Welcome to the Nexus of Ethics, Psychology, Morality, Philosophy and Health Care

Welcome to the nexus of ethics, psychology, morality, technology, health care, and philosophy

Thursday, April 21, 2022

Social identity switching: How effective is it?

A. K. Zinn, A. Lavrica, M. Levine, & M. Koschate
Journal of Experimental Social Psychology
Volume 101, July 2022, 104309


Psychological theories posit that we frequently switch social identities, yet little is known about the effectiveness of such switches. Our research aims to address this gap in knowledge by determining whether – and at what level of integration into the self-concept – a social identity switch impairs the activation of the currently active identity (“identity activation cost”). Based on the task-switching paradigm used to investigate task-set control, we prompted social identity switches and measured identity salience in a laboratory study using sequences of identity-related Implicit Association Tests (IATs). Pilot 1 (N = 24) and Study 1 (N = 64) used within-subjects designs with participants completing several social identity switches. The IAT congruency effect was no less robust after identity switches compared to identity repetitions, suggesting that social identity switches were highly effective. Study 2 (N = 48) addressed potential differences for switches between identities at different levels of integration into the self. We investigated whether switches between established identities are more effective than switches from a novel to an established identity. While response times showed the predicted trend towards a smaller IAT congruency effect after switching from a novel identity, we found a trend towards the opposite pattern for error rates. The registered study (N = 144) assessed these conflicting results with sufficient power and found no significant difference in the effectiveness of switching from novel as compared to established identities. An effect of cross-categorisation in the registered study was likely due to the requirement to learn individual stimuli.

General discussion

The main aim of the current investigation was to determine the effectiveness of social identity switching. We assessed whether social identity switches lead to identity activation costs (impaired activation of the next identity) and whether social identity switches are less effective for novel than for well-established identities. The absence of an identity activation costs in our results indicates that identity switching is effective. This has important theoretical implications by lending empirical support to self-categorisation theory that states that social identity switches are “inherently variable, fluid, and context dependent” (Turner et al., 1994, p. 454).

To our knowledge, our investigation is the first approach that has employed key aspects of the task switching paradigm to learn about the process of social identity switching. The potential cost of an identity switch also has important practical implications. Like task switches, social identity switches are ubiquitous. Technological developments over the last decades have resulted in different social identities being only “a click away” from becoming salient. We can interact with (and receive) information about different social identities on a permanent basis, wherever we are - by scrolling through social media, reading news on our smartphone, receiving emails and instant messages, often in rapid succession. The literature on task switch costs has changed the way we view “multi-tasking” by providing a better understanding of its impact on task performance and task selection. Similarly, our research has important practical implications for how well people can deal with frequent and rapid social identity switches.