How Useful is Identity?

Identity. I've been thinking a lot lately about what this word means and how it affects our behaviour.

We all have a certain image of ourselves - beliefs about the kind of person we are. Having a strong sense of identity seems to be desirable, something that brings comfort and security . Many people seem to spend a lot of time trying to figure out who they are, what they want, and what they believe. 

And perhaps rightly so: having a strong identity certainly seems to have advantages. A clear sense of "who you are" makes it easier to connect with other similar people and groups. People with a strong identity often stand out more and are more memorable. I'd guess that the people who are most successful in life - especially people who become famous - all have pretty strong identities.

Identity also helps us to make decisions and to know how to behave. We're constantly faced with complex decisions and circumstances. With no prior beliefs about what we should do, weighing all the options and making a decision would be near impossible. Having a sense of what kind of person you are makes it much easier to decide how you should behave, and to have confidence in your choice between options. This makes decisions that would otherwise be agonising virtually effortless.

But strong identities can also be dangerous. The drive to protect your identity can be overpowering. Sometimes we can get so caught up in this that we neglect other important things: like being open-minded, truth-seeking, and kind to others. It's hard to think clearly and objectively about something that you identify strongly with, and I think this is the driving force behind a lot of conflict in the world. Paul Graham has a nice essay in which he advocates for "keeping your identity small" for this very reason - "If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible."

Another problem with identity is that once established, it  can be very hard to change. If you believe that you are a certain kind of person, you'll generally be more likely to (a) act accordingly and (b) interpret your behaviour in accordance with this belief. And of course, this just acts to strengthen your sense of identity further. So, for example, if you think of yourself as an altruistic person, you're probably more likely to seek out opportunities to help people, and to interpret your behaviour as altruistically driven. Whereas if you think of yourself as a lazy person, you're probably more likely to spend whole days watching TV in bed, and to think of times that you struggle with work as being down to laziness. 

This self-reinforcing nature of identity is a double-edged sword. For positive aspects of your identity, it can be helpful - if you believe that you're altruistic, this belief is likely to make you more altruistic. But if you have parts of your identity that aren't so rosy (and don't we all?) this kind of circularity can be quite damaging, because it makes identity very difficult to change. It's hard for the person who thinks they are lazy to change this belief, because to do so he needs to change his behaviour - which is difficult to do if you identify as lazy. This loop seems pretty tough to break out of.

So what should we do about this? Simply making your identity as small as possible doesn't seem to be the solution - what you really want to do is only keep those parts of your identity that are helpful, and discard any that hold you back.

Can we clearly distinguish between "helpful" and "unhelpful" identities? Probably not. There are some clear cases - having as part of your identity things like "being open-minded", "having a growth mindset", and "being a kind and considerate person" seem to be pretty straightforwardly useful. Identifying as someone lazy or boring or stupid seem pretty uncontroversially harmful. 

But there's a lot of middle ground - especially when it comes to identities that are tied to certain groups or ideologies - identifying as right-wing or left-wing, utilitarian or deontologist, religious or atheist. Whilst these kinds of identities can be good for connecting with those similar and help with success, they can also polarize groups and cause conflict. One solution here would be to stop using identity labels, and instead just talk about beliefs - instead of asking someone "Are you Tory/Lib Dem/Labour?", we could simply ask "Do you agree with policy x?". I personally feel quite uncomfortable labelling myself as "a" anything. I tend to shy away from these kind of identity questions when asked, and focus more on what I believe. 

The approach of focusing more on beliefs seems likely to be more time consuming. It's much easier to simply attach a rough label to someone than to discern all of their different beliefs. Perhaps this is ultimately what it comes down to - identity labels make it much easier for us to model both ourselves and other people. And whilst we can try to be careful with the identities we attach to ourselves and others, it's near impossible to abandon them altogether. 


After writing this, I also discovered two nice posts making very similar points on LessWrong that are worth reading if this seems interesting to you: Use Your Identity Carefully  and Strategic Choice of Identity.