Research Suggests Self-Awareness of Identity Can Promote an Open Mind and Decrease Conflict

Summary of:

Gaither, S. E., Fan, S. P., & Kinzler, K. D. (2019). Thinking about multiple identities boosts children’s flexible thinking. Developmental Science, Volume 23(1), 1-11.

Background & Theory

The authors of this article explore how children who have an awareness of and are encouraged to think on their multiple identities, often have more flexible thinking skills, greater adaptability to situations, and improved problem-solving skills than their peers. Research that sampled two groups of 6-7-year-old children was conducted and confirmed this hypothesis.

Research Questions

  1. Do children who consider their own multiple identities show an increase in flexible thinking?
  2. If yes, what are the greater implications for this over time? 


Three experiments were conducted of groups of children aged 6-7 years old, where they were examined through four experimental situations (this age group was selected due to their specific developmental stage — they are easily influenced, yet have developed some sense of understanding of the world). These situations included a functional fixed task, a multiple uses task, a social categorization test, and a category comparison task. The children in these groups were randomly selected to first complete a priming procedure, and following their tasks, were evaluated by a second experimenter who was unaware of which group the children fell into.

For the first group, there were 48 children, all aged 6-7, with races including: 17 White, 17 Black, 1 Asian, 5 Latino/Hispanic, 4 Biracial, 4 unknown. They all performed the same tasks, but were randomly assigned to a prior priming condition that related to their own multiple-identities or multiple-physical-traits. For the second group, there were 72 children, all aged 6-7, with races including: 0 White, 13 Black, 2 Asian, 5 Latino/Hispanic, 12 Biracial. Prior to performing the same tasks, they were randomly assigned to a priming condition relating to either multiple-identities, multiple-physical-traits, or multiple-identities-other (others’ identities instead of their own). For the third group, there were 76 children, aged 6-7 years, with races including: 24 White, 31 Black, 4 Asian, 7 Latino/Hispanic, 10 Biracial. The priming conditions were randomly assigned and included either multiple-identities or multiple-preferences (their interests/preferences opposed to identities). As mentioned above, a second experimenter evaluated both groups of children following these tasks who had no knowledge of their priming conditions.


The reports for each experiment were as follows:

Experiment 1: No other factors of the children influenced the results except for the priming conditions. Children who were encouraged to think about their multiple-identities did show to have more flexible and creative thinking than their counterparts.

Experiment 2: As with Experiment 1, no other factors were influential except for the priming conditions. Children encouraged to think about their multiple-identities again were shown to have more flexible and creative thinking than their counterparts. We can also draw an additional conclusion that children thinking about their own multiple-identities may be necessary for an increase in flexible thinking, as this brings greater self-awareness and open-mindedness.

Experiment 3: As with both other experiments, no other factors were influential in the results. This experiment showed results that did not differ much between both groups when evaluating overall data; however, there were some differences in the individual tasks themselves. This experiment had some greater limitations than the former two due to not all of the tasks translating well into preferences. The results still show that children who consider their multiple-identities do cultivate more flexible thinking.

Some areas that can be further explored following this research include how these results may be shaped differently when considered in real-world situations, how these might change over life span, and whether multiple-identities need to be contemplated in a positive light.

What This Means

  • Children can cultivate an increased ability in flexible and creative thinking when they are pushed to examine and contemplate their own multiple identities, which is consistent with other research.
  • This may lead to an increase in how children understand their world and those around them (even as they age), including being more open-minded to differences and having greater problem-solving skills.
  • It may be beneficial to have more open discussions with children in regard to diversity, complex issues, and intergroup conflict as opposed to dismissing them instead.
  • The exploration of multiple identities may be beneficial for anyone — not just children — to think more open-minded and creatively.

Final Takeaway

For consultants: One of the final notes in this study is that this concept may be helpful for anyone, and is likely to increase awareness of others and assist in being more open-minded (specifically, in the context of a diverse society, which hints at also decreasing conflict). When working to resolve a conflict, having disputants willing to examine themselves and those around them may be helpful for creating a more open environment and a willingness to collaborate. This may be useful for resolving conflict, and can even help them decrease their likelihood of conflict in the future.

For everyone: Perspective is everything. Think about yourself and your own multiple identities. Does this impact how you also see those around you? Hopefully, this will encourage you to think about your world in different ways and encourage you to examine your interaction with others, which can lead to more positive engagements.