In this article, we’ll explore why identity is an important concept in psychology. Understanding why identity matters helps explain a lot of psychological phenomena.
Our identity is how we see ourselves or how we believe others see us. Our ego or ‘sense of self’ is comprised of our various identities.
We typically have many identities that we acquire from the things that we do, the culture that we belong to, the self-labels that we believe in and even the things that we possess.
Out of all the identities that we have, some identities are more important to us i.e. we are more attached to them than others. These are our main identities. For example, if I asked you, “Who are you?”, then you’re likely to reply by stating your main identity.
You might say, “I’m a doctor”. In this case, you’re identifying with your job. This is your main identity. This is how you mainly see yourself as.
Other common examples include…
“I’m an Asian”- identifying with your ethnicity
“I’m John”- identifying with your name
“I’m a Mercedes owner”- identifying with a possession
“I’m a Manchester United fan”- identifying with a sports club
“I’m a mathematical genius”- identifying with a skill.
All our identities piled up on each other form the structure of our ego and we tend to behave in a way that is complementary to our self-concept or identity.
For instance, If you think of yourself as a “mathematical genius” then you’ll behave in ways that seek to maintain this identity. In fact, identity is one of the most powerful forces that shape human behaviour.
If you can change someone’s self-concept or identity, you can successfully change their behaviour. Someone has rightly said that if you want to improve a person in a certain respect, act as though that particular trait were already one of his or her outstanding characteristics.
Why do we acquire certain identities?
We tend to identify with that which makes us feel worthy. One of the fundamental goals of all human beings is to feel worthy and the usual way in which this goal is attained is by ascribing certain identities to oneself.
No wonder people think their race, their country, their job, their religion, their culture, and even their favourite sports team is the best. They’re in truth loving their own extended identities.
They’re only elevating their own self-worth because they have identified with all these things. So, by speaking well of their extended identities they’re actually speaking well of themselves!
Why do you think an ardent Manchester United fan, when his favourite club wins, says in elation, “Yeah! We won!”? The very use of the word “We” shows explicitly that something he identifies with won, he won.
So far we’ve been discussing only positive identities that seek to raise our self-worth. But people have negative identities too that, much to their chagrin, tend to decrease their self-worth.
For instance, a guy who was constantly labelled as “stupid” or “loser” or “nerd” throughout childhood is likely to have these labels as part of his self-concept. How he perceives these labels determines, to a great extent, his emotions and behaviour.
Identity and emotions
Once we acquire certain identities, we move in the direction of the identities we like and away from the ones we dislike. In other words, we do actions that reinforce our positive identities and avoid actions that reinforce our negative identities.
Here’s where emotions come into play because the kind of actions that we take are regulated by our emotions.
If you move in the direction of your positive identities, then you’ll experience positive emotions. If you move in the direction of your negative identities, then you’ll experience ‘negative’ emotions such as anxiety and depression.
Say you see yourself as funny and also as a nerd. You like your ‘funny’ identity and you hate your ‘nerd’ identity. When you crack jokes and people laugh, this will reinforce your ‘funny’ identity and you’ll experience happiness.
When someone sees you in a library reading a big fat book, you may feel embarrassed or anxious because you don’t like being seen as a nerd.
Identity and extreme behaviour
We can go to great lengths to maintain the identities that we like and run away from the identities that we detest. If you’re unable to understand an extreme behaviour of a person, try and see how the concept of identity may have a role to play.
Say you have a friend who considers himself intelligent. You decide to have a little fun and give him a puzzle that’s impossible to solve. It’s likely that he’ll spend hours and even days trying to solve that puzzle. He may forget about the rest of his life and keep on grappling with the puzzle.
This is because not being able to solve that puzzle threatens his ‘intelligent’ identity. He thinks, “I’m an intelligent person, I should be able to do this.”
You ought to be kind enough to put him out of his misery by revealing the truth about the impossibility of the puzzle unless he’s intelligent enough to reach that conclusion by himself.
Hi, I’m Hanan Parvez (MBA, MA Psychology), founder and author of PsychMechanics. I’ve published one book and authored 300+ articles on this blog (started in 2014) that have garnered over 4 million views. PsychMechanics has been featured in Forbes, Business Insider, Reader’s Digest, and Entrepreneur. Feel free to contact me if you have a query.