When is a threat more or less of a threat? The sensitivity of highly central identities to threat and the increased likelihood of feeling offended, identity protection, withdrawal, and antisocial behaviors

Primary author: Hana Johnson
Co-author(s): JT Bates

Primary college/unit: Carson College of Business
Campus: Pullman


High identity centrality refers to identities (i.e., self-definitions) that are so important to individuals that they are top-of-mind for them across situations. These identities are highly salient and may therefore easily transition from being top-of-mind to actually affecting behavior; this can occur when identities are under threat. In the workplace, identity threat may result directly from insulting comments or criticisms but may also arise more inadvertently through work practices or changes in management. If these types of experiences involve a highly central identity, we argue that employees are more likely to perceive a threat. We then further explore how employees respond to threat to highly central identities by identifying the different emotional and behavioral responses individuals engage when the target of the threat is a more versus less central identity.

We test the sensitivity of highly central identities to threat in an experimental pilot study and then explore responses to threat related to highly central identities in a qualitative study. Using a grounded theory approach, we find that individuals are more likely to feel offended and engage in behaviors to protect their identities when threat is related to highly central identities. This protection of identities requires sustained effort to minimize the identity threat. In addition, when individuals experience threat to highly central identities, they are more likely to withdraw from situations and behave in an antisocial manner such as engaging in angry and aggressive behavior. Our work has implications for theory on identity, identity threat, and negative emotions.