Many of our choices are impacted by our perception of ourselves and our roles. We all have multiple identities – for instance, someone can be a mother, a lawyer, a daughter, and a gardener – and each identity may carry different goals and values. Our perceptions, choices, and actions are often made in accordance with the identity (and its associated values) that is most salient to us in our moment of choice.
For instance, when we are primed to consider a specific identity, we often behave in ways that fit with its associated stereotypes – even if the priming is completely inadvertent and even if we do not believe the stereotype. Relatively miniscule identity-priming interventions can have massive effects on behavior. For example, in a study of college students, researchers found that standardized achievement test scores were affected by whether students had to report their ethnicity. For white students, the ethnicity priming significantly increased performance, but African-American students’ performance suffered. In a similar study, researchers found that when Asian‐American females were primed with their racial identity, they achieved higher scores on a math exam, but the opposite was true when they were primed with their gender. These examples of “stereotype threat” show the pernicious effects that priming negative stereotypes – even in minor ways – can have on our performance.
However, we can also prime positive identities to encourage socially beneficial actions. For example, priming an individual’s identity as a “citizen” or “community member” may increase the likelihood that she recycles or conserves energy. The existence of multiple social identities – and the sway they hold over our choices – means that the extent to which a message or option primes a specific identity can have important effects on the decisions that we make.