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Behavior Change and Self-Identity Resonance

I use the term self-identity resonance frequently to describe a phenomenon that is often the cause of a failure to accept a logical argument or engage in a productive or attractive behavior. The basic meaning of the term is not always clear to people, so I thought I would share a great blog post from Gretchen Rubin at the Happiness Project, who tells a very engaging story on the topic.

When people find it hard to change a habit, when they keep trying and failing, often an issue of identity is involved. Our idea of “this is the kind of person I am” is so bound up in our habits and actions that it can be hard to see. But our sense of identity can make it easier or harder to change a habit.

On a related note, this is also part of the reason that public shaming backfires. If you tell someone that their behavior is bad, with the good intention of encouraging them to change, they will completely reject your argument if they feel their identity is threatened. Despite your intention, they interpret the recommendation as a criticism of WHO they are, not just WHAT they do.

James Agee liked to drink and smoke, certainly — but he also considered himself that kind of person. So to change his habits, he had both to stop drinking and smoking, and also “learn to be the kind of person he was not.” But, he wrote, he detests that kind of person! No wonder it was hard for him to change. Change meant fundamentally altering himself to become the kind of person he’d always detested.

This is also why we see many emotion-laden political debates devolve into vitriol. I don’t just believe in pro-choice/pro-life, I am pro-choice/pro-life. Facts can’t change that, no matter how overwhelming their logic.

How is this related to HF/E? Think of all the times that the system you are designing has to change a long-standing behavior. A fitness app, a health intervention, a training program, a warning, all of these need a behavior change to be effective. What if the original behavior is part of their self-identity like with Agee in Gretchen’s example. How can you change that?

Image credit: “Argument conflict controversy” by RyanMcGuire used under Public Domain CC0

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