Social Identity and Reminiscence – SIT – (3 of 3)

The previous blog post felt like I was running the risk of re-stating the blindingly obvious but in a theoretical framework that was new to me. This post concerns insights from Social Identity Theory which are relevant to reminiscence and which I found quite surprising/insightful.

As outlined in the first of these 3 posts, Social Identity Theory is concerned with the way that people in groups interact. More specifically, it looks at the way people behave when they perceive themselves to be in a group and someone else to be part of another group. The initial insights in this area of work, called the Minimal Group Paradigm showed that it takes very little prompting for someone to be persuaded that they are part of one group, the ‘ingroup’, whilst others are part of another, the ‘outgroup’. Even if the criteria for distinguishing these 2 groups is arbitrary and minimal (one person likes the artist Klee and another Kandinsky) this perception is powerful enough to shape people’s thoughts and behaviours. The initial experiments looked at things like how an individual’s bias in resource sharing is affected by the perception that someone-else is in an outgroup but since then the research in this area has spread far and wide, including domains that are relevant to reminiscence.

First, effects on cognition: Greenaway, Wright, Willingham, Reynolds & Haslam (2015) have recently observed that communication is negatively affected by outgroup effects. In an experimental investigation, they found that the quality of product created by following a fixed set of instructions was significantly lower when the instruction were believed to have been written by an outgroup member. The path of the effect was identified as perceived partner similarity which mediated shared partner identity and perceived partner effort. However, they also emphasised the value of ingroup communication. A shared sense of identity between partners is a key determinant of effective communication. In part, this is because shared social identity is a fundamental determinant of perceptions and behaviours (Greenaway et al., 2015, 171-172) and provides a platform for shared cognition, consensus and coordination (Postmes, 2003).

The experimental work of McClung, Jentzsch & Reicher (2013) also suggests that if 2 people are working together then their perception of whether the other person is an ingroup or outgroup member significantly affects their interactions. When working with an ingroup member, an individual will act as if that person is present and interacting with them – essentially they will collaborate. When the other is seen as a outgroup member then the research found that the individual does not carry a mental representation of that other and, in practice, acts as if they were not there.

Furthermore, a really interesting paper by Gutsell and Inzlicht (2010) showed that the mirroring effect is subject to ingroup-outgroup effects. The mirroring effect, which the authors refer to as perception-action coupling, is where one person’s neural motor networks are stimulated when watching another person carrying out an action. Essentially, the observer is rehearsing the actions they are observing. In reminiscence, this may mean that they are already anticipating the object before they hold it. However, this is activity is significantly reduced when the person that is actually carrying out the action is perceived, by the observer, to be an outgroup member.

All of these point to the importance, at the outset of a session, of creating some form of shared identity between the people leading the reminiscence session and the participants. Doing this will enhance communication, collaboration and participants engagement with the objects.

There is also a growing body of work that looks at the impact of social identity on health & wellbeing (Jetten, Haslam & Haslam, 2011). There are different pathways for this impact. For example, it has been shown that different social identities carry with them different behaviours which, in turn, can have different health outcomes. Therefore manipulating the salient social identity for an individual can change their perception of their condition and their intentions towards more behaviours with a more positive health outcome (St. Claire & Clucas, 2011).

One piece of research has looked at the social identity aspect of reminiscence and the consequence of this for the health and well-being of participants (Haslam, Jetten, Haslam & Knight, 2011). In the chapter they argue that social identity effects have been largely over-looked in previous reviews of reminiscence (and other non-pharmacological therapeutic interventions for people with dementia). The authors argue that “a strong sense of personal identity was a much better predictor of residents’ well-being than their level of cognitive impairment, and this sense of identity was itself associated with a person’s sense that he or she had multiple sources of social identity.” (ibid., p.301) The paper explores this in more detail.

The authors pursued the hypothesis that reminiscence sessions have a positive impact through their effects on personal identity and that this is more effective when reminiscence occurs in groups rather than individually. To test this they carried out 3 interventions (group reminiscence, one-to-one reminiscence, enjoyable group social activity). The group-based interventions had more positive outcomes than the individual intervention: the group social activity enhanced well-being whilst the group reminiscence enhanced memory performance. These improvements were correlated with an increased social identity strength.

I found this paper to provide some really helpful insights. If the impact comes at least partially through fostering shared social identity then it makes sense to resist the lure of making sessions a sequence of concurrent one-to-one interactions but instead to sustain and support the experience of reminiscence as a conversation to which all can contribute.


Greenaway, K. H., Wright, R. G., Willingham, J., Reynolds, K. J., & Haslam, S. A. (2015). Shared Identity is Key to Effective Communication. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(2), 171-182.

Gutsell, J.N., & Inzlicht, M. (2010). Empathy Constrained: Prejudice predicts reduced mental simulation of actions during observation of outgroups. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46, 841-845

Haslam, C., Jetten, J., Haslam, S.A., & Knight, C.P. (2011). The Importance of Remembering and Deciding Together: Enhancing the health and well-being of older adults in care. In J. Jetten, S.A. Haslam & C. Haslam (Eds.) The Social cure: identity, health and well-being (pp.297-215). Hove ; New York : Psychology Press

Jetten, J., Haslam, S.A., & Haslam, C. (Eds.) (2011). The Social cure: identity, health and well-being. Hove ; New York : Psychology Press

McClung, J. S., Jentzsch, I., & Reicher, S. D. (2013). Group Membership Affects Spontaneous Mental Representation: Failure to Represent the Out-Group in a Joint Action Task. PloS one, 8(11), e79178.

Postmes, T. (2003). A social identity approach to communication in organizations. In S.A. Haslam, D. van Knipperburg, M.J. Platow & N. Ellemers (Eds.) Social Identity at Work: Developing theory for organizational practice (pp. 81-97). Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

St. Claire, L., & Clucas, C. (2011) In Sickness and in Health: Influences of social categorisations on health-related outcomes. In J. Jetten, S.A. Haslam & C. Haslam (Eds.) The Social cure: identity, health and well-being (pp.75-95). Hove ; New York : Psychology Press


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in Cognition, object handling, Perception, rehearsal, reminiscence, social psychology, wellbeing. Bookmark the permalink.

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