Identity | Kevin Binning

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Kevin Binning is a social psychologist whose research focuses on answering the (seemingly) simple question: Why people do the things that they do? Using formal methods of inquiry such as experimentation and longitudinal observation, he explores how identity influences people’s learning and behavior over time. He develops and tests social psychology interventions that “nudge” people towards more socially constructive behavior in domains such as education, politics, and health. You can watch this short video or download the full interview transcript below.

“If I have a part of myself where I view myself as a scientific person, as somebody who excels and succeeds in science, and that it’s important for me to do so — that’s kind of how I would view somebody as having a strong science identity.”
– Kevin Binning, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Pittsburgh

2017 Interview Highlights:

How do you define identity?
We all have multiple different identities. I’m a father, I’m a college professor, I’m a scientist, I am somebody who likes statistics and psychology, and all of these we can construe as different identities that will become active or salient depending on the situation that I’m in. These are multiple ways of defining the self, and the self can shift in the way that we define it, depending on the situation at hand. You are that identity in that moment when it’s being called out. So it’s actually the different modes of defining the self that get called out by different situations.

How does identity matter for science learning?
If I view myself in part as a scientific person, as somebody who excels and succeeds in science, and it’s important for me to do so, that’s a strong science identity. When I’m doing a science task, if I’m sitting in the biology classroom, and we’re taking a test in a scientific field, such as a chemistry test, I have more at stake for me in that situation than somebody who is not identified with that domain. Let’s say I don’t have a strong science identity: I might still want to do well on the test. But if I don’t do well, it’s not relevant to me as an individual, to my core being, that I didn’t do well in this particular task; I can do other things. Part of what my work focuses on is how we channel science identity and things of this nature to get the positive outcomes. That is, to not be afraid of failing, to go out and study and do the things one needs to do to be successful.

How do interest, motivation, and attitudes connect with identity, or do you even distinguish those from identity?
Yes, I think we would. I think about identity as an independent variable, rather than a dependent variable, that affects things like motivation and engagement. I think you could think of science identity as an outcome of a variety of processes. If you’re very high in science identity, your motivation and the implications of things like failure and success will be different for you than if you are low in science identity. It makes the motivation mean a different thing. You’ll be potentially more motivated to do really well in this domain that’s central to your sense of self than in a domain that’s not central to your sense of self. I think both the independent variable of identity and the dependent variable of motivation are very important in domains of study, in terms of how you build science identity.

If there is some variation in science identity amongst the student body, does that affect motivation and engagement? We think it very clearly does, because your self is on the line when you’re doing science. What I would try to caution against is thinking that they’re just automatically going to try harder. It’s more complicated than that. It’s more like they’re on a knife’s edge. That is, they could go harder, but they might also be more apt to disengage for fear of failure.

So would you say that maybe you shouldn’t build such a strong science identity so early because you put particular people at risk of giving up?
That’s a great question. My gut instinct is we absolutely want to build science identity. But we want to be cautious about thinking that it’s much better to have some science identity than no science identity. Getting students to do well in science is not a cure-all. Once you have that science identity in place, the job doesn’t end. There’s still more that you need to do so that they can handle setbacks and will maintain engagement in the long run.

Download full interview

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