CLAIMING AN IDENTITY
In speech and action, we express how we see ourselves and how we want to be perceived by others, a process that organizational scholars Caroline Bartel and Jane Dutton call "identity claiming." Psychologically, identity claiming is an ordinary and universal process. Each of us claims multiple identities. My husband, my children, and I all claim an identity as Indian Americans. My daughters also claim identities as Mets fans and as girls-but-not-girly-girls. My husband claims identities as a physician, a Punjabi Sikh, and a devoted dad. I claim identities as a woman of color, a do-gooder, and a loving mom.
Each of us has an intense craving for others to see and acknowledge our various identities, a phenomenon that Bartel and Dutton call "identity granting." They compare the interplay between identity claiming and granting to a public performance and audience reaction. Tina Fey may claim an identity as a funny person, but if audiences don't find her funny, her identity as a funny person has not been granted.
We are vigilant for clues about whether our identity has been granted. Psychologist William Swann has studied how much we care about this affirmation of ourselves, including one study in which participants were even willing to pay for affirmation. How people treat us and what they say to us affirms us.
When we are unsure of whether an important identity has been granted by others, our craving for affirmation becomes more intense and urgent. Psychologists call this a moment of self-threat—our identity is being challenged or dismissed. Just as moments of physical threat trigger a hyperfocus on self-preservation, moments of psychological self-threat do the same. If I value being seen as a do-gooder, then I feel self-threat when people judge me as a greedy person, based on stereotypes of my résumé. If I value being seen as a loving mom, then I feel self-threat when other mothers judge me for working full-time outside the home. Once I am in self-threat mode, other problems follow.
Along with organizational scholars Mary Kern, Zhu Zhu, and Sujin Lee, I studied what happens when we construe an external situation as a threat. We asked participants to do a word scramble task and told them we would pay them based on their performance. We also measured whether they saw the task as more of a threat or more of a challenge, which potentially suggests a self-threat. Our prediction was that people who saw the task as a threat would be more likely to morally disengage or turn off their conscience, which keeps us from doing unethical things. As predicted, participants were more likely to morally disengage when they (believed they) faced a threat.
Then we used a simple intervention to bring this threat down. We asked participants to remember a situation in which they felt secure, able to depend on someone and have that person depend on them. Even though this intervention had nothing to do with the threat of the word scramble task, we suspected that it would be affirming and reduce the threat that people felt in the situation. The affirmation made them less likely to morally disengage after the self-threat, as we predicted. Threat, especially self-threat, is stressful.
Threat-motivated stress can lead to bad performance, negative health consequences, and poor behavioral choices. We do not feel good and we usually do not treat others well. We become defensive. Our hopes of being a good person are diminished at times like these.
In summary, we each have identities we claim. We look to others to grant those identities. When we don't get that affirmation, we feel threatened, which is stressful, and we do things we would not normally do. Under self-threat, we become less of the good people we mean to be.
Research reveals how our need for affirmation overrides our genuine desire to be a good colleague, friend, and ally. One study found that we value boosts to our self-esteem, such as compliments, even more than our favorite sex acts and foods. Given that it is socially taboo to openly covet compliments, these study participants probably underreported how much they value that affirmation.
We all fall into this pattern. We fish for affirmation. We center our needs, nudging away the needs of others. We seek what activists call "cookies," acknowledgments of our good intentions, even when the impact is costly to the cookie giver. We especially crave that affirmation when faced with a situation that challenges the believer identity we are claiming. The affirmation relieves the self-threat, but ironically, we end up acting less like—not more like—the people we mean to be. The pattern is both heartbreaking and exhausting.
Believers were the people most likely to be Rachel's allies. We were also the people most likely to leave her hanging emotionally. When she needed us most, we were inclined to hit her up for cookies of affirmation.