Bill Swann is a Professor of Social and Personality Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. His primary appointment is in the Social-Personality area of the Psychology Department, but he also has appointments in Clinical Psychology and in the School of Business. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota and undergraduate degree from Gettysburg College. Bill has been a Fellow at Princeton University and at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. He has also been elected a fellow of the American Psychological Association and the American Psychological Society. He has received multiple research scientist development awards from the National Institutes of Mental Health and research awards from the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. In 2010, he served as President of the Society of Experimental Social Psychology. In 2016, he received the Distinguished Lifetime Career Award from the International Society for Self and Identity.
Bill’s most recent emphasis has been on identity fusion theory. People become fused with a group when they feel a viseral sense of connectedness with a group, so strong that the borders between the self and the group become porous and permeable.One reason why fusion is important and interesting is that fused persons express willingness to engage in extraordinary behaviors in the service of their group membership. For example, in a large international study of participants from six continents, those who were strongly fused with their country were especially willing to endorse fighting and dying for their country. Further, in a sample of transsexuals, those who were fused with their desired sex were more likely to endure painful surgery to acheive the physical characterisitcs of their desired sex. In one set of studies involving some interpersonal variations of the trolley dilemma, fused persons endorsed jumping to their deaths in front of runaway trolley to save the lives of their fellow countrymen. In a later set of studies that featured different trolley dilemmas, we learned that strongly fused persons experienced an elevated level of emotional engagement with the group and this emotional connection overrode their desire for self-preservation and compelled them to translate their moral beliefs into self-sacrificial behavior.The implications of identity fusion for reactions to ostracism from the group have also been explored, as well as the effects of physiological arousal on pro-group behavior, and the relation of fusion with one’s party to predictions about one’s life quality after the 2008 elections. Recently, Bill has begun collaborating with an international group led by Harvey Whitehouse at Oxford on a project involving religious ritual and group behavior.The collaboration has also produced a recent paper based on a study of rebels in the 2011 Libyan revolution against Gadaffi. The work showed that relative to militia-men who provided logistical support, those who chose to engage in frontline combat reported feeling more fused to their milita than to their own families.
Bill is best known for developing self-verification theory, which focuses on people’s desire to be known and understood by others. The theory assumes that once people develop firmly held beliefs about themselves, they come to prefer that others see them as they see themselves–even if their self-views are negative. For example, married people with negative self-views are more committed to the relationship if their spouse views them negatively. In fact, if such individuals are viewed positively, they run a somewhat higher risk of divorce! Recent research has applied this theory to understanding phenomena ranging from reactions to procedural justice in organizations, the productivity of members of work groups and teams, and extreme group behavior, such as fighting for one’s group. In addition, the cross cultural universality of self-verification strivings has been examined.
Identity negotiation theory is another focus of Bill’s work. Identity negotiation refers to the processes whereby people in relationships reach agreements regarding “who is who.” Once reached, these agreements govern the way people relate to one another, as they establish what people expect of one another. In this way, identity negotiation processes provide the interpersonal “glue” that holds relationships together. In recent years, Bill has become interested in how identity negotiation processes unfold in groups, especially inorganizational settings.
Bill has developed several measures of individual differences, including measures of self-concept, self-esteem, verbal inhibition, and most recently, pictorial and verbal measures of identity fusion .
Supervising the individual research projects of his undergraduate and doctoral students takes much of Bill’s time. He also teaches several courses, including a graduate level course in Social Psychology and several seminars on the self, personality, relationships, groups, and social stereotypes. He teaches both graduate and undergraduate versions of all of his seminars and has taught Executive education classes for McCombs School of business.
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