Why Learners’ Social Identities Matter

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photoAny of these sound familiar?

“I’m not a math person.”

“I’m not good with languages.”

“That’s too scary. I couldn’t do that.”

We hear people make these kinds of statements all the time, often without realizing it. Come to think of it, you may have said something similar yourself. When it comes to certain subjects or skills, we can see ourselves as incapable of learning.

But what if we’re wrong? What if we’re not only capable of learning these things, but we’re also able to get started in less time than we thought? What if the key was something social psychologists have known for decades, namely, the power of social identity?

Curious about how to tap into customers that didn’t yet exist for a product that hadn’t yet been branded or launched, Guy Champniss, Hugh N. Wilson, and Emma K. Macdonald, authors of HBR article, Why Customers’ Social Identities Matter, drew on social psychology research from decades past. In an experiment of their own, they implemented what researchers like Philip Zombardo realized through his infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, that “social identities can be created almost at the drop of a hat and with very little effort.”

As part of their research, they engaged potential customers in a product brand and launch exercise. First, they established social groups with specific identities, such as the “20/20 Creative Vision Group” and the “Pro-sustainability Group.” Next, they asked participants to engage in behaviors specific to each. For example, they emphasized a creative mindset in the first group and a pro-sustainability mindset in the second. Participants who’d never seen themselves as creative or pro-sustainability were engaging in these behaviors after only 20 minutes. They’d quickly latched onto a new social identity and begun to act on it.

The researchers quickly realized how easy it was to “make consumers switch identities and even to give them new ones.” It made me think of how powerful these findings are for learning.

For example, last week I wrote about courage and innovation. Recognizing courage as a key component to successful innovation, I asked whether it can be taught and whether it can be learned. These researchers’ findings lead me to believe it can be taught and learned, and that learners can begin to act courageously within minutes, if given a courageous social identity and expectations to act on aligned behaviors.

Think of how you might apply this in your work – creating all different types of teams, such as innovators, creatives, experimenters, inventors, and leaders, to name a few.

Marketers are taking advantage of these powerful findings to influence consumer habits. Why shouldn’t we do the same to help learners rethink their assumptions about themselves and what they’re capable of learning?


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