on cohesive identities and social signaling

I grew up with an inability to decipher social cues. I was aware that my behavior was “weird,” but I was so oblivious to the nuances of social behavior that I didn’t understand why it was off-putting. There’s this great line from a David Foster Wallace essay about a pack of wolf cubs and how being a smart nerdy kid is the equivalent of being a runt—you’re the one who shows weakness and everyone else instinctively attacks. During high school a lot of things clicked into place, thanks to copious amounts of public speaking (debate! Model UN! speech club!) and the sudden increased interest in belonging that generally comes with hitting puberty.

Today I’m fairly socially normal, but one thing that continues to fascinate me is the importance that most people place on maintaining a cohesive identity. We all know about brand identity, but it’s interesting to me how people also perceive themselves as fitting into a particular archetype, and modify their behavior to present as a cohesive product.

Everyone contains opposing drives. Within me there is both the desire for a stability as well as a drive towards adventure/exploration. There’s also the desire for both exposure and privacy, and for aloofness as well as intimacy. Some traits are more dominant (I would say that I’m consistently more direct than evasive, for instance), but others are closer to 50-50.

The theory I’ve found that resonates most is the cognitive-affective personality system, which suggests that we each contain varied patterns of behavior that surface depending on the situation:

Behavior is not the result of some global personality trait; instead, it arises from individuals' perceptions of themselves in a particular situation. However, inconsistencies in behavior are not due solely to the situation; inconsistent behaviors reflect stable patterns of variation within the person. These stable variations in behavior present themselves in the following framework: If A, then X; but if B, then Y. People's pattern of variability is the behavioral signature of their personality, or their stable pattern of behaving differently in various situations. According to this model, personality depends on situation variables, and consists of cognitive-affective units (all those psychological, social, and physiological aspects of people that allow them to interact with their environment in a relatively stable manner).

Also of note is the hypostatic model of personality, which posits that “the person presents herself in different aspects or hypostases, depending on the internal and external realities she relates to.” In other words, the competing drives I possess remain fairly stable, but they are expressed very differently in different contexts.

It’s totally normal for someone to be snarky and earnest in different situations, or be intellectually serious but also value their appearance. I think a lot of people have these competing drives, but choose to present in one particular way. Why is that?

One explanation is social identity theory. From this paper on social identity and online communities:

Two prevailing theories for explaining social group or community structure are cohesion and identity. The social cohesion approach posits that social groups arise out of an aggregation of individuals that have mutual interpersonal attraction as they share common characteristics. These characteristics can range from common interests to kinship ties and from social values to ethnic backgrounds. In contrast, the social identity approach posits that an individual is likely to join a group based on an intrinsic self-evaluation at a cognitive or perceptual level. In other words group members typically share an awareness of a common category membership.

Presenting a cohesive identity makes it easier for you to affiliate yourself with a particular social group. The personality traits that you signal—aesthetic and intellectual preferences, sense of humor, etc—make you recognizable to your peers. We all know people who moved to SF circa 2015 and start reading Hacker News religiously and talking about Superintelligence. Of course it’s reasonable to assume that we began with a self-selecting group, but it’s also fair to assume that consuming the same content and signaling similar ideological preferences makes it easier to get along with your peers.

On the individual level, a cohesive identity also makes it easier for people to maintain a stable view of themselves. Going back to branding—both online and offline it’s easier to explain who you are if you fall within a set archetype. A lot of people have aspirational identities (I want to be a marathon runner, I want to be someone who commits to things, I want to be perceived as cool). A main tenet of social identity theory is that people want to maintain positive self-concepts.

A set identity serves as a grounding force, but it also leaves a lot of people stuck living in half of themselves. You keep yourself within the parameters you’ve already established in order to control how you’re perceived. But you’re also a dynamic person with lots of qualities that conflict with how you present with your peer group. This is why people have mid-life crises and secret lives—they crave certain kinds of expression that they’re not “allowed” in their day-to-day existence.

We’re all heavily affected by the pressures of our environment. “I don’t like who I become when I’m around you”—we’ve all felt that in certain relationships, whether it be with friends or parents or partners. People also say the same about cities—e.g. “I moved to New York and it was so rat race-y I was overtaken by the desire to keep up.” We can be industrious in some contexts and lazy in others. We talk about internet trolls and alt accounts and forums dedicated to discussing the minutiae of influencers’ lives—the parts of the Internet our ugliest needs spill into—but don’t discuss why we crave those outlets so much. Why are we more concerned with consistency than a full range of expression? What if the part of you that you suppress is the best part of you?

In some ways I’m still the girl I was growing up, dreamy and oblivious and lonely. I still contain the teenager at 17, ambitious and insecure, eager to test people’s boundaries. I’m mad about California even though I left—the way that ribbon of highway goes on forever, the sky and the sea and the hills. I keep loving everyone I’ve ever loved though the intensity has long gone quiet.

We all contain a multiplicity of selves. We’re loathe to acknowledge them because we want to make a clean break from the past. “That person wasn’t me,” you say—but it was, wasn’t it? Lauren Berlant: “So many imagined breaks end up being greenstick fractures.” I’m not ashamed of all the dormant selves within me, some expressed and some long buried. I care more about being expressive than being consistent. There’s still a part of me that wants to tell you everything.