The Notion of “Identity Fusion” Raises More Questions Than It Answers

In his target article Whitehouse describes a fascinating and extremely worthwhile program of research. We understand that this research is in its early stages, and so we are not too concerned that at the moment, his exposition of it raises many more questions for us than it answers. We offer up these questions, not really as criticisms, but more to help him communicate the value of his project by attempting to answer them in the future.

1. How prevalent is identity fusion?
The concept of identity fusion is introduced without any data (either here or – less forgivably – in the fuller treatment of the concept by Swann, Jetten, Gómez, Whitehouse, & Bastian, 2012) on how common a phenomenon it is, whether it takes place equally in men and women, the age at which it first takes place, etc. Without such data it is impossible to draw any conclusions on whether identity fusion is part of normal human development, or a localized reaction to extreme social circumstances. Hence, it is very difficult to assess its importance for human cooperation.

2. How is identity fusion distinguished from social identification?
Whitehouse implies that identity fusion is logically distinct from social identification, because in the latter process the personal and social selves have a mutually inhibitory relationship, whereas in the former they have a complementary relationship. Yet social identification tends to be defined in very broad terms, simply as a feeling of belonging to a certain social category (Swann et al., 2012). Presumably, it is a prerequisite for feeling fused with a certain category that one should also feel that one belongs to that category. Therefore, identity fusion is not logically distinct from social identification, but an extreme form of social identification characterized by an abnormal relationship between the personal and social selves. Furthermore, it ought to be acknowledged that the personal and social selves are not as distinct, even in non-fused individuals, as Whitehouse suggests. The social self implies certain internal states (e.g., commitment to a social role, feelings of duty or obligation, feelings of guilt or shame), while the development of a ‘personal’ self relies on various kinds of information supplied by the social world, in forms such as internalized narratives (Vygotsky, 1986) and social comparison processes (Festinger, 1954).  

3. How does identity fusion relate to other motivations for altruism?
Identity fusion is clearly not the only motivation for cooperative or humanitarian behaviour; yet Whitehouse occasionally comes close to claiming this, with statements like:

“when we fight back against injustice it’s because we believe that its victims share our suffering. The victims are, in an important sense, one with us. So when we respond with violence it is little more than self-defense.”

This ignores the fact that many humans have an abstract, and probably innate, sense of justice (Walsh, 2000), which potentially applies equally to all other humans – or at least all other citizens – regardless of the extent to which one feels “fused” with them. (Was the heroism of the Fukushima nuclear workers really dependent on the fact that it was co-nationals who were the principal beneficiaries? Is it not more likely that as the only people qualified and on hand to deal with the crisis, they felt a sense of moral duty to humanity, and indeed the environment?) Proponents of identity fusion theory need to acknowledge that cooperation, cohesion and even self-sacrifice can all be achieved without any feelings of fusion: the latter just makes them more likely.

4. Why are shared trauma and dysphoric rituals believed to be so important for identity fusion?
Whitehouse clearly believes that shared trauma is vital for promoting identity fusion. However, while he offers anecdotal evidence that trauma is a sufficient condition for fusion, he supplies no evidence that it is a necessary condition. A lot of the empirical research on identity fusion has taken place on individuals who have not in fact suffered any serious collective trauma (e.g. the Spanish participants of Gómez et al., 2011). Similarly, events such as the Nuremberg rallies, which Whitehouse holds partially responsible for the high levels of identity fusion that were presumably characteristic of Nazi Germany, were not dysphoric but rather euphoric occasions. Thus it may be that it is high levels of emotional activation in general, not just activation of negative emotions, that are important. If trauma is not necessary for building social cohesion, we are left with the question of why it is necessary to have dysphoric rituals at all. One possibility is that they are a kind of test of how group members will behave under genuinely dangerous conditions (which would explain why they are so characteristic of initiation rituals).

5. What are the key differences between fusing with a small group of known others (what Whitehouse describes as “local fusion”) and fusing with a large, impersonal group such as a nation or a religion?
The target article does not explore the differences between the “local” and “extended” forms of identity fusion. We are sceptical that these really represent the same kind of process. Analyzing affiliation to an abstract category of nation or religion in terms of fusion with a vast group of unknown others seems problematic, because in such cases it is really the ideas that define the group, rather than vice versa. The group of one’s co-religionists, for example, tends to be defined subjectively as the set of all those who follow the principles of one’s religion correctly. People who socially identify with a particular religion but who are perceived as violating certain “sacred values” (Atran & Axelrod, 2008) of that religion will not be seen by the perceiver as fused with them; indeed, extremists’ most bilious outpourings of hate are often reserved for such individuals. Atran’s (2010) study of Islamic extremists is more sophisticated than simply relying on identity fusion, because it explicitly takes into account the interactions between young men’s social commitments to their comrades in arms, and their ideological commitments to the sacred values of their shared religion.

6. How exactly can an examination of the ‘social glue’ produced by shared trauma be used to solve major social problems?
Whitehouse proposes – without going into many details – that when we better understand the social glue of identity fusion we may learn to use it for peace. Yet if identity fusion is most likely to occur in the case of shared traumatic experiences (including dysphoric rituals), is it possible for it to work in circumstances devoid of any sort of trauma? Will we need to inflict simulated trauma on ourselves in order to achieve collective fusion, and therefore peace? In this respect it may be fortunate that collective trauma does not in fact seem to be necessary for identity fusion (see Question 4). But another problem is that it will be very difficult, if not impossible, ever to achieve identity fusion with people who hold different sacred values from our own (see Question 5).

Perhaps, if these questions were answered satisfactorily, we would be more convinced of the unique value of identity fusion in explaining altruistic behaviour. As things stand, it seems more plausible to us that identity fusion is simply an extreme form of social identification (see Question 2), which naturally predicts extreme forms of social commitment (such as laying down one’s life for one’s countrymen) better than does simply stating whether one belongs to a particular social category.

Yet Whitehouse’s article is valuable in that it draws attention to the parallels between affiliation to small groups and affiliation to big cultural ideas. Perhaps, rather than invoking a specific construct of identity fusion, we may account for these parallels by falling back on the construct that inspired much of the work on social identification and identity fusion: that of attachment (Bowlby, 1969). There may indeed be a difference between groups to which we merely feel that we belong in an abstract sense (social identification), and those to which we also feel that we really belong (are attached) in an emotional sense. Attachment broadens considerably during childhood and adolescence as we become less dependent on close family members, and more dependent on first peers and then sexual partners. Although speculative, one possibility is that during a certain sensitive period in adolescence and early adulthood, it is also possible to become strongly attached to an idea (such as nationality or religion). It may be that reflection on dysphoric (or indeed euphoric) shared experiences plays a key role in this new attachment process.


Atran, S. (2010). Talking to the enemy: Violent extremism, sacred values, and what it means to be human. London: Allen Lane.

Atran, S., & Axelrod, R. (2008). Reframing sacred values. Negotiation Journal, 24, 221–246.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss, Vol. 1: Attachment. New York: Basic.

Festinger, L. (1954). A theory of social comparison processes. Human Relations, 7, 117–140.

Gómez, A., Brooks, M. L., Buhrmester, M. D., Vázquez, A., Jetten, J., & Swann Jr, W. B. (2011). On the nature of identity fusion: Insights into the construct and a new measure. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 100, 918–933.

Swann Jr, W. B., Jetten, J., Gómez, A., Whitehouse, H., & Bastian, B. (2012). When group membership gets personal: A theory of identity fusion. Psychological Review, 119, 441–456.

Vygotsky, L. S. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press (A. Kozulin, Trans.).

Walsh, A. (2000). Evolutionary psychology and the origins of justice. Justice Quarterly, 17, 841–864.

Gordon P. D. Ingram (Bath Spa University)
Karolina M. Prochownik (Jagiellonian University)

Published On: March 16, 2013

Gordon Ingram

Gordon Ingram

Gordon Ingram obtained his PhD in 2009 from the Institute of Cognition and Culture, Queen’s University Belfast, where he studied children’s reporting of their peers’ behavior. After teaching at the University of Oxford he completed a postdoc at the University of Bath, before becoming assistant professor at Bath Spa University, where he taught Evolutionary Psychology. Currently he is Associate Professor of Psychology at the Universidad de los Andes, Colombia. He teaches undergraduate courses in Developmental Psychology, Cyberpsychology, and Psychology of Language, and a graduate course in Cognition and Culture. His research centers on children’s and adolescents’ everyday communication online. He supervizes several graduate students researching children’s social and moral development. 


  • Interesting thoughts Gordon & Karolina I’m sure you will get a more detailed response in due course but until then I wanted to chime in on two of the points you raise.

    1. How prevalent is identity fusion?
    In Swann et al. (2012) there is mention of just the kind of data you are calling for, its just not published yet. The relevant ref is “Jetten, J., Gomez, A., Buhrmester, M., Brooks, M., & Swann, W. B., Jr. (2012). Patterns of identity fusion in five continents. Manuscript submitted for publication.” I agree that it’s necessary to see such data before drawing any grand conclusions about how common, globally, fusion is however even the present published data seems to offer good reason to believe that it is relatively common. The large American and Spanish samples might be showing ‘localized reactions to extreme social situations’ but given the size and the internal diversity reported in some of the samples this seems unlikely, unless ‘localized’ can be understood as ‘specific shared conditions across the US and Spain’. To add another independent data point I recently ran an online survey of martial artists which collected about 700 responses (about 50% from North America, 14% from Europe and the other 36% widely dispersed) and found a similar rate (25%) of the sample reported being fused with their groups as in the published studies.

    2. How is identity fusion distinguished from social identification?
    I sympathise with the sentiment that social identification and identity fusion might not be entirely distinct processes but rather points on a linked underlying spectrum; in fact, I had the very same intuitions(!) but with the present data I’ve come to feel that it is hard to maintain this position. Specifically, it is difficult to conceive of how an extreme form of depersonalization, which is a hallmark of social identification theory (Stets & Burke 2000), could be considered responsible for the strengthening of the personal self which is observed in fusion. Indeed, the emphasis in social identification theory on depersonalization has also recently lead a number of researchers, see Yuki (2003, 2011) for summaries, to question its suitability and applicability for modelling the network based group processes, wherein personal identity remains highly salient, found in a number of collectivist societies. Moreover, Swann and colleagues have devoted a number of papers now which repeatedly test whether identity fusion can be subsumed using existing social identification measures and the answer consistently seems to be no. If the data repeatedly reveals two factors with differential outcomes then I’m not so certain it wouldn’t confuse matters to label them both as social identification.

    Stets, J. E., & Burke, P. J. (2000). Identity theory and social identity theory. Social Psychology Quarterly, 63, 224-237.
    Yuki, M. (2003). Intergroup Comparison Versus Intragroup Relationships : A Cross-Cultural Examination of Social Identity Theory in North American and East Asian Cultural Contexts. Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 66, No.2, pp. 166-183.
    — (2011). Intragroup Relationships and Intergroup Comparisons as two sources of Group-Based Collectivism. In R.M. Kramer, G.J. Leonardelli & R.W. Livingston (Eds.) Social Cognition, Social Identity, and Intergroup Relations: A Festchrift in honor of Marilynn B. Brewer. (pp. 247-266). Philadelphia PA: Psychology Press.

    • Thanks Chris, that was a very fair and informative comment!

      1. How prevalent is identity fusion?
      I wasn’t suggesting that this data isn’t out there, and I don’t really blame Whitehouse for not including it in his article, for reasons of space and the fact that he is addressing a not necessarily very technical audience. I was a bit surprised though that there was no data on prevalence in the Swann et al. (2012) article, because if I were reviewing a concept such as identity fusion, one of the first things I would want to put in there would be the percentage of people who fuse to particularly important groups, such as nations and religions. I feel that there is a bit of a tacit assumption, in Whitehouse’s article, that pretty much everyone is fused to one or other groups – e.g. their families, at least – but as far as I am aware, this has not been empirically demonstrated (correct me if I’m wrong). Your data on the martial arts groups is interesting, but again it just raises more questions for me, like why would one expect similar proportions of people to be fused with martial arts groups as with nation states? And did you get any data on other groups (e.g., their own nation states) that these people were fused with, to see whether it was the same or different people who were fusing to both categories? Seems to me that in addition to this kind of inferential method of presenting people with a group and seeing if it affects their sense of personal self, etc., there is a need for more basic, exploratory methods, where researchers go in with an open mind and simply ask various groups of people how many groups they are fused to and to what extent.

      2. How is identity fusion distinguished from social identification?
      I take your point that identity fusion looks very different from the ways in which social identification theorists have typically conceptualised social identification. But this does not affect one of our central points, which is that identity fusion is *logically* a form of social identification, and not an alternative to it. Because no matter how social identification theorists have theorised about social identification (e.g., as implying a weakening of the personal self when the group self is activated), they tend to *define* it in very broad terms, as simply a ‘feeling of belonging’ to a particular social category. So this work on identity fusion may suggest that social identification theorists have mis-conceptualised social identification. It cannot justify raising up identity fusion as an alternative to social identification, because logically, identity fusion entails social identification. One cannot fuse with a social category if one does not feel that one belongs to it! As you (and indeed Swann et al., 2012) point out, some of the theoretical baggage around the concept of social identification has also been questioned from within social identification theory. So it seems to me that it might be more scientifically productive for those who buy into identity fusion to try to elaborate and extend social identification theory, rather than setting up identity fusion theory as an alternative ‘one Ring to rule them all’. 🙂
      Just a hunch, but one way of incorporating identity fusion into social identification theory might be via an appeal to individual differences. Might it not be that for some people, strengthening the salience of the group self leads to a weakening of the personal self; whereas for others, it leads to a strengthening of the personal self? Again, this is the sort of feature that more basic, exploratory research might uncover quite easily. Hypothesis-testing is not the only valid mode of empirical research!

      • Hello again Gordon,

        Thanks for the well argued response!

        Fortunately, Michael’s reply (below) covered quite a few of the points I was going to make (and in a more elegant manner than I would have managed), so I’ll try and avoid redundant repetition, but suffice to say, I agree wholeheartedly with the point that having too many concepts which refer to ‘social identity’ or ‘group identification’ will lead to a somewhat bloated and less useful concept. Social identification theory, as I mentioned, has been argued to be non-applicable in certain East Asian contexts and I think this highlights that the term is not generally understood as referring to all forms of group belonging, as I doubt that Yuki et al. are intending to suggest that there is no sense of belonging to social groups in East Asia! 😉

        In terms of your questions about data: I believe there is forthcoming cross cultural data on fusion with different target groups which probably addresses your questions about relative levels of fusion but I’m afraid I don’t have said data… I will also be very interested to see it!
        And for my results: nope I’m afraid I didn’t measure for fusion with other target groups (aside from those referenced in Collectivist/Individualist measures) as my questionnaire was already quite long with just one target group, and I was interested in looking at some other things, but I agree it is something that needs to be addressed in future research. You raise the question of why I should find a similar rate of fusion in martial arts groups as is the case with fusion with nations? And for this I’m afraid I only have highly speculative answers, none of which I find particularly convincing, but for discussion’s sake… fusion may be a more extreme and time consuming form of bonding which means in large samples it will always tend to be restricted to a minority of a population; perhaps there is a relatively stable percentage of ‘fusion prone’ individuals or there is some degree of (characteristic) overlap with the samples used in the different studies. Actually none of these sound particularly plausible to me and rather I strongly suspect that fusion rates will vary amongst target groups. As such, the only strong claim I would like to make for my data is that it supports the notion that fusion appears to be a widespread phenomena and is not something unique to bonding with nations, nor to Spanish and American people .

        Finally, on the Fukushima point, I’m with Voron on doubting a moral duty to humanity/the environment serving as the motivation for Japanese nuclear plant workers risking their health to try and save the plant. Its a cliche to comment on the emphasis on honour and duty in Japanese culture but these concepts remain highly salient (see Murakami’s book on the Sarin subway gas attack in Tokyo in the 90s for many accounts of Japanese station staff and their devotion to their duty/other Japanese people), as does the popular portrayal of sacrifice for the nation/other Japanese people as being something extremely praiseworthy. The Japanese analysis/media coverage/support efforts of the disaster explicitly focused on the concept of kizuna, meaning ‘bonds’, and indeed after national polls it was selected as ‘the kanji of the year’ in 2011. The exact nature of the bonds is up for discussion but I think it would be hard to justify seeing the actions of Japanese nuclear plant workers, surrounding a disaster that occurred on Japanese soil and threatened Japanese people, as being unlikely to be motivated primarily by concern for co-nationals.

        Oh and Voron as far as I am aware there have been no recorded deaths of rescue workers at Fukushima due to exposure following the initial impact of the tsunami nor were the rescue workers homeless volunteers. A proper discussion of Fukushima, its mishandling and impacts is perhaps a topic for another day!

        • Peter Turchin says:

          Chris, thank you for your response. I was particularly fascinated by your account of the Sarin attack and the importance of ‘kizuna’.

        • O.Voron says:

          Chris, it is a relief to know that there were no recorded deaths. This is amazing that there was none, in a nuclear disaster comparable to Chernobyl.

          Thank you for bringing up kizuna. It prompted me to google it as I have never heard of it before. Not that I found much information. The most informative turned out to be comments to a rather silly article in Japan Today discussing kizuna. The commenters were mostly Western European and American expats with an occasional Japanese. For those interested here is the URL:

          The general impression I got is that kizuna is something Harvey Whitehouse and his collegues might be interested to examine. It looks like that it means not just 絆 bond (of love, friendship, blood etc.) but implies shared hardship and adversity as a necessary element. “We suffer as one nation”.
          In a manga entitled ‘Kizuna’ “Ranmaru and Kei have a strong and passionate relationship built on years of trust, sacrifice (sic) and love”. They “have been through a long road consisting of hardships (sic) and fond memories.”. Dysphoric experiences, that is.

          It is clear from the comments to the mentioned article that Westerners do not have much appreciation for kizuna and do not quite capture what it is all about despite living in Japan for a long time and many having j-families as they call them. Which is fine with Japanese as kizuna is understood as ties exclusively between Japanese and not as a universal notion. To cite a Japanese commenter, “I don’t think it’s possible for non Japanese to truly understand KIZUNA (a special bond shared between Japanese people) They simply grew up in different conditions with different social values. While we Japanese can understand their cultures, the opposite is impossible. we do not make our own available to be understood by outsiders.” Which makes some foreigners see some other facets of kizuna, namely xenophobia, obsession with homogeneity and racism.

  • O.Voron says:

    Although I am not a specialist, I follow this discussion with great interest.

    My comment is about a small point:
    “(Was the heroism of the Fukushima nuclear workers really dependent on the fact that it was co-nationals who were the principal beneficiaries? Is it not more likely that as the only people qualified and on hand to deal with the crisis, they felt a sense of moral duty to humanity, and indeed the environment?)”

    For someone like myself who remember reading, with horror, Reuters accounts about how anonymous workers equipped only with orange vests and rubber boots and the most primitive instruments were deliberately sent to their (obvious) deaths in Fukushima, the very idea that they were motivated by the moral duty to humanity and the environment rings somewhat hollow. Yes, they were volunteers, or so the Japanese media said at the time, drawn from the bottom of society. I imagine they were desperate homeless men who thought that death from radiation was as good as any other. Or they did not understand (and were not told about) the dangers of being exposed to radiation. If it was a conscious sacrifice, it was rather out of duty to their people, to their country, maybe to the Emperor?

    I confess I don’t know whether there were any survivors, whether their names were finally reported and whether they were asked about their motivation. You probably have this information.

    No matter what their motivations were, those men were heroes without any question.

    You made me think whether I can come up with better and clearer examples of conscious sacrifice motivated by the love for humanity or similar broad ideas, and I failed. Apart from Jesus Christ… But we are talking about humans here. All were about their kin, their buddies, their country, their religion and so on. Che Guevara? I have my doubts…

    • Thanks for your comment! I confess to knowing very little about the Fukushima clean-up, beyond what Chris wrote in his interesting reply above, and a little bit of Google ‘research’ after you made your comment. In mentioning Fukushima we were reacting to a speculative remark at the end of the Swann et al. (2012) article (the reference is in our main post above) which unfortunately was not backed up by a citation. From what little I have been able to find out on the Web, it seems that many of the people involved in the clean-up were relatively low-paid contract workers. I have not seen any reference to them being homeless (although I suppose they may have temporarily been made homeless by the tsunami). It would be interesting if a group like this were to be interviewed to find out the extent to which they were motivated by identity fusion or by other motivations. Without such data, any remarks about their levels of fusion are obviously speculative: we were simply offering an alternative hypothesis against which the identity fusion hypothesis has not yet been tested, and against which it should be tested before any grandiose claims are made about its contribution to cooperation in such instances.

      In any case, your statement above –

      “No matter what their motivations were, those men were heroes without any question.”

      – is something that I entirely agree with. It underlines one of our central points, which is that identity fusion is not necessary for these kinds of heroic cooperative actions. I was imagining a thought experiment in which an American nuclear worker had been visiting Fukushima for a training course, tour of the facility, or similar. Would not such a visitor also have been motivated to help out with the clean-up, simply because he/she was qualified to do so, and despite not feeling at all fused with the Japanese? I think there is likely to be a kind of ‘reverse bystander effect’ involved there, in the same way that most off-duty doctors or police officers will feel duty-bound to get involved if there is a traffic accident.

      In any group of individuals cooperating on a grand scale like that of Fukushima, there are likely to be some who are motivated by fusion with the group; some who are motivated by a sense of duty/responsibility to humanity (or indeed the planet); and some who are caught up in a complex social system and simply need the money, or may perhaps even want the prestige. This goes back to my remark about individual differences in my reply to Chris’s comment above: I’m a little disappointed that no-one has picked up on this, as I think that individual differences tend to be rather under-theorised in discussions of social evolution.

      • A good starting point for details of those involved in disaster relief after Fukushima disaster is actually on old wikipedia at (

        I also strongly agree that there are likely to have been a variety of motivations on display in the 700 odd people involved in the emergency clean-up but I still think that from amongst those involved, especially in the immediate aftermath of the disaster, you would be able to find strong regularities in the narratives that emerge and the psychological mechanisms motivating them. And since fusion has been shown to better predict willingness to sacrifice for groups you are bonded to than group identification it doesn’t seem entirely unwarranted to suggest it as a relevant mechanism for such a situation. It is certainly speculative but I don’t know if its a bad kind of speculation. Saying that, I do agree that it would be wrong to suggest that it’s the only possible explanation and/or that all those involved must have been fused but I would hope no-one would make such an extreme claim without better data.

        If I remember the original context correctly, the rescue workers at Fukushima were raised in Swann et al. 2012 primarily to provide a potential illustration of how being fused would not only promote enhanced hostility to out-groups but could be channelled into more positive action. This seems to be a fair point even if the Fukushima example turned out to be not applicable. Interestingly, the assumption of enhanced intergroup competition with greater identification is also one of the reasons why Yuki (see my original message for ref) argues that the standard formulations of social identity theory do not seem to fit the data collected with East Asian populations.

        Anyway, I support Gordon’s suggestion that a good starting point would be to conduct research the specfic groups, like the nuclear plant workers at Fukushima, that are hypothesised to be high in identity fusion and test whether this is actually the case. I myself am actually hoping to do work of this nature out in Japan (although not with the Fukushima survivors!), so maybe in a year’s time I can add something a little more informed to the discussion…

        • Thanks Chris, I think we really agree on more than we disagree on here, and I am particularly encouraged that you seem to agree with my point about the need for more basic research on relative rates of fusion to different groups, etc. — by doing things like interviewing Fukushima clean-up workers or other ‘strong cooperators’ — before we can draw any firm conclusions about the theoretical importance of identity fusion. I look forward to reading your results!

          I have no particular interest in defending social identity theory: I agree that as traditionally formulated, it does not fit the data very well, particularly no doubt when applied to cultural contexts that differ greatly the one it was formulated in (as Yuki points out).

          “it would be wrong to suggest that it’s the only possible explanation and/or that all those involved must have been fused but I would hope no-one would make such an extreme claim without better data”.

          You say that, but O. Voron actually makes a very similar claim below. And while I did not mean to impute such a claim to Harvey or to Swann et al., by bringing up Fukushima we were reacting to Harvey’s claim in his target article that:

          “when we fight back against injustice it’s because we believe that its victims share our suffering. The victims are, in an important sense, one with us.”

          This, I think, is quite wrong: I predict that it is not necessary to feel fused with someone in order to feel a duty of care towards them — as in my hypothetical example of the American nuclear worker visiting Fukushima — or to feel outraged at an injustice they have suffered. (I feel in no way fused with the Palestinian people, and yet I greatly sympathize with their plight.) Again, it comes down to the need for more empirical research: these are two testable predictions and I hope that someone will test them soon. Until then, Harvey is not really justified in making this sort of claim.

      • O.Voron says:

        Gordon, thank you for your reply.

        I conducted my own micro mini Google ‘research’ about kazuma mentioned by Chris Kavanagh in his comment. It’s a peculiar Japanese notion of bonds exclusively between Japanese based on trust, love and shared hardships and sacrifice. “”We suffer as one nation”. Kazuma is credited with helping the Japanese to endure the aftermath of Fukushima disaster and explains the amazing stoicism and mutual help displayed by the people.

        I am not in a position to debate the fine points about differences between
        identity fusion and social identification. What would you call this kazuma thing? Do you measure somehow the degree of social identification? Does Harvey Whitehouse measure the level of fusion? How?

        Because we know from our life experience that these levels differ quite a lot. People of New Orleans struck by Harricaine Katrina did not posess the same degree of kazuma ( social identification, identity fusion, whatever you call it ) as Japanese did.
        There are ethnicities much more ‘fused’ than the others. There are those who say ‘My country, right or wrong”, or “We are an exceptional nation” and others who are quite indifferent toward their nation. And so on.

        Same with individuals. As you say, “in any group of individuals cooperating on a grand scale there may be people with different motivations” – ‘fusion’, money, fame, duty/responsibility to humanity/planet, but only if this cooperation is not about risking your life. In this case only kazuma/’fusion’ will do, I think.

        As for your thought experiment. A visiting American nuclear worker would sure help. But only if he has all the necessary protective gear and equipment. He would not walk in the nuclear plant with the melting reactor in rubber boots and with a shovel. It takes kazuma ( or ignorance ) to do so.

        I am sorry, but I can’t imagine Fukushima workers beiing motivated by the duty to humanity. We all are very far from there. And Japanese maybe farther than many.

        Similarly, Harvey Whitehouse’s three wishes, as much as I subscribe to them, are Utopian.

  • Michael Buhrmester says:

    Hi all — just seeing this forum for the first time & excited to see the discussion. I’m a grad student in Bill Swann’s lab and can hopefully shed a bit more light on some questions here quickly.

    1. How prevalent is identity fusion?

    I’m not sure I agree with the premise of this question. It’s like asking about the prevalence of social identification, self-esteem, or happiness. All of these variables are continuously distributed and we now know that fusion is also continuously distributed (we initially thought that fusion was bimodal , see Swann et al., 2009), To us, a more meaningful question is the cross-cultural generality of the link between fusion and endorsement of extreme behavior. It looks like that relationship does indeed generalize as Chris referred to in his post. We are writing up these findings presently.

    2. How is identity fusion distinguished from social identification?

    The Swann et al. (2012) review piece outlines four main principles that separate fusion from identification. Chris touches on a couple major theoretical departures (depersonalization issue & identity synergy issue). Two other major points of departure: 1) fusion emphasizes the importance of relational ties amongst group members, whereas social identity theorists focus on collective/categorical ties to the group itself but not group members (e.g. Postmes et al 2012; Leach et al, 2008). 2) In part due to strong relational ties, strongly fused members’ allegiance to the group is theorized to be more or less immune to contextual threats that would spur high identifiers to disengage from the group. Each of the principles discussed by Swann et al. (2012) referenced empirical findings supporting these conceptual distinctions.

    Re: Gordon’s reply to Chris about how fusion is logically a form of social identification. I agree that fusion, or any other individual difference construct involving social identity, logically includes a very broad sense of belonging to a social category. However, I don’t think that this fact should preclude researchers from couching a constellation of new ideas as a novel theory. I think all but the most astute students would be confused by a literature filled with multiple forms of ‘social identification’, each with contradictory assumptions about the nature of the construct. For example, it is true that a subset of social identity theorists have challenged the functional antagonism hypothesis and argued for something akin to fusion theory’s identity synergy hypothesis. Our concern is that incorporating this radical departure within “social identity theory” diminishes the value of the theory by making it difficult to produce clear, falsifiable predictions. Why not give different labels to distinguish theories that have distinct core principles and predictions?

    3. How does identity fusion relate to other motivations for altruism?

    Certainly other motives for altruism are important. The work on fusion so far simply indicates that across individuals, strongly fused group members behave more prosocially than weakly fused members. The questions I find most compelling are: How robust are the relationships between fusion & myriad prosocial acts? And more to your point, how might fusion interact with other motives to produce gains (or losses) in prosocial action?

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Michael, welcome to the discussion, and thank you for these clarifications! I don’t know about others, but I am certainly learning a lot from this special feature. I found your point 2 particularly useful for my own understanding of fusion vs. identification.

    • karolinaprochownik says:

      Hello Michael. Thanks a lot for your commentary. Going straight to the point:
      1. We are not so sure that fusion is comparable with social identity, happiness or self-esteem, exactly because we do not know how prevalent it is. The question you call ‘more meaningful’, that is the question on cross-cultural generality of the link between extreme behaviors and fusion, is a more specific matter which needs to be set against a background of more general, basic knowledge about fusion as such (for instance, the points that we indicated above in our commentary). Otherwise, we do not know if fusion is something that commonly occurs in humans, or only an exceptional phenomenon, which occurs just in certain conditions. If the second option is right, then we should focus on exploring specific conditions (e.g. dysphoric rituals) that generate fusion, limiting its prevalence to these conditions.
      2. When it comes to the second point, we do appreciate your position on the value of identity fusion (including your view on the peculiarities that distinguish it from typical social identification). We find the results and hypotheses of work in this field most interesting, supplying new interesting insights into human cooperation as it does. We have not been arguing for the worthlessness or lack of necessity of the notion of ‘identity fusion’: we just disagreed with the simplistic dichotomous view of social identification and identity fusion. We claimed that, to be logically consistent with other assumptions of the theory, the relationship of identity fusion and social identification should not be treated in terms of strong antagonism. We also do not think that naming identity fusion a special variant of social identification (which appears under certain conditions and is at certain points different from typical SI), will make the theory unclear for students or will generate problems with producing and falsifying predictions. Contrary, we think it is clear, and makes much more logical and developmental sense – since social identification is both a logical and a developmental prerequisite for identity fusion to occur.
      3. We again are not persuaded about your criteria for assessing questions as more ‘meaningful’ (point 1) or more ‘compelling’ (point 3). We think that our questions are neither less interesting, nor meaningful, they just touch another side of the issue. We totally agree with your statement: “The work on fusion so far simply indicates that across individuals, strongly fused group members behave more prosocially than weakly fused members.” Our doubts were rather connected with the possibility of over-generalizing from the existing data in order to explain cooperative behavior. We expressed our doubts as a response to some of Whitehouse’s explicit claims in his target article, and certain suggestions implicit in its content. Coming back to point 1, not knowing the degree and character of prevalence of fusion, and setting aside the data on the relationship between fusion and the enhancement of social behavior, we cannot say much, at a general level, on the relationship between fusion and cooperation. We agree that existing data show that this link certainly exist: when people are fused, they act more prosocially for the group (and we also know they are most likely to be fused in extreme conditions). Yet we are still eager to know, among other things: *When* exactly people are fused? How does it happen? What exact processes underlie the mechanism of fusion? Who and under what conditions is more susceptible to be fused? (coming back to point 1 again).

      Let me here indicate another point connected with altruism, cooperation and fusion.
      We do think that considering the nature of the self in an examination of altruism and prosocial behavior is very valuable, and certainly it is complementary to existing group-oriented theories of cooperation. We are just not sure to what extent self-oriented explanations (explaining altruistic behavior through the lenses of processes that happen *in* the self) may offer ground for studying altruism, cooperation and morality. Perhaps processes happening ‘inside’ the self are only one of the variables that should be taken into account while exploring group behavior?

      When it comes to additional sources of altruistic behavior I would point, for instance, to moral intuitions (described very well by Haidt and colleagues), mechanisms governing mutual reciprocity, sense of fairness (according to Frans de Wall, appearing already, in a primitive form, in some other than human primates) and moral punishment (proclivity to punish cheaters), as things not necessarily mediated by processes occurring inside of the self but still determined by individual cognition (though they may be secondarily processed by the self in context of i.e. self-esteem, self-evaluation etc). For example, identity fusion theory supports interesting data about variation in treating cheaters within the group in the cases of being fused with person who is a cheater or not being fused with her; still, though, being fused is just additional variable influencing the process of punishing others (fusion is for sure not necessary for moral punishment, yet, when it occurs, it changes its character). So we strongly support your claim, Michael, that exploring how various factors generating altruistic behavior is connected with an exploration of identity fusion.


      Fehr, E., Gachter, S. (2002). Altruistic punishment in humans. Nature 415, 137-140.
      Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., Haidt, J., Iyer, R., Koleva, S., & Ditto, P. H. (2011). Mapping the moral domain. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 101, 366-385.
      Raihani, N. J, McAuliffe, K. (2012). Human punishment is motivated by inequity aversion, not a desire for recpiprocity , Biology Letters, July 18.
      Robinson, P.H., R. Kurzban, Jones, O.D. (2007). The Origins of Shared Intuitions of Justice, Vanderbilt Law Review, 60, 1633.
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      De Waal, F. (1996). Good Natured, The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. Cambridge.
      De Waal, F. (2006). Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved? Princeton.

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