“Identification” with a group as a physical process

An enduring question in social science is how people come to “identify” with a group and what implications that has for the individual’s behavior as well as the role that the group plays in society. Take for example “identification” with a political party followed by taking actions that promote the influence of the party. As it happens I was recently having a discussion with a graduate student about research on processing of coming to “identify” with a group. You might be thinking that this is all pretty abstract, and even though we hear and maybe even use “identify” all the time, what do we really mean by it?

The seminal work on identity by Akerlof and Kranton (e.g., this or this) provides a great framework for thinking through this. From their framework, identities are social categories that come with ideals and prescribed behaviors. To the extent that one has “internalized” an identity, one feels real pain or anxiety from betraying those ideals or prescribed behaviors. Understanding identity in these terms implies meaningful “identity change” is probably not so easy: it would require an internal rewiring such that behaviors that once produced anxieties now do not. This makes me wonder what is the state of research on the physiology of anxiety due to betrayal of ideals.

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