A Theory Of Identity

A person’s “identity” is something less than all his or her details but more than a few simple stats.  What is it exactly, why do people need to discover it, want to stay true to it, why could only their “heart” tell them what it is, and why would a 35 year old still be searching for it, even after they’ve taken every personality test ever devised?  Why do ads mostly tell us what identities we could project via their product, and how could a new job or lover help us find our identity?  I’ve been working out a theory; here goes.

Humans are enormously complex, but even so we need to predict how each other will act, and are wary of “unstable” folks whose actions we cannot predict well.  So we are built to find a simple story we can project about who we are that will let others predict us well.  This story includes what we like, what we are good at, how we decide who we are loyal to, and so on.  Such stories are naturally more than a few stats but less than all our details.  Our conscious minds are the public relations department of our larger minds, presenting and managing a story of ourselves to others.

Early in our lives we search for a story that fits well with our abilities and opportunities.  In our unstable youth we adjust this story as we learn more, but we reduce those changes as we start to make big life choices, and want to appear stable to our new associates.  But we have real doubts about whether we choose our identity well, doubts that increase as we continue to get more info about our skills and opportunities.

We express our doubt about our chosen identity, and our hope for a better one, as a concern that we haven’t discovered who we “really are.”  We expect many of our associates would tolerate one big identity change even when we are older, if we express it as “finally discovering who we really are.”  We expect a second big change would more confirm us as unstable, just as a second divorce more suggests commitment problems.

When we observe someone and wonder about their stability, we look for signs of how comfortably their chosen identity fits them; an awkward fit suggests they may change, and become less predictable.  This is part of why we value people who trust and follow their intuition, and their “heart” rather than their head.  Someone who needs a lot of conscious thought to make their behavior fit their chosen identity and its ideals, is more likely to fail than someone who can do it all unconsciously.

An identity is at root a simple understandable description of a person, from which others can predict how he or she will behave.  This theory of identity suggests there really is no “true self” until we make one; we had to wait to see what world we lived in before we could sensibly choose an identity.  But we want to make it seem as if we think we just could not be anyone other than we are and seem to be; our behavior will continue to fit the identity we project because we just can’t imagine betraying “who we really are.”  Though we might maybe make one big change of “discovery” to a very different identity.

Added: This theory predicts that the features that are included in our identity are those which others rely on the most to be stable, and which cost us the least to keep stable.  Features that cost lots to keep stable, and that others would care little if changed, would only be in an identity if they were crucial to the the coherent story that is one’s identity.

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  • Peter Twieg

    Perhaps this is unrelated, but what I find most problematic about people’s notions of identity is that they tend to be tied to people’s particular circumstances in life more than they appreciate. For example, it’s easier to be outgoing if you’re the most attractive and/or intelligent person in the room, and the identity you form by being acclimated by those circumstances might be undermined if you find yourself in a situation where key variables have changed. We want our notions of identity to be robust across contingencies, but oftentimes they aren’t.

    To tie in to the theme of your post, it might be beneficial to add a layer of nuance: Notions of identity tend to make people most predictable in environments similar to those the notions were formed under, with declining predictability as the environment becomes increasingly dissimilar.

    • Dave

      I think it’s very related. I definitely think much behavior is situational, and so identity as commonly understood is fictional, which fits in perfectly with the idea of identity as signal. But I’m sure there’s more to it than that.

  • Robin – have you read David Velleman’s work on the narrative self? (I’ve a summary here.) You might especially like ‘The Genesis of Shame’.

    • Looks good – I’ll read it when I can get access to a copy.

      • I was going to make the same recommendation. Velleman’s new book, How We Get Along is great and very accessible to non-philosophers. You can buy the book or find a full draft on ssrn.

        Here’s a highlight from his discussion of the pressures of cognitive economy of self-perception and self-presentation.

        At one extreme, I have a way of interpreting myself, a way that I want you to interpret me, a way that I think you do interpret me, a way that I think you suspect me of wanting you to interpret me, a way that I think you suspect me of thinking you do interpret me, and so on, each of these interpretations being distinct from all the others, and all of them being somehow crammed into my self-conception. At the other extreme, there is just one interpretation of me, which is common property between us, in that we not only hold it but interpret one another as holding it, and so on. If my goal is understanding, then the latter interpretation is clearly preferable, because it is so much simpler while being equally adequate, fruitful, and so on. (Lecture 3)

  • Constant

    That trivializes, that is to say deflates, something that deep thinkers have been struggling with for a long time. For instance the existentialists (e.g. Sartre, Heidegger) with their talk of “authenticity”.

    • gwern

      So? Sometimes deep philosophical problems turn out to *be* trivial – either impossible, or the result of linguistic confusion, or self-contradictory. (You mention the existentialists, but the analytic philosophers would be a better pick.)

      • Constant

        I am not sure what you are saying gwern, but you seem to have mistaken my purpose. By italicizing “deep thinkers” I am making fun of them. I am celebrating Robin Hanson’s deflation of something dear to them. Are you defending Heidegger my barb, or did you think I was attacking Hanson?

      • gwern

        Replying to self, since for some reason no reply button is appearing on Constant’s second post…

        Yes, I guess I did misinterpret your post. It certainly read as if you were attacking Hanson/defending Heidegger et al. I think this is the first time I’ve someone use trivialize like that in a positive sense outside of discussions of Wittgenstein!

    • I know some of the comments here are knocking Heidegger, but Robin’s theory of identity sounds surprisingly like something Heidegger himself would recognise (bottom of the page and onto the next):


  • Matthew Hammer

    That is remarkably insightful.

  • Robert Koslover

    Robin, your theory sounds about right to me. So allow me to further reinforce your thinking (if only just a little bit) by simply agreeing with you! This positive feedback herebystrenghthens your present identity. 🙂

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  • Kevin Dick

    This might explain why unpredictable behavior is more acceptable from people who have created an “eccentric” identity. They have signaled that they are unpredictable. People should therefore expect unpredictable behavior from them. Thus they are “predictably unpredictable”.

    While not as good as predictably predictable, it is better than a previously predictable person who suddenly becomes less predictable, or unpredictably unpredictable.

  • Some existing platitudes that present something like that view:
    “You are what you make of yourself”
    “In the end we are what we pretend to be” (actually a song lyric)
    “You only get one midlife crisis”

    Of course, there are endless sayings that contradict each other. I invite others to think up platitudes that contradict Robin’s story.

    • John Maxwell IV

      I can’t think of any platitudes, but I think that some of Aesop’s fables involve one animal copying another unsuccessfully. The moral being “don’t try to be something you’re not”, which contradicts the “you are what you make of yourself” line.

  • From what I’ve heard, “finding one’s true self” is a modern and western preoccupation.

    We’ve got a culture where people have a lot of choices and care about having a satisfying life. I think “finding one’s true self” maps pretty well on to figuring out what you want– and since signaling (which is still pretty important) involves ignoring all desires other than getting what you want out of other people, it isn’t surprising if it takes people a while to figure out what they want.

    • Jay

      “Finding yourself” is a preoccupation of some eastern cultures as well, but they tend to go about it differently. There is more of an emphasis on fitting in and on finding a role in society that fulfills both your own needs and society’s expectations.

  • Psychohistorian

    It seems that the idea of a “true self” is the self people would have absent contrary social pressures. We live our lives quite differently because of external pressures, and (from what I know, anyhow) most cases of someone “finding themself” are an instance of doing what they have an natural preference for, rather than doing what others want or expect of them. With this cause, it’s not surprising this type of behaviour is a recent phenomenon. It also explains why one does not hear of painters finding themselves by becoming insurance lawyers, or flamboyant gay men finding themselves by becoming Catholic priests, but does hear of the reverse. Social pressures run one direction, so people who are deviant are generally already true to themselves.

    This contradicts the “no true self until we make one” conclusion of this post; the rest of it is insightful, if not entirely clear, as it gives no sense of why we would remake an identity if our true self is our own invention. But to say the middle-aged man who comes out of the closet invented his homosexuality himself, or that the lawyer who moves to Tibet to meditate is doing so because of its expected effect on other people, does not seem to fit in with reality.

    • Have you never heard the “I was once a sinner like you” sermon? People do make big changes away from social deviance.

  • sg

    It is a function of personality. Personality is pretty much inborn. Some people are just less decisive. They tend to be seekers. Others aren’t. It is not an intellectual thing. It is more like being either extroverted or introverted. Sure some childhood trauma could screw someone up, but basically self identity is part of personality.

  • I just added to the post.

  • Mike

    I recently returned from a visit with family, and still feel a sense of “shame” or “regret” that I continued my lie to them that I am a still a Christian (I stopped believing over five years ago).

    I think the question as to why I lie to them is simple: it avoids conflict. Set aside whether this is a wise strategy or not.

    But why I do feel so ashamed or regretful to lie to them? Seemingly I cause no harm, in fact I guess that I help the relationships.

    Perhaps this fits into your theory of identity. My atheism has become important to my identity, perhaps in part because I think it reveals admirable qualities about the way I think, and as you would argue it comes easily. Lying about being a believer does not come easily — I might get caught in a trap in questions about where I go to church, or reveal some insincerity in prayer — and maybe my unease about projecting this identity to my family is related to this. What I don’t understand, though, is why I should worry about being “caught” by my family, if the alternative is to reveal the fact to them myself.

  • Venu

    Some part of identity is surely a means of signaling affiliation/loyalty to a certain group(s), no?

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  • Interesting post.
    I’m also interested in looking at forms of identity as algorithms competing for us as constituents, and the role of getting people to identify with a person or a subpopulation as a form of legitimization of power or status.

  • mjgeddes

    Superb post Robin! But now let me: Are you sure your identity is really Bayesian? You may tell yourself:

    (Story 1)
    ‘I should make Bayesian Induction the rationalist ideal’

    (Story 2)
    ‘I should use Bayes justify my decision to tell story 1. But I cannot, since any consciously understandable justification I could tell myself is just another story ( Consciousness is the PR department, narrative). ‘


    (Story 3)
    ‘My decision to tell Story 1 is a story that Bayes cannot justify. But I realized this by telling story 2. This shows that there are decisions that narrative can justify (e.g. telling Story 2) that Bayesian Induction cannot’.

    And narrative seems to be categorization…you said yourself that narrative is a ‘smoothing over the details’, the very definition of a category. Categorization also seems equivalent to analogy formation, because it is just a mapping between one thing and another… a ‘degree of similarity’.

    Ergo, Bayesian Induction cannot completely capture rationality, but categorization (analogy formation) can. Ergo, Bayesian Induction is merely a special case of the real basis for rationality… analogy formation! A true story? Are there plot-holes?

    Based on this idea I’d like to present three fantasy endings (the writers ‘1-2-3 punch’), which hopefully most blog readers will agree would be deliciously climatic and shocking, if, you know, the universe really did run on narrative casuality rather than Bayesian causality 😉

    Fantasy ending 1:

    ‘A former student accosted the professor in the hallway. ‘You still a Bayesian?’ Professor Hanson suddenly gave an impish grin and ripped off the garb of the mild mannered economics professor to reveal the super-hero costume of a flamboyant story teller. ‘I realized that categorization (analogy formation) and the creation of narrative was the real basis for rationality’, he explained. ‘I no longer call myself a Bayesian’. It was the one big change in his identity. ‘

    Fantasy ending 2:

    ‘The final battle of rationalists was swift and decisive. The vanquished master ambled through the woods until he came across a young girl sitting on a rock who was a student of his.

    She looked up at his dazed expression, ‘Noooooo way… not the unspeakable morality!’

    ‘Yes way’, said the Bayesian black belt Yudkowsky with a wry grin. ‘He spoke it. The narrative arts of mjgeddes mastered my Bayesian arts as easily as one would master a child’

    Fantasy ending 3:

    ‘The grand hall of post-human historians waited as professor Bostrom walked up to the podium. ‘I will tell how I realized that we were but a story within a story, and how we engineered the great escape from the lesser one. And then he told the greater one’.

  • Monica

    I wonder if it is this fixation with predictability is what causes problems for some many with people who change their sex. Anecdotal evidence is that gender changers loose most or all of their old friends and end up in a kind of demi-monde with others like themselves. Surely gender is the most important of all the predictable traits (well, apart from dead/alive)…..and when that one is broken or changed people just cannot cope.

  • This post apparently proposes a redefinition of the term “identity”. Conventional usage is different – and embraces things like “identity theft”. Social science usage is different too – see: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_(social_science)

    I don’t see much of a case for such a redefinition. Perhaps “public persona” could be used to refer to those aspects of people’s identity which they broadcast to others.

  • Jonas

    Very interesting and convincing theory of identity.

    How severe is individual identity influenced by social phenomena like the Rosenthal effect?

  • Tim Tyler, good call. With Professor Hansen, I often start any topic of his by looking up the wikipedia entry and doing a google search for who the actual experts on the topic are. In Prof. Hansen’s style, he shows an interesting lack of appreciation for prior bodies of thought and the existence of experts in an area where he has an epiphany. Not that the world would be a better place if he showed that appreciation, but it’s helpful when commentors like you help fill in that gap, treating these comment threads as wikis.

  • UchicagoMan

    Great discussion.

    I would recommend reading Joyce’s Ulysses

    IMHO, it is as profound of study of “identity” as any.

    Also, I would suggest approaching this matter from a biological perspective.

    In particular, I believe much of what shapes one’s disposition in life is the genetic/chemical concoction we are “blessed” (or cursed) with from the beginning.

    But also, as we progress through life, these levers of emotion can change dramatically from external and internal forces alike, including some of which are quite natural and highly evolved.

    For instance, Robin notes this concept of “story” or narrative we project onto ourselves and others. I would argue this narrative can be quite fluid, accidental, and often “irrational/illogical”. There is a reason (biologically) most people do not have perfect, video recording-type memory.

    Anyhow, Human Culture is one gigantic collective identity. 😉


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  • mjgeddes

    I’m very impressed with Robin’s theory of identity (good to see it being developed further!) and I too have come to similar conclusions, that consciousness is the ‘narrative center of gravity’.

    I am known am an ‘eccentric’, and true to form, I have come up a theory so astounding you could put a strait-jacket on it and call it insane 😉 In fact my theory is so astounding that I dare not post it anywhere, least I face instant moderation and risk being labeled crazy forever.

    But I will say this. There’s anthropic considerations at work; I think there’s just a bit too much which is too convenient about everything that’s happened in transhumanism. And then we see three geniuses (Hanson, Yudkowsky, Bostrom) each with three different identities or ‘characterizations’

    R.Hanson is obsessed ‘who we really are’ (our current human identity) – Symbolic Logic

    E.Yudkowsky is obsessed with ‘the means to go where we are going’ (our decision making powers) – Bayesian Induction

    N.Bostrom is obsessed with ‘the map of where we are going’ (the narrative of our purpose) – Analogy Formation

    3 levels, 3 geniuses. Strange? You bet!

    Then there is this bizarre piece of trivia: Research shows that references to the number ‘27’ are inexplicably popping up in narrative fiction and films far beyond the chance level, relative to other numbers (perhaps this is most vividly demonstrated by the big police car in the sci-fi classic ‘Blade Runner’ with the big ‘27’ on the front). Why?

    Something is seriously frigging weird with the universe man! I shall say no more. Except that my time on internet message boards taught me my real identity – not that of a scientist, but of a science fiction writer 😉

  • jonathan

    I was blown away by this post. Not because it was provocative but for the hubris. “A Theory of Identity” implies something unified, that draws fully on research and which answers existing questions in a coherent manner. You make a small comment about identity, one that barely touches on the vast body of knowledge about the subject. “Theory” is hardly the right word. Hubris.

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  • dhill

    I find people interesting, when they are unpredictable. Sure there is some common interest involved, that forms a relationship, but it is important to me to be surprised each time I talk to a friend. Why have friends otherwise?

    Making explanatory stories about anyone (including yourself) is a highway to hell attachment. There is a whole “Zen Buddhism” about going in the opposite direction. To quote some more pop: “Self-improvement is masturbation, self-destruction is the answer.”

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  • This post was very helpful to me. Thanks, Robin!

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