Switching Social Identities Happens Seamlessly

Summary: Study reveals how easily we are able to seamlessly switch between different social identities.

Source: University of Exeter

People can switch seamlessly between different social identities, new research shows.

Each person has multiple social identities, such as: employee, parent, young person, friend or even fan of a particular sports team.

Previous research has shown that frequently switching task tends to result in lower performance: longer completion times and reduced accuracy.

The new study by the University of Exeter finds that identity switching may pose less difficulty.

“Our lives have sped up a lot in recent years and decades, so we have to switch more often between different identities,” said Anna Zinn, of the University of Exeter.

“Due to the pandemic, many more people now work from home—so they no longer have the slow switch of a commute separating home from work.

“Our research aimed to find whether rapidly activating different identities comes with a cost.

“We were surprised to find that these switches are extremely effective—people can switch quite rapidly with no apparent difficulty.”

The researchers note, however, that this ability might come with a downside.

“We might have little control over these switches,” Zinn explained.

“For someone working from home, it may be important to stay in a professional identity—but our findings suggest you could easily be drawn away from it.

“The next stage of our research is to examine these possible drawbacks, and whether steps such as having a dedicated workspace at home can limit them.”

The researchers conducted several studies using the “Implicit Association Test,” in which participants have to quickly sort words and images into categories.

This shows the outline of a head made up by other faces
Each person has multiple social identities, such as: employee, parent, young person, friend or even fan of a particular sports team. Image is in the public domain

Using this method, participants were made to think about a certain identity—for example, the researchers encouraged them to think of themselves as “young people” by asking them to sort images of faces by age.

It was then possible to make people switch to a different identity—or at other times stay in the same identity—to observe the effects.

One study also created a new “minimal group” identity, by asking participants to remember images of people’s faces as members of a newly formed group (the participant was encouraged to think of these people and themselves as part of the “blue group”).

Switching between this new identity and existing identities was also seamless.

The study, carried out by a team including Lancaster University, was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

About this psychology research news

Author: Press Office
Source: University of Exeter
Contact: Press Office – University of Exeter
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
Social identity switching: How effective is it?” by Anna K. Zinn et al. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology


Social identity switching: How effective is it?

Psychological theories posit that we frequently switch social identities, yet little is known about the effectiveness of such switches.

Our research aims to address this gap in knowledge by determining whether – and at what level of integration into the self-concept – a social identity switch impairs the activation of the currently active identity (“identity activation cost”).

Based on the task-switching paradigm used to investigate task-set control, we prompted social identity switches and measured identity salience in a laboratory study using sequences of identity-related Implicit Association Tests (IATs). Pilot 1 (N = 24) and Study 1 (N = 64) used within-subjects designs with participants completing several social identity switches.

The IAT congruency effect was no less robust after identity switches compared to identity repetitions, suggesting that social identity switches were highly effective. Study 2 (N = 48) addressed potential differences for switches between identities at different levels of integration into the self. We investigated whether switches between established identities are more effective than switches from a novel to an established identity.

While response times showed the predicted trend towards a smaller IAT congruency effect after switching from a novel identity, we found a trend towards the opposite pattern for error rates. The registered study (N = 144) assessed these conflicting results with sufficient power and found no significant difference in the effectiveness of switching from novel as compared to established identities.

An effect of cross-categorisation in the registered study was likely due to the requirement to learn individual stimuli.

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