Julyan Davey
Musings on Life, Philosophy and Technology

The Power of Identity

Introduction

Colombia is well known as the friendliest nation in South America. But I was still shocked at how warm and affectionate Colombians actually were when I visited in May. So many people came and talked to me when I sat on a bench or helped me when I looked lost. I started to wonder what could cause some groups of people to together behave so differently. One explanation for Colombian’s friendliness and their overall happiness is that they have long suffered at the hands of drug lords and civil war. So they hugely appreciate any signs of stability in their country. They are able to be grateful for the little things in life that we in the west have become used to. But during my travels, I realized that this good feeling was sustained with another mechanism. Identity. Colombians know that the world thinks of them as friendly. This creates a pressure to live up to this high bar.

Self-help books have been proclaiming for generations that, like the Colombians thinking of themselves as friendly, we can use our minds to change the physical world. If only we concentrate hard enough on a goal, then the world will shift to make it come to fruition. Or so they say! At first glance, it seems crazily unscientific. But actually the work of the psychologist Festinger, as long ago as 1959, suggested that there is a route through which this effect can take place.1 He discovered cognitive dissonance. This is the mental stress that occurs when an individual simultaneously holds contradictory beliefs, ideas or values. Or, similarly, if they perform an action contrary to one of their beliefs or values. Cognitive dissonance pushes us towards consistency. When a Colombian is deciding whether to help a traveller in need they are swayed by cognitive dissonance. By the contradiction between the identity they hold, being friendly Colombians, and the fact they haven’t yet given their aid.

Identity tricks us

Despite the positive effects of identity for Colombians, defining your identity can also have some pretty big downsides. This is because it can narrow the thoughts or actions to which your cognitive dissonance will allow. I think this effect has a large part to play in the poor quality of dialogues in the political and religious worlds. For example, if you define yourself as a labour party member, then you will be more likely to support all things that the labour party does. You are also more likely to think that any policies put forward by the other side are abhorrent. In fact, the optimal solution is probably not the approach of either side but some combination of the two or an underground option that no-one has considered. But if you have a defined identity you are less likely to search for these alternatives because they will conflict with your identity.

Philip Tetlock, a psychologist and political scientist who authored the book Superforecasting: the Art and Science of Prediction, analysed the predictions of political experts and found that they fell into two main groups which he calls “foxes” and “hedgehogs”. Hedgehogs view the world through the lens of one big idea such as Conservatism. Whereas foxes try to draw on a much wider variety of models of the world. Political pundits who act like foxes drastically outperform their hedgehog opposites. To achieve this “fox” like position we must prevent ourselves from becoming engrossed with one particular viewpoint.

Another possible area where defining an identity could have downsides is introversion and extroversion. If you define yourself fundamentally as introverted or extroverted then maybe this could significantly impact how you behave. For example, a self-defined introvert, might back away from social interaction because it’s “not who they are”. Or an extrovert might struggle to be quiet and listen because cognitive dissonance forces them to live up to their loud mouthed reputation. Research shows that roughly 60% of the introversion/extroversion trait is influenced by genetics. But the remaining 40% is large enough for identity to play a role. There are also not just two poles encoded by genetics, but an entire scale. So identity could play a role in pushing people towards the extremes.

Using identity

Whilst defined identity can lead to limited thinking, it’s ability to influence people’s actions, make it a powerful tool if you want to change individuals or societies. An example of this is the case of a Parrot from the Caribbean Islands of St. Lucian.2 In the 1970s the bird was on the verge of extinction and named as the 13th rarest bird worldwide. The extinction was largely down to the local people who regularly shot and ate the bird. A young graduate at the time called Paul Butler, wanted to figure out how to protect the parrot. He launched a pride campaign, in order to link the Islander’s identity with the parrot. He hoped laws would then be passed to prevent hunting. To change the islanders identity he starred in TV and Radio programs about the bird, persuaded rock groups to write songs about the bird and visited schools across the island to spread the message. His identity based strategy worked. The parrot has now been designated a protected species and its numbers have recovered significantly. But most importantly its long term future is secure because it has become a core part of the islander’s national identity.

An Abstemious Identity

Identity rears its head everywhere. It also had a part to play in the recent Brexit debate. Whilst the economic case for Remain seemed overwhelming, identity was where the real battle took place. Did voters see themselves as British or European? Identity seems to be a powerful factor in so many areas. It’s not only a tool for change but also it can be a limiting weakness. Advertisers constantly look to exploit the identities we attach to ourselves. I’m not arguing that we should abandon identity altogether and become wisps in the wind, but that we should be careful what we attach our identities to. And realise the power of identity to influence others.

Footnotes

  1. Festinger and Carlsmith (1959) 

  2. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath