Do identities stick?

Sticky IdentityYou might be familiar with the concept of wage stickiness. It’s a theory that the pay of employed workers tends to respond slowly to the changes in a company’s or the broader economy’s performance. But what about you? Is the person you are flexible to the world around you? Let me clarify briefly as to what I’m talking about; personality is no more than a set of characteristics and traits; I am not talking about this. But identity is more fundamental, and is about who you are. My hypothesis is that identities are sticky on three levels:

  1. Personal/Social Identity
    1. The personal identity is that which is self-relevant, and the social identity is that which exists with reference to others (it’s important to note that social identity theory is different to group identity, for where one is personal identity influenced by the group, the other belongs to the group). If these identities are sticky then identity that we build for ourselves may be more powerful than analytical/rational thinking. In 2004 Lisa Bolton and Americus Reed published an article in which they argued that past components of a person’s identity have prolonged impacts on judgement. The authors examined judgements on issues that were linked to identity, such as pollution linked to environmentalist identities, legalising marijuana linked to liberal and parental identities etc. They tried to weaken these participants’ judgements using a variety of methods, but when the judgements were linked to identities they had little success. Social influence i.e. peer pressure, was the most influential method, but even this had its limitations. So effectively their message was that identity is important. Not rocket science of course; but the implications are significant, because if the effects of identity are prolonged, and perhaps sometimes irrational, then they are also open to manipulation. For example Bolton and Reed concluded that companies should try and build brand loyalty along identity lines.
  2. Group/Collective Identity
    1. A group identity is one which is held in common with a collective. And there are numerous examples of where such identities can be seen to stick. For example many have argued that ethnic conflicts arise when an ethnic group identifies itself as marginalised, oppressed and/or weakened by the dominant group. Yet when such groups find themselves involved in a shifting balance of power, their self-identification of vulnerability usually stays. One example is the growing power of the Hutus in Rwanda vis-a-vis the Tutsis prior to the Tutsi genocide. Another example is the growing power of Israel in the world, and the clear evidence of their power from military victories, together with the enduring identity of vulnerability coming from the holocaust.
  3. 3rd Person Identity (I made this concept up because I couldn’t find a label for it):
      1. One aspect of it is obvious. Does your boss think you unready for a promotion? It may be that they have identified you as young and inexperienced, or it may be that they have built an identity for you based on mistakes that you made early in the job. And it often takes a lot of persistent evidence that you have grown beyond this in order to justify your promotion. What you’re really trying to do is not only provide empirical evidence of your competence, but actually change your own identity as exists in your manager’s head. The implications of this are numerous. Should we try and change jobs and locations  as often as possible in order to ensure that others’ identities of us is always at the latest, most competent stage? Should we focus a lot more of our energy on ‘anchoring’ conversations i.e. suggesting/implying what you want the other person to believe early, so as to ensure the other person’s identification of you is as positive as possible? Or should we recognise that there is a trade-off between others’ identification of us, and the enjoyment that can be realised from a sense of enduring community?
      2. The second aspect is less obvious, for it involves a feedback loop. It is a part of human psychology that we act on guesses about what other people are thinking about us. But of our course our guesses are all based on past data and perceptions i.e. what the other group/person has done in the past, as opposed to what they’re thinking at the moment. And thus if these identifications stick, then we could not only build very obscure identifications of others, but also end up letting that influence our actions, and thus the reactions of the person we are identifying, and thus their, and again our, identities.

Do you think identities stick? And if so what do you think the implications are?

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