Personal Identity Is (Mostly) Performance

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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