As a biracial person, whenever I see a demographic form of any kind, my heart beats a little faster and I instantly start to worry—will there be enough boxes for my multiple racial identities? Or will I be forced to choose one of my identities over the other? I have often wondered throughout my life, why is it so difficult to think about and acknowledge our multiple selves? Why is it that our default way of thinking about social identities more often than not takes a “check one box” over a “check all that apply” approach?

The simple answer is that our world is socially complex, and we need to take shortcuts to make processing our social world easier. Thus, it is not anyone’s fault in particular, but rather there are fixed ways of thinking about ourselves that stem from our social default as humans to categorize each other. (In fact, that is also how we learn language—through hearing similar patterns and sounds that we group together, which teaches us how to communicate.) But I find this to be an overly simplistic way of thinking about our multifaceted selves. It really is an inaccurate approach in considering the diversity that exists in our world.

Remind Yourself of Your Multiple Identities

In fact, my research argues that if we simply remind ourselves that we do, in fact, have multiple identities—I’m a student, an athlete, a daughter, a friend, etc.—that acknowledgment can at least temporarily boost creativity and problem-solving abilities in both adults and children. Try it out yourself—take a few minutes to write about all of the different social identities you have, what they mean to you, and what role they play in your life. What does it feel like now to think about the fact that you are lots of things, all at the same time? How does that compare to how you normally consider your identities?

Importantly, my work has shown that this thought exercise needs to be self-relevant to see boosts in flexible thinking. Specifically, in my work with 6-year-old children, we reminded children of eight different identities they have—being a friend, a neighbor, a reader, a drawer, etc. We ended the prompt by asking kids to tell us how they felt about being so many things at the same time, to which children responded which answers including “It’s awesome,” “Pretty normal,” and “Fun.”

Next, children completed a series of creativity problems. One measured how flexibly children could think of new functions for a small box. My favorite answer was using the box as a sled for a hamster! Another task asked children to sort photos of 16 different people into whatever groups they saw. These photos differed systematically by race, age, gender, and emotional expression, which provided children with lots of ways to think about social categories.

When children were reminded of their own multiple identities, we saw significantly more creative thinking. Children came up with more ideas for what to do with a small box, and they thought of significantly more ways to socially categorize the photos of people. Besides using typical categories (such as race and gender), children also noticed other traits, like smile size, eye color, and even the amount of white space left over in a given photo!

This was in comparison to two other groups of children who were asked to think about (a) multiple things they personally/physically have (i.e., two arms, two legs, etc.), which is still self-relevant but not identity-specific; or (b) someone else’s multiple identities. Thus, a simple moment of reflection reminding yourself that you are multiple things at the same time proved to be the best pathway to more flexible thinking.

Over the years, my work has shown this same pattern of results with both adults and children. Even if thinking about your multiple selves proves to be a difficult task, I encourage you to keep practicing. Developing this kind of “identity accessibility” is key to enhancing flexible views of the world around you.

One other pathway to increased flexible thinking is through exposure to different types of diversity. Contact with different groups or exposure to people who are different from you can expand your worldview, helping you to see more commonalities with social outgroup members rather than differences, and opening your eyes to new ways of thinking about your own social identities too.

Therefore, if we can change this default way of thinking about ourselves as just one thing at a time, we should all see a more inclusive world, while also feeling happier about our multiple selves and all that we are.

For Further Reading

Gaither, S. E. (2018). Belonging to multiple groups: Pushing identity research beyond binary thinking. Self & Identity, Special Issue: New Directions in the Study of Self and Identity, 17, 443-454.

Gaither, S.E., Fan, S. P., & Kinzler, K. D. (2019). Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking. Developmental Science, 23, e0012871.

Gaither, S. E., Remedios, J. D., Sanchez, D., & Sommers, S. R. (2015). Thinking outside the box: Multiple identity mindsets affect creative problem-solving. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 596–603.

Sarah Gaither is an assistant professor of Psychology & Neuroscience and faculty affiliate in the Samuel Dubois Cook Center on Social Equity at Duke University. Her research focuses on how a person’s social identities and experiences across the lifespan motivate their social perceptions and behaviors in diverse settings.