(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.

Build your own identity

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.

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

The power of the party line

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.

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

Avoiding the identity bias

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.

Identity is powerful; use it wisely

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?

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

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