In this paper we seek to better understand the underlying psychological motives for collective identification. While psychologists have identified a number of motives related to individual identity construction, the majority of organizational research suggests that the need for self-esteem enhancement is the primary motivator underlying collective identification. By contrast, almost no research has empirically examined alternative motives for collective identification nor explored how these motives relate to context (ie in what settings are specific motives relevant?).
To better understand non- esteem-enhancement motives of collective identification and their relation to context, we conducted a set of studies examining fan identification with the collective known as NASCAR (the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing). We chose NASCAR because anecdotal evidence and pilot research suggested that non- esteem motives might explain identification with this relatively low-prestige collective. Findings from our main analysis – grounded in qualitative data from archival documents, interviews, and observation of NASCAR experts and fans – indicated that the dominant, underlying motivator of fan identification with NASCAR was the “need for authentic self-expression” (ie a need to express one’s true self).
Further, this analysis indicated that self-expression of the specific value of “patriotism” was the most commonly reported motivator of identification with NASCAR, and that the centrality of patriotism was related to the context of NASCAR. In particular, fans reported that interacting with NASCAR represented a rare setting in which they could fully and authentically express patriotism. Together, these findings suggest that the need for authentic self-expression, especially in contexts that offer rare occasions for self-expression of important values, may be a strong motivator of collective identification. We discuss the theoretical and practical implications of these findings.