Identity Fusion: Relationship Between the Personal Self and the Social Self

August 13, 2019
Identity fusion occurs when a person's identity merges with that of a social group. It leads people to act differently.

Identity fusion is a type of identity that connects other types of identities. In order to understand this better, consider that we all have, at the very least, two identities. One is the personal identity or the personal self and the other is our social identities or social selves. Your personal self is directly related to your personality. That is to say, you can be extroverted, polite, neurotic, etc.

Whatever the case may be, your personal self is going to be made up of different traits that define you. On the other hand, social selves are derived from the groups you belong to. For example, you could have a social self based on family, country, religion, ethnicity, sports team, etc. Each of these identities has rules, values, and roles.

But how should we behave? Should we give precedence to our personality traits or the rules of the group? This depends on which of your identities is activated. Normally, your personal self is. That means you’re going to act in accordance with your personality. However, on some occasions, the group is more important. At those times, you’re going to conform to the role you have within the group as well as the group’s rules. One situation in which this occurs frequently is when the group feels threatened.

Members of this group may experience identity fusion.

Problems integrating the two selves

The relationship between personal self and social self creates some problems:

  • Motivation is what drives your behavior. On one hand, if you’re motivated by your personal self, your behavior will correspond to your identity. If, on the other hand, you’re motivated by your social self, your behavior will be determined by the rules and roles of your group.
  • The members of a group define themselves with respect to their social identity. As such, one can consider members of a group to be interchangeable. For example, in many groups, one person plays the role of the clown. As a member of a group, it doesn’t matter whether this person or that person plays the role. What’s important is that someone can fill that position, regardless of who it is.
  • The extent to which we identify with a group is going to depend on the context. Changes are going to shift the extent to which you identify with a group. For example, if your sports team wins an important competition, your social self will become very strongly linked to it. Nevertheless, as the days go by after that victory, the bond will weaken.

Identity fusion

Identity fusion is defined as a visceral feeling of unity with a group. In people with a fused identity, their bond with the group is so strong that the limits between personal and social identities become blurred. What do we mean by that? That means that even when just one of the identities is activated, it can affect the other. For example, when others question the personality of an individual with identity fusion, this will lead them to defend the identity of their group.

This new connection between the two identities leads to the development of a strong sense of interconnection within the group. This very connection increases the motivation of each of the group members to do the same for the group as they would for themselves. At the same time, though, the personal relationships with the group members also get stronger.

People making a circle with their collective hands and feet.

Principles of identity fusion

The main principles of identity fusion are:

  • Agentic-personal self-principle: It states that the actions of fused people reflect their personal self as well as their social self. In such a case, each of the members of the group couldn’t be substituted because their personalities, as well as their role within the group, are valued.
  • Identity synergy principle: This principle suggests that personal and social identities can come together. This would give way to a high level of motivation for undertaking actions that benefit the group. These are going to be the first people to work together. Furthermore, any achievement is going to make them cooperate even more at a personal as well as the group level.
  • Relationship ties: According to this principle, people who have fused identities, where both their personal and social selves are very strong, believe that the other members of the group also have them. As such, they’re going to value the members of the group’s personalities and social identities. Strong relationships will ultimately result from this.
  • Irrevocability principle: According to irrevocability, the self will remain fused regardless of the context. The ties we’ve built with the other members of the group strengthen the feeling of fusion and make it permanent. Aside from that, even though you may have many social identities, the fusion only occurs with one group. This exclusivity makes the individual abstain from developing strong identities with other groups and keep the fusion strong.

Which side dominates?

In conclusion, the relationships between the personal self and the social self tend to be mutually exclusive. That is to say, either one is activated or the other is. However, these selves are fused in some people and they give feedback to each other. This allows said people to do more things in favor of their groups. Therefore, your behavior is going to depend on whether your identity is fused or not.

Swann, W. B., & Buhrmester, M. D. (2015). Identity Fusion. Current Directions in Psychological Science. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963721414551363

Swann, W. B., Jetten, J., Gómez, Ã., Whitehouse, H., & Bastian, B. (2012). When group membership gets personal: A theory of identity fusion. Psychological Review. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0028589

Gómez, Á., Brooks, M. L., Buhrmester, M. D., Vázquez, A., Jetten, J., & Swann, W. B. (2011). On the Nature of Identity Fusion: Insights Into the Construct and a New Measure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022642

Swann, W. B., Gómez, Á., Seyle, D. C., Morales, J. F., & Huici, C. (2009). Identity Fusion: The Interplay of Personal and Social Identities in Extreme Group Behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0013668