Identity Behavior Theory

Identity Behavior Theory postulates that how someone chooses to identify may largely determine whether they take action on a health behavior, and IBT is concerned with how identity guides and motivates behavior, along with one’s attitude and resilience toward the behavior.

Other models of behavior change consider stages and processes of change, perceptions toward change, and the personal need of autonomy and mastery to help understand how behavior change happens, but those theories leave out the important role of identity and the built environment in creating lasting positive behavior change.

As an example of how identity behavior works, lets consider that a person’s identity may be largely dependent on the culture, norms, and attitudes of those around them, so if everyone around them eats fried chicken and buttered biscuits on Sunday after church and then watches football for the rest of the day as a group, chances are they identify as part of that group. It is unlikely that this person would adopt a plant-based diet and spend their Sunday at a yoga class instead.

Similarly, someone who identifies as a cigarette smoker and hangs out with other smokers will have difficulty changing their smoking behavior until they choose to identify as a non-smoker and stay out of environments that are conducive to the smoking habit.

The best-selling author of “Atomic Habits“, James Clear, believes that if we want to make changes, we must become what we want instead of focusing on the outcome of the desired behavior.

Clear said, “If you’re looking to make a change, then I say stop worrying about results and start worrying about your identity. Become the type of person who can achieve the things you want to achieve.”

We know for certain that the built environment plays a large role in determining overall health and that ones zip code may predict life expectancy, but breaking out of the expected behaviors and moving beyond the influence that social structure plays in determining behavior will most likely need a change in identity, and perhaps social circles.

IBT should not be confused with Social Identity Theory as IBT emphasizes the role of identity over the role of environment, and places emphasis on rational decision-making to act on behavior from an independent autonomous state.

IBT does recognize the importance of positive social support and helpful resources to change behavior but emphasizes that the internalized perception of self and having a strong identity related to a behavior, along with a positive attitude toward the behavior, and a strong belief in the importance of the behavior, greatly increases the likelihood that one will fully commit to the behavior.

From an identity perspective this might look like: identifying as being an athlete verses wanting to be an athlete, or saying, “I am a musician” versus “I want to be a musician,” and so how one identifies will determine the action and the behaviors of being what they believe they are.

  • If I identify as a non-smoker, then I won’t smoke.
  • If I identify as a healthy eater, then I won’t eat junk food.
  • If I identify as an artist, then I will work on my craft.
  • If I identify as a bodybuilder, then I will lift weights.

Each time an identity related behavior is performed, the more ingrained in that behavior a person becomes, and then that behavior further solidifies one’s identity.

Now consider the opposite of healthy behaviors and perhaps a self-depreciating identity mindset, and how that may look to someone that feels a certain way toward a behavior.

  • If I don’t identify as a good student and feel like I don’t do well in school, why would I bother trying to get good grades?
  • If I have always been overweight and feel that this is just how I am, why would I bother trying to lose weight?

When identify behaviors are coupled with social norms or social pressures, and everyone in a person’s circle identifies and behaves in a similar way, making changes is exceedingly difficult for someone to achieve, but that does not mean it can’t be done or that people can’t rise above the circumstances they are in.

There are many stories of rags to riches success, and of the nobodies that found fame and fortune, and each of those people chose to enact behaviors conducive to their success and they believed they could achieve what they wanted to achieve otherwise they would not have tried.

Identity Behavior Theory in a nutshell is having the attitude and resilience to say, “I am, therefore, I do”.