A display of various hats, including a red floral hat, a black hat with a coloured brim, a blue hat, and a beige lacy hat, shown on stand in a shop window. A blurred street with a bicycle is visible outside.

Photo by Helen King/Getty


You have multiple ‘social identities’ – here’s how to manage them

Photo by Helen King/Getty

by Anna K Zinn + BIO





As social beings, our identities are bound up with different groups – here’s how to juggle all the various hats you wear

When it comes to our membership of different social groups, most of us switch between different versions of ourselves multiple times each day. Read this passage and see if you can count how many different ‘hats’ Lisa wears in a short space of time:

It is a sunny Thursday afternoon and Lisa is finishing off a few emails at work. She glances at her phone and sees that her neighbours are planning a barbecue this afternoon. She quickly responds that she would love to join, before returning to her emails. In the background, she can hear her colleagues talking about their kids’ school projects. It reminds her that she needs to check in with her son to see how his project is coming along. To respond to the final email of the day, Lisa looks up some information on her web browser. A news pop-up informs her that the soccer team she follows has won their last match.

Does Lisa’s situation sound familiar? Do you sometimes feel like you are wearing many different hats almost all at once? (Lisa appears to be wearing at least four.) One minute you might be living out a work-related identity and the next you might switch to an identity as a parent, a soccer fan, or as a member of your neighbourhood.

Your different group memberships play a more profound role in your life than you might realise. They form a core part of who you are; researchers refer to it as your social identity. There are many different types of social identities: including those that you actively chose (eg, being a member of a political party); ones that you were born into (eg, your ethnicity); ones that are more public and formal (eg, an occupational identity); and ones that are private and less formal (eg, a social identity you share with a friendship group). To give a few more examples, you might identify as a feminist; a millennial; or as a typical dog or cat owner.

One strong driver of whichever social identity becomes most active is the environment you are in. For instance, being at your workplace as opposed to being in a sports stadium most likely activates very different social identities. But it doesn’t take a completely new environment to trigger a switch to a different dominant social identity – for instance, seeing a message from a specific group pop up on your phone could be enough. In our 2022 research, my colleagues and I showed that these social identity switches can happen relatively seamlessly.

Other social identities to fall back on could help protect her from becoming depressed

Your various social identities form your support network throughout life. The book The New Psychology of Health (2018) summarises the many ways that positive and meaningful social identities can benefit your happiness, health and resilience: by helping you feel more connected; providing meaning and purpose; acting as an important source of social support; and even by increasing your sense of control and self-esteem.

Imagine Lisa was experiencing setbacks at work. The fact that she has other social identities to fall back on could help protect her from becoming depressed. Research has shown that people who are reminded of the different social identities in their lives cope better with failure, in particular by reducing their inclination to attribute that failure to themselves. Also, if Lisa identifies strongly with her work team, then this could be a basis for her to be more motivated and perform better as a member of that team. And for her son, being part of a youth sports team that he identifies with strongly could be a positive part of his development, fostering stronger personal and social skills.

These are just a few examples illustrating how important different social identities are, and why it is worth developing and consolidating positive social identities. But managing the various hats you wear can come with challenges too ­– such as dealing with unwanted identity switches or the negative stereotypes that might affect some of your identities.

Ways to manage your multiple social identities

There are several practical steps that can help you to make the most of the benefits of all your different social identities while finding ways to overcome the challenges involved.

1) Use social identity mapping

A powerful way to become more aware of, and manage, the different social identities in your life is to map them out. So-called social identity mapping includes writing down all your different group memberships (for example on sticky notes) and reflecting on their attributes, such as how important they are to you, whether and how they are beneficial, how much time you spend with them, and how they are connected to each other.

Social identity mapping is part of a new identity-focused intervention called Groups 4 Health that involves educating people about social identities, inviting them to map out their different group memberships, and then focusing on building and maintaining positive group memberships (you could aim to do the same for your beneficial identities). Clinical trials of this intervention show it increases mental health and general wellbeing while reducing loneliness.

Identifying with people who are ex-smokers might help prevent relapse

2) Leverage social identities to navigate life changes

Being aware of the social identities in your life can also help you keep track of them as they change over time. For example, you might start a new job, retire or move to another city. All those changes are likely to have an impact on the social identities in your life. This can mean having to establish new social identities and – over time – integrate them into your existing identity network. One way to do this with more consideration is to continuously update and expand your social identity map – for instance, reviewing it every year or whenever you are experiencing a life transition.

It’s also worth looking out for any social identities that might be harmful and consider dropping them. Think of someone who identifies strongly as a smoker. They might have enjoyed being part of the group of coworkers who share a cigarette during their break, but this social identity is strongly linked to negative health behaviour that this person is possibly trying to stop. In this example, rather than fostering existing identities, deliberately transitioning to alternative social identities might be more beneficial – research has shown that identifying with other people who are ex-smokers might help prevent relapse. Similarly, for people who have an opioid addiction, evidence shows that relapse is less likely if they engage with many groups (in this case, online communities) that are not drug-related.

While creating new group memberships can be effortful, especially when you are already facing many changes in your life, it pays off. For example, research shows that retirees who acquire new social identities tend to be healthier as well as happier with their retirement and with life in general. If you sometimes feel overwhelmed by the need to stay in touch with so many groups – don’t worry: research has shown that the quality of your connection matters more than the frequency of interactions when it comes to experiencing mental health benefits from the different social identities in your life.

3) Dealing with identity threat

Your positive social identities will usually be beneficial to you, but there are some specific situations in which they could cause you problems – for instance, when you experience ‘stereotype threat’ associated with being a member of a specific group (ie, you expect to perform poorly or be judged negatively because of a particular social identity).

To give just one example, researchers found that reminding women of a gender-related stereotype threat (falsely telling them that women typically perform worse in a mathematics test) resulted in them performing worse in a subsequent maths test; while telling them that men and women performed equally led to no such differences in performance.

What can you do to work around negative effects of identity threat? Two different ways have been put forward for this. One way is to distance yourself from the relevant social identity or reduce its importance. However, this could mean losing an identity that most of the time is actually positive and supportive to you. Another approach is therefore to protect the social identity in question, for example by discrediting the source of the threat or actively trying to resist or change others’ stereotypes.

Yet another tactic is to draw on your other relevant social identities. Research has shown that activating a positive stereotype of one of your other social identities (eg, I’m a college student, and college students tend to perform well at maths) can counteract a negative stereotype effect (eg, one based on gender identity). This shows that multiple social identities can buffer us against the negative effects of any single social identity.

An unwanted switch can have negative consequences: you might not use the professional tone required for a work email

4) Finding and using an identity ‘niche’

Your most salient social identity can easily change from one moment to the next. What’s more, you might sometimes have a lack of control over these switches, like when Lisa received a message from her neighbours or saw a pop-up on her computer screen. This flexibility is important to consider because whatever social identity is currently salient can shape your decisions and perception.

Research involving various social identities – such as military cadets, parents, feminists and people from the Southern US – has shown that when different social identities become salient this can result in people making riskier or more cautious decisions; in them expressing themselves differently; and even in them experiencing the taste of food differently. This speaks to the point that an unwanted and potentially unnoticed switch can have potential negative consequences: you might not use the professional tone required for a work email or be cautious enough when reaching an important decision.

While this is still an ongoing research topic, one way to avoid unwanted switches can be to find a ‘niche’ that matches the specific identity you want to remain in. Picture an author who knows that they are most productive, and can enact their identity as an author best, while sitting in their favourite coffee shop. Another example would be a person who has to reach an important work-related decision and decides to think about this in an environment linked to their work identity (eg, in their office) rather than, for instance, while they are commuting to work. If there is an aspect of yourself that you’re keen to amplify for a certain task or decision, it’s worth considering using your own surroundings in a similar way, to activate the most helpful and appropriate of your various social identities.

5) Avoiding identity ‘distractions’

A related challenge is when you want to remain in one specific identity and avoid switching away from it. Even if you choose an identity niche as I recommend above, there is a chance that much smaller changes in your surroundings could create a switch away from the identity you are trying to remain in.

For example, let’s return to the author sitting in their favourite coffee shop, a place that normally activates their identity as an author and makes it easy for them to focus on writing. Seeing a text pop up in their ‘soccer training’ messaging group might trigger a switch towards their shared identity with the soccer team. Hearing a child cry in the background might trigger a switch to their identity as a parent. Reading a news headline about pay inequality might result in a switch to their identity as a feminist.

Relevant here is the research I conducted with others showing that, even when people actively try to remain in one specific identity, they can be drawn away from it. We found that the mere act of writing about a specific topic could result in an unwanted switch in identity salience, even when people were trying to prevent switching identities.

Again, research into social identity switching and how people can control unwanted switches is in its infancy. Nevertheless, one helpful strategy might be to limit your exposure to external triggers that are likely to result in a switch away from a specific identity. This could be as simple as turning your phone to silent or wearing earplugs when working in a public place. If you find yourself repeatedly being drawn away from valued identities, it might also involve bigger changes: perhaps you need to cycle to work. Perhaps you need to create a dedicated workspace. Perhaps you need to get rid of that television.





19 June 2024