My research has been focused on two broad topics within social psychology: Intergroup relations and attributional judgment processes. In the intergroup research, I have been especially interested in questions suggested by social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978; Tajfel & Turner, 1986). Specifically, do threats to self-esteem encourage defense-based outgroup derogation, and what other functions might outgroup derogation also serve (see Branscombe, Ellemers, Spears, & Doosje, 1999, for a summary)? We have found that threats to the value of an identity do lead to heightened outgroup derogation (Branscombe & Wann, 1994) or derogation of ingroup members who reflect badly on that identity (Branscombe, Wann, Noel, & Coleman, 1993; Wann & Branscombe, 1995), and that both of these effects are most strongly displayed by those who are highly identified with the particular social group that is threatened.
Not all threats to a social identity and subsequent outgroup derogation serve such intrapsychic purposes as managing self-esteem, however. Sometimes outgroup derogation occurs primarily as a means of incurring acceptance within the ingroup. Such outgroup derogation, as a tactic of ingratiation directed at powerful ingroup members, is especially likely when the individual is insecure about his or her position or acceptance within the ingroup (Noel, Wann, & Branscombe, 1995). We are continuing to investigate intergroup judgment and intergroup emotions as a function of the nature of the ingroup membership: Whether the perceiver is a member of a privileged or disadvantaged social group (Branscombe, 1998; Branscombe, Schmitt, & Harvey, 1999; Kobrynowicz & Branscombe, 1997; Postmes, Branscombe, Spears, & Young, 1999; Powell, Branscombe, & Schmitt, in press), and how the group's history is framed (Branscombe, 2004; Doosje, Branscombe, Spears, & Manstead, 1998; Wohl & Branscombe, in press).
My second line of research has been aimed at understanding the mental processes underlying two types of social judgments: attributions and imagining counterfactual alternatives to reality. We have addressed the question of when attributions and counterfactual thinking will or will not be related (Branscombe, N'gbala, Kobrynowicz, & Wann, 1997; Burris & Branscombe, 1993; Nario & Branscombe, 1995; N'gbala & Branscombe, 1995). The features of an event that are typically targeted for counterfactual mutation are those that merely brought the event protaganist into contact with the cause of the event, while those that are perceived as most causal or blameworthy of an outcome tend to be those that are sufficient to bring about the outcome itself. This discrepancy between what is mutated and what is deemed causal of an outcome is due to the two types of processes involving different mental comparisons and answering different questions for the perceiver. When perceivers are presented with counterfactual alternatives that imply a particular factor played a causal role in bringing about the outcome, blame assignment can be affected (Branscombe, Owen, Garstka, & Coleman, 1996; Nario-Redmond & Branscombe, 1996).