The Role of Identity in Influencing Change

James March, Professor of Political Science at Stanford argues when we make choices, we tend to rely on one of two basic models for decision making: the consequences model or the identity model.

In the consequence model, when we have a decision to make we weigh the costs and benefits and make the choice that maximises our satisfaction. This model of decision making is based on the belief that we as humans are rational/logical beings, who make decisions accordingly.

The identity model of decision making instead says when we have a decision to make we ask ourselves three questions:

  1. What kind of situation is this? (Situation)
  2. What kind of person am I? (Identity)
  3. What would someone like me do in this situation? (Matching)

The identity model, therefore, says our decisions are based on how we see ourselves, and who we believe we are or want to be. Understanding this can be really useful when we are trying to influence someone to change their behaviour – to make a different choice. Let me show you an example.

This clip is taken from the hit US series Glee. In this episode, the Glee club has the opportunity to get their picture in the school yearbook for the first time. Most of the Glee club don’t want this to happen, fearing the picture will be vandalised and defaced after it’s published. The only people who are really keen for it to happen are the teacher in charge of the Glee club, Will Schuester, and the goody two shoes; co-captain of the club, Rachel Berry.

The Principal finally agrees but says that there must be two members of the Glee club in the photo. The problem is, no one else wants to be in there except Rachel. So Rachel now has the challenge of convincing the other co-captain, Finn Hudson to do it with her.

What does she say that plays to the concept of identity?

See what she did? Playing up to Finn’s identity as a ‘leader’.

Because you’re a leader Finn, and that’s what leaders do. They stick their necks out for people that they care about.

And how does he eventually reply?

I am a leader. It’s who I am, who I want to be.

Now, I have yet to see it happen so easily, and so quickly in reality, but tapping into the identity of who people are, or who they want to be, can be incredibly powerful when creating change.

In my next blog post on this topic, I will show an example of using identity to change behaviour, and then move onto some ways you might use it yourself when trying to influence change.

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