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Personality and self, Social and behavioural

Social identity switching

Anna K. Zinn, Aureliu Lavric, Mark Levine, Miriam Koschate-Reis on their research.

11 January 2023

Most of us wear lots of different hats in our daily lives. As parents, as employees, as supporters of a football team, as political party members, as community residents… to name just a few. How do we manage all these group memberships? How do we switch between them, and what are the implications of that switching for our psychological functioning more generally?

Social identities play a vital part in our lives (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Being members of positive and meaningful groups gives us a sense of belonging and is good for our health and well-being – see, for example, Catherine Haslam and colleagues' book (and May 2018 special of this magazine) on 'The new psychology of health: unlocking the social cure'. The challenges of managing multiple group memberships are a central feature of our complex modern lives (Simon, 2004). Ours is a world where we need to keep lots of identity plates spinning – and doing so is not a trivial accomplishment.

Consider switching from being a member of your work team to being a member of your friendship group or family. This is something most of us do on a daily basis (see Tietze & Musson, 2010). Indeed, commuting to work and changing our surroundings provides us with time to slowly switch from our home-related identities to our work identity and vice versa. But we live in a highly interconnected world, and new technologies mean that people we share different group memberships with can easily contact us at any time. Say you receive an urgent text from your spouse in the middle of a sensitive meeting with a client – you need to switch identities in an instant.

During the pandemic, and beyond, working from home has meant that many of us have to make rapid switches like this many times a day: between work and parent identity when combining working from home and home schooling, for example. There's never been a better time to understand more about how effectively we switch between identities, and how this impacts us.

Social identities shape how we see the world

Why are social identity switches so important, and what causes us to switch identities? Social identities are flexible (Turner et al., 1987) and different situations can activate different identities – make them 'salient' in one's mind (Turner et al., 1994). At a work meeting, your identity as an employee is likely to be salient, whereas walking into a sports stadium might activate your identity as a sports fan. Importantly, such social identity switches can be triggered by relatively subtle changes in the environment. To illustrate, answering a short survey question that relates to one of your social identities can trigger a switch towards this identity (e.g., Kuppens & Yzerbyt, 2012). Think back to the example of how members of our groups can easily contact us via email or text, and you'll understand why social identity switches can occur very frequently in our daily lives.

It's essential we can perform social identity switches if we're to adapt to different situations and surroundings. It comes as no surprise that the flexibility of social identities has been described as 'One of the most useful elements of identity. Just as people can switch from sunglasses to regular glasses when they enter a dark building … they can switch identities as they move from one situation to the next' (van Bavel & Packer, 2021, p.42). But this observation also emphasises that social identities shape how we see the world. Think about someone switching between their social identity as a football fan versus as an employee. This person might express themself in a very formal way when talking to a group of people about their work. However, a switch to their identity as a sports fan might be triggered by someone in the group mentioning last night's big sports match. Even though the audience remains the same, the person might now use more informal language and express their emotions about their favourite team losing the game.

Social identities do not only shape how we might express ourselves, but also our perception. A study by Coppin and colleagues (2016) showed that social identities can affect how we perceive different smells. They activated either participants' identity as a Swiss national, or their individual identity. Participants were then presented with different odours – chocolate and popcorn. Participants who were thinking of themselves as Swiss nationals reported an increased intensity of the chocolate odour compared to participants in the individual identity condition.

The effect of identity salience has also been shown in experiments including decision making and emotions. Chakravarty and Fonseca (2017) showed that identity salience influenced decisions made in an investment game. Finally, Kuppens and Yzbert (2012) found that emotions towards another group of people can change depending on which social identity was active in participant's minds.

All of this research emphasises the importance of social identity salience – no matter whether you are enjoying your favourite chocolate bar or making important financial decisions. 

Potential costs of switching social identities

So, switching between our social identities plays an important part in shaping our daily lives and how we see the world. But how effectively can we switch between our different social identities and are there any costs to performing such switches? It turns out that we know very little about how well people move from one identity to another. This is an important question to address, as a delay in switching social identities might impact how seamlessly we can respond to changes in our surrounding.

Since little is known about how well people switch between social identities, we reviewed a different area of research to learn more about potential switch costs – task-switching. While task switches and identity switches are by no means the same, we can learn a lot about potential costs of switching by considering what we already know about task switching. Everyone task switches on a daily basis – think about switching from a call to typing a message using a mobile phone. Task switching paradigms have been used to investigate how well people perform such switches (e.g., Rogers & Monsell, 1995; Meiran, 1996). In task switching experiments, participants are typically asked to perform two relatively simple tasks, such as categorising the colour of an object or its shape (Monsell & Mizon, 2006; Lavric et al., 2008). Throughout the experiment, the task can sometimes repeat (e.g., colour task followed by colour task), and sometimes switch (e.g., colour task followed by shape task). The time and accuracy of participants' responses can then be compared for task repetitions vs. task switches. Such comparisons reveal a task 'switch cost' – longer response times and lower accuracy during task switches than during task repetitions (see e.g., Meiran, 1996; Rogers & Monsell, 1995).

Based on what we learned from task switching research, we designed a study in which people switched between two identities – or at other times, stayed in (i.e., repeated) the same identity (Zinn et al., 2022). However, we had one more important hurdle to overcome to learn more about how well people switch social identities – people might not know which identity is currently active in their minds. Try to ask yourself which identity might be presently shaping the way you are thinking and behaving. It is hard to be sure what particular identity might be active at any one time. In fact, it is well known that people often struggle to report their internal cognitive processes (Nisbett & Wilson, 1977). Asking participants directly which identity is salient relies heavily on them answering openly and honestly, and on them having accurate enough introspection to answer this question (e.g., Koschate et al., 2021). So instead of directly asking participants which identity is active, it is preferable to have a measure that does not rely on such self-reports.

To overcome issues with self-reports, we used the Implicit Association Test (IAT; Greenwald et al., 1998) to provide an indirect measure of identity salience in our studies. In a typical IAT, participants have to quickly sort words and images into different categories. One subtype of IAT used in our studies is the 'identification' IAT (e.g., Pinter & Greenwald, 2010). Participants sorted images based on categories relating to one of their social identities (e.g., sorting face images by age – 'old' vs 'young') and words into 'self-related' words vs 'other-related' words. Based on participants' specific response patterns we can assess how strongly they associated their in-group and 'self-related' words and the out-group and 'other-related' words. A stronger association would be reflected in better performance (e.g., faster responses) when these categories share the same response key on a keyboard than when they are mapped to different responses – the IAT congruency effect (Greenwald et al., 1998). Through this measure, we inferred identity salience indirectly rather than having to ask participants directly which identity is salient in their minds.

How effective are social identity switches?

Once we found a way of measuring which identity is active in participants' minds, we addressed the question of how effective identity switches are (Zinn et al., 2022). We prompted and assessed identity switches with several identity-related IATs. Directly comparing identity switches and repeats allowed us to observe whether switching identities might lead to a delay in activating the next identity – which we call 'identity activation cost'. Such a delay should have become evident in a smaller congruency effect when participants had to switch than when the same identity was repeated. Yet we found that the congruency effect remained unaffected by identity switches. The results were showing that people appear to switch effectively between identities.

We then investigated if identity switching worked in the same way for long-established identities (like our national identity) and newly acquired identities (one that only just arose in the situation). What makes this question especially interesting is that forming new group memberships is an important part of people's lives (see Haslam et al., 2018). A new group membership might be formed by joining an existing group such as a local sports club. In our daily lives, new group memberships can also be formed in a much more spontaneous way. Consider the example of a train that has broken down. The passengers on this train might form a 'common fate' group to exchange information and provide emotional and practical support to each other.

New group identities can differ from already existing group identities in how well they have been established as a part of one's self-concept and integrated with one's long-established social identities (Amiot et al., 2007). In our studies, we created a new 'minimal group' identity by telling participants that they were allocated to the 'blue' team and asked them to remember images of strangers that were part of the same group (their 'in-group'). We then directly compared a switch from this novel identity to an established identity (participants' age identity) rather than a switch between two established identities (from their national identity to their age identity). Intriguingly, switching between this new, arbitrary identity and existing identities was also seamless.

Future questions

What do these findings mean for our everyday lives? At the start of this article, we discussed the need to switch between social identities rapidly and frequently on a daily basis. It appears to be good news in a 'sped-up' life that identity switches are effective. Indeed, our findings support the idea that our social identities are highly flexible and help us adapt to different situations (in line with Turner et al., 1987).

An important limitation to keep in mind is that our studies could only focus on some identities (e.g., participants' age and national identity). While we find that – for those identities – switches are effective, this may not be the case for other identities. An important future step is to look into switching between different types of identities, such as conflicting identities that don't share the same goals and attitudes, or identities that are perceived as negative or stigmatised. We are also working on confirming our findings with other measurement methods.

Finally, performing highly effective switches might also come with some drawbacks. As a team of researchers, we are currently looking into whether people can control social identity switches triggered by the environment. Especially during the Covid-19 pandemic, many people had to suddenly shift to working from home. Importantly, a lot of people do not have a dedicated space to work from at home (see e.g., Bloom, 2020). This means completing their work in an environment that can potentially trigger frequent switches to other identities. Can someone actively prevent switching away from their professional identity? Surprisingly, early findings of our most recent studies indicate that in some situations people have very little control over social identity switches triggered by the environment. We are now investigating this further and also trying to establish whether there are links between the ability to switch and one's well-being.

  • Anna Zinn is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Queensland. [email protected]
  • Aureliu Lavric is an Associate Professor in Cognitive Psychology at the University of Exeter.
  • Mark Levine is a Professor of Social Psychology at Lancaster University.
  • Miriam Koschate-Reis is an Associate Professor in Computational Social Psychology at the University of Exeter.


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