It’s About Valence: Historical Continuity or Historical Discontinuity as a Threat to Social Identity


  • Jenny Roth
  • Michaela Huber
  • Annkatrin Juenger
  • James H. Liu


National identity is underpinned by historical representations. Recent research shows that narratives presenting an in-group’s history as discontinuous rather than continuous raise collective angst, suggesting that historical discontinuity threatens social identity. This previous research has focused on positive aspects of an in-group’s past. The present research aims to extend the findings to go beyond positive histories. We suggest that when the in-group’s actions in the past are presented as negative, historical continuity instead of discontinuity will increase perceived identity threat because a negative, continuous history threatens group members’ need for a positive social identity in the present. In an experiment with a sample size of N = 316, we manipulated the narrated valence of in-group actions during the historical event of the approval of the German constitutional law by framing the group’s actions in either positive or negative terms. In addition, we presented the in-group’s history as connected or disconnected to the in-group’s present. Results demonstrate that historical continuity only decreased identity threat compared to historical discontinuity when the in-group’s past behavior was presented as positive. When the in-group’s past was presented as negative, continuity even increased identity threat compared to historical discontinuity. These results were particularly pronounced for people who strongly identified with their national in-group. We discuss implications of the findings for political communication and managing a nation’s perception of social identity threat.