University students and identity incompatibility

identity incompatablityAt this time of year students return to university. This is an exciting time as you get to catch up with last year’s student and see what they been up to over the summer. Of course, we also welcome a new cohort of students to the University and, for many of them, help them get used to a new way of life. For some of these new faces, the transition between their old lifestyle and becoming a student is easy. For others it is more difficult. What causes these differences and what does the study of psychology tell us about situations where our identities don’t really fit together, or are just plain incompatible? Read on to find out.

Joining University

Becoming a University student is a life changing experience. New students are exposed to novel ideas and also a variety of new people. Many of these new people will hold different beliefs and be from different backgrounds. Ideas and values previously held are often challenged. This makes it an exciting time as people are forced to re-evaluate beliefs and social norms they took for granted. For most people, the shifts are not too dramatic and this is a rewarding and enriching experience. Unfortunately, for some, reconciling the difference between university life and everything that came before can be a bridge too far in the early stages.

Incompatible identities in everyday life

Transitions in life are often challenging. Getting married, changing job roles, or taking on new responsibilities are all sources of tension driven, in part, by the changes they bring to our social identities (identities we have that are tied up with the groups we belong to). We all have many social identities, for instance those associated with gender, jobs, religion, sports teams, interests, hobbies etc (the list is nearly endless!). Many of these identities sit quite well together. From my own experience, for instance, being an academic requires a lot of time but I’m also lucky that it is a very flexible job. This sits really well being a parent to young children as I can make time for them when I need it and catch up later. Other identities I hold don’t sit so well together – indeed they can be seen as downright incompatible. For instance I used to play ice hockey (very badly I should add!). The social norms of ice hockey teams involve aggression, being bit rude to each other, and taking others’ feelings into consideration is not always appreciated! This doesn’t sit so well with the values I try and bring up my children with. Luckily, these two identities (as a father and as an ice hockey player) are quite separate from one another – one happened in the evening and the other happens when I am with my children. For others, identities clash a lot more directly.

Identity incompatibility and university life

Research into students transitioning into university suggest that the extent to which their identities pre-university life and the new identities as being a student are perceived to being incompatible can affect how you adapt to university life. If your parents and and/or friends have no experience of higher education it can be hard to relate to them around issues such as the time commitment involved, the pressure and the day-to-day routines of university life. Other identities may place demands on one’s life which clash with being a student, or the values students often adopt (for instance, being very liberal) may clash with parent’s or friend’s expectations. Indeed, research in this area suggests that incompatibility (in this research, driven by differences in social class) between individual students and their peers predicted identity incompatibility which, in turn, predicted how ready people felt university life 1. Some pilot work from our own lab (with Ilka Gleibs and Anne Ridley) suggest this may translate into differences in actual grades at the end of the first academic year 23. This is a nascent research area and little work has been done to see how we can help students overcome these perceived differences. However, work from other social identity domains more generally gives us a few clues. Research suggests that we can help people concerned by entry to university by:

• Training new students to understand that intelligence is malleable it something you can train and improve
• Make sure they people develop multiple social connections- the more groups they belong to the more sources support they will have things get difficult
• Buddy students up with both similar others and people are well established in the system being transitioned to.

All these strategies should help students who may feel their identities are incompatible stay at university and, hopefully, succeed.

Of course for many of our students these issues won’t arise and, hopefully, students heading off to university this month who do have incompatibilities will work to get over them. Access to higher education is a wonderfully informative experience and one of the greatest forms of social mobility. As such it is important that universities, established fellow students and families help each and every individual get the most out of this unique opportunity.

Identity incompatibility in other domains

Of course we can have identity incompatibility in other areas of our life. Going from being employed to unemployed, a painful divorce or breakup, becoming a parent, becoming disabled or any change in our life circumstances which generates new identities (or changes existing ones) can be a source of identity incompatibility. One particular area of concern is amongst people leaving the Army. Whilst the majority of former service personnel go on to do very well after leaving, rates of criminal offence and alcohol problems amongst this group are, tragically, far higher than would be expected when compared to a non-army population. This is likely due, in part, to differences in cultures and norms between the army and civvie street. Setting the rights and wrongs of any particular conflict aside, given the risks these individuals undertake on our behalf we should do more to look after them when they move on.

When the identities we hold aren't compatible, the result can be poor mental health and worse… Click To Tweet


Can identity incompatibility be good?

Interestingly, however, identity incompatibility may not always be a bad thing. For instance, if one identity is undesirable (for instance being a drug addict) generating a new identity incompatible with the first (for instance being a former alcoholic) can be useful. We’ve observed in all sorts of studies the greater difference between these desirable and undesirable of identities, the better out outcomes people eventually obtain. As in most psychology, the story is not so simple as it first seems!

Please tell me what you think of this post, and don’t forget to sign up for email updates or visit the bookshop if you enjoyed it! If you sign up now you can receive a FREE COPY OF THE JUDGEMENT AND DECISION MAKING EBOOK


  1. Iyer, A., Jetten, J., Tsivrikos, D., Postmes, T., & Haslam, S. A. (2009). The more (and the more compatible) the merrier: Multiple group memberships and identity compatibility as predictors of adjustment after life transitions. British Journal of Social Psychology, 48(4), 707-733. 
  2. Murtagh, S., Ridley, A., Frings, D., & Kerr-Pertic, S. (2016). First-year undergraduate induction: Who attends and how important is induction for first year attainment?. Journal of Further and Higher Education, 1-14. 
  3. Frings, D., Gleibs, I., Ridley, A. (unpublished data) 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *