Identity as context

Picking up on the cognitive subroutine thread, I had another thought yesterday. What is our self, our identity? To some extent, it is the holistic sum of all of our cognitive subroutines. After all, we judge somebody by how they react to different situations. At work, we like to see how people handle pressure. In social situations, we like people that are comfortable and easy to talk to. Since we don’t have a way to read minds, all we have to judge other people by is the way they interact with us and with the world around them. There may be those that claim that we have some essential “character” that determines how we will react in a general sense, but I’m pretty skeptical of that idea (Aaron Swartz had a good post about “dispositionism” today). And I feel similarly skeptical about the idea of an eternal ineffable soul. Just so you know what my assumptions are.

What are the implications of the idea that we may be no more than the emergent interaction of our cognitive subroutines? If my speculation that the subroutines are activated by our environment and the context that we are currently in, it means that we are different people in different situations in a very real sense. If I’m hanging out with my college friends, I’m a different person than when I hang out with my family or when I’m at work. They each activate different aspects of my personality, changing how I react to things and the way I view the world. I know it isn’t an earthshaking observation that we act differently in different social circles, but it’s nice that it falls out of the cognitive subroutine theory so cleanly.

This puts our social interactions in a different light. In some sense, we look for groups of people that help us be the person that we want to be. Since each social group activates different aspects of ourselves, by choosing who we socialize with, we are choosing our identity. This is most obvious in high school with the forming of cliques, from cheerleaders to band members (“This one time? At band camp?”) to nerds to burnouts. But it continues throughout our lives. We find people with whom we feel most comfortable, where we feel we can say “I can be myself.” My current thoughts make me wonder whether saying that is equivalent to saying “I choose to be the self that is activated by this group.”

Another aspect of the whole identity as context corollary to the cognitive subroutines theory is that it provides insight on why cults work. Everybody always asks how people get sucked so deeply into cults. Well-designed cults all share a few common tactics. The most important of these is to remove new cult members to an isolated compound where the cult members see nothing but other cult members. In the language of this post, it’s removing any alternative contexts from their lives. No visits are allowed from family members, because that would elicit a different person than the one the cult is creating. In their isolated compound, they reward behavior beneficial to the cult, and punish unwanted behavior like questioning authority. Again, training of new cognitive subroutines.

What’s another common cult tactic? Giving their members new names. The old name has too many cognitive subroutines associated with it, too many aspects of personality that the cult is trying to suppress. By giving the member a new name, the cult is essentially starting a whole new set of cognitive subroutines that have no connection with the old life. They are creating a new person, essentially. Names are powerful things. For a long time, I really think I behaved differently when I was around people that called me Perlick versus people that called me Eric. I think I’ve now harmonized the different aspects of my personality for the most part, but it’s interesting to see how powerful a name can be.

Then again, I’ve always been particularly impressionable and susceptible to outside influences. When I was a kid, my mom could tell who I’d been hanging out with on any given day, because my speech patterns would actually change. I don’t think it’s anywhere near as extreme any more (there’s a whole post buried somewhere in the idea of how we are all the sum of our influences, but over time, the influences become commingled so that it becomes harder to tease out individual influences), but I’m sure there’s still an effect. For instance, I know my writing became more florid for a while after I read David Foster Wallace, with lines like “In our world of postmodern ironic world-weariness, something about the buzz as Barry Bonds steps into the batting box, as 40,000 people hold their breath together, breaks through our ennui and evokes images of a more primitive time, of gladiators and arenas. It’s an exciting feeling. The mob mentality rises to the surface and we lose ourselves in it.” So maybe it’s just my perspective that sees identity as being context-contingent. But I don’t think so.

One last caveat: I should emphasize that I’m not postulating that our minds are in any way actual computers that consist of self-programming subroutines. I do think that it’s a useful metaphor for analyzing several aspects of human behavior, in a variety of contexts. I think that this post illustrates that it may even have applications in questions of identity. For me personally, it’s a good reminder that choosing how I spend my time socially is choosing what kind of person I want to be. I could choose to be a soulless corporate drone. I could choose to be an alcoholic partier. I could choose to be an outdoors type. Right now, I seem to be choosing electronic ranting loner. Unabomber, here I come! Hrm. Maybe I should rethink that choice…