Considering your multiple identities

Awareness of various identities has an impact on creativity and social thinking.

By Sarah Gaither, PhD


We all have multiple identities — race, gender, age, sexual orientation, occupation — the list goes on and on. However, psychology research has traditionally focused on the effects stemming from one identity (i.e., race OR gender), rather than trying to measure how belonging to multiple groups may actually shift our behavior or even perhaps change our results. The question I asked — does thinking about one’s self from a multifaceted angle shift your flexible thinking?

Recent reviews suggest the need for the field to consider dual identities that straddle more traditional singular social categories (e.g., biracial, transgender; Dunham & Olson, 2016; Gaither, 2018; Kang & Bodenhausen, 2015), and other work on intersectionality also make it clear that psychological science should be acknowledging the fact that people do not have just one ingroup or outgroup (Tajfel & Turner, 1979). Moreover, some past work with adults has shown that people do in fact claim distinct and overlapping identities at different times (Crisp, Hewstone & Rubin, 2001; Goclowska & Crisp, 2014). A large amount of research also shows that bicultural individuals and others who have spent time studying abroad in other cultural contexts are more creative problem solvers because they have added experience reconciling their different cultural identities and social norms (e.g., Benet-Martinez, Lee & Leu, 2006; Madducx & Galinsky, 2009; Tadmor, Galinsky & Maddux, 2012). And I previously showed that both multiracial adults, when reminded of their multiple racial identities, and monoracial adults, when reminded of their multiple social identities more generally (e.g., being a student, athlete and male), outperformed multiracial and monoracial individuals thinking about their average day (a control condition in which they did not consider their multiple identities) on two creativity tasks.

However, this past work didn’t identify whether the multifaceted identity mindsets needed to be identity-specific (as compared to just thinking generally about one’s self flexibly), or if merely thinking about someone else’s multiple identities would also lead to the same flexible thinking outcomes. Moreover, knowing that children learn about their social identities through the categories they see in their everyday lives, testing this question seemed perfect for a child sample where their views are much less fixed then adults. Thus, I asked whether this same multiple identity mindset could also boost children’s flexible thinking regarding both their problem-solving abilities and how flexibly they see different social groups (in addition to testing those boundary effects inclusive of whether identities need to be social in content and self-relevant).

Across three studies published recently in Developmental Science, I prompted children to think about their multiple identities (you are a drawer, reader, a friend and a neighbor) and then ended the prompt by saying “Wow! You are a lot of things at the same time! How does it feel to be lots of things at the same time?” Children responded in a variety of ways ranging from “It feels awesome” to “Pretty normal” showing that they were truly reflecting on the mere fact that they had multiple identities.

An image shown to participants in multiple studies as part of a priming task to encourage thinking about multiple identities.

One of our control conditions reminded children that they instead had lots of different things (two arms, two legs, etc.) to test whether it needed to be identity specific to see this shift in fixed thinking. Another control condition asked a child to reflect on someone else’s multiple identities to test here whether the identity mindset had to be self-relevant.

After one of these mindset prompts, children completed four tasks to measure children’s flexible thinking:

  • A functional fixedness task that we developed in the lab we called “Honey Bear.” In line with past creativity research, if you can see a new function for an object that marks you as being a more flexible thinker. Here, we told children that “Mr. Bear really likes honey but does not have enough legos to reach the bee hive.” We then asked, “what do you think Mr. Bear can do in order to get to the bee hive?” If a child responded by saying to empty the bowl of legos, flip it upside down and use it as a stool, this would demonstrate the use of flexible thinking (seeing a new use for the bowl). Children in our self-relevant multiple identities condition solved this problem 50-62% of the time, but children in our other two conditions only solved this problem 12-29% of the time.

The “honey bear” image shown to participants in the functional fixedness task.

  • A multiple uses task. Here, we presented children with a small gold box and asked children to come up with as many different uses as they could for the box. This is another standard creativity task used to measure generative thinking skills. Children in our self-relevant multiple identities condition came up with four to six uses on average, whereas children in the other conditions two to four uses.
  • A social categorization task. I was interested in extending past creativity and flexible thinking work beyond the standard creativity tasks by exploring whether this same multiple identity mindset also made a young child see more social categories than usual. In this task, children were shown 16 photos spread across a table. Each photo differed systematically across race, gender, age and emotional expression. Children were simply asked to put the photos into as many groups as possible. Again, children in the self-relevant multiple identities condition categorized these photos into four to five groups but children in the other conditions generated about two to three groups. Interestingly, children in the multiple identities condition also saw more than just race and gender as grouping variables and included categories such as the size of smiles and even the amount of white space present in a photograph — categories that are not indicative of other stereotyped groups in society.
  • An essentialism task. Finally, the last task adapted from Rhodes and Gelman (2009) presented children with two pictures from the same general category across each of four domains (animals, artifacts, gender and race) and were asked if the two pictures were members of the same category or not. For example, in the animal trial, participants would see a dog and a cat as two examples of animals, the artifacts trial would show a picture of a fork and a spoon, the gender trial would show images of boys and girls, and the race trial would present photos of a white and a black child. If children said yes that the two images were the same (showing more flexible and inclusive categorical thinking at a broader category level) that response was scored as 1 and inflexible or fixed views of these categories were scored as a 0, with totals ranging from 0-16 points across 16 trials. Thus, a higher score meant a child was more socially flexible. Again, children in the multiple identities condition were more flexible with scores around 6 points in this category comparison task compared to other groups with scores around 3 points.

Here, we showed that a simple mindset reminder for young children increased their ability to not only creatively problem solve across two different tasks, but this same flexible thinking mindset also caused children to see more social categories in their world beyond just race and gender. I believe these methods caused children to move beyond their default thinking of either/or categories. In fact, I argue this specific point in a recent review paper — “It is that multiplicity of belonging that has been understudied” (Gaither, 2018).

It is difficult to design methods that empirically measure the various identities and groups to which we all belong. And it is more difficult for researchers to constantly consider the various intersections of identity that exist within our participant samples. I am not suggesting that we should always consider this multifaceted approach to identity, but I am suggesting that we should at least understand that people’s multifaceted selves (and their level of awareness of it) may impact our results and the generalizability of studies across groups and contexts.

Going forward, I hope to use this same approach to explore whether multiple identity mindsets can also shift adults’ social categorizations and perhaps their biases within various types of diverse settings. For example, would prompting adults to consider their multiple group memberships before cross-group interactions shift their social expectations and biases? Does a more flexible mindset also influence how we racially categorize others? Moreover, pinpointing the potential boundary effects of a multiple identity mindset, such as whether these identities have to be positive or not, is also needed for our field to have a firmer grasp on how conflicting, coexisting and potentially integrated identities may all differentially influence our behavior and perceptions.

With rises in immigration, increases in interracial marriage, and shifts in language surrounding biracial and transgender populations, it is essential for research to acknowledge that we are all lots of things at the same time. Therefore, my work has both theoretical and practical relevance in highlighting that belonging to multiple groups — and acknowledgement of that membership — not only impacts our behavior and perceptions of others, but it also suggests that that variability that exists both between and within groups may have been overshadowed in research. By considering our multiplicity of belonging that has always existed we can push our fixed thinking about social groups to be more reflective of the flexibility that we all possess. Thus, I argue that as we continue to study behavior within this evolving cultural landscape, we must be aware of how multiple identity mindsets may impact our findings.


Benet-Martinez, V., Lee, F., & Leu, J. (2006). Biculturalism and cognitive complexity: Expertise in cultural representations. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 37, 386-407.

Crisp, R. J., Hewstone, M., & Rubin, M. (2001). Does multiple categorization reduce intergroup bias? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 27, 76-89.

Dunham, Y., & Olson, K. R. (2016). Beyond discrete categories: Studying multiracial, intersex, and transgender children will strengthen basic developmental science. Journal of Cognition and Development, 17, 642–665.

Gaither, S.E. (2018). Belonging to multiple groups: Pushing identity research beyond binary thinking. Self & Identity, Special Issue: New Directions in the Study of Self and Identity, 17, 443-454.

Gaither, S.E., Fan, S. P., & Kinzler, K. D. (2019). Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking. Early Online Access, Developmental Science.

Gaither, S.E., Remedios, J.D., Sanchez, D., & Sommers, S.R. (2015). Thinking outside the box: Multiple identity mindsets affect creative problem solving. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 596–603.

Gocłowska, M.A., & Crisp, R.J. (2014). How dual-identity processes foster creativity. Review of General Psychology, 18, 216-236.

Kang, S.K., & Bodenhausen, G.V. (2015). Multiple identities in social perception and interaction: Challenges and opportunities. Annual Review of Psychology, 66, 547–574.

Maddux, W.W., & Galinsky, A. D. (2009). Cultural borders and mental barriers: The relationship between living abroad and creativity. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 1047-1061.

Rhodes, M., & Gelman, S. A. (2009). A developmental examination of the conceptual structure of animal, artifact, and human social categories across two cultural contexts. Cognitive Psychology, 59, 244–274.

Tadmor, C.T., Galinsky, A.D., & Maddux, W. W. (2012). Getting the most out of living abroad: Biculturalism and integrative complexity as key drivers of creative and professional success. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 103, 520-542.

Tajfel, H., & Turner, J.C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of intergroup relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, California: Brooks/Cole.

Sarah Gaither, PhD, is an assistant professor in the department of psychology & neuroscience and a faculty affiliate at the Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity and the Center on Health and Society at Duke University. Her research focuses broadly on how a person’s social identities and experiences across the lifespan motivate their social perceptions and behaviors in diverse settings. More specifically, she studies how contact with diverse others shapes social interactions, and how racial and gender identities (among others) influence behavior, social perceptions and bias from childhood through adulthood. Her work has been funded by the National Science Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Russell Sage Foundation, the Charles Lafitte Foundation and the Spencer Foundation, and has appeared in outlets such as The New York Times, NPR, BBC, Vox, Washington Post and ForbesAuthor website.



0 0 votes
Article Rating

Leave a Reply

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Virtual Identity
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x