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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