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(credit: Jenny Scott CC BY)

Choosing and using identities

Identity is strong, and can trip us up in two ways.

Who are you? That’s a pretty existential question. It is quite hard to come up with a quick and concise answer — our identity is arguably as unique as our fingerprints, and much more complex to describe. Personality and physical presence are undoubtedly part of it. These are aspects we can only control to a very limited extent: we can exercise to keep ourselves trim and fit, but we cannot alter our height or — at least not without considerable surgical activity — the shape of our face, or our shoe size.

A meta-analysis of 207 studies has found evidence that it is possible to considerably change some features of one’s personality (with the help of a therapist), but by and large, without a significant intervention our personality traits change very little over our lifetime. We cannot choose our innate gender — the fact that some people undergo substantial discomfort to change their biological sex should suffice as evidence — and we cannot choose our innate sexual preferences.

There are, however, many elements of our identity over which we do have control, directly or indirectly. We can choose our friends, our various social circles, and our professional network. We can choose the type of car we drive, the kind of clothes we wear, the music we listen to, the newspaper we read, the TV shows we watch.

Not every facet of our life qualifies as a part of our identity — few people would identify as a porridge eater. Others can be remarkably relevant to how we see ourselves: last summer’s soccer world cup stirred up many a dormant nationalist feeling, for example. And we construct identities for others in the same way: people who don’t drive a BMW or an SUV may think that those who do have a particular identity.

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A BMW SUV — two identities for the price of one. (image: Luc CC BY)

It is not surprising that we feel close to people with whom we share important elements of our identity, perhaps the most with our family, as the old proverb blood is thicker than water exemplifies. But that doesn’t mean we always automatically side with our nearest relatives. This is something that Paul Gosar, an American Republican congressman seeking re-election in November experienced first-hand. Six of his nine siblings feature in a political advert… supporting his Democrat opponent, and denouncing the politics of their brother.

This is quite extraordinary, but it neatly illustrates the power of political identity. A recent paper by Jay van Bavel and André Pereira, two psychologists at New York University, proposes an identity-based model that helps explain how people come to place party loyalty over issues of policy, and indeed over the truth.

Just last week, British Prime Minister Theresa May attended the EU summit in Salzburg hoping to plug her so-called Chequers plan and get the support from her 27 fellow leaders. It didn’t go to plan. Mrs May was told, in no uncertain terms, that her plan was unworkable. With less than two weeks to go to the annual Conservative party conference, she returned home in a less than triumphant mood. In a televised speech to the nation, she demanded that “the EU must respect the UK in the Brexit talks”. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, had earlier posted a picture online in which he offers Mrs May a petit four, with the caption “Sorry, no cherries” (an allusion to the refusal of the EU to allow the UK to ‘cherry-pick’ parts of its trade rulebook). For their part, the EU pointed out that they had repeatedly stated that the Chequers plan was not acceptable (the Independent helpfully lists “All the times the EU has said ‘no’ to Theresa May’s Chequers Brexit plan”).

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“You can have your cake and eat it, but no cherries” (via Instagram)

The reactions in the media and on social media were predictable. From the pro-Brexit side came angry cries of ‘insult’ and ‘humiliation’, from the pro-EU corner the talk was about self-inflicted damage, even adding to Tusk’s mockery with the odd reference to the hapless Black Knight in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (who keeps battling on despite having his limbs chopped off one by one, dismissing his predicament as ‘just a flesh wound’).

It looks as if the stronger one identifies with one or other side, the more one dismisses or plainly ignores any angle that does not support that chosen identity. There was, for example, precious little sympathy on the one side for the affront and indignity that Mrs May visibly experienced, and for the predicament she finds herself in. There was no hint of admission that there might just have been some discourtesy, intransigence and arrogance on the part of the EU. On the other side, there was little willingness to appreciate that the red lines Mrs May herself chose to draw two years ago — primarily for political reasons and with scant evidence that they were “what the British people voted for” — are the key obstacle to a compromise. There was equally little recognition that the tactic of trying to divide the EU had perhaps not been all that wise.

In the US, President Trump’s nominee for the Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh is the subject of (at the latest count: three) accusations of sexual assault. Here too the comments divide along ideological lines. Liberal and Democrat leaning people generally dismiss the accused’s denials, and side with the accusers, the women who were allegedly the victims of Mr Kavanaugh’s undesired attentions. Conservatives and supporters of the president and his party take the side of the accused, and denounce the accusers for having waited until now to come forward. (This gave rise to a social media hashtag #WhyIDidntReport, used by victims of sexual assault to give their answers to the question. It is unclear whether the often poignant stories have had much effect on Mr Kavanaugh’s supporters’ views.)

Partisanship can play hard and fast with one’s cognitive ability, stoking confirmation bias and motivated reasoning. Is it possible to avoid this? It might take some effort, but there is no fundamental reason why we could not approach a situation without colouring what we see with our identity. It is not without its risks though.

The economist Robin Hanson posted a Twitter poll shortly after Christine Ford Blasey first came forward and accused Kavanaugh:

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This caused quite a stream of comments (do check them out), very few of which start from the assumption that all Hanson wanted to do get an idea of how likely or unlikely such an accusation would be. Most ascribed ulterior motives (sexist, rather than political) to him. (There is some irony here, as he is the co-author of “Elephant in the Brain, Hidden Motives in Everyday Life”.) In response, Hanson explained the background to his poll in a blogpost. It was indeed a serious attempt at dispassionately approaching a highly polarizing issue (not just across the ideological divide, but also across the gender divide) without taking an a priori position — in other words, without allowing a particular identity to dominate the reasoning.

Now one may, of course, question Robin Hanson’s sincerity. (In the olden days of the internet in the UK, the acronym MRDA was more popular than it is now, wheeled out when one wished to say “Well he would say that, wouldn’t he?”) However, anyone familiar with Hanson’s work will know that this kind of detached, unemotional questioning is quite characteristic for the way he analyses the world.

The intensity of the reactions to his poll shows that it is not enough to leave your own identity to one side to ensure a serene debate around divisive and controversial topics. Others map an identity onto you — as if you were a well-behaved BMW-driver — and speculate about your motives. People who strongly embrace their own identity, it seems, perceive equally profound identities in everyone else, in particular anyone who appears to go against the tenets of their own adopted identity. (This might explain Republican US senator Lindsey Graham’s recent tweet about the identity of the lawyer for the third alleged victim — he also represented Stormy Daniels.)

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Identity is not a bad thing. We are social beings, and we have a strong need to belong to groups of people with whom we can identify. There is nothing wrong even with on occasion exploiting someone’s identity. Rebelliousness is part of many teenagers’ identity, and if you can use that as a stratagem to encourage them to eat healthily, why not?

But it is very potent. We should not allow our identity to distort the truth, to make us tolerant of questionable behaviour (or worse) if it is perpetrated by people with whom we share an identity, or to makes us assume, without any evidence, ulterior motives in the behaviour of others who don’t fully align with our views.

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“Did The Who ever find out who you are?”

As Robin Hanson says in another post where he alludes to the controversy his tweets caused: “Let us instead revert back to the traditional intellectual standard: respond most to what people say, and don’t stretch too hard to infer what you think they mean in scattered hints of what they’ve said and done.”

Let us, whenever we feel strongly emotionally moved (favourably or unfavourably) by what someone says, or by what is said about someone, take a step back. Let us imagine the person at the centre was not someone who shares our identity, but whose identity is opposed to ours (or vice versa). Would we feel the same?

If not: let us beware of the identity bias, and reconsider how we choose and use our identity. It will make our own little world a better one — and quite likely the whole world out there too.

Originally published at koenfucius.wordpress.com on September 28, 2018.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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