Catholic identities appeared to shift their views in the progressive direction in response to the “Evangelicals are conservative” stimulus (b = −.126, p ≤ .01) but weak identifiers did not.

  23. 23.

    The total N available is too small for a test of H6 (emotion moderation). The reason for the small N is as follows: (1) For methodological reasons, the analysis cannot include the control group (because the emotion questions asked for reactions to the treatments) or participants who said in the pre-test that they disagreed with socially conservative Church teachings (a different emotional pattern is expected from such individuals, and there are too few to analyze separately). (2) There was significant attrition prior to the emotion questions because they followed a difficult screening question at the end of the study. This attrition is statistically unrelated to treatment group and, thus, does not threaten the causal inferences. The final N is 31.

  24. 24.

    The identity moderation hypothesis (H4) was only partially supported, however; strong identifiers were not more likely than low identifiers to shift in a progressive direction when exposed to progressive in-group norms. One explanation for this null result is that some of the most devoted Catholics, who also tended to be the most conservative, may have dismissed the progressive Catholics depicted in the study as not “true Catholics.” Borrowing again from Turner (1991), if an in-group norm is too different from a person’s personal beliefs, he or she may choose to redraw group boundaries—separating him or herself from the former in-group—rather than conform. Exploring when such identity redefinition occurs is an important topic for further study.

  25. 25.

    Demographics are as follows: 47 % Democratic, 23 % Republican, and 31 % Independent or “other.” 78 % white, 8 % African American, 7 % Asian, 5 % Hispanic, and 2 % Native American. Men made up 52 % of the sample. The mean age was 19.

  26. 26.

    A post-test probe did not turn up any skepticism with regard to the veracity of these stimuli.

  27. 27.

    In other words, “incidental affect” (orthogonal to study content) rather than “integral affect” (arising in response to related content) is examined (see Blanchette and Richards 2010). The former allows one to more cleanly isolate the causal influence of emotion on the dependent variable; the latter is usually intertwined with cognitive content related to the study.

  28. 28.

    In most cases, these individuals expressed mild opposition to just one of the statements. While there are too few cases for separate analysis here, note that adding these individuals to the analyses that follow does not considerably alter the results.

  29. 29.

    Patterns of results presented below are similar when the variables are assessed separately.

  30. 30.

    This battery of questions was based on a widely-used emotion measure called the “Profile of Mood States” (POMS) created by McNair and Droppleman (1971).

  31. 31.

    Note that it is inappropriate to test the moderating effect of emotion in this study by comparing the opinion treatment effect across levels of embarrassment and pride separately and for all participants, regardless of treatment. To illustrate, take the case of embarrassment. The meaning and effects of a high level of embarrassment differ depending on whether it occurs in participants who received the pro-individualism or the anti-individualism treatment. In response to the anti-individualism treatment, where the participant is in the minority, embarrassment signals a participant is likely to conform, as expected; however, in response to the pro-individualism treatment, the unusual circumstance of embarrassment in response to being in the majority suggests a participant may instead deviate from the perceived norm because he or she is, evidently, uncomfortable being in the mainstream. (A parallel, opposite, result would occur if one concentrated on pride.) Thus, despite a focus on one emotion, the changing context means such an analysis is not comparing like to like. Interacting the opinion treatment variable with the above-described Self-Conscious Emotion Intensity scale better tests the emotion moderation hypothesis.

  32. 32.

    Randomization successfully balanced the treatment groups with respect to age and political ideology but not sex or race. These two variables are therefore added to the analyses as controls; however, their addition does not substantially alter the results of the analyses.

  33. 33.

    Note that this study tests H6 in the context of conformity to in-group norms. Future research will be needed to address the emotion moderation hypothesis with respect to polarization in response to out-group norms.

  34. 34.

    While hypotheses with clear directional claims continue to be tested, the F ratio is akin to a two-tailed test.

  35. 35.

    Self-reported emotion is entered into the ANOVA as a continuous variable, i.e., the analysis is technically an ANCOVA (with interaction). While this variable theoretically ranges from 0 to 1, the actual range is 0–.75 because few participants reported experiencing extreme emotion.

  36. 36.

    An average of three basic emotions: anxiety, anger, and enthusiasm (see, e.g., Panksepp 1994).


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A great many people have contributed to this article by sharing their insightful observations, criticisms, and suggestions. I would like to especially thank my dissertation committee—Ted Brader, Don Herzog, Don Kinder, and David Winter. I also received helpful comments from Kevin Arceneaux, John Bullock, Eric Dickson, Erika Franklin Fowler, Eric Groenendyk, Marc Hetherington, Nathan Kalmoe, Chris Karpowitz, Skip Lupia, George Marcus, Roger Masters, Ngoc Phan, Stephanie Preston, Lynn Sanders, Laura Stoker, and three anonymous reviewers. I am grateful to The University of Michigan for generous financial support during my graduate education as well as to the Catholic leaders and community members in Michigan who made Study 1 possible.

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Correspondence to Elizabeth Suhay.

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As of July 1, 2014, the author will be Assistant Professor of Government at American University.


Appendix 1: Religious Identity and Social Conservatism Experiment (Study 1)


[Headline insert]
As you may know, the issue of “family values” continues to be discussed in the media. From time-to-time, public opinions polls are carried out to find out what different types of Americans believe regarding family values. [Body insert A] According to the survey:
[Body insert B]
What about you? We would like to know your opinion on family values.
  Catholics Conservative Condition Catholics Progressive Condition Evangelicals Conservative Condition
Headline insert Recent Polls Indicate Catholics Are Strong Supporters of Family Values Recent Polls Indicate Catholics Are Less Supportive of Family Values Recent Polls Indicate Evangelicals Are Strong Supporters of Family Values
Body insert A For example, one recent survey indicates that American Catholics today continue to strongly support traditional family values For example, one recent survey indicates that American Catholics today seem to question the importance of traditional family values For example, one recent survey indicates that American Evangelical (or “born again”) Christians today are strong supporters of traditional family values
Body insert B The majority of Catholics who marry stay married and never divorce A majority of Catholics say one can be a good Catholic without obeying the Church’s teaching on divorce A majority of Evangelicals say that divorce should be avoided, even in the event of an unhappy marriage
A majority of Catholics oppose abortion A majority of Catholics say one can be a good Catholic without obeying the Church’s teaching on abortion A majority of Evangelicals oppose abortion
A majority of Catholics oppose gay marriage A majority of Catholics say the Church’s opposition to gay marriage is not very important to them A majority of Evangelicals oppose gay marriage


Social Conservatism Scale

Divorce Subscale

  • Divorce in this country should be more difficult to obtain than it is now.

  • Divorce is usually the best solution when a couple can’t seem to work out their marriage problems.

Premarital Sex Subscale

  • It is wrong for a man and a woman to have sexual relations before marriage.

  • It’s a good idea for a couple who intend to get married to live together first.

Gay Rights Subscale

  • Sexual relations between two adults of the same sex is wrong.

  • Homosexual couples should have the right to marry one another.

Sex and Young People Subscale

  • Sex education has no place in the nation’s public schools.

  • Methods of birth control should be available to teenagers who need them.

Abortion Question

  • There has been discussion about abortion during recent years. Which one of the opinions below best represents your view? By law, abortion should never be permitted./The law should permit abortion only in the case of rape, incest, or when the woman’s life is in danger./The law should permit abortion for reasons other than rape, incest, or danger to the woman’s life, but only after the need for the abortion has been clearly established./By law, a woman should always be able to obtain an abortion as a matter of personal choice./Other

Catholic Identity Scale

How important is being Catholic to you?

How well does the term “Catholic” describe you?

Emotional Reactions to Stimuli

Did the information make you feel [proud/ashamed]?

Appendix 2: Self-Conscious Emotions and Economic Individualism Experiment (Study 2)

Pro-Individualism Stimulus


In the spring of 2005, researchers at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) carried out opinion polls of college students at ten major universities throughout the United States, including The University of Michigan. UCLA researchers asked random samples of undergraduate students at each university about what majors they chose and why, about study habits and extracurricular activities, about Internet use, about their consumer habits, and, finally, about various social attitudes and political opinions.

Two of the survey questions focused on attitudes regarding “economic individualism.” According to results published last year in Public Opinion Quarterly, most University of Michigan students agree with this principle.

64 % of University of Michigan undergraduates either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “Individuals should strive to be financially self-reliant.”

61 % of University of Michigan undergraduates either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement “One ought to work hard in life.”

19. You were asked to respond to the same two statements on page 2. Compare your answers to the published data and then check the appropriate response below.

I am in agreement with the majority of University of Michigan undergraduate students….

____ on both survey items.

____ on one of the survey items.

____ on neither of the survey items.

Pride Stimulus

Take a moment to imagine each of the following scenarios, focusing on how each situation would make you feel. Then circle the situation that you believe would make you feel the best.

  1. a.

    You leave school in April to spend the summer at home. One of your goals is to improve the way you look—get in shape, buy some new clothes, maybe get a new haircut, etc. When you return to school in the fall, everyone tells you how great you look. You go to a party the first weekend back, and two cute guys (or girls) approach you during the evening and ask you out.

  2. b.

    You attend a family gathering over winter break with various family members. One of your relatives asks you how school is going. As it happens, you got straight As in the fall semester and have secured a really prestigious summer internship, all of which you tell your relatives. The group gushes about your accomplishments, and your mom looks especially pleased.

  3. c.

    You are standing on the curb of a busy street, waiting for the light to turn green so that you can cross, when you see a little girl wander away from her mother and dart into the street. You run after her into the traffic, pick her up, and return her to her mother. A small crowd that has gathered on the sidewalk to watch breaks into applause.

Embarrassment Stimulus

Take a moment to imagine each of the following scenarios, focusing on how each situation would make you feel. Then circle the situation that you believe would make you feel the worst.

  1. a.

    You are on a first date with someone you really like. You go to dinner, then to a party. As the evening is coming to an end, both of you are sitting together on a couch. Your date leans in close to you, and you’re thinking it is finally time for a kiss. But, instead, your date whispers to you, “Sorry to tell you this, but, uh, the zipper on your pants has been down since we left the restaurant.”

  2. b.

    It’s a warm spring day, and you are walking through the Diag, which is filled with students socializing, studying, playing Frisbee, etc. All of a sudden you trip and, with a loud grunt, fall down. Several books and the bag you had been carrying scatter all around you. Everyone on the Diag seems to stop what they are doing to stare at you sprawled out on the pavement.

  3. c.

    You are attending the wedding ceremony of a family member. The room is quiet, except for the bride and groom exchanging their vows. All of a sudden you get a case of the hiccups. Hiccup! Hiccup! A number of people sitting around you turn to you and say “shhhhh……” You put your hand over your mouth, but you can’t stop hiccupping.

Dependent Measures

The federal government currently gives money for college to many low-income high school graduates. Some people believe that these college grants should go only to those low-income graduates who have taken rigorous courses in high school. Suppose these people are at one end of a scale, at point 1. Other people feel that such college grants should go to all low-income high school graduates, regardless of what courses they have taken. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2–6. Where would you place yourself on this scale?

Currently, the government in Washington provides aid to low-income, single mothers who have dependent children; this program is typically referred to as “welfare.” Some people feel that the government should require these women to work in order to receive welfare benefits. Suppose these people are at one end of the scale, at point 1. Others feel that the government should provide welfare regardless of work status. Suppose these people are at the other end, at point 7. And, of course, some other people have opinions somewhere in between, at points 2–6. Where would you place yourself on this scale?

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Suhay, E. Explaining Group Influence: The Role of Identity and Emotion in Political Conformity and Polarization. Polit Behav 37, 221–251 (2015).

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  • Conformity
  • Polarization
  • Social identity
  • Emotion
  • Norms
  • Political opinion