Identity-Specific Motivation: How Distinct Identities Direct Self-Regulation Across Distinct Situations

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Abstract

Research on self-regulation has traditionally emphasized that people’s thoughts and actions are guided by either (a) domain-general motivations that emerge from a cumulative history of life experiences, or (b) situation-specific motivations that emerge in immediate response to the incentives present in a particular context. However, more recent studies have illustrated the importance of understanding the interplay between such domain-general and situation-specific motivations across the types of contexts people regularly encounter. The present research, therefore, expands existing perspectives on self-regulation by investigating how people’s identities—the internalized roles, relationships, and social group memberships that define who they are—systemically guide when and how different domain-general motivations are activated within specific types of situations. Using the motivational framework described by regulatory focus theory (Higgins, 1997), Studies 1 and 2 demonstrate that people indeed have distinct, identity-specific motivations that uniquely influence their current self-regulation when such identities are active. Studies 3–5 then begin to explore how identity-specific motivations are situated within people’s larger self-concept. Studies 3a and 3b demonstrate that the less compatible people’s specific identities, the more distinct are the motivations connected to those identities. Studies 4–5 then provide some initial, suggestive evidence that identity-specific motivations are not a separate, superordinate feature of people’s identities that then alter how they pursue any subordinate, identity-relevant traits, but instead that such motivations emerge from the cumulative motivational significance of the subordinate traits to which the identities themselves become attached. Implications for understanding the role of the self-concept in self-regulation are discussed.

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