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Inter-group Theories are a group of theories that seek to explain the way in which individuals act in a group and reflect how successful relationships motivate performance, specifically focusing on how, "people are motivated to behave by the groups that they belong to" (Redmond, 2011). Integrated Threat Theory, Social Identity Theory, and Social Dominance Theory are three Inter-group Theories that have materialized through empirical studies. While fairly new to the field of Industrial and Organizational Psychology these theories are successfully being applied to group-related motivation in organizations today.  Below is a summary of each of these theories.

  • Integrated Threat Theory explains how an individual's perception of how others are using resources, which one may want or need, can be perceived as a threat which creates a motivating response.
  • Social Identity Theory describes how individuals rely on both personal identify and social identify and how different situations one experiences creates different motivating responses.
  • Social Dominance Theory explains how individuals all belong to "group-based hierarchies" (Redmond, 2011, p. 5), how social value is placed on dominant and subordinate groups, and how individuals are motivated to protect their groups.

Application of Intergroup Theories is demonstrated in a case study reflecting a fictitious marketing consultant firm in which two teams work to develop a television commercial campaign for their client, the National Football League (NFL). The two teams have varying degrees of experience and are in competition with each other to land the television commercial campaign which will be aired during the 2011 - 2012 NFL season. This case study will illustrate each of the Intergroup Theories and how motivation is an underlying factor or result of group interactions and relationships.

Details of the Case

RAS, Inc. is a small marketing consulting firm who has just contracted with the NFL to assist in the creation of a lineup of television commercials for the 2011-2012 season.  In order to best serve its client, RAS has created two teams that will each create a 30-second commercial.  The NFL will be selecting the commercial it deems most appropriate for the organization based on how it portrays the football experience.  The selected commercial will set the tone for the commercial lineup for the entire season.  Team 1 is comprised of three marketing agents who have extensive experience working for larger organizations.  Team 2 also has three team members but is led by an experienced marketing agent while the other two members are young, relatively new to the firm, and have little experience working with large organizations.  Team 1 feels the NFL should encompass the entire football experience of tailgating, beer, cheerleaders and some of the ugliest hits in the game.  Team 2 is taking a more conservative approach and feels that the commercial should focus on the greatest plays in the history of the game and cheering crowds dressed in team jerseys.

This case study will be used to explore and illustrate how group membership is directly linked to motivation as demonstrated through the use of each of the Inter-group Theories: 

  • Integrated Threat Theory
  • Social Identify Theory
  • Social Dominance Theory 


Integrated Threat Theory

The Integrated Threat Theory (ITT) is composed of realistic threats, symbolic threats, inter-group anxiety and negative stereotypes, all of which create conflict between groups. (Redmond, 2011).  Realistic threats involve the perception of threats to a group’s interests while symbolic threats involve the perceived differences amongst groups in terms of understanding their surroundings (Redmond, 2011).  Realistic and symbolic threats lead to inter-group anxiety and negative stereotyping.  The Integrated Threat Theory explains how threats and negative emotions lead to the disintegration of team function and ability by way of poor communication, poor decision-making and poor team performance (Redmond, 2011).   Without such threats and negative emotions, however, there is no motivation to act or react (Redmond, 2010).

The NFL case study can be used to demonstrate the components of Integrated Threat Theory. Two marketing teams are in competition and there will likely be a winner and a loser.  This creates a natural threatening environment between the teams.  Threats that may be real and/or symbolic include monetary rewards, recognition, promotion opportunities, and job security.  Realistic threats involve the perception of threats from another group to the well-being, interest, and/or existence of one's in-group and its members (Weiner, 2003).   Team 1 could feel threatened by the younger Team 2 that might be able to bring a fresh, more hip perspective to advertising.  If Team 2’s commercial is selected, it would threaten Team 1’s credibility and clout, which could potentially lead to eventual losses in salary and bonuses.  Team 2 could feel threatened by the experience and track record of Team 1.  If Team 1’s commercial is selected, Team 2 could miss out on gaining credibility and recognition, which could keep Team 2 from receiving bonuses or increases in salary.

Symbolic threats are perceptions of differences in attitudes, values, and beliefs that an in-group finds might undermine their way of life (Weiner, 2003).  Team 1 contains three male members who believe the NFL experience entails parking lot tailgate parties that involve large consumptions of alcohol, scantily clad cheerleaders and violent plays, like heavy hitting and sacks.  Team 2 is comprised of a one male and two females.  Team 2 believes that the NFL should maintain a clean yet stimulating image; one suitable for prime time TV.  Team 2 feels the commercial should focus more on family or neighbor-oriented gatherings in homes and a montage of successful, historic plays and games.  Team 2 believes that the frat-party type image the NFL has displayed in previous advertising campaigns undermines the value of the game and the organization.  The genders of the two teams play a role in the values and beliefs of each team, thus threatening the in-group team’s opinions and interpretations of the world.

The teams are also comprised of people with different experience levels.  This also translates into a generational difference.  The perceptions of the young and older team members could pit them against each other.  The younger team could potentially want to prove that the older employees are out of touch and out of date.  The older employees may wish to teach the younger, inexperienced Team 2 members a lesson.  These real and perceived threats as well as negative stereotyping can create a distraction among team members of both groups and be a headwind to their performance.

Consequences of Threats

Intergroup anxiety develops out of a fear certain groups have of being embarrassed and/or receiving negative evaluations from members of their own group when interacting with out-group members (Sam & Berry, 2006).  In this case study, there may be extreme awkwardness at meetings, water coolers and informal company events. Such emotions toward out-group members will lead to incorrect predictions about out-group reactions to in-group values (Redmond, 2011).  When an in-group expects an out-group negative reaction, there is an increase in prejudice and bias towards the out-group members (Riek, Mania & Gaertner, 2006).  Negative stereotyping will also occur as a result of the in-group's beliefs about the out-group and will magnified by negative attitudes (Redmond, 2011).  For example, group 1 believes that group 2 is young and inexperienced.   Group 1's negative attitude toward group 2 will result in increased negative stereotyping when group 2's performance is consistent with group 1's negative attitude towards group 2.  

Social Identity Theory

Social Identity Theory (SIT) was developed by Tajfel and Turner (1979) in an endeavor to understand the causes of conflict between groups.  SIT gives insight into group behavior. Every group has a measure of social status connected to its membership (Redmond, 2011) and as a result, this precipitates a social identity for each member of the group; the person becomes connected to the group allowing the group's values to shape their concept of self and self-esteem (Forsyth, 2010).  Therefore, it is common for an individual to identify and think of the group they belong to as "we" or "us."  When this occurs, the group is considered the person's in-group and subsequently, all other groups are out-groups and can be viewed as potential rivals (Redmond, 2011; Forsyth, 2010). 

In the case study there are 2 groups with 3 members each.  The first group is comprised of three marketing agents who have extensive experience working for larger organizations.  The second group has three team members but is led by an experienced marketing agent while the other two members are young, relatively new to the firm, and have little experience working with large organizations.  Each group will derive self-esteem from their group based upon each group member's status.  However, groups can only exist when in relation to each other and each group's social meaning must emerge from the comparison of the other group (Hogg, 2001).

In light of Social Identity Theory, we can logically expect that the status of membership in group 1 would enhance members' self-esteem based upon each individual member's extensive marketing experience in comparison to group 2.  On the other hand, group 2, although young and inexperienced, may compare themselves to group 1 and derive feelings of self-esteem from their senior leader's encouragement to consider the younger member's offer of fresh ideas.  The senior leader may view the 2 younger members as having a real "finger" on the "pulse" of the target market thus giving group 2's self-confidence a boost and feelings of superiority over group 1.

Social Dominance Theory

Social Dominance Theory explains how individuals all belong to "group-based hierarchies" (Redmond, 2011, p. 5) and are motivated to protect their groups. The theory aligns with the human need for social interaction and the resulting socially based hierarchical system. Individual and group behaviors within established units are based on maintaining the hierarchy and membership. Social Dominance Theory also describes motivational behaviors between dominant and subordinate groups through "behavioral asymmetry" (Redmond, 2011, p. 5) or differences. Additionally, social value is assigned to different groups and associated membership. The case study described above clearly reflects elements of Social Dominance Theory and will be further used to demonstrate many of the components of this Intergroup Theory including positive and negative social value, hierarchical system trimorphic structure, and social dominance orientation.

Positive and Negative Social Values

According to Social Dominance Theory group hierarchy is maintained by the group's membership and the social value placed on the group within society. The social value of a group is either positive or negative. Groups that are at the top of the social hierarchy are considered to have positive social value and are motivated to maintain their status to retain social benefits through, "in-group favoritism and out-group derogation behaviors" (Redmond, 2011, p. 5). Groups that are at the lower spectrum of social hierarchy are considered to have negative social value. Negative social value has alternative motivating factors from positive social value groups. Negative social value groups seek to climb the social ladder to gain membership in groups that are closer to the top of the social hierarchy spectrum. Conflict is often found between positive and negative social value groups due to the motivating energy displayed by each group. Positive and negative social values and the motivating force placed on group-based hierarchies can be illustrated using the NFL marketing teams case study.

In the case study there are two marketing teams competing to land the television commercial campaign which will be aired during the 2011 - 2012 NFL season. As described above, Team 1 is comprised of three marketing agents who have extensive experience working for larger organizations.  Team 2 also has three team members but is led by an experienced marketing agent while the other two members are young, relatively new to the firm, and have little experience working with large organizations.  Team 1's extensive experience would place it higher on the social value spectrum thus reflecting positive social value. In comparison, Team 2's younger and less experienced membership would place it lower on the social value spectrum reflecting negative social value. Based on these social structure differences motivation displayed in each group would differ based on the effects of positive and negative value placed on each group according to Social Dominance Theory.

Team 1 would likely display favorable behaviors to its membership or in-group reflecting superior attitudes and a degree of overconfidence.  These behaviors are motivated by the need to maintain, "their status, power, and resources so that they can continue to benefit" (Redmond, 2011, p. 5). This superior attitude would direct derogatory behaviors toward those lower on the social hierarchy or out-groups who may be perceived as either not worthy of resources or, as in this case study, reflected as competitors who may take away resources or the commercial campaign.

Team 2 would be motivated to move up the social hierarchy ladder so may be more inclined to work harder for the commercial campaign. The motivation created by the negative social value assigned to Team 2 may have a negative effect on their performance based on the fact that, "subordinate groups will work to maintain the social hierarchy even though it puts them at a disadvantage" (Redmond, 2011, p. 5).  This counter-intuitive approach allows Team 2 members to maintain the lower social hierarchy group while they seek to climb the hierarchical ladder.

Trimorphic Structure

Group-based hierarchies can be described using the trimorphic structure. This approach suggests that there are, "three group-based social hierarchies" (Redmond, 2011, p. 6). These group-based systems apply to age, gender and human beliefs. The biological and human belief structures will be applied to the case study to demonstrate how the trimorphic structure supports motivation activity in a group setting.

  • Age System: This biological system suggests that with age comes prestige and power. Applying this element of the trimorphic structure to Social Dominance Theory indicates that older individuals carry greater social value.  The greater social value motivates this cohort to retain their level in the hierarchy spectrum in order to maintain positive social value of the group. In addition, trimorphic structure suggests that groups made up of older individuals will hold more conservative views then those who are younger. Team 1 would reflect age system in the trimorphic structure since this group is made up of individuals who have extensive experience reflecting a marketing team made up of more mature individuals. Following the elements of trimorphic structure then this group would be motivated to maintain their status and power therefore they will likely present their marketing campaign with confidence and possible a degree of arrogance. This team would also likely provide campaign material that is conservative in nature which may be considered too safe for an NFL commercial.
  • Gender System: This biological system suggests that there are differences in gender as it applies to Social Dominance Theory. Trimorphic structure intimates that men have more positive social value than women. Data supports this theory, "demonstrated by the fact that men typically are the head of the household" (Redmond, 2011, p. 6). This data also suggests that men rise faster to the top of most organizations including group-based social hierarchies. The positive social value applied to gender would support Social Dominance Theory by directing behavior that would maintain the current positive social value status of male dominated groups. In the NFL case study trimorphic structure and gender group-based social hierarchy cannot be applied since gender is not described for the individuals in the two marketing teams.
  • Arbitrary Set System: This system reflects group-based social hierarchy based on, "human beliefs such as religion, laws, or corporate values" (Redmond, 2011, pg. 6). Groups based on arbitrary set system will perceive their group's positive social value based on their belief system so will therefore be motivated to argue their status and work to maintain their perceived status over other groups. In the NFL case study trimorphic structure and gender group-based social hierarchy cannot be applied since gender is not described for the individuals in the two marketing teams.

Social Dominance Orientation (SDO)

Social Dominance Orientation is described as the, "degree to which individuals desire and support group-based hierarchy and the domination of "inferior" groups by "superior" groups (Sidanius & Pratto, 1999). Discrimination can be predicted using Social Dominance Orientation. Inequality between groups who are viewed with positive social value and negative social value are often determined through legitimizing myths (LM's). Legitimizing myths are made up of, "attitudes, values, beliefs, stereotypes" (Redmond, 2011, p. 7) which dispense social value to different group-based hierarchies. Social Dominance Orientation can be measured using the value sets of legitimizing myths through a members perceptions. These perceptions cause behaviors and motivate group members.

Team 1 could potentially have a higher degree of Social Dominance Orientation due to the fact that the membership in this group would perceive themselves as superior to Team 2. Conversely, Team 2 would likely score lower on Social Dominance Orientation due to the level of inexperience and the perception that they are inferior to Team 2. These "scores" fuel motivation to maintain group-based social hierarchies.


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Hogg, M. A. (2001).  A social identity theory of leadership. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 5(3), 184-200.

Redmond, B. (2011).  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 hierarchy and oppression. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In The social psychology of intergroup relations. W.G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.). Monterey, CA: Brooks-Cole.

Weiner, I. B. (2003). Handbook of psychology: Personality and social psychology, volume 5.  Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

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