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Intergroup Theories Overview

The Intergroup Theories were developed to explain the link between individual and group behavior. There are three main components as detailed below:

In whole, these theories speak to the perceptions one has about oneself and the group he/she believes they are closest aligned with, how /she interprets and responds to threat on both a personal and group level and what actions he/she might take to ensure both personal and group security.

Case Study

ABC Company was recently bought out by XYZ Company. During the merger the staff at ABC Company was assured their jobs would not be in jeopardy. Within weeks of the merger there were rumors of layoffs starting to circulate. A mid-level manager, Frank Graft, began to see his accounting staff slack off on duties and exhibit high anxiety levels about the changes that were being implemented company-wide. He and the two other mid-level managers from ABC Company, Cathy Smith, in charge of marketing/sales and Henry Hall, in charge of production, decided to have a lunch meeting to discuss what avenues they could pursue to both quell the rumors of layoffs and also redirect staff and help them maintain a positive attitude toward the changes that were being implemented. Frank and the other mid-level managers are aware of a new product line that is in development which would result in increased headcount but have been told to keep this under wraps until the deal is sealed.

Since the three departments have acquired new staff from XYZ Company things have not been going well. Workers are suspicious of each other and not cooperating with directions to share information between the merged groups. XYZ Company has prided itself with a definitive hierarchal structure and the prevalent culture is to concentrate on who you know, rather than what you know. ABC Company has been progressive in placing women in key positions and has prided itself in being a fair organization with promotions generally based on performance. Many of the workers from ABC Company are worried that the hierarchal structure from XYZ Company will change the progressive workforce that ABC Company has attained.  


Integrated Threat Theory

The main idea of the Integrated Threat Theory (ITT) is that people will perceive changes to their environment as threatening, especially when the perception is that resources will be lost or otherwise utilized. (L8, p. 1) There are three states of threats perceived: 1) No Threat 2) Personal Threat and 3) Intergroup Threat.

In No Threat situations, an individual will not perceive that any aspect of the situation poses a threat and will be more likely to cooperate and make decisions about resources without the interference of bias. (L8, p. 2)

Personal Threat is when an individual believes that their identity is under attack or that their resources are being diminished. When this occurs, individuals may allow their interest in protecting their own identity to cloud their decision making and could be less open to corrective feedback. (L8, p. 2)

Intergroup Threat exists when one group’s actions, beliefs or characteristics challenge another group’s well-being or goals. (L8, p.2) This can lead to dissention in the teams and the belief that one group should hold tight to knowledge or resources to protect its status and existence.
Applying the Integrated Threat Theory to the case study, it is likely that the variance in cultures between the ABC and XYZ companies could lead to Intergroup Threat. The ABC Company employees feel as though they are at a disadvantage since they were the ones purchased by the XYZ Company. The ABC employees have already made assumptions that their jobs may be at risk (i.e. their resources may be used up) by those already included in the XYZ structure.

One way Frank and the other managers can handle this is by having a meeting with his staff to openly address the questions that the ABC employees may have and explain the process of this business transaction and expectations from both parties. Management could reassure the employees that no immediate changes are occurring due to this and the overall goal of the company is to build a new, stronger company together. This will include members from both sides and since the organizations are running at capacity, it isn’t feasible to even begin to discuss going down in headcount. Over time, the management from both sides of the house will want to bring the groups together for some more formal and informal meetings to begin to break down some of these barriers.

Social Identity Theory

The Social Identity Theory (SIT) focuses on both personal and social identity relevance which drives specific behaviors. (L8, p.4) The key components of this theory are:

Personal Identity -- A combination of both objective and subjective factors including age, sex, race, personal history, goals and morals.

Social Identity -- A person’s perception of their role as a member of a specific group and the level of emotional importance and overall value that they get from being a member of this group.

In Group -- The term used to define a group that someone feels they belong to.

Out Group -- The term used to define all groups which compete with the In Group.


In this case study, both ABC and XYZ Company employees are in a perceived battle for the resources within the company and potentially see each other as Out Groups. ABC Company employees will likely express fear on both a social and personal level more so than XYZ due to the culture ABC has developed to become inclusive of women. The women in this company may feel more threatened on a personal identity basis (being a woman) than on a social level (being a member of ABC Company.

Social Dominance Theory

Social Dominance Theory (SDT) is the belief that all people belong to groups and each group provides for the individuals that belong to that group (L8, p. 5) In this theory, members will always be motivated to protect their group. In turn, the group will always look to protect its members. Within each of these groups, hierarchies exist and there is a general agreement within the group to maintain this structure. Higher status members look to keep their status and reap the benefits of this while lower status members perpetuate this trend both because they lack the power to change it, as well as for the purpose of one day attaining the higher level status and enjoying the benefits of that.

Within the Social Dominance Theory is the assumption that a Triomorphic Structure exists. This is a three-pronged group based structure made up of age, gender and an arbitrary data set, as determined within the group. It is generally accepted within this setting that older individuals and male are dominant group members; whereas younger individuals and women are not. Other factors that are arbitrary include religion, laws, or personal values. (L8, p.6) When determining hierarchy, oftentimes Legitimizing Myths are used. These are beliefs or views perpetuated over time which support a specific thought either in favor or against the arbitrary factors used to create a hierarchy. (L8, p7)

Lastly, Social Dominance Orientation is included in this process as the determining factor for how supportive of a group the member will be. This will vary based on the individual and is a key contributor to both in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination.
In our case study, XYZ Company employees are considered to be successful based on who they know within the company. This structure affords these employees a certain level of comfort with regards to their career outlook. It is likely that the XYZ employees will assert their dominance over ABC, given both the fact that they were the purchasing company and their network of supporters internally is large. In turn, ABC Company employees, feeling proud of their inclusive environment will also likely exert social dominance and look to sway managers to side with them regarding upholding the company’s values (arbitrary data sets used to determine hierarchy).


With the merging of two cultures, management must work to get in front of both sides of the business and showcase what they bring to the table. ABC Company has a strong culture of inclusion and success with this. XYZ Company employees work together in tight knit groups to accomplish their work. Both companies have value to add and can help create a new, more powerful, work dynamic at the conglomerate. Dealing with the fear and power struggles will be challenging and in order to overcome them, management must understand the drivers and work diligently at breaking down the barriers that divide.



Ellemers, N., Spears, R., & Doosje, B. (2002). Self and social identity. Annual Review of Psychology, 53, 161-186

Pennsylvania State University World Campus (2011). PSYCH 484 Lesson 8: Intergroup Theories: How do the people around me influence me? Retrieved from

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Sidanius, J., & Pratto, F. (1999.) Social Dominance: An intergroup theory of social hierachy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.

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