Certain identities are deeply meaningful for the time and the place in which we live. Being a woman in the 21st century United States carries expectations that were not shared by women in 17th century China and will not be by women in 24th century Argentina. And a woman in the 21st century United States may also be a scientist, police officer, or soldier; she might belong to any racial or ethnic background; she might belong to multiple different cultures; and so forth and so on. So what, you ask?
Social psychology has shown that the cultural meanings and stereotypes associated with our identities can influence our behavior, performance, and experience. Even if we don’t believe what stereotypes suggest, we might fall prey to their effects, as when women who are reminded of their femininity do more poorly on a math test immediately afterwards. And for people who belong to multiple groups, as is increasingly the case as the United States becomes more ethnically diverse, there may be multiple potential sources of these effects. So what happens in cases where someone holds multiple identities whose meanings are partially in conflict with one another?
Research by Chi-Ying Cheng (my grad school classmate) and her colleagues shows that people can have different degrees of what Benet‐Martínez and Haritatos (2005) called “identity integration.” This refers to the degree to which a person can blend multiple identities into one. If a person perceives her multiple identities as very different from one another or in conflict with each other, this is less likely to happen (Cheng & Lee, 2009). Having higher identity integration is generally indicative of better outcomes.
For example, in a workplace setting, bicultural people with high identity integration are better at evaluating others’ performance on the basis of the context in which it occurs (Mok, Cheng, & Morris, 2010). This may make people with high identity integration more effective managers, especially with cross-cultural teams or projects. More generally, people with high levels of identity integration may be healthier and better-liked (Cheng et al., 2008).
Research has also extended the idea of identity integration to teams, finding that when the value of the unique knowledge individuals bring to teams is emphasized, people are better able to draw on their distinct backgrounds (Cheng, Sanchez-Burks, & Lee, 2008). And in general, people who have higher levels of chronic identity integration are better equipped to access the knowledge and skills related to those identities (Cheng et al., 2008).
In terms of what leads people to have more or less integrated identities, the story is undoubtedly complicated. Research has shown that in the moment, bicultural people feel higher levels of identity integration if they think back on positive experiences related to their biculturalism (Cheng & Lee, 2013). This suggests that if a person either frequently experiences situations where having multiple identities is beneficial or looks back often on times that happened, they may feel more comfortable owning all parts of their identity. In the moment, people may also feel higher levels of identity integration if their attention is focused on the big picture (global) instead of the immediate context (local; Mok & Morris, 2012).
So what’s the takeaway here? Belonging to multiple cultural backgrounds can be beneficial because of the different experiences and knowledge a person gains. But repeated negative experiences or exposure to people and situations where multiculturalism is devalued could prevent people from realizing those benefits. As both individuals and a society, we have the potential to influence how multiculturalism contributes to our shared overall experience by the way we treat others and think about diversity.
Of course, more research is needed (isn’t it always?). But I think we can safely say that approaching other people with an open mind and an expectation that their perspective has value is a first step in creating an environment where people can comfortably blend all of their identities.
Benet‐Martínez, V., & Haritatos, J. (2005). Bicultural identity integration (BII): Components and psychosocial antecedents. Journal of Personality, 73(4), 1015-1050.
Cheng, C. Y., & Lee, F. (2009). Multiracial identity integration: Perceptions of conflict and distance among multiracial individuals. Journal of Social Issues,65(1), 51-68.
Cheng, C. Y., & Lee, F. (2013). The malleability of bicultural identity integration (BII). Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 44(8), 1235-1240.
Cheng, C. Y., Sanchez-Burks, J., & Lee, F. (2008). Taking advantage of differences: Increasing team innovation through identity integration. Research on Managing Groups and Teams, 11, 55-73.
Cheng, C. Y., Sanders, M., Sanchez‐Burks, J., Molina, K., Lee, F., Darling, E., & Zhao, Y. (2008). Reaping the rewards of diversity: The role of identity integration. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 2(3), 1182-1198.
Mok, A., & Morris, M. W. (2012). Managing two cultural identities the malleability of bicultural identity integration as a function of induced global or local processing. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(2), 233-246.
Mok, A., Cheng, C. Y., & Morris, M. W. (2010). Matching Versus Mismatching Cultural Norms in Performance Appraisal Effects of the Cultural Setting and Bicultural Identity Integration. International Journal of Cross Cultural Management, 10(1), 17-35.