Oscar Holmes IV Ph.D.

Beyond the Cubicle

9 Ways to Respond To Social Identity Threats

New research highlights the most common identity threat response tactics.

Posted Mar 13, 2017

We've all experienced social identity threats.  And if we are honest, sometimes we are the ones who perpetrate them.  Social identities are categories that we place ourselves in that are shared with others such as race, sex, religion, and sexual orientation to name a few (Tajfel & Turner, 1986).  People experience social identity threats when they are confronted with situations in which they perceive one or more of their social identities are attacked (Holmes, Whitman, Campbell, & Johnson, 2016).  While the effects of some identity threats are fleeting, other times, the effects can be pernicious and long-lasting.  For example, research shows that identity threats can result in performance decrements (Steele & Aronson, 1995), antisocial behavior (Aquino & Douglas, 2003), and in-group denigration (Luksyte, Avery, & Yeo, 2015; Marques, Yzerbyt, & Leyens, 1988; Roberson, Galvin, & Charles, 2008).  While research has mainly examined the antecedents and outcomes of identity threats, until recently, few studies have examined how people actually respond to them.  In her paper, Jennifer Petriglieri (2011) theorized six responses that people can have toward identity threats: derogation, concealment, positive distinctiveness, identity exit, meaning change, and importance change.  Using her work as a starting point, our research uncovered three additional identity threat responses: constructive action, ignore, and seeking assistance. 

Since the presidential election, several sources have indicated that hate crimes and hate speech have increased (Yan, Sgueglia, & Walker, 2016).  This unfortunate occurrence would suggest that individuals are finding themselves having to respond more and more to social identity threats in their workplace and in social settings.  Below, I will elaborate on the nine most common ways people typically respond to social identity threats (Holmes et al., 2016; Petriglieri, 2011): 

Derogation: An individual engages in derogation by criticizing or denouncing the attacker to mitigate the identity threat and discredit the attacker .

Concealment: A concealment threat response occurs when one tries to tone down or hide the threatened identity hoping that the reduced salience of the identity will persuade the attacker to stop the identity threatening behavior .

Positive Distinctiveness: The most proactive of the identity-protection responses, positive distinctiveness, is when an individual attempts to change the attacker’s opinion of the threatened identity by arguing the virtues of the identity .

Identity Exit: This is the most challenging threat response to undertake as it requires an individual to discard completely one’s affiliation with the threatened identity.

Meaning Change: When using this threat response, threatened individuals cognitively shift their perception of what the identity means to them.

Importance Change: When using this threat response, individuals cognitively shift how important the identity is to them (Petriglieri, 2011).

Constructive Action: Constructive action is when an individual attempts to overcome an identity threat by engaging in what he or she perceives to be productive behavior, but does not address the threatened identity directly.

Ignore: Despite the fact that people realize social identity threats occur, our research highlighted systematically that some people choose to ignore them. For example, one participant in our study stated he “overheard a group of non-minority colleagues using humor that was lightly interspersed with offensive, racially based epithets.” The participant felt powerless to act as he stated, “Working as one of the few minorities in the company, there was nothing much I could do. Unfortunately, I, more or less, saw it as a ‘lose-lose’ proposition.” He revealed to us that soon afterwards, he left the company. We found 13 other cases where participants thought ignoring the identity threat was the most appropriate response they could engage in at that particular time. Interestingly, many of them admitted that they were a bit dissatisfied with themselves afterwards when they used this response tactic as they saw it as a “lost teaching moment.”

Seek Assistance: The final response tactic that we uncovered that people engaged in was to seek assistance from others, oftentimes someone in an authority position. In some cases, this response was chosen because the participant did not know exactly who initiated the identity threat, but in other cases, the victim could confront the initiator of the threat, but instead decided to bypass having direct interactions with them and went to someone else who might be able to assist them in dealing with the situation.

While our research revealed that our study participants identified coworkers/colleagues as the source of most of their experiences with social identity threats, interestingly, they also revealed that identity threats were perpetrated by family members, friends, and acquaintances.  Unfortunately, more than half were possibly reoccurring threats whereas the remaining others were single occasion threats.  Despite theory suggesting specifically that some identity threat responses should lead to maintenance or elimination of identity threats (Petriglieri, 2011),  our research found that identity threats were roughly as likely to be maintained as eliminated in our sample of narratives. Furthermore, our findings suggest that most identity threat response tactics (with the exception of importance change and meaning change) are associated with both the maintenance and elimination of identity threats. As a result, the type of threat response tactic an individual uses to mitigate the identity threat does not seem to determine the outcome. Within our sample narratives, however, we found derogation and constructive action to mostly result in the threat being eliminated, while ignore usually resulted in the threat being maintained. Taken together, our findings suggest that identity threat responses and their outcomes are highly individualized phenomena that are strongly influenced by context-specific factors (Johns, 2006).  As such, it is my advice to start with the different types of identity-protection threat responses and see which ones work best to eliminate identity threats in your particular situations.  For more information on our study, please click here


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Yan, H., Sgueglia, K., & Walker, K. (2016). “Make America White Again”: Hate Speech and Crimes Post-Election. Retrieved March 13, 2017, from http://www.cnn.com/2016/11/10/us/post-election-hate-crimes-and-fears-trnd/