Acting from identity

I’ve written before about what doesn’t motivate people to take action, to become part of movements larger than themselves—it’s not about the cookies. We know that relationships move people, and that’s why grassroots organizing works, and has worked, throughout history.

But in Switch, (which is super worth reading) there was a really fascinating insight into why people come to advocacy and collective action, and it has added a new layer to my thinking about how to connect to people’s values. The authors make the distinction between decisions made based on consequences—what are the costs and benefits of a particular action—and decisions made based on identity—what kind of person am I, and what kinds of actions does that kind of person take. And they present findings from psychological studies that suggest that people make these advocacy-type decisions primarily from an identity perspective.

What we have to do, then, is help people forge identities as advocates, because, once they see themselves as the kind of people who take actions like this, then they will. And they’ll be consistently committed to activism, even when the stakes are high, the costs are huge, and the benefits are elusive and in the distant future. Because, well, it’s who they are.

But the most exciting part of what the authors present in Switch is the evidence that identities can be forged. People can be primed to begin to see themselves as advocates, and we can help them to incorporate advocacy into their sense of self. It requires helping people to take actions that are small, at first, to bring them into a network of advocates in ways that are fairly comfortable for where they see themselves today, in a process of expanding their identities to encompass advocacy. Where that starts will be different for different issues and different constituencies, but the process is essentially the same…we stop trying to convince people to do something that’s a considerable stretch for them, and instead work to help people see themselves as the kind of people for whom advocacy is completely natural.

I had just finished reading Switch when I was on a conference call talking about advocacy in the anti-immigrant climate. Two of the people on the call identified their affiliations, as they were, as “community activist” or “community leader.” With this idea of identity-based decision-making fresh in my mind, it sparked a realization: people who define themselves as “activists” are of course going to behave very differently, when presented with advocacy opportunities, than those who lack this identity. But the evidence suggests that people don’t even need to have embraced the advocate identity that thoroughly in order to shift how they see themselves operating within a political context. Even relatively small acts, like signing a petition or putting a sign in one’s window can be the priming that people need to move seamlessly to much larger actions.

I think, really, that we’re part of the reason why this apparently natural psychological transformation gets messed up sometimes, honestly. We make a mistake when we try to talk someone into taking a small advocacy action by prefacing the request with all kinds of disclaimers, about how it’s “not a big deal,” or it’s “just this one little thing,” or “I know you might not have time for this,” because such caveats can push the activity to a sort of marginalized place in one’s sense of self, such that it doesn’t really become integrated into how we see ourselves. They might still do it, but it would be more as a favor to you, or to get you to go away, and that doesn’t shape the way we think about ourselves.

At least, to my non-psychologist’s brain, that makes sense.

I think we facilitate this identity formation when we, instead, invite people warmly and comfortably into a relatively small action, connecting it to the values we know they hold, and making that linkage explicit by saying things like, “I thought that you’d want to sign this petition because you care so much about kids’ access to education.” Or “we’re asking everyone who is committed to ending poverty to come to this forum, so I wanted to make sure you had the information.” Because then they see themselves as, yes, exactly the kind of person who cares about kids’ education or wants to end poverty, and, well, next month, if people like them are writing letters to Congress or attending a house party for a candidate, well, then…

you know us…that’s what we do.

I thought you’d feel that way.

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