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Developmental, Teaching and learning

Thinking about their multiple identities boosts children’s creativity and problem-solving skills

“Something as simple as thinking about one’s identity from multiple angles could increase open-mindedness in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse.”

19 June 2019

By Christian Jarrett

It usually helps to “get a fresh pair of eyes” on a problem, especially from someone with a different perspective than your own. But what if you could find a variety of vantage points from within yourself? After all, each of us has multiple roles and identities in life.

In a new paper in Developmental Science, a team led by Sarah Gaither at Duke University presents evidence that prompting children to think about their own multiple identities boosts their problem-solving skills and increases their flexible thinking.

“Someone can be a woman and White, a teacher and a parent, a girl and a friend,” the researchers write. “Although individuals may not automatically reflect on their multiple identities, here we propose that when they do, it may have positive consequences for their creative problem solving and flexible thinking.”

In the first of three studies, Gaither and her team split 48 six- and seven-year-olds into two groups. One was the intervention group and these participants spent time reflecting briefly with a researcher about eight of their various social identities, such as “friend”, “girl” and “reader”. This process concluded with the researcher saying “That is so cool that you are lots of things at the same time.”

The other group served as a control and these participants chatted briefly with a researcher about eight of their different physical attributes, such as having two feet and a mouth. Similar to the intervention condition, the control condition ended with the researcher saying “That is so cool that you have a lot of things at the same time.”

Afterwards all the children completed four different problem solving and flexible thinking challenges.

One test involved them figuring out how a bear with a bowl of lego could reach honey in a high branch on a tree (they were told that even stacked together the lego couldn’t reach).

Another test involved coming up with novel uses for a gold box. The third involved categorising a collection of photos of 16 individuals in as many ways as possible.

The last task involved an interaction with a puppet who made 16 claims about different pairs of items or individuals belonging to the same category, such as a dog and cat being the same kind of animal, or a male and female child being the same kind of person. When the child agreed the puppet was correct, this was taken as a sign of flexible thinking.

The findings were consistent, with the children who reflected on their multiple identities outperforming the children in the control condition on all four of the tests. For instance, half the children in the multiple identities condition solved the bear puzzle, compared with just 12.5 per cent of the control condition children; and the children agreed with the puppets’ broad-minded thinking over six times, on average, compared with under four times on average among the controls.

In two follow-up studies with dozens more children, the researchers showed that reflecting on another person’s multiple identities, as opposed to one’s own, did not have the same benefit; and that some of the performance gains associated with thinking about one’s own multiple identities were greater when these were phrased in a way that made them sound a stable part of the self rather than a transient preference – reflecting on being a helper rather than enjoying helping, for instance.

Past research with adults had already shown benefits to creative thinking of reflecting on one’s own different social identities. This new research builds on those findings by extending them to children, and showing that the benefits are limited to reflecting on one’s own social identities, as opposed to one’s physical attributes, or reflecting on the social identities of others.

The new results also jibe with past research showing that travelling abroad and visiting other cultures can increase open-mindedness and creativity. It’s possible that reflecting on one’s own varied social identities helps to activate memories of diverse experiences and perspectives, thus helping trigger more flexible thinking – however, more research is needed to identify the precise mechanisms at play.

The idea that a short, simple intervention could have such seemingly dramatic effects will likely raise the eyebrows of more sceptical readers. Successful replication attempts with larger samples and diverse participants may help alleviate these doubts.

Future research could also look into whether the multiple identities intervention would have greater benefits for individuals with more diverse social roles and experiences (for children raised in multicultural or multi-racial homes, for instance), and whether reflecting on social roles that one perceives negatively would still be beneficial.

“Our discovery suggests that anyone–regardless of their racial group or other social identification–may benefit from a multifaceted mindset,” the researchers said. “Something as simple as thinking about one’s identity from multiple angles could increase open-mindedness in a society that is becoming increasingly diverse.”

Further reading

Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking

About the author

Christian Jarrett (@Psych_Writer) is Editor of BPS Research Digest