Identity and Action

A friend just pointed me at a fantastic* study of voting behavior, well-summarized at Language Log.

People were asked about their future voting behavior in one of two forms. Some people were asked whether they were going to vote. In other words, they were asked to predict their future behavior. However, a second group were asked if they were voters. These people had to predict what they might do in context of their identity as “voter,” or perhaps more likely, “someone who is actively engaged with civil society and shows it by voting.”

Guess which group was more likely to vote**? The second group – the ones who were reminded of how the specific action (voting) would advertise a positive element of their identity (being a “voter”).

We all use our actions to advertise who we think we are, especially when those identities are supported by a community that we’re a part of. For example, I think of myself as a reader. I advertise my reader-self all the time – by reading in public, by talking about books with friends, by writing about what I read here on this site. I get lots of social approbation for being a reader, too, whether in the form of explicit compliments or access to awesome people who like to talk books with me.

The study authors point out, though, that voting is quite private behavior. It’s also something that only happens once in a while; you don’t exactly get regular reinforcement for it! Perhaps the identity-invocation works so well because people aren’t getting it in the course of their ordinary voting lives. If people were reminded of themselves as voters every day, I bet we’d see a positive effect on voting rates in this country.

Of course, the question becomes who thinks of themselves as “a voter.” I had a fascinating conversation with Jay Blahnik*** at the GE Game Changers Summit yesterday about just this issue. He explained that he works with people who run – but that some people who run very seriously are hesitant about taking on the identity of “runner.” Within the community, there’s a concept of what being a runner means, and who gets to define that concept, that leaves some people out. For example, before Nike+, “runners” didn’t listen to music. Some people ran a lot but also listened to music, which left them outside the bounds of the “runner” identity. Of course, now that aspect of being a runner is changing!****

What I’m wondering is this. Does being a voter work like being a runner? Do some people simply not feel included by that identity, even as they participate in the behavior it describes? What do people think they have to do to “be a voter”? Do they see it as a personal quality, like competence or moral behavior, that relies largely on their own individual actions, or are there people who implicitly decide who’s in and out?

Of course, I’m also thinking hard about how we might answer these questions for the identity of “learner” someday!

* Not a surprise; Carol Dweck was a co-author, and I respect her enormously.

** It actually turns out that both groups were more likely to vote than average – possibly because of having participated in the experiment in the first place! But the difference between the groups is still robust, and the implications of the study still significant.

*** Who is fantastic!

**** The term “gamer” is contested, too – but in a much more depressing way, because the term is often deployed to exclude anyone who isn’t straight, white and male. For example, Lesley Kinzel dissects the impressive sexism displayed by a bunch of Battlefield 3 players who excluded women from their LAN party.

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