Personal Identity Is (Mostly) Performance

Wearing, showing, and sharing the many things that make up your personal presence helps you understand yourself.
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"Rokeby Venus" by Diego Velázquez (Wikimedia)

“Surely you don’t believe in that nonsense.”

It was intended as a rhetorical question, uttered with an implied wink and a smirk. The speaker, an ardent skeptic who prided himself on his rational approach to life, meant no offense. He was merely surprised to find that I, a lover of science, tote a battered key chain embossed with my astrological sign: Taurus. I’ve carried it with me for twenty years, like a personal totem.

It was perfectly reasonable for my skeptical inquirer to assume my key chain says something about me. He was employing cue utilization. We all rely on cues to make snap judgments when we meet new people, and those judgments can often be accurate, at least in broad strokes. Physical attractiveness, race, gender, facial symmetry, skin texture, or facial expressions and body language are all factors that contribute to how we form our impressions of people. Those cues may also include our “stuff”: our choices in fashion, jewelry, tattoos, and key chains all provide clues about who we are, whether we intend them to do so or not.

Social psychologist Sam Gosling is interested in checking out our stuff, but not in a creepy, voyeuristic way. He has studied how we fill our spaces with material things, particularly offices and bedrooms, to better understand what those choices say about our personalities. For instance, certain items function as “conscious identity claims,” things we choose based on how we wish to be perceived by others—the posters, artwork, books, or music we display, for example, or the tattoos we ink onto our bodies. We also fill our personal spaces with “feeling regulators”: photographs of loved ones, family heirlooms, favorite books, or souvenirs from travel to exotic locales—anything that serves to meet some emotional need.

“If you are missing someone, you carry a photo in your wallet, or propped up next to your computer, or you value a necklace that somebody gave to you,” Gosling explained. “You do these things to connect to someone as a sort of proxy, until you see that person again.”

Finally, there is what he terms “unconscious behavioral residue,” cues we leave behind in our spaces as a result of our habits and behaviors. A highly conscientious person may alphabetize their books, while the books of someone who is less conscientious would be more haphazard and disorganized.

All these conscious and unconscious cues, taken together, paint a fairly accurate rough sketch of the personality behind them. Gosling’s research showed that it is possible to scan the objects in someone’s personal space to make indirect inferences about certain personality traits. He measured his results using the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism. People who score high on openness, for example, tend to fill rooms with a greater variety of books and magazines, while those who score high on conscientiousness tend to have clean, well-lit, meticulously organized bedrooms.

However, Gosling cautions that this is an imprecise method; we can misread those cues. We may realize a given item is significant in some way to the owner, but we may not infer correctly the statement that it is making. Context is key. Position can help distinguish whether an object is serving as an identity claim or a feeling regulator.

If you walk into someone’s office and there is a wedding photo on the desk facing outward, so it can be clearly seen by visitors, that is likely an identity claim. However, if the same photo is turned instead to face the owner, then it likely functions as a feeling regulator, to remind him or her of a loved one.

That is what happened in my encounter with the skeptic who scoffed at my choice of key chain. It does say something about me, but he interpreted it as an identity claim, when in fact it is a feeling regulator. There is a story behind that key chain, or rather, a singular person by the name of Nick. We became friends as eager young twenty-somethings in New York City, when we both worked brief stints at the same legal publisher.

Nick was a natural raconteur who could hold a roomful of dinner guests in rapt attention, usually doubled over in laughter while he recounted his decidedly Rabelaisian adventures as a young gay man in Manhattan. He loved good food, good clothes, good music, good sex, and never shied from offering to buy the next round of drinks.

But this was at the height of the AIDS epidemic, when an HIV-positive diagnosis was akin to a death sentence. Over the course of three years, I watched my friend wither away to a shadow of his former self as the virus ravaged his immune system, although his wicked sense of humor and big heart remained intact. Nick even helped me with a last-minute move on a hot summer day after I was evicted from what turned out to be an illegal sublet, stopping every now and then to dramatically wipe the sweat from his brow and announce, “I shouldn’t even be doing this, you know. I have a terminal illness!” Then he would grin at my guilty expression and give me a hug to let me know he was just teasing.

Nick’s own housing situation was even more precarious: Unable to work as his illness progressed, and unable to sign a lease with a reputable landlord, he relied on local city charities and the tight-knit gay community to snag a cluttered, roach-infested basement apartment in Chelsea whose prior occupant had died. It was dirt cheap, but the stench of death still hung over the place—likely due to the decaying rodent corpses trapped behind the sagging walls. Nick hated it and found it unbearably depressing. Soon he was back in the hospital, and when I went to visit, he broke down in tears over a game of cribbage and begged me to help him find another option: “Please—I just don’t want to die there.”

It was exasperating to have to start the housing search all over again, but how could I refuse my friend just because it would be inconvenient? It took a good bit of bureaucratic wrangling, but I found him a small sun-filled studio. While purchasing a few last-minute bathroom accessories, I spotted a bright metallic red key chain for sale at the register, embossed with Nick’s astrological sign: a fellow Taurus. It seemed like the perfect trinket to hold the key to his new apartment, a ray of hope after weeks of darkness.

Eight months later, Nick was dead. I’ve carried that key chain ever since, the only thing I have left from his long-dismantled life. My totem says nothing about my belief in astrology, although you might be forgiven for making that assumption. To me, it’s a token of the beloved friend I lost—the very definition of a feeling regulator—and a constant reminder not to take my friends for granted, no matter how busy I become, because they might be gone sooner than I think. It is also a symbol of the most valuable thing I ever gave to Nick: a decent place to die.

Every personal item has a story behind it, at least if it holds any real meaning for the owner. Cultural historian Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has argued that we are attached to old photographs, family heirlooms, or seemingly insignificant trinkets precisely because they keep us grounded in the present, and help us remember the past. In that sense, the objects with which we fill our homes play a vital role in how we construct our sense of self.

Like Gosling, he lumps such totems into three distinct categories. There are objects that serve as symbols of status, or of good taste. There are objects relating to what he terms “continuity of self” that help construct memory and personality. Finally, there are objects of relationships, like my Taurus key chain, that link us to our loved ones and broader social networks.

“Without external props, even our personal identity fades and goes out of focus,” he writes. “The self is a fragile construction of the mind.”

I might quibble with Csikszentmihalyi’s insistence that the self is a fragile construct—on the contrary, the self strikes me as surprisingly robust despite, or perhaps because of, its remarkable fluidity—but his insights into how we infuse material objects with meaning fall right in line with Gosling’s research. Gosling found that this phenomenon carries over into our online identities as well: One can infer quite a bit about somebody’s personality by perusing his or her website, blog, or even an e-mail address. (Many Internet hipsters still sneer at those who use AOL or Hotmail addresses, for example.) We form very different first impressions of someone whose email address is just their first and last name, versus someone who uses the handle “sexyspacekitty69.”

Nowhere does this become more apparent than on Facebook, where we create detailed personal profiles of our likes and dislikes, share links, play games, take quizzes, and post personal photographs. As of 2011, there were more than 600 million active users. Increasingly, our Facebook pages are where we keep our stuff, and our profiles have become gigantic identity claims.

Gosling drew his conclusions from two related studies. In the first, participants took the Big Five personality test, and those results were compared to the so-called virtual residue (similar to Gosling’s behavioral residue in the object study) strewn throughout their respective Facebook profiles. Analysis revealed significant correlations between the self-reported Big Five test results and certain personality traits suggested by the subjects’ Facebook profile pages.

Extroverts had the most friends and interacted far more frequently than introverts, while those focused, achievement-oriented conscientious types used the site the least. Those with low scores on conscientiousness were far more likely to use Facebook to procrastinate.

You might argue that both the answers to the personality tests and the profile pages were generated by the participants themselves and hence lacked objectivity. So in the second study, nine undergraduate research assistants looked at only the archived Facebook profiles of the study participants and rated their personalities based solely on carefully selected cues: number of photos and photo albums, number of wall posts, group memberships, total number of friends, and even how many words each participant used in the “About Me” section.

Once again, there were strong correlations between the profiles and the self-reported assessments: extraversion correlated with the number of friends and higher levels of online engagement, and openness correlated with the number of friends. It proved much more difficult to draw correlations between the cues found on Facebook profiles and the traits of conscientiousness, agreeableness, and neuroticism; the results were inconclusive.

But the two studies aptly demonstrate that your online and offline identities overlap on Facebook, and your profile does reflect your most easily observable personality traits. At the end of the day, Facebook is just one more tool we use for self-verification: We want to be known and understood by others in keeping with how we feel about ourselves.


This post is adapted from Jennifer Ouellette's Me, Myself & Why: Searching for the Science of Self.

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Jennifer Ouellette

Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer. Her work has appeared in The Wall Street JournalThe Washington PostDiscover, and Nature, and her science-and-culture blog, Cocktail Party Physics, is hosted at Scientific American.

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