Social Psychology - Motive one 'Belonging' - Part Three - ‘Self-Categorisation and Pro-Social Behaviour’

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Social Psychology - Motive one 'Belonging' - Part Three - ‘Self-Categorisation and Pro-Social Behaviour’

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Published by Laurence Nicholson in Change · 21 November 2023
Tags: #change#socialpsychology
The Core Social Psychology Motives in Change Management Series
Core Social Motive One - Belonging

By Laurence Nicholson

Part Three - ‘Self-Categorisation and Prosocial Behaviour’

(For the audio podcast, click HERE)

Welcome back to this series on the Core Social Psychology Motives, and to part 3 of this discussion around the first core social motive: Belonging.

This time, we are taking a look at ‘Self-Categorisation and Prosocial Behaviour’.

In the previous articles, we have talked about the fact that people (individuals) have both a personal identity and a social identity, and when we psychologically depersonalise our ‘self identity’ it produces ‘group behaviours’ which can become group norms. This also generates group processes for cooperation, influence and a group cohesiveness (think back to social cohesion through the common enemy)

As a species, we can actually operate both as an individual and a group(s) member, and it the element of this process of seeing ourselves as belonging to a group, that is called ‘Self-Categorisation’.

Now, self-categorisation theory (Turner, 1985), which shares the foundations with social identity theory,  has been defined as:

“A theory of the nature of the self that recognises that perceivers are both individuals and group members , explains how and when people will define themselves as individuals and group entities and the implications, and examines the impact of this variability in self-perception (I to We) for understandings of mind and behaviour” (Van Lange, Kruglanski, & Higgins, 2012b, p.399)

This theory provides definitions of when a group is ‘a group’ and explains how the human mind works in, and is influenced by, constructing and defining human beings as social animals, and not simply individuals (a singular mind built of a single set of neurotransmitters); Individuals, groups and inter-group relations are present.

We ‘feel’ the experiences of other members of the same ‘self-category’ through our sense of belonging; what is done to them is also done to us.

When we are looking at change situations, particularly those in an organisation with high capacity to adapt (adaptive capacity relates to the capacity of systems, institutions, humans and other organisms to adjust to potential damage, to take advantage of opportunities, or to respond to consequences), we find people tend to share responsibility for the larger organisation’s future as well as identifying with specific roles and functions within the process.

Where there is high self-categorisation within an organisation, it often benefits from the sense of identification of the group and the associated social cohesion, along with the members’ commitment to the group itself, and so self-categorisation has potential for increasing productivity and employee satisfaction, which in turn leads to higher performance, and in a change programme, this can create a strong collaborative impetus between both leaders and staff, to drive forward and embed the vision behind the change.

This concept of self-categorisation is often applied to topics such as group (social) cohesion (see previous article or listen to previous podcast), group polarisation, social influence and collective action, leadership and personality type identification and re-alignment, and is highly relevant when organisations care about their performance and change capacity, and are in the process of designing and subsequently deploying internal change.

Ok, now we have considered self-categorisation and its impacts on change and group social psychology driving belonging and general directional loyalty (to the change or against the leaders), let’s take a look at prosocial behaviour.

Prosocial behaviour is concisely defined as ‘voluntary behaviour intended to benefit another’ (Eisenberg et al., 2006), but can also be considered as follows:

“Prosocial behaviour is a broad class of behaviours defined as involving costs for the self and resulting in benefits for others.”

It is worth noting it is closely associated to positive social actions, because where prosocial behaviour results in net benefits for both the receiver and giver of the prosocial act, it is referred to as mutualism, but where it benefits others but confers a net costs to the giver, prosocial behaviour becomes altruism.

If you are interested in a deeper understanding of the concept and connection between altruism and prosocial behaviour, I recommend reading ‘Sociology of Altruism and Prosocial Behaviour (Rafael Wittek, René Bekkers, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences (Second Edition), 2015)

This sub-element 'prosocial behaviour' is highly associated with personal ‘wellness’ benefits, because living and working in harmonious conditions results in less stress related effects on both the physical and psychological person. When stress is experienced, such as when feeling ‘outside’ the social group, the brain will trigger a release  of cortisol, which in small doses is fine, but in prolonged periods of overproduction has harmful effects on our cognitive functions of memory and state of mind, often leading to depression and other mental conditions.

Counter to this, the act of helping others will result in a release in oxytocin, and in a positive social environment such as a socially cohesive group where there is often laughter, happiness and shared experiences, chemicals like dopamine, endorphin and serotonin are also released, as we experience pleasure.

Now clearly, we are going to gravitate towards pleasure (think of the threat/reward response system behaviours), which is why we have an inherent need to ‘belong’, and so we learn that prosocial behaviour helps us in achieving this drive by connecting us with other prosocial beings, and thus to the group they belong to.

Now you may be thinking that if this is the case, why aren’t we all prosocial in our behaviour and belong to one big group?

Well it turns out, unsurprisingly, that the acts of help, kindness and support, are more focused on those in the group, than those outside the group (in-group favouritism), because the group members define themselves as in the same social category (see self-categorisation above), having the experience of a shared social identity or a common direction (such as the common enemy driven social cohesion) and a sense of ‘we’ rather than ‘I’.

When we place the lens of organisational change over this motive sub-element, we can see that a prosocial group being ‘helpful and supportive’ to all group members will be highly satisfied in their membership, and when this group is organisational, or even just a change programme team, they will have higher job satisfaction because their experience is more enjoyable, and this will lead to higher productivity and performance as well as commitment to the vision or mission of the change being undertaken. This will inevitably lead to a more successful and persisting change outcome.

It is because of this that prosocial behaviour should be the driving force behind organisational culture, team development and cooperation based values, and can successfully give a human face to leadership and performance management.

Now I mentioned change capacity a little earlier, and want to bring that together into how it is impacting change success, and thought I might quote Connor (2006) as he puts it so well in his book “Managing at the Speed of Change” where he wrote:

“People can only change when they have the capacity to do so. Ability means having the necessary skills and knowing how to use them. Willingness is the motivation to apply those skills to a particular situation. If you lack either ability or willingness, it is unlikely you will successfully adapt to change”

If leaders, especially those driving change, practice prosocial behaviours and focus on developing change capacity, it is hugely motivational, and actions such as emphasising people’s strengths will build esteem, and encourage self-improvement and development, not just in those strengths but also in areas of weakness.

So, as a final thought, whenever you are involved in leading change, it is always a good approach to remind your teams of how competent they really are, and how they already have the skills to be successful in their part of the delivery of change and in their roles in the ‘new’ normal that will result. Make use of even small expressions of gratitude as this makes people feel socially valued, and increase equitable management as a display of procedural justice. This will result in the release of all the positive neurochemicals mentioned, encouraging the members of the (change) group to collectively drive forward positively and supportively, getting pleasure and job satisfaction from delivering and evangelising the change required, to both improve the health and potential of the organisation and themselves. Keep in the back of your mind too, that lack of satisfaction or equity can create social comparison to occur, and this often leads to decreases in prosocial behaviour.

Well, that’s it for this time. We have looked at ‘self-categorisation’ and ‘prosocial behaviour’ and its importance in change management. In the next part, we take a look at the final two sub-elements of the primary motive of ‘Belonging’; ‘Terror Management Theory’ and ‘Broaden and Build Theory’.

As always, leave me comments, good bad or indifferent, by email or against the article (on the ‘blog’ page if you are listening to the podcast), and watch out for the next topic in a few weeks.


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