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This Should Be Labeled a Universal Principle of Influence

People are inclined to favor those who share a significant social identity.

Key points

  • Unity is the seventh universal principle of social influence.
  • People favor members of their political parties and believe them more; they also root for their sports team no matter what.
  • The power of the principle of unity flows from shared social identities.

Although I’ve staked my reputation on claiming that there are six universal principles of social influence—Reciprocity, Liking, Social Proof, Authority, Commitment/Consistency, and Scarcity—new research has convinced me that I missed one. It’s the principle of unity, which asserts that people are inclined to favor someone who shares a significant social identity—someone they consider one of them. Although the principle’s influence appears in all arenas of life, its impact on two such domains seems particularly timely.

How Evenhanded Can We Expect Sports Officials to Be?
Appreciating the natural favoritism partisans accord their in-groups, organizers of athletic contests have, for centuries, seen the need for independent evaluators (referees, judges, umpires) to uphold rules and declare winners in an unbiased manner. But how evenhanded can we expect such officials to be? Hard evidence supports a skeptical view. In international football (soccer) matches, players from a referee’s home country obtain a 10 percent increase in beneficial calls, and the favoritism occurs equally among elite referees and their less experienced counterparts. In Major League Baseball games, whether a pitch is called a strike is influenced by the racial match between the umpire and pitcher.

In National Basketball Association contests, officials call fewer fouls against own-race players. The bias is so large that researchers concluded, “the probability of a team winning is noticeably affected by the racial composition of the refereeing crew assigned to the game.” Thus, “we” group bias corrodes the judgments even of individuals specifically selected and trained to be able to banish the bias. To understand why this is so, we have to recognize that the same forces are operating on sports officials as on infamously one-sided sports fans.

As distinguished author Isaac Asimov put it in describing our reactions to contests, we view: “All things being equal, you root for your own sex, your own culture, your own locality . . . and what you want to prove is that you are better than the other person. Whomever you root for represents you; and when he [or she] wins, you win.” Viewed in this light, the intense passion of sports fans makes sense. The game is no light diversion to be enjoyed for its skill and artistry. The self is at stake.

An apt illustration comes from one of my favorite anecdotes. A World War II soldier who returned to his home in the Balkans after the war simply stopped speaking, even to his pleading friends and family. Medical examinations could find no physical cause. Exasperated, his doctors moved him to another city and placed him in a veterans’ hospital, where he remained for 30 years, never breaking his self-imposed silence and sinking into a life of social isolation. Then one day, a radio in his ward happened to be tuned to a soccer match between his hometown team and a traditional rival. When at a crucial point of play the referee called a foul against the mute veteran’s home team, he jumped from his chair, glared at the radio, and spoke his first words in more than three decades: “You dumb ass; are you trying to give them the match?!” With that, he returned to his chair and to a silence he never again violated.

An important lesson surfaces from this account and reveals much about the union of sports and sports fans: It is a personal thing. Whatever fragment of an identity that ravaged man still possessed was engaged by soccer play. Why? Because he, personally, would be diminished by a hometown defeat, and he, personally, would be enhanced by a hometown victory. How? Through the unity-connection of birthplace that tied him to the approaching triumph or failure.

I can offer a final sports example of irrational in-group partiality, a personal one. I grew up in the state of Wisconsin, where the National Football League home team has always been the Green Bay Packers. Not long ago, I learned that like me, the entertainers Justin Timberlake and Lil Wayne are avid Packer fans. Right away, I thought better of their music. More than that, I wished for their greater future success. The silent war veteran and I are different in many ways (for one, nobody has ever had to plead with me to speak) but on the dimension of unthinking in-group favoritism, we’re alike. There’s no use denying it.

We Approve of Lies That Promote and Protect Our Party
There’s a newly labeled shade of lies that falls midway on the spectrum between white lies, fictions designed to protect others’ feelings (“No, really, that outfit/hairstyle/nose ring looks good on you”) and black lies, falsehoods designed to harm others’ interests (“And if you show up with it on your date with my ex-boyfriend, he’ll love it”). “Blue” lies possess core elements of the other two. They’re intended to protect as well as harm others, but those selected for protection or harm differ by “we” group inclusion. They are deliberate lies told—usually against an out-group—by members of an in-group to protect their own group’s reputation. Inside these identity-merged groups, unity trumps truth. Said differently, and in less politically loaded language, deception that strengthens a “we” group is viewed by members as morally superior to truth-telling that weakens the group.

Political parties exhibit a festering form of the problem. As one reviewer of relevant research concluded: “This kind of lying [for political gain] seems to thrive in an atmosphere of anger, resentment, and hyper-polarization.” Sound at all familiar?

Besides approving of lies that promote and protect one’s party, additional defensive reactions are triggered by fervent party identification. Individuals who possess “fused” identities with their political party report greater willingness to hide evidence of tax fraud by a politician from the party. People not only favor members of their political parties but also believe them more, even under bewildering circumstances. In an online study, participants were shown some physical shapes and asked to categorize them according to a set of guidelines. The more shapes they categorized correctly, the more money they’d win. When deciding how best to classify a shape, participants could choose to learn what another participant, whose political preferences they knew from previous information, had answered. To a significant degree, they elected to use the answer of a politically like-minded participant, even when the individual had been performing poorly on the task.

Think of it: People were more willing to employ the judgment of a political ally on a task, no matter that:

  • the task was irrelevant to politics
  • the ally was inferior at the task
  • they would probably lose money

These findings fit well with scholarship indicating that political-party adherents base many of their decisions less on ideology than on loyalty—born of feelings of unity.

It is important to recognize that the formidable power of the principle of unity doesn’t flow from shared styles or preferences or tastes but, rather, from shared social identities—common membership in the groups that people use to define themselves such as race, ethnicity, nationality, and family, as well as political and religious categories. In any of the principle’s forms, we would be well advised to understand its primal impact on human functioning.

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