People believe that they know who they are and that who they are matters for what
they do. These core beliefs seem so inherent to conceptualizations of what it means
to have a self as to require no empirical support. After all, what is the point of a con-
cept of self if there is no stable thing to have a concept about, and who would care
if that concept was stable if it was not useful in making it through the day? Yet the
evidence for action-relevance and stability are surprisingly sparse. This entry out-
lines identity-based motivation theory which takes a new look at these assumptions
and makes three core predictions termed dynamic construction,action-readiness,and
interpretation of difculty. That is, rather than being stable, which identities come to
mind and what they mean are dynamically constructed in context. People interpret
situations and difculties in ways that are congruent with currently active identi-
ties and prefer identity-congruent to identity-incongruent actions. When action feels
identity-congruent, experienced difculty highlights that the behavior is important
and meaningful. When action feels identity-incongruent, the same difculty suggests
that the behavior is pointless and “not for people like me.”
People believe that they know who they are (the self is stable) and that who
they are matters for what they do. These core beliefs seem so inherent to con-
ceptualizations of what it means to have a self as to require no empirical
support. After all, what is the point of a concept of self if there is no stable
thing to have a concept about, and who would care if that concept was sta-
ble if it was not useful in making it through the day? On the one hand, it
seems utterly reasonable to assert that people do know themselves. One of
the earliest forms of self is a memory trace of what one looks like (Lewis &
Brooks-Gunn, 1979) and memory itself seems to implicate the self—wherever
one is, one is always there, so the self is at least indirectly always part of
memory. People have a lot of experience with themselves and a huge store
of autobiographical memories (Fivush, 2011). On the other hand, these core
beliefs about how the self functions do require further investigation precisely
Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Edited by Robert Scott and Stephan Kosslyn.
© 2015 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN 978-1-118-90077-2.
2EMERGING TRENDS IN THE SOCIAL AND BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES
because they are so much at the core of psychological theorizing. Considered
in a different light, being able to recall examples of oneself behaving in ways
that t current self-descriptions may equally be evidence of the malleability
of self—one can come up with supporting evidence for almost any possi-
ble identity or self-description. Indeed, the empirical evidence for either the
belief that the self is stable or that it predicts behavior is surprisingly scarce
(for a review, Oyserman, Elmore, & Smith, 2012).
Identity-based motivation (IBM) theory focuses on this seeming con-
tradiction between the experienced reasonableness of a relatively strong
identity-to-behavior link and the paucity of empirical evidence for such
a link. To do so, IBM builds on modern theories of social, situated and
grounded cognition, which start with the premise that thinking is inuenced
by the context in which it occurs (e.g., Smith & Collins, 2010). People include
accessible information as part of their representation of constructs unless
they have reason to exclude it as irrelevant or to use it as a comparison
standard (Bless & Schwarz, 2010). Synthesizing across research, a situated
approach can be delineated as follows (Bless & Schwarz, 2010; Fiske, 1992;
Schwarz, Bless, Wänke, & Winkielman, 2003; Wyer & Srull, 1989). First,
people are sensitive to their immediate environment. Second, “thinking is for
doing,” people process information about their environment as it pertains to
possibilities for action in the moment. Third, people do not use all of what
they know at any moment in time. Instead, they use that subset of all their
knowledge which is accessible in the moment. Features of the environment
inuence what comes to mind—what knowledge is accessible. But the
inuence of the environment does not stop with accessibility of knowledge.
People use implicit demands of the immediate situation to make sense of
what comes to mind. Integrating these three features of situated reasoning,
people act in ways that make sense in light of the interface between what
comes to mind and what that seems to mean in context.
IBM theory builds on these insights to consider how features of the envi-
ronment inuence what comes to mind when people consider who they are
(the self) and the interplay of what comes to mind and features of the envi-
ronment on the inuence of accessible features of the self on motivation.
IBM theory predicts that identity-to-behavior links are difcult to discern
because which identities come to mind and what they mean are both dynam-
ically constructed in context, accessible identities only inuence behavior if
action makes sense in the moment, and people often (mis)construe difculty
working toward a possible identity as implying that it is not really possi-
ble for them. Fortunately, by articulating these three foci, termed dynamic
construction,action-readiness,andinterpretation of difculty, IBM also focuses
attention on the likely circumstances in which (“when”) and the processes
Identity-Based Motivation 3
by which (“how”) identities do matter for behavior (Oyserman, 2007, 2009a,
Consider an identity as a “cool” person. Whether being cool comes to
mind, what it means to be cool and what actions are connected with coolness
depend on what is constrained and afforded in a particular situation. “Cool”
could be a personal trait or a social trait that is linked to group membership
(athletes, programmers, the popular crowd, all could be “cool” depending
on context). Associated “cool” behaviors could be asocial and health-risky
(e.g., drinking alcohol or abusing substances, having unprotected sex, smok-
ing cigarettes, not caring about schoolwork), pro-social and health-oriented
(e.g., volunteering, developing shareware, particular kinds of exercise
or eating habits) or anything in between (e.g., using a particular brand of
computer or no technology at all). What happens if cool actions feel difcult?
Does that mean that one is not really cool and should give up trying to be?
IBM theory predicts that contexts cue both a particular identity and what
that identity implies in this situation. Because “thinking is for doing,”
identities that come to mind make a difference, inuencing judgment,
choice, and behavior only if they are experienced as relevant to the current
situation. Because people believe that identity-congruent behavior will feel
right (easy to do), yet taking action is often difcult, requiring both focused
attention and inhibition of the impulse to do something else, interpretation
of experienced difculty matters. If an action feels identity-congruent, then
experienced difculty in engaging in it will reinforce the identity-congruent
interpretation, so that difculty will be interpreted as meaning that
the action is important and meaningful. Conversely, if an action feels
identity-incongruent, then experienced difculty in engaging in it will
reinforce the identity-incongruence interpretation, so that difculty will be
interpreted as meaning that the action is pointless and “not for me” (or if the
incongruence is with a social identity, “not for people like me”).
Because the identity to behavior link is so foundational, early research
focused on describing content of self-concept with the assumption that
knowing how people described themselves would provide a strong pre-
diction of behavior (e.g., for conceptual models, Baumeister, 1998; Brewer,
1991; Brown, 1998; Carver & Scheier, 1990; Higgins, 1987, 1989; Markus &
Wurf, 1987; Oyserman, Elmore & Smith, 2012). Models differ somewhat
in the extent that they explicitly articulate an underlying goal of having a
sense of self and what that goal is described as being. Core self-goals include
feeling good (self-enhancement), feeling competent (self-improvement),
having control (self-regulation), and making predictions (self-knowledge).
4EMERGING TRENDS IN THE SOCIAL AND BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES
No matter the particulars, conceptual models of self and identity uniformly
predict an effect on behavior: Selves and identities are predicted to inuence
what people are motivated to do, how they think and make sense of
themselves and others, the actions they take, their feelings and ability to
control or regulate themselves. Models differ in the extent that they focus
on alternative inuences including the consequences for behavior of social
norms and social contexts, with sociological and cultural theories of self
and identity putting more emphasis on the self as part of social structure
(Markus, & Oyserman, 1989; Owens, Robinson, & Smith-Lovin, 2010; Tajfel,
Although initially self and identity were treated as if there was a single
structure or coherently organized set of structures, the cognitive revolution
in psychology transformed understanding of self and identity. Current
formulations highlight the multiplicity of images, memories, experi-
ences, and sensory inputs into an online or working identity (Conway &
Pleydell-Pearce, 2000; Klein & Gangi, 2010). Although not always explicitly
stated, the common assumption is that situations bring to mind from mem-
ory some, but not other aspects of all that could be self-dening. Behavior is
predicted by those “online” or “working” identities.
Self and identity research was also highly inuenced by social psycholog-
ical formulations of the importance of situations in understanding behav-
ior (for a review, Oyserman, 2001). Self and identity researchers have long
believed that the self is both a product of situations and a shaper of behavior
in situations (Markus & Wurf, 1987). Evidence that the self is a social product
is not hard to come by. A large body of research demonstrates that situa-
tions inuence which identities come to mind. Much of this research comes
from cultural, social identity and self-categorization theorists who posit and
show that whether people think of themselves in terms of personal or social
identities importantly depends on contextual cues (Abrams, 1999; Brewer,
1991; Hogg, 2003, 2006; Oyserman et al., 2012). These research traditions also
demonstrate that people led to see themselves in terms of their social iden-
tities respond differently than people led to see themselves in terms of their
personal identities, providing evidence that the self is a shaper of behavior
in situation. Evidence for working self-concept, the notion that context inu-
ences how people describe themselves also seems plentiful. For example,
just reading a paragraph and circling rst person singular versus plural pro-
nouns has small but signicant effects on the relative proportion of personal
traits and characteristics compared to social roles, relationships, and social
group identities, including gender, race-ethnicity, and social class identities
used to describe oneself (for a meta-analytic review, see Oyserman & Lee,
Identity-Based Motivation 5
A number of gaps remain to be addressed because research has not yet
demonstrated empirically how online identities are created in the moment,
when identities inuence behavior, and how online experiences of difculty
and ease inuence which identities come to mind and whether behavior is
pursued. It is not clear to what extent identities and their content are drawn
from memory and to what extent identities and identity content are dynam-
ically created in context as would be predicted by IBM theory. While the
assumption of being drawn from long-term memory implies that identities
are relatively xed, this assumption has not been tested. Moreover, modern
theorizing about how thinking works—that it is grounded in situations,
embodied (inuenced by bodily feedback), and pragmatic, implies that
online or working identities are dynamically created in context (Oyserman,
Elmore, & Smith, 2012). This prediction also requires empirical evidence.
CUTTING EDGE RESEARCH
Applying a situated cognition perspective to the specic demands of
understanding how self-concept works, IBM theory makes the follow-
ing specic predictions. First, of the many social and personal identities
a person could have, the ones that will matter are those that come to
mind in context and are experienced as relevant to the situation at hand.
Second, accessible identities that do not seem relevant to the action pos-
sibilities available in the situation will not yield behavior (even if an
outside observer could discern possibilities for action). Third, interpreta-
tion of experienced difculty inuences which identities come to mind
in the rst place. There are two ways in which experienced difculty can
matter. First, people can experience difculty while imagining a future
possible identity. Second, people can experience difculty while engaging
in tasks or behaviors relevant to the identity. If experienced difculty
is interpreted as implying impossibility, then the relevant identity is
unlikely to be accessible. If experienced difculty is interpreted as imply-
ing importance, then the relevant identity is likely to be on one’s mind.
Illustrative examples of research on dynamic construction, action-readiness,
and interpretation of difculty are provided next. As the IBM model
is relatively new, much of this research comes from Oyserman and her
To test the prediction that identities are dynamically constructed in context,
Elmore and Oyserman (2012) randomly assigned middle school students to
interpret one of four graphs. The graphs either showed (accurate) census
6EMERGING TRENDS IN THE SOCIAL AND BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES
information about earnings in their state, or about high school graduation
rates in their state. For half of students, graphs broke down information by
gender. Thus, boys and girls either saw that men succeed (they earn more) or
that women succeed (they graduate high school more), or got information
without a gender comparison. As predicted, the effect of the information
depended on whether it implied that people like oneself succeed. Boys in
the men succeed condition generated more academic and career-oriented
possible identities and were more engaged in school than boys in the other
condition, implying that what being a boy meant for academics depended
on contextual cues.
A number of studies also demonstrate that how an identity is understood
depends on context. For example, British students were more likely to plan
for a healthy reduction of alcohol and salt intake when their British identity
rather than their student identity was accessible at the moment of judgment
(Tarrant & Butler, 2011). They were also more willing to plan for healthy
lifestyle choices if asked to think of themselves as British in the context of
a comparison to Americans (seen as less healthy) than in the context of a
comparison to Japanese (seen as more healthy) (Tarrant & Butler, 2011).
To test the prediction that accessible identities cue readiness to act in
identity-congruent ways, researchers assigned middle school students to
either read about the cost of college or about nancial aid for college. After
reading about nancial aid, students planned to study more, were more
likely to turn in an extra-credit assignment and predicted that they would
get better grades in school (presumably because they expected to work
hard in school) (Destin & Oyserman, 2009, 2010). These studies showed that
action-readiness cued action in situations in which action seems relevant
or necessary. Other studies have shown that accessible identity does not
inuence action if none seems currently relevant or necessary, for example
when action seems relevant later, or current behavioral options are irrelevant
to accessible identity (for a review, Oyserman, 2015).
INTERPRETATION OF DIFFICULTY
IBM theory predicts that identity-to-behavior links are difcult to discern
because people (mis)interpret difculties they encounter as implying that
currently active identities are impossible to attain so action is irrelevant.
To test this prediction, researchers randomized participants to experi-
ence difculty or not and then asked them about the effectiveness of
healthy life-style habits for them. Participants misinterpreted difculty as
Identity-Based Motivation 7
implying that healthy lifestyle habits, while generally effective, were not
identity-congruent for them and so would be unlikely to work (Oyserman,
Fryberg, & Yoder, 2007). In another set of studies, middle school students
were asked to consider their difculties in school and randomly assigned
to either be provided with an interpretation of their difculties or not (for
a review, Oyserman, 2013, 2015). Students provided an interpretation of
difculty as meaning that schoolwork was important to them generated
more school-focused possible selves than other students. They also worked
harder at school tasks, writing a better quality essay and scoring better on
a difcult cognitive task. The same occurs for college students guided to
recall a time that they interpreted experienced difculty with schoolwork
as meaning that it was important to succeed then led to believe that they
had this interpretation more frequently than others (Smith & Oyserman, in
press). These students reported stronger academic identities, spent more
time and hence scored better on a test of uid intelligence than students
guided to recall a time that experienced difculty with schoolwork meant it
was impossible to succeed.
Assumptions about what the self is and how self and identities matter are
implicated in a broad range of social science theories and in public policies,
including policies related to education, savings and asset accrual, health,
crime and delinquency. IBM theory highlights the importance of contextual
cues in shaping how difculty is interpreted, which identities come to mind,
and whether these identities have action implications. It has been used to
improve academic outcomes among low income children (Oyserman, Bybee,
& Terry, 2006; Oyserman, Terry, & Bybee, 2002). Implications for counseling
intervention, academic attainment and health gaps have all been articulated
and the model is being used to predict how to best formulate savings and
assets policies for low income families (Elliott & Kim, 2013; Oyserman,
2013; Oyserman & Destin, 2010; Oyserman, Smith & Elmore, 2014). A
promise of this research is that IBM can be used with real world populations,
can provide specic predictions, and can be used to leverage behavior
change. The core challenge is in translating specic predictions into robust
interventions, taking seriously that the same attribute can be motivating
or demotivating depending on meaning and interpretation of difculty in
Research to date has focused on the interface between particular social
(gender, race, social class) and personal (academic success, healthy) identities
for particular outcomes (academic success, healthy lifestyle). Other interfaces
are also possible. Future research focusing on other identities, other ways
8EMERGING TRENDS IN THE SOCIAL AND BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES
in which tensions between the action-demands of identities are resolved,
other outcome measures, and other socio-cultural contexts is needed to
expand generalizability and test for limiting conditions and moderators of
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DAPHNA OYSERMAN SHORT BIOGRAPHY
Daphna Oyserman joined the University of Southern California January
2014 as a Dean’s Professor of Psychology, Professor of Education and
Professor of Communication. She also codirects the USC Dornsife Center
for Mind and Society. Her research examines how small changes in con-
text can shift mindsets, and so the perceived meaning of behaviors and
situations, with large downstream effects on important and consequential
outcomes, including health and academic performance. Her theoretical and
experimental work conceptualizes the underlying processes, which she
then translates into real-world interventions. One line of work focuses on
cultural differences in affect, behavior, and cognition—how people feel,
act, and think about themselves and the world around them. A related
second line of work focuses on racial, ethnic, and social class gaps in school
achievement and health. Throughout, she examines how apparently “xed”
differences between groups may in fact mask highly malleable situated
processes that can be profoundly inuenced through small interventions
that shift mindset. Select publications are available at her personal webpage
Dr. Oyserman received a PhD in psychology and social work from the
University of Michigan (1987) and served on the faculty of The Hebrew
University, Jerusalem before returning to the University of Michigan, where
she last held appointments as the Edwin J. Thomas Collegiate Professor of
Social Work, Professor of Psychology, and Research Professor in the Institute
for Social Research. She is the recipient of W. T. Grant Faculty Scholar Award,
the Humboldt Scientic Contribution Prize of the German Alexander von
Humboldt Foundation, and a Fellow of the American Psychological Asso-
ciation, Association for Psychological Science, Society for Personality and
Social Psychology, and Society for Experimental Social Psychology.
Identity-Based Motivation 11
Learning Across the Life Course (Sociology), Jutta Allmendinger and Marcel
Language, Perspective, and Memory (Psychology), Rachel A. Ryskin et al.
Identity Fusion (Psychology), Michael D. Burhmester and William B. Swann
Genetics and the Life Course (Sociology), Evan Charney
The Inherence Heuristic: Generating Everyday Explanations (Psychology),
Misinformation and How to Correct It (Psychology), John Cook et al.
Youth Entrepreneurship (Psychology), William Damon et al.
Resilience (Psychology), Erica D. Diminich and George A. Bonanno
Migrant Networks (Sociology), Filiz Garip and Asad L. Asad
Ambivalence and Inbetweeness (Sociology), Bernhard Giesen
Immigrant Children and the Transition to Adulthood (Sociology), Roberto G.
Gonzales and Benjamin J. Roth
Moral Identity (Psychology), Sam A. Hardy and Gustavo Carlo
Regulatory Focus Theory (Psychology), E. Tory Higgins
Social Aspects of Memory (Psychology), William Hirst and Charles B. Stone
Group Identity and Political Cohesion (Political Science), Leonie Huddy
Motivation Science (Psychology), Arie W. Kruglanski et al.
From Individual Rationality to Socially Embedded Self-Regulation (Sociol-
ogy), Siegwart Lindenberg
Concepts and Semantic Memory (Psychology), Barbara C. Malt
Social Change and Entry to Adulthood (Sociology), Jeylan T. Mortimer
Memory Gaps and Memory Errors (Psychology), Jeffrey S. Neuschatz et al.
Culture as Situated Cognition (Psychology), Daphna Oyserman
Born This Way: Thinking Sociologically about Essentialism (Sociology),
Effortful Control (Psychology), Tracy L. Spinrad and Nancy Eisenberg
Temporal Identity Integration as a Core Developmental Process (Psychology),
Moin Syed and Lauren L. Mitchell
Taking Personality to the Next Level: What Does It Mean to Know a Person?
(Psychology), Simine Vazire and Robert Wilson