Surely there are times when we look back on a situation and think, “Why the heck did I do that?” Further, we may even look back at whole periods of our lives (like that brief middle school phase where frosted tips seemed like a cool idea) and have no idea why we thought, or behaved, in such ways. The crazy thing is, in the moment, that was exactly the person we believed we were, or at least thought we were.
A 2012 study by Kerry Kawakami, Curtis E. Phills, Daniel Simard, Jeannette Pontiero, Amy Brnjas, Beenish Khan, Jennifer Mills, Anthony G. Greenwald, and John F. Dovidio explains just what causes us to think, and act, in certain ways in some situations and in completely different ways in others. They explain that the self-concept is one of the main organizing constructs in our behavior. Additionally, because belonging to a social group and feeling interconnected is so critical to our survival, social cues may play a bigger role in our self-concept than we may think. They hypothesized that the way we categorize the people we interact with influences how we categorize our self (aka how we form our self-concept). The group did four separate studies where studies 1 and 2 focused on associations between stereotypes, study 3 examined self-perceptions, and study 4 explored self-categorizations.
Studies 1 and 2 first primed participants with images of different kinds of stereotypes, specifically, jocks and hippies (1) and fit and overweight (2). After the participants were primed they were asked to respond whether traits of said stereotypes applied to them. Done on a computer, the idea was that the faster the response to applying the trait to themselves the more they associated that trait with themselves. The results to both experiments were nearly identical. Participants had a faster response rate to traits of the stereotype they were primed with (i.e. if you were shown images of the hippies you associated yourself more with hippie traits).
Study 3 expanded on the first two by looking at the effect of social category activations on self-perceptions, rather than just assimilating the self to stereotype characteristics. Here, participants had a picture of their body taken and unbeknownst to them it was altered in several different ways to make them either look thinner or fatter. At a later date the participants were primed with an overweight association task. They were than showed all the images of themselves and asked to pick which one was the actual picture. Not surprisingly, when primed for overweight association, the participants where far more likely to select a picture of themselves that had been modified to show them as heavier than they actually are (note: the same applied when primed for a thinner association).
Study 4 primed for the total self-construal of being either independent or interdependent and subsequent association with either Blacks or Asians to test the influence activated social category has on self-conception. They found that when primed for the specific social construal, that is, independent or interdependent, the participants subsequently associated themselves more with the social category they were primed for, namely, black or Asian. This was to show that not only did we categorize ourselves as having certain traits in different situations, but that we also identified ourselves with different people too.
Fundamental to psychology, is the notion of the major human motive connectedness, that is, we long to have and maintain relationships with those around us. As a result, and as these four studies depicted, our ability to conceive the self is an automatic and non-conscious process. Moreover, this process of self-conceptualization occurs in everyday society because it is a standard social categorization process. essentially, our environment is one giant priming source where we are constantly being primed with countless traits, beliefs, and ultimately, behaviors.
So don’t worry! Science is here to explain why you just absolutely needed wear 50 animal shaped rubber bands on your wrist for three straight months….because, obviously, everyone else was doing it, and as we all know, no one wanted to be the kid without the elastic blue elephant on their wrist.
Kawakami, Kerry; Phills, Curtis E.; Greenwald, Anthony G.; Simard, Daniel; Pontiero, Jeannette; Brnjas, Amy; Khan, Beenish; Mills, Jennifer; Dovidio, John F. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 102(3), Mar 2012, 562-575. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/a0025970