who you areWho Do You Think You Are?!

By Shlomo Maital  


 Who is   Eldar Shafir?  He is in the Psychology Department at Princeton University.  At once, we think, well, ‘an intellectual, egghead, I doubt his research has any meaning for ordinary people and ordinary lives’.  Right?   Wrong.  Writing in the New York Times, columnist David Brooks cites Shafir’s recent book on the behavioral foundations of public policy, and shows how very relevant Shafir’s research is.

   I discovered his 2010 research paper written with Roby LeBoeuf and Julia Bayuk, “The conflicting choices of alternating selves”. (Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes, 2010).  I found it fascinating. Here is the central core message.

     In an experiment, people were asked to make choices.  Each time, the relevant identity of the person was identified and changed, or shifted (e.g., student, family member, culture).  “The preferences that participants expressed depended on the identity that happened to be relevant at the moment of choice.”  Each identity could lead to a different preference.  Moreover, post-decision regret was much stronger, when the person’s identity after a choice was different from the one when the choice was made.

    In other words,  the answer to ‘who do you think you are?’ influences strongly our decisions, and later, whether we think those decisions were the right ones.

    Here is an example.  A man decides not to agree to a divorce, because, as a professional economist, he realizes how tremendously costly and financially damaging a divorce is.  Later, as a spouse, he looks back and thinks how bad a decision that was, because he is desperately unhappy with his spouse. 

   Shafir used experimental manipulation of identity, by giving college students short paragraphs, such as “College is about much more than getting A’s, it’s about stretching your mind…”,  etc., to elicit the scholarly identity, and “College is about much more than what you learn, it’s about finding out who you are, spending time with friends…” to elicit the social identity.  Student choices of book gift certificates, highlighters, Shakespearean plays, opera, etc., were strongly influenced by the identity emphasized before the choice was made. 

    What follows from this phenomenon Shafir identifies?   When you make key decisions or choices,   begin by asking, who am I?  From what salient perspective am I choosing?  Professional? Cultural? Ethnic? Political?   “Try on”, like a sweater or jacket, each decision, for each of these identities.  In today’s modern life, we all have multiple identities.  I myself am an economist, father, spouse, grandfather, jogger, writer, and brother. It is very important to know, “who am I?”, when you decide or choose.  It is very important as well to know, which of the “who am I?” identities is most relevant for the particular decision or choice I am about to make.