Identify with me

Tapping into a powerful human motive

Fred Mael

Your Sunday night mood fluctuates depending on how “your” football team performed. You take it personally when your employer, church, or country are criticized. You will only drink, use, or wear a certain brand, even though objectively, the quality may not be better. Why? Because without consciously intending to do so, you identify with these groups or products.

The concept of social identification is the perception of belonging to a group and a sense of oneness with the group. You represent them and they represent you. It can be painful and can distract you from what’s in your personal best interest, but it’s real. Even in an era of more frequent job and city relocation, most people will find anchors with which to identify. Moreover, identifying with an organization is associated with many positive outcomes – job satisfaction, commitment, extra effort – that are good for the employer. The question is – what’s in it for the individual?

My research has ascertained five potential benefits and motivations for identification, though some are more relevant to identifying with people or organizations than with products.

  1. Enhancing self-esteem. Research suggests that identification enables individuals to internalize and take credit vicariously for the status and success of the entity they identify with. This is true even though it can sometimes lead to counterfeit self-esteem and a basking in the reflected glory of others. Although the most commonly mentioned benefit of identification, there are other, deeper motives.
  2. Transcending self. Authors from a wide range of perspectives have argued that transcending one’s own self-interest is helpful to a person, independent of any benefits to others. Extensive evidence supports the view that an outward focus and immersion in others’ needs is healthier and more therapeutic than solely focusing on one’s own desires. This is often associated with identification and empathetic feeling for others. As personality theorist Andres Angyal wrote, the healthy person “wishes to share and participate in something which he regards as being greater than his individual self.” This suggests that people will naturally wish to identify with entities greater or more enduring than themselves.
  3. Meaning. Others argue that identifying with others can be a source of meaning and purpose in life. As George Fletcher said, “In the grip of the cause, one lives not for consumption and pleasure but for the victory of the crusade, the company, the union, the party, or the nation… when it is all for one and one for all, a larger life pulsates in every individual.” Viktor Frankl and others have argued that in striving for a larger or more noble goal, the person finds life more worthwhile.
  4. Belonging. Psychologist Roy Baumeister has described a “pervasive drive to form and maintain at least a minimum quantity of lasting, positive, and significant interpersonal interactions.” However, numerous studies have shown that identification works even with depersonalized belonging, the sense of community based on the perception of a common identity with fellow citizens or fans that one doesn’t even know. Social identification blurs the line between the person and the entity so that they come to share goals, prestige, successes, and failures.
  5. Raising aspirations. Identification may also provide a benchmark for one’s behavior and a spur to maximize one’s potential. Seeing what others are capable of achieving and then identifying with them provides a person with the motivation to strive and achieve. When an organizational or societal role model is highlighted, there is an implicit challenge to try to “measure up.” The healthy person is not crushed by falling short, but rather encouraged to reach his or her own potential.

We have described five primary potential benefits of identification. It is important to note that each of these benefits is probably best satisfied under certain conditions, although some people may surely invest their loyalties in entities that fall short. The following are some optimal conditions for providing each benefit:

Enhanced self-esteem may best be achieved when the organization or entity is successful and admired, when the connection between the entity and the individual is visible to others, and if possible, the entity’s success can be at least partially attributed to the individual.
Transcendence of self may best be satisfied if some degree of sacrifice or altruism is involved, if the benefits to the individual are intangible, and if the individual is more or less interchangeable with others rather than having a visible role of power.
Meaning may best be attained if the organization or entity is believed to embrace or pursue highly desirable values and goals, if the entity has presumed longevity, if the entity’s essence is consistent despite the vagaries of its current leadership, and if the entity cannot in some way betray, disillusion, or reject the individual.
Belonging may best be achieved by entities that dramatically symbolize membership, provide forums for direct and indirect interaction and that require the participation rather than only the admiration of members.
Raising aspirations may work best when the entity embodies lofty goals, has a prototypical person or star performer serving as a role model and spur to achievement, and when the attachment to the entity can be expressed directly or metaphorically (as in applying an athlete’s hustle to one’s exercise regimen).

Some of these motives will be best satisfied under certain conditions, and people differ in how much they identify. Healthy organizations will enhance the desire to identify without manipulation or taking advantage of this powerful driver of thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

If you would like to read a more in-depth discussion of identification and these concepts, please contact me online.

Fred Mael, PhD, helps organizations and their employees work more effectively, and coaches executives and managers.