Plenty of Southerners enjoy the taste of grits. But in situations that remind them of home, they may like it even more. The same goes for Canadians with maple syrup, and the Swiss with the smell of chocolate. Behind our seemingly nationalistic food preferences are the psychological processes that inform group identity, which, research shows, can change depending on our environment.
Developed by Henri Tajfel in the 1970s, social identity theory helps explain the borders of group identity (essentially, what makes someone a grits lover versus a maple syrup enthusiast). In society, individuals connect with their in-group and, less so, with an out-group. Your in-group might be made up of people who share your nationality, political party, or race. Historically, many researchers believed that humans could not stem the bias we felt toward people of our own race. In other words, the boundaries between one race and another seemed nearly insurmountable.
New research on social identity theory suggests otherwise. New York University Psychologist Jay Van Bavel has found that humans can identify with another in-group rapidly, simply by being paired up to complete tasks. In Van Bavel's 2009 study, white participants randomly assigned to a team had an automatic preference for their team members, both white and black, that outweighed their initial racial bias.
Our identities, Van Bavel says, aren't as intractable as we think: "We change our spots, just like a chameleon, to blend into the situation that we're in, and it activates different identities."
These preferences have significant bearing on the way we view the world. According to Van Bavel, identities that govern seemingly innate experiences, such as the taste of food—or even racial bias—can be harnessed to create positive social change. Northerners may never appreciate grits as much as their Southern neighbors, but we can overcome boundaries that run even deeper.
A version of this story originally appeared in the November 2018 issue of Pacific Standard.