Character & Context

July 19, 2021

By Sarah E. Gaither

As a biracial person, whenever I see a demographic form of any kind, my heart beats a little faster and I instantly start to worry—will there be enough boxes for my multiple racial identities? Or will I be forced to choose one of my identities over the other? I have often wondered across my life, why is it so difficult to think about and acknowledge our multiple selves? Why is it that our default way of thinking about social identities more often than not takes a “check one box” over a “check all that apply” approach?

The simple answer is that our world is socially complex, and we need to take short cuts to make processing our social world easier. Thus, it is not anyone’s fault in particular, but rather there are fixed ways of thinking about ourselves that stem from our social default as humans to categorize each other. (In fact, that is also how we learn language—through hearing similar patterns and sounds that we group together, which teaches us how to communicate.) But I find this to be an overly simplistic way of thinking about our multifaceted selves. It really is an inaccurate approach in considering the diversity that exists in our world.

Remind Yourself of Your Multiple Identities

In fact, my research argues that if we simply remind ourselves that we do, in fact, have multiple identities—I’m a student, an athlete, a daughter, a friend, etc.—that acknowledgment can at least temporarily boost creativity and problem-solving abilities in both adults and children. Try it out yourself—take a few minutes to write about all of the different social identities you have, what they mean to you, and what role they play in your life. What does it feel like now to think about the fact that you are lots of things, all at the same time? How does that compare to how you normally consider your identities?

Importantly, my work has shown that this thought exercise needs to be self-relevant to see boosts in flexible thinking. Specifically, in my work with 6-year-old children, we reminded children of eight different identities they have—being a friend, a neighbor, a reader, a drawer, etc. We ended the prompt with asking kids to tell us how they felt about being so many things at the same time, to which children responded which answers including “It’s awesome,” “Pretty normal,” and “Fun.”

Next, children completed a series of creativity problems. One measured how flexibly children could think of new functions for a small box. My favorite answer was using the box as a sled for a hamster! Another task asked children to sort photos of 16 different people into whatever groups they saw. These photos differed systematically by race, age, gender, and emotional expression, which provided children with lots of ways to think about social categories.

When children were reminded of their own multiple identities, we saw significantly more creative thinking. Children came up with more ideas for what to do with a small box, and they thought of significantly more ways to socially categorize the photos of people. Besides using typical categories (such as race and gender), children also noticed other traits, like smile size, eye color, and even the amount of white space leftover in a given photo!