In modern America, many people think of their identity as a thing they own. If I say I’m a Brony, have a non-binary gender, or identify as transracial, then that’s it, and so much the worse for you if you perceive me as otherwise. This is an empowering idea that lets people escape the confines others may try to put on them and seems to make people happier than being forced into identities they don’t want. But it comes at the cost of ignoring the reality that you are not in full control of your identity.

Much of what we might call identity is decided by others even if we don’t like it. I don’t get to decide if you think I’m tall or short: you’re going to look at me and categorize my height. I might want you to think of me in a particular way, but you have to make your own determination about me, and all I can do is present information via various channels to try to influence your decision. Eminem gets at this tension when he raps

And I am, whatever you say I am
If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?
In the papers, the news, everyday I am
Radio won’t even play my jam
’Cause I am, whatever you say I am
If I wasn’t, then why would I say I am?
In the papers, the news, everyday I am
I don’t know it’s just the way I am

So it seems we have a problem. People want to be able to choose how others think of them, yet wanting a particular identity is not enough to get it. Identity can become confusing and frustrating in cases where, say, I think of myself as kind but others don’t see me that way. How do I deal with this conflict? Do I know the essential me better than others? And if so, why don’t they see it? And if they see the “real” me, what does that mean about the value of my self-perceptions? Can I be something even if no one thinks I am, and if not does that mean I never really had the right to choose my identity?

Rather than trap ourselves in that quagmire, I think we can borrow a concept from economics to approach a better understanding of the conflicts in understanding identity.

Early in the 20th century, economists noticed that sometimes people said they wanted one thing, like cake, but then bought ice cream instead. Rather than accept that sometimes people do mixed up things, Paul Samuelson developed a theory of revealed preferences to help make sense of demand by looking at what people did rather than trying to model their utility functions (preferences) directly.

A revealed preference is observed when you do things, like choosing ice cream over cake when you’re at the store, and then analyzing one or more data points to infer a preference. Since it’s based on the ground truth of what you did there is relatively little room for dispute in what someone’s revealed preference is. This gives us reliable information about your preferences at the cost of ignoring why you made particular choices.

A revealed preference has the natural dual of a stated preference that captures the why at the cost of certainty. If you say “I like cake more than ice cream,” then you have a stated preference for cake over ice cream, which is interesting because it tells us how you think about the choice between the two, but provides little to no way to check its accuracy.

Luckily, we don’t have to chose to look at only one of revealed or stated preferences. As duals they provide different insights into the same underlying preferences and give us a way to see into our complex and often opaque decision making process. There is no contradiction when stated and revealed preferences disagree: they are different frames for looking at the same reality. I can say I like cake more but consistently choose ice cream because maybe both my stated and revealed preferences miss the fact that the only cake flavor the store ever has is coconut, which I would rather not eat at all.

So if we can say we’d prefer to do one thing and then do another without contradiction, maybe we can apply the revealed/stated duality to identity to resolve the confusion of being both whatever you say you are and whatever others say you are.

Untangling identity

First, to be clear, when I’m talking about identity here I’m talking about the way in which a person is understood as part of the world. This includes how they relate to themselves and others, how others relate to them, and how they engage in systems. So identity isn’t just about hot-button identity politics issues around race and gender: it includes all the mundane ways in which we are distinguished from and included in the surrounding environment.

Stated identity is straightforward — it is that which we claim about ourselves. If you say to yourself or others that you are nice, then niceness is part of your stated identity regardless of your actions or other’s perceptions of you. In this way stated identity is often aspirational and corresponds to how we see ourselves in far mode and is something we feel in control of.

Revealed identity is more complex, though only as complex as we choose to make it. Like revealed preference it’s found by inferring a pattern on observed behavior, but now the data includes our and others’ perceptions. For example, suppose you witnessed one of your friends literally take candy from a baby. Would you describe your friend as nice or mean? Maybe you think this is wrong in all cases and so your friend is mean, but suppose you knew that this particular baby was allergic to candy: now it seems your friend did a nice thing to protect the baby. What your friend’s actions reveal about their identity is subject to interpretation by yourself and others, and that’s because identity is as much about the actions someone takes as how those actions are understood.

We can apply this stated/revealed identity duality to better understand what’s going on in cases where it previously seemed that identity was confused. Consider again Eminem rapping in The Way I Am.

It’s not so much that Eminem’s identity is unclear here as it is that his stated and revealed identities expose different aspects of his identity. People may alternatively perceive him as a hero, a destabilizing cultural force, or a sellout depending on their experience of him, and this is often at odds with both who Eminem says he is and how he experiences his own identity. This of course does nothing to resolve the conflict per se, but it does make sense of it and allow a more nuanced, complete view that has room for observed disagreement without a need to force competing views out so that they fit a model.

We can similarly use the stated/revealed duality in our own lives to understand apparent identity conflicts. I’ve been described as eccentric, viz. weird, while I think of myself not as deviating from norms but as making choices with a greater willingness to consider larger solution spaces. Both can be true, though: I can appear weird while never intending to be so. It doesn’t change the fact that I present as weird, but it also doesn’t mean my weirdness is caused by a desire to be weird or my having some essential property of weirdness. I instead unask the question of “am I weird?” to gain a greater understanding of myself and the world.

And if all this sounds like I’ve just very cleverly found a way to say you’re not wrong to call me weird but also I’m not weird, you’re right. Reality as we perceive it is not a single thing, but many contexts for understanding the world. There’s some real thing out there, but you can’t get at it directly, and acknowledging that by giving these frames names, like stated and revealed, helps us better understand not just external reality but how our understanding of reality is constructed because it is all part of reality. Identity is just one more way in which we are forced to make sense of our complex, opaque universe.


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1 comment, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 7:03 PM

When you start looking at all the possible ways 'identity' can be declined, you get an explosion of perspectives: what you say, how you act, how you are perceived, how others act on you, etc.
It would be better to taboo that word to understand better what we are really talking about.