Measuring, creating and changing cognitive associations: A social identity model of behavioural associations

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Psychology


In order for behaviour change interventions to be successful, it is essential that they are based on empirically supported theory that provides an explanation of how and why the intervention works. In general, however, few behaviour change interventions have been constructed as a result of well-specified, empirically supported behaviour change techniques-and research has reinforced the necessity of this practice. The aim of the proposed project is to provide a comprehensive test of a new model that explains the emergence and maintenance of behaviour as learned associations, integrating techniques from learning theory into a social identity approach.

Research has previously investigated the utility of models that propose cognitive associations between social psychological concepts. Greenwald and colleagues used their Balanced Identity Design to assess the strength of associations among the concepts of self, the female social category, and positive valence. Using the Implicit Association Test (IAT), their research demonstrated that a consistent pattern of associations could be established among concepts using these indirect measures. However, the same results could not be demonstrated using traditional self-report measures-supporting the low predictive value of explicit cognitions in behavioural research.

Unified theories such as the Balanced Identity Design have highlighted that associative links exist at the level of the individual. However, there is reason to believe that similar associations may exist between concepts at the group level. Both social identity theory and self-categorisation theory account for the relationships among the concepts of the self, social identity and group behaviour. Moreover, research has supported the fact that identification with a particular social category predicts intentions to engage in health-related behaviours such as binge drinking, physical exercise, and sun protection behaviours-as moderated by group norms. Stronger identification with a social category has also been shown to result in a stronger consistency between group norms and individual behaviour. While the majority of work on the social identity approach has measured associations using self-report methods, the proposed project will aim to measure these associations at the implicit level.

The proposed project will test a social identity model of behavioural associations (SIMBA) that proposes associations between the concepts of social identity, group norms, and individual behaviour. The model suggests that when any two nodes are linked to the same third node, the association between the two nodes should strengthen. This notion is known as the 'balance-congruity principle' and emphasises the degree of consistency that can potentially be maintained throughout the triad. Through modifying the strength of any one associative link, behaviour change could be achieved by subsequently altering the associative strength of other links. This approach to behaviour change is in contrast to techniques commonly applied by social psychologists, which typically focus on providing individuals with norm related information11 or encouraging participants to engage in goal setting and volitional planning strategies.

The proposed research consists of three work streams to test the SIMBA by establishing that the proposed associations exist in established groups (Stream 1), can be created in novel groups (Stream 2), and can be changed in both novel and established groups (Steam 3). In the PhD, Emily will spend some time at the University of Queensland in Australia to conduct research there and to obtain additional mentoring/supervision from Prof Winnifred Louis and to work with the SIGN group (led by Profs Alex Haslam and Jolanda Jetten).


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 30/09/2027
1929783 Studentship ES/P000630/1 01/10/2017 17/06/2022 Emily Hughes