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Exploring the Role of Identity in The Power of Us

New book by Lehigh researcher explores how our identities influence our beliefs and behavior—and can also inspire social and political movements.

Story by

Amy White

If you completed the sentence, “I am ________” 20 times, what would you say? Would you describe your hair color, gender, frame of mind? Where you earned a degree? What sports team you’re a fan of? Your race, health status, role in your family, or a musical instrument you play?

Social psychologists use this “20 statements” technique to gain insight into various components of people’s identities. Most people’s responses can be sorted into categories: individual levels of the self, like stable personality traits or temporary states of being or feeling; relational levels, defined by your relationship to others; and collective levels that describe the self as a member of a category you feel is important to who you are.

Researchers Dominic Packer, professor of psychology at Lehigh, and Jay Van Bavel, associate professor of psychology and neural science at New York University, are interested in what such answers tell us about social groups, identity, how they impact us and how they transform society.

They explore the topic in a new book, The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony, published by Little, Brown Spark.

“As social psychologists, we study how the groups that people belong to become part of their sense of selfand how those identities fundamentally shape how they understand the world, what they feel and believe and how they make decisions,” they write. The book explores how the dynamics of those shared, social identities can divide a world into “us” and “them,” produce conflict and cost livesas well as foster cooperation, boost organizational performance and promote social harmony.

From Conflict to Cohesion

Packer and Van Bavel started their journey together as students navigating their own distinct identities. They began as office mates and graduate students in the Department of Psychology at University of Toronto: Packer, urbane, fond of wearing suit jackets, who arrived in Toronto by way of Montreal; and Van Bavel, from a small rural town in Alberta, sporting flip-flops and ironic tees, who earned the ire of his office mate by storing a smelly bag of hockey equipment in their shared sub-basement space. In the beginning, the cohesion wasn’t there.

One afternoon, gathered at a catered meet-and-greet with colleagues and influential scholars, Van Bavel choked on a cheese cube appetizer and was unable to breathe. Packer quickly performed the Heimlich maneuver, saving him from choking, as well as from the mortal embarrassment of expiring in front of a room of peers and visiting guests.

The traumatic episode created a different and unique shared identity for the colleagues. They were no longer just office mates who barely tolerated each otherthey were a pair of young scientists who’d resolutely survived a near-death experience. The incident set them up to become a scientific team that collaborated on ideas, experiments and data. Their bond strengthened as they both went on to become postdocs at Ohio State University, social psychologists, professors at East Coast colleges, parents and now book authors. All roles that became key parts of their identities.

Their book explores the power within that feeling of “us.” It’s the power of knowing not only who you are, but understanding how that identity is shaped and transformed by the social groups in your worldand how you influence the identities of those around you.

With chapters on individual and shared identities, bias, echo chambers, dissent and leadership, the researchers explore with readers: “What causes people to develop a social identity? What happens to people when they define themselves in terms of group memberships?”

Pandemics and Politics

The COVID-19 pandemic is an example of an event that created shared identities and also revealed conflicting identities.

“The pandemic was a paradoxical event because on one hand, it is a truly global phenomenon, probably more global than anything most people alive have ever experienced,” Packer says. “On the other hand, people’s lived experiences of the pandemic were intensely local.” People experienced the pandemic, from illness to societal disruption, in vastly different ways around the world and within their homes and communities.

Dominic Packer, right, and Jay Van Bavel

Dominic Packer, right, and Jay Van Bavel met in New York City recently to record the introduction for the audiobook of "The Power of Us."

In the U.S., strong identities formed around political partisanship in how the virus and mitigation measures were viewed. For example, researchers found that whether one supported or was against mask wearing or social distancing correlated to their votes for Joe Biden or Donald Trump in the presidential election.

This was very different from other nations that developed a strong sense of national identity and collective response to pandemic measures. It was also different from the 9/11 terrorist attacks, “a moment of great unity, when we suddenly felt connected at the national level in a way that we hadn’t before,” Packer says. In that case, though, too, political identities reasserted themselves.

“In America, there’s a real division in what people believe the meaning of the national identity is, so people don’t have the same understanding of what it means to be patriotic,” Packer says. Competing conceptions of identity can be part of almost every group, from a university to a philanthropy, a parent-teachers association or a nation.

“Right now in America we’re in this moment of huge tension over that central question: ‘Who are we? Where are we going? What are we trying to become?’”

How people respond to these questions is often rooted in partisanship, but it doesn’t have to be.

Power to Choose

Whether based on religious affiliation, sports team fandom or political ideology, people often approach identities as if they’re immutable, and that biases favoring their own group over others are inevitable. But that isn’t true, Packer says.

“In the current political context, when people invoke a term like ‘tribalism,’ it implies these dynamics are inevitable or hardwired, like a primitive brain reaction, and we dispute that,” Packer says. “What’s hardwired isn’t the relationship between groups as inherently toxic, or discriminatory or negative.”

What is hardwired as humans is our readiness to affiliate with groups and to join up with others, he says. Affiliations can be long standing and formative or arise with the slightest prompting, such as in a shared traumatic event like Van Bavel’s choking, standing in a long line with other customers or being grounded together on a plane. The idea that “we are in this together” or “we are joining for a common cause or in a shared interest” creates a common identity.

Groups can lead in many different directions based on the norms, expectations and standards of behaviorfrom hate groups to Quakers—two “fundamentally different kinds of groups, though powered by identity in both cases,” Packer says.

Additionally, each of us inhabits multiple identities throughout our lives and during a given day, and can easily adopt new ones. All of those identities impact how we think, feel and behave. And group norms can be malleable and change over time.

Understanding identities empowers you to choose whether and how to participate.

A leader creates an identity that's bigger than them, bigger than any one of us, and that we all feel connected to and part of.

Dominic Packer, professor of psychology

“Just because it’s really important to you that you are a Republican or a Democrat, it doesn’t inherently mean that you have to hate the other side or the other side is immoral or is attempting to destroy the country,” Packer says.

It’s understandable that when we take on an identity, we want to pursue its interests and feel hurt or defensive if someone says bad things about it, he adds. But ultimately the identities we hold are within our control.

“You have a lot of agency,” Packer says. “People can exploit identities, and really rile you up on the basis of an identity. It’s really important to recognize the power of the identity. You can then exert choice: ‘Is this an identity I want to get riled up about or not? I don’t have to be outraged by every little thing if I don’t want to be.’”

Insiders Can Change Groups

While most people may assume that “good” members comply with the social norms of their groups and suppress criticism, Packer and Van Bavel’s research suggests it’s actually the most identified group members who take the time and energy to dissentbecause they care enough to want their groups to do better. Conversely, a new or less-connected member might feel less compelled to speak up, less confident they will be listened to or less committed.

It’s important to look at who feels comfortable speaking and who doesn’t, especially if the goal of a group is to attract and foster diverse membership and divergent voices, Packer says. Members and leaders must also pay attention to their reactions to dissent. “You want to create norms in your group where it’s acceptable for people, whether they are new or not, to speak out,” Packer says. “That’s hugely important for leaders, because how they react shapes what everyone else does.”

The best group environments are where people feel safe expressing divergent views and ideas because debate is welcomed, the authors say. “These are groups where people can disagree respectfully and come back together the next day without hard feelings,” they write. “They can challenge ideas and practices because all of the members feel like they are working toward the same goals.”

Transformative Leadership

Leaders are most effective when they generate a shared sense of identity and purpose among followers, the authors say. They can harness identity principles to inspire and motivate members of their group, for good or evil.

“When we look through history, the people we would identify as great leaders are often ones where it’s obvious they were inspiring people around the vision of ‘who we are,’ inspiring sacrifice based on something larger than the individual,” Packer says. “Whether it’s fighting for your country or putting in insanely long hours for a startup firm, you’re working for what you believe in, something bigger than yourself, and leaders are able to rally people around that.”

Nelson Mandela, for example, led South Africa from a deeply troubled and divided path to one of more unity, using principles of identity, Packer says.

“A leader creates an identity that’s bigger than them, bigger than any one of us, and that we all feel connected to and part of,” Packer explains. “One of the takeaways is that group-based identities are a key tool in your toolbox. The leadership part of the job is inspiring people to rally around some sort of collective vision.”

Of course, transformational leaders aren’t inherently positive.

“Some of the most notable examples of transformational leaders in history are, unfortunately, people who inspired great atrocities,” Packer says. “What made them powerful was their ability to exploit and capitalize on these kinds of identity dynamics.”

Recognizing that rhetoric and when identity forces are in play can help people make discerning choices and actions, which may even include fostering different identity dynamics.

“Ultimately, the future of democracy in a fair number of countries is going to rest on whether the pro-democracy forces are able to rally the greatest support, which is itself an issue of identity,” Packer says.

Motivation for our Times

Identity dynamics can also be used to address issues of bias. For example, creating diverse groups often triggers cohesive group behaviors and, in most cases, positive views of people who are different from you, Packer says. All bias and disparities can’t be overcome through group dynamics, however, as many forms of inequity and discrimination exist on institutional and structural, not personal, levels. But the disparate voices within a group, in the form of dissent and new ideas, can mobilize an institution toward greater equity and representation.

Think about bias against people of color in policing, or persistent disparities in wages between women and men.

“We need more representation, more women and racial minorities in leadership, people with divergent perspectives so that we notice disparities in how different groups are treated,” Packer says. “These issues don’t get solved or fixed or addressed unless people notice them, push for them and agitate for change.”

In recent years, technologies like iPhone cameras and social media have broadened awareness of issues and helped create group identities among people with similar experiences who are separated across a nation or globe.

“For groups to rally for change, they have to see themselves as a group, they have to perceive the situation is wrong and not the way it should be, and they also have to believe that change is possible and that there is some hope,” Packer says. “When those things come together, that’s when groups really rally and push for change.”

Such movements can be hard to maintain if people get discouraged because change comes slowly, if division arises, cohesion falls away or multiple focus areas emerge, Packer says. However, they can become stronger if they face strong opposition.

“The other side may try to convince you through repression that you will never succeed because change is not possible, they’re going to put you in jail, beat you up, press you into submission,” says Packer of efforts that range from government crackdowns to responses to protests. “This can often backfire, because repression and opposition is often a way in which groups further rally their identity. It actually makes those movements much more popular.”

Future of Identity

Social identities will likely play a role in addressing the most significant issues humankind faces, from COVID-19 and future pandemics, to economic equality, democracy and climate change, the authors conclude.

“Effectively grappling with these critical issues hinges on understanding the central role of identity in human social and political life,” they say.

While they hope academics will read The Power of Us or use it in classes, their book is intended for a broader audience, says Packer, who feels it will resonate for those interested in social science and its applications for ordinary life, organizations, politics, intergroup relations and leadership.

“Social identities provide lenses through which we perceive events and how they influence some of our most important beliefs,” Packer and Van Bavel say. “But they can also misdirect our attention and bias our judgements.” Identities play a vital role in the most personal and pressing concerns of our lifetimes. For that reason, the authors say, knowing how identities work is empoweringthey both do and don’t define us, and taking charge of them can change us and our groups for the better.

Story by

Amy White

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