In my last post, Identity and Belonging, I started an investigation into what constitutes identity, and what model we can use to explain some of the weird patterns that we find in it. I talked about how reputation is part of the puzzle, and how virtue signalling is a low-cost means of boosting one’s reputation among peers. I also talked about how one can easily communicate what behavioural traits they have by signalling similarity or dissimilarity from other people, and that this extends into group identity where individuals can benefit from adhering to social constructs of group distinctions by signalling allegiance to the ingroup and disdain for the outgroup, despite how as a whole it may be more beneficial to dissolve those group distinctions.
In this post I want to think more about the aspects of identity that are not group based. With groups, your signalling is of the form ‘We’re similar and that’s good’, or ‘We’re dissimilar and that’s bad’. I don’t think anybody ever signals the message ‘We’re similar and that’s bad’. If a person is similar to you, and you don’t want to be associated with them, you would end up signalling the differences you have with that person, however minor, so that you don’t get erroneously put into the same category as that person and have your reputation diminished as a result. But the signal of ‘We’re dissimilar and that’s good’ happens all the time, mostly in the context of complementary relationships. A heterosexual man and woman make a good pairing, as do two homosexual people of the same sex, but the process of a person matching up with their potential partner requires some signalling from both sides to advertise the common desire to hook up.
There are certain obvious traits that make this process easier; most men are straight and most women are straight and both sexes have physically distinct features that make it easy to identify their sex. So it’s no surprise that the stereotypical flamboyant homosexual is so outward in their signalling compared to your average man and woman, because they need to work harder than their straight counterparts to ensure they’re put into the right box in terms of sexual orientation. This is similar to our hazel eyed tribesmen in the previous post who, due to their ambiguous group membership, had to work extra hard to show whether they identified with the green group or the blue group.
But what are people really doing when they take on an identity, and why do people converge on the ways they express certain identities? I think that at its core, an identity is just a convenient package of prediction mappings that other people can use with confidence in their interactions with and expectations of a person. So if I get home and I’m moping around and I’m sighing a lot, effectively taking on the identity of ‘I’m tired as fuck after a long day’s work’, I’m signalling to the other people in the house to not ask me to do any chores, and to not engage in any intellectual conversation with me because my brain is spent. In the identity bucket labelled ‘Tired AF’ is a prediction mapping that links ‘Ask the person to do any chore that requires effort’ to ‘don’t bother’, and ‘open up to the person in conversation’ to ‘get blunt, inconsiderate responses’. I don’t need to mope around or do much sighing; it’s really up to me how much I amplify the expression of my own tiredness through my behaviour, but through my signalling I spare my housemates the disappointment of asking me to do something and losing face when I say no. As stated in the previous post, the feeling of disappointment is the feeling of your brain correcting your own prediction mappings so that your high expectations are a little lower next time around. If somebody is signalling to you that they are ‘Tired AF’, you can grab the prediction mappings from out of the ‘Tired AF’ bucket, then just use those when dealing with that person rather than the prediction mappings you would normally use. There might be some initial unease when you go ‘oh great they’ve come home tired and I wanted them to help out around the house’ but it’s a far better outcome than if you thought they were full of energy and you got an unexpected rejection when asking them to help out.
The system works very well; people can easily work out which prediction mappings they should bring to the table in any interaction, and that saves a lot of disappointment and miscommunication. But for the system to function effectively, people need to have consensus agreement on what behaviours point to which identity bucket, and what prediction mappings live in those buckets. The most common approach to associating behaviours with the buckets is to just take whatever small physiological traits come with being e.g. tired, and then dial those up to eleven. That’s an approach that works across cultures. But for traits that are less rooted in physiology, like your political disposition, you’re going to have more arbitrary signals. If you’re a feminist, you’re more likely to wear three-quarter slacks, hoop earrings, and have the sides and back of your head shaved. It’s not clear how any of these things have anything to do with the prediction mapping of ‘treat her with disrespect’ -> ‘get put in my place’ but it doesn’t matter. So long as there is social consensus on which traits point to which buckets, in this case the ‘Feminist’ bucket, a lot of undesirable social conflicts can be avoided.
I think this is why there can be such strong consequences for exhibiting a certain identity, but then acting in ways that go against the prediction mappings of that identity. For example, if a kid signals to his parents that he is ‘Tired AF’ and then after avoiding being asked to do any chores, he is caught energetically playing videogames in his room, talking to friends online, his parent will be pretty mad. He effectively abused the identity for his own benefit, discarding it when it was no longer useful. For a person to quickly switch between identities, it shows they are conscious about what signals they’re giving, and have a machiavellian intention behind their use. And nobody likes Machiavelli.
In that case the lesson to be learnt by the parents is to devalue the relationship between the kid’s behavioural traits and the corresponding identity bucket. Maybe they’ll tell him off and get him to start doing chores, then life goes on. But the consequences are far far worse if somebody does something which has an effect on people’s perception of the bucket itself and what prediction mappings belong in it. Why do people respond with such uproar about somebody having an extramarital affair? Well, there is an identity bucket labelled ‘Married’ which has many prediction mappings, one of which is ‘be monogamous to them’ -> ‘they will be monogamous to me’. That’s a prediction mapping that people really depend on for emotional security. Assuming you are a monogamous person, if you had no good reason to believe that your partner was going to reciprocate your monogamy, you probably wouldn’t have a very healthy relationship, and jealousy/uncertainty/fear/anxiety/doubt would eat away at you. Every time somebody goes and has an affair, they prove the identity of ‘Married’ to not be as reliable in its prediction mappings as people thought it was. That’s why then the social norm of monogamy within marriage is violated, there are very harsh consequences, from having friends cut you off to having your family disown you. I’m not going to go into what might happen if you’re in a non-western country.
When people are all making use of the same identity buckets to signal their traits and to allow others to confidently set their expectations, the sanctity of those buckets must be protected. This isn’t a moral claim, I don’t necessarily care what happens to all these buckets in the next 50 years. It’s a claim about human psychology. If somebody stands to benefit from the current state of an identity bucket, it makes sense for them to preserve it as it is, which means admonishing anybody whose actions erode people’s confidence in the bucket’s prediction mappings. From this perspective, I can see what christians were getting at when they didn’t want to legalise gay marriage. They had been using this Marriage bucket for ages which included prediction mappings involving the union of two souls and the creation of life under god, which then kind of fractured into Legal Marriage and Religious Marriage, and now what little stature Religious Marriage had left was about to be further diminished by the broadening of Legal Marriage to include gays. The broader an identity is in its prediction mappings, the less use it has, because it grants an individual less prediction power. Are two gays necessarily going to have kids? If they adopt, are they fulfilling the original goal of marriage? These questions can all be shut down by recognising that there are plenty of straight married couples with no kids etc, but the fact stands that christians have watched their Marriage identity bucket fracture and morph over time, till now when it shares few traits with its original form. Oh well, hopefully for the best.
It’s funny because whenever somebody is trying to preserve a concept like the sanctity of marriage, they paradoxically need to claim there is some transcendental realness to the concept, whilst also conceding that the concept’s continued existence depends on the coordinated perceptions of random everyday people who are constantly unconsciously refactoring their internal representation of the concept based on random shit they see on TV.
Anyway back to identity in general. Given the consequences for switching identities quickly and stepping outside the socially agreed confines of an identity, it makes sense that we would have evolved to take identities very seriously. There is a common trope in fiction where somebody will, by chance circumstance, be perceived as being evil or traitorous, and instead of trying to clear their name, the antihero in their pride decides to play the role of the villain. From the outside perspective, this is completely insane. Why go and do horrible things in the name of playing a role you’ve been assigned? There is something about proud individuals in that they take their identity far too seriously, often to their own detriment. Could it be that superfluous pride is an evolutionary maladaptation that takes the useful maxims of ‘don’t haphazardly flick through identities’ and ‘don’t violate the boundaries of a given identity’ and then grants them far too much importance in the individual’s brain? I’m starting to better understand why I continued hitting my friend with a stick in primary school long after both him and I wanted me to stop. There might also be parallels to draw here around so-called ‘toxic masculinity’, which could be viewed as a person trapping themselves in a hypermasculine identity where they can safely operate within the confines of the identity without risking the consequences of signalling any other unique traits they may have.
So I’ve got a theory about identity that I think is pretty good at explaining a lot of human nature. Now what? Can this be applied to modern identity debates around e.g. transgender rights? Maybe. The recurring theme here has been that your identity is a tool used to communicate with other people. Although it may reflect true characteristics you have, those characteristics exist with or without your efforts to signal them to others. The word ‘Identity’ encodes the fact that through it, you allow others to Identify what groups you belong to, what personality traits you have, and how they should best interact with you.
If you were born male but identify as female, or vice versa, you are communicating to others about how you want them to perceive you. If somebody decides that you don’t exhibit enough traits to be associated with the ‘Female’ identity bucket because you were born male, it’s basically their loss. They will forfeit the prediction powers bestowed by that bucket’s prediction mappings. Should that bother you if you are transgender? I don’t think it should. But given that it often does, non trans people can make life easier for their trans counterparts by entertaining the idea that maybe the ‘Female’ bucket actually grants better prediction powers than the ‘Male’ bucket in the context of a male-to-female trans, and therefore is a perfectly reasonable identity to use. I’ll leave the legal considerations for somebody else to think about, but I think that these discussions should not lose sight of the fact that identities are necessarily dependent on consensus agreement because they are a tool for communication. Given that identities are in many ways arbitrary, if you are a progressive person, the question should not be ‘how do I get society to recognise that this identity is a real thing’ but ‘how do I get society to form a consensus belief of this identity that produces the best outcomes for everyone’
To summarise: identity lives alongside money and nations in the weird realm of things that begin as imaginary, and become real through social consensus. Given how our brains are all wired to recognise and make use of identity, it clearly has been crucial in guiding us through evolutionary history. Though we have developed instincts to take our identities seriously and be consistent within them, sometimes this hurts us more that it helps us. Sometimes a person wants to claim ownership of an identity that wouldn’t usually be ascribed to them, and this will cause issues as a tug of war ensues for how best we as a society should define the identity. Group identity is a minefield which can go very bad very quickly, but at its best it affords people a sense of belonging and security.
Don’t let yourself get trapped in an identity that over times reflects less and less of your personality traits. Don’t put other people in boxes they’ve told you they don’t want to be put in.
Writing this has been a fun experience, and in putting all these ideas on paper, I’ve developed a clearer image in my own mind of what identity is. Hopefully this has shed some light on the topic for you too.
Until next time!