Cold War through the lens of Social Psychology

The research topic for my RBA is the application of the Social Identity theory (SIT) in social psychology to the Cold War. There have been many attempts to use SIT to describe processes taking place in international relations, but given the cross-disciplinary nature of such applications, unavoidable limitations have been encountered. In my RBA, I plan to view the United States and Soviet Union not in terms of their ideologies and political agendas, but in terms of their populations and the psychological forces affecting the people during that era.

SIT distinguishes between several steps to acquiring and maintaining social identity. Based on shared characteristics, people self-categorize and self-assign group membership: the in-group is the group of the person doing the categorization, as opposed to the out-group. By constant social comparison, people strive to maintain positive distinctiveness of the in-group via in-group favoritism and out-group discrimination. In-group favoritism refers to treating in-group members as individuals, each with positive traits. Out-group discrimination implies seeing members of the out-group as similar to each other, all with shared negative traits. This helps maintain a binary division between the in-group an the out-group and contributes to positive social identity of the in-group.

The identities of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War have been described by many as polar and incompatible. The two nations strove to exaggerate the differences in their identities and highlight the superior nature of their way of life. The American population responded to the onset of the Cold War by creating a homogenous white, middle-class, suburban society with an emphasis on abundance, individualism and freedom — the characteristics that the US prided itself on and the Soviet Union lacked. By conforming to this social standard, the American population had created an in-group rooted in national identity, which suggests that SIT can and should be used to understand the Cold War from the psychological perspective.

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