Action Identification Theory

Action Identification Theory Definition

People usually know what they are doing, intend to do, or have done in the past. How people achieve an unambiguous understanding of their behavior is rather remarkable when one considers the variety of ways in which any action can be identified. “Taking a test,” for example, could be identified as “showing one’s knowledge,” “earning a grade,” or “answering questions.” Action identification theory, developed by Robin Vallacher and Daniel Wegner, specifies the principles by which people adopt a single act identity for their behavior and outlines the conditions under which people maintain this act identity or adopt a new one. The interplay of these principles has implications for central issues in social psychology, including self-regulation, vulnerability to social influence, and self-concept.

Action Identification and Behavior

Action-Identification-TheoryThe potential identities for an action, although diverse by many criteria, are hierarchically related in an identity structure. Lower-level identities in this structure convey the details of the action and thus indicate how the action is done. Higher-level identities convey a more general understanding of the action, indicating why the action is done or what its effects and implications are. Identification level is relative, so whether a particular identity is considered a means or an end, a detail or an implication, depends on the identity with which it is compared. The hierarchical level of two identities is indicated when a person performs one act identity by performing another. “Showing one’s knowledge” is a higher-level identity than “taking a test,” for example, because one does the former by doing the latter rather than vice versa. “Taking a test,” however, is a high-level identity with respect to “answering questions,” since one takes a test by answering questions.

Action identification is important for the personal control of behavior. Principle 1 of the theory holds that action is undertaken with respect to the act identity that stands out in consciousness. This means that people have an idea of what they are doing or want to do and use this act identity as a frame of reference for implementing the action and monitoring its occurrence. Because act identities exist at different levels in an identity structure, this principle specifies that people can perform an action at different levels. A person may intend to “give a speech,” for instance, and monitor his or her behavior to see whether this intention has been fulfilled, or the person may intend to “talk in a deliberate tone” (a lower-level identity) or “persuade others” (a higher-level identity) and monitor the attainment of whichever identity is foremost in his or her mind.

Change in Action Identification

Action identification is a dynamic process, undergoing periods of stability and change in accordance with two principles. Principle 2 holds that when both a lower-and a higher-level act identity are available, there is a tendency for the higher-level identity to become dominant. This means that people prefer to think about their behavior in terms of its goals, effects, and implications, rather than in terms of its more mechanistic components. Thus, when a person has only a low-level understanding of his or her behavior, he or she is pre-disposed to adopt a higher-level identity offered by other people or made available by the action context. If the person is induced to think about the details of his or her behavior in a recent interaction, for example, he or she is sensitive to how this behavior is identified by other people, because such feedback may provide a more comprehensive (higher-level) understanding of the behavior. As a result, the person might come to believe his or her behavior reflects whatever interpersonal tendency (e.g., cooperation or competition) is conveyed in the feedback. If the feedback is evaluative (i.e., flattering vs. critical), it can affect the person’s self-evaluation. The tendency to embrace new high-level identities in favor of current lower-level identities is referred to as the emergence process.

Because people act on the basis of their dominant act identity, the emergence process can promote new courses of action. If a person embraces feedback suggesting that his or her behavior reflects competitiveness, for example, he or she may seek out competitive (as opposed to cooperative) activities in the future. Research has established the relevance of the emergence process for behavior change, including the development of new goals (e.g., college activities) and change in habitual behavior (e.g., alcohol consumption).

The emergence process can charge even the simplest act with significance. If it were the only means by which action identification changed, people’s minds would be populated by increasingly broad, abstract, and evaluative notions of what they do and what they are like. This possibility is constrained, however, by Principle 3: When an action cannot be maintained in its dominant identity, there is a tendency for a lower-level identity to become dominant. A person may set out to “persuade others,” for instance, but unless the action is easily accomplished, he or she may have to think about the action in lower-level terms such as “show command of the facts,” “demonstrate sincerity,” or “choose the right words.” Even if an action is easy, its details may stand out in consciousness if it is somehow disrupted. A poor quality sound system, for example, might disrupt a person’s normally persuasive appeal, causing him or her to think about his or her speech clarity or word choice at the expense of the higher-level “persuade” identity. An action’s lower-level identities also tend to become conscious when performance is imminent rather than in the distant future or distant past, especially if the action is difficult or complex.

Optimality in Action Identification

The principles of the theory work together to promote a level of identification that is most appropriate or optimal for performing the action. There is a press for higher-level action understanding and control, but the emergent identity gives way to lower-level identities if it proves to be an ineffective guide to action execution. But when action control is regained at a lower level, the emergence process is engaged again, making the person sensitive to higher-level identities (including those that differ from the original high-level identities). Over time and with repeated action, the person converges on an identity at a level that enables that individual to perform the action up to his or her capacity. The more difficult or disruption-prone the action, the lower the optimal level of identification. Conversely, action mastery is signaled by optimality at high levels of identification, such that action details are integrated into larger action units, which then become the basis for conscious control of the action.

Despite the tendency toward optimality, people sometimes identify what they do at a level that does not reflect the action’s difficulty. The potential for non-optimal identification is manifest in two ways. First, the action context can make higher-level identities dominant even when the action’s difficulty or unfamiliarity warrants lower-level identification. The promise of external reward, the threat of punishment, evaluation by other people, and competition, for example, all call attention to the outcomes, consequences, and other higher-level meanings of action and thus can impair performance on difficult tasks that require attention to lower-level details. Second, an easy action can be impaired if conscious attention is drawn to its lower-level aspects by some means (e.g., disruption, verbal instruction). Low-level identities are not only unnecessary for easy-to-maintain action, they can also disassemble an action normally integrated with respect to a higher-level understanding. In both cases, non-optimal identification not only impairs performance, but also has been shown to promote anxiety and self-consciousness.

Individual Differences

Vallacher and Wegner developed a scale, the behavioral identification form, to assess people’s characteristic level of identification. Research employing this scale has found theoretically meaningful differences between individuals who tend to identify what they do in relatively high-level terms (high-level agents) and those who routinely identify their action in lower-level terms (low-level agents). Specifically, low-level agents demonstrate less expertise across different action domains, have a weaker sense of personal control, are more impulsive, are more vulnerable to social influence, are less certain of what they are like with respect to personality traits, and have a less stable self-concept.

Action Identification as a Dynamical System

In emphasizing the link between mental representations and behavior, action identification theory has clear relevance to models of self-regulation. But the theory also depicts processes that are similar to the operation of self-organizing dynamical systems in many areas of science. Thus, an action can be viewed as a set of inter-dependent elements (lower-level identities) that influence each other to achieve a coherent macro-level state (a higher-level identity). The interplay between Principles 2 and 3, meanwhile, captures the repeated episodes of emergence and disassembly that underlie the evolution of complex systems. This dynamic scenario has been invoked by social psychologists in recent years to establish similarity among very different topics, from the formation of self-concept to the development of social norms and values in society.


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