Science Writer; Author, Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind

The Zombie Concept Of Identity

I'm optimistic about what I call the zombie concept of identity: I think it is losing its grip on the thoughts of scientists, lay people and their political leaders.

The zombie concept of identity is the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation. It's a fundamental confusion that starts with a perhaps statistically valid idea (if you define your terms well, you can speak of "American behavior'' or "Muslim behavior'' or "Italian behavior'')—and then makes the absurd assumption that all Americans or Muslims or Italians are bound to behave as you expect, by virtue of their membership in the category (a category that, often, you created).

I think it's fair to say that scientists have shown that people are not identity zombies. Much work has been done (some by people on Edge, like Mahzarin Banaji and Scott Atran) that shows how the connections between identity and behavior are never so simple. It's clear that all of us have many overlapping identities (American, middle-aged person, Episcopalian, Republican, soccer mom can be attached to one person in a single morning); it's what we're doing, and who we're doing it with, that seems to determine which of these identities comes to the fore at a given time.

Even as these ideas have become familiar in anthropology, social psychology and other disciplines, they didn't seem to make it into the everyday discourse with which people talk about terrorism, immigration, social change etc. That has had a number of bad effects. Leaders who think that people become terrorists because they're Muslims, or that new immigrants will be hostile to a society because they're immigrants, are making decisions that are bad for their nations, perhaps even unsafe.

Lately, though, I see signs that people realize the limits of the zombie identity. Pop culture is rich in stories and images that remind people of overlapping identity. More importantly, political rhetoric is giving way to realism about human psychology.

One example: The anthropologist David Kilcullen was quoted in a recent New Yorker explaining that jihadists are pulled into terrorism by their circle of friends and their social networks — that "there are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive what's happening. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not 'Islamic behavior'''.

The significance here is that Kilcullen is not, currently, an academic. He's an official of the US State Department. My hunch is that people in charge of fighting democracy's enemies will increasingly have to deal with identity as it is, even as popular culture is ever richer in reminders that people have a lot of overlapping affiliations.

So I have more than a little hope that in 10 years' time, people who take seriously the zombie concept of identity will be looked upon as we look upon people who believe in witchcraft. That will mean that popular discourse is closer to science than it used to be.

And I think there may be a kind of feedback loop that will be good for science: As daily talk becomes more comfortable with the idea that people have multiple identities whose management is a complex psychological phenomenon, there will be more research on the central questions: What makes a particular identity convincing? What makes it come to the fore in a given context?

Those are the issues that link society, mind and body and I think when we have more competing theories about how them, we'll be closer to understanding why people are they way they are. I'm optimistic that this will happen.

That doesn't mean that I think scientists, or anyone else, will stop saying things like "you know, I was raised Catholic'' or "I'm a typical Jewish mother'' to explain human behavior. Galileo died five centuries ago, but we still say "what a nice sunrise.'' But in the same way that we know that really, it's the earth that moves relative to the sun, I think we will arrive in the next few years at a better understanding of what collective identity means and how it is made.