As an American, my individual sense of self is an important and strong part of my cultural identity. I’m referring, of course, to the concept of individualism – in the sense of being able to work to support yourself, live on your own, take care of your family, and contribute to society. But to me, it also means being able to make decisions based on your own experiences. After reading FlexMR’s in-depth research report, Tribes: exploring the connection between political, social, and brand loyalty, I felt the need to share my perspective as an American (and as a twin) on the notion that individual choice is not as pronounced among people’s political, social, and brand choices as we first thought.
I didn’t realize until after reading this report just how much I am affected by the groups and tribes I surround myself with. However, looking at who I am, an identical twin sister who shares the same DNA as another person with whom I grew up in the same house and the same bedroom during our young years, I feel like an interesting case study that supports this compelling narrative.
A Self-Reflection and Ethnography
Throughout my younger years, my parents worked hard to keep my identity separate from my twin sister’s. We were in different classes growing up, I moved out of our shared room, we wore different clothes, had different friends, went to different colleges, and we now work in different industries. The focus was on making sure we had identities of our own.
As a result, we were more influenced by our different tribes of friends than by each other during this time. For example, one of my best friends liked a certain brand of clothes, so as a result, I also liked that certain brand of clothing because of that exposure and association. According to the Tribes report, the most important aspect of our identity is our friends and family. The groups my sister and I associated ourselves with were paramount to us forming our own unique identities, but that doesn’t mean we didn’t have any growing left to do.
It wasn’t until we were forced to share a car and started working at the same summer and after-school jobs did we start sharing friends. It was then (though perhaps not quite so fluently) we realized that our interpretations of social situations were very similar despite our different previous influences. We wouldn’t have shared a similar viewpoint had we not shared a car, and we also started to style ourselves similarly as our views on what was stylish at the time came from our similar influences and exposures. In a sense, we developed into our own little mini twin tribe within our larger social tribe comprised of family, friends, school, and the community.
But we then changed again as we went to different colleges and worked at different companies and in different areas as our influences changed. This was especially noticeable when I lived in France and my twin lived in Italy. The influences of these European countries on our styles, looks, and personalities were very apparent. Our mini twin tribe wasn’t as strong and as a result, we have since grown to be very different individuals – supporting the notion that identity is built not just by ourselves, but those around us.
As for politics; in my younger years, I may have identified as a member of the report’s Disconnected group who is 72% more likely to have voted for more than 3 political parties in their lifetime. The first time I voted, I did so for a party that I do not belong to today. I remember my father told me who to vote for, my boyfriend at the time also voted that way, and the state where I grew up was also considered to have similar allegiances. It was evident I relied more upon my tribes than my individual instincts at this time, especially since I didn’t follow political events as much as I should have – another trait of the Disconnected, who are more likely to not actively follow political events.
Later, as my views became more centrist – I was living in San Diego as a single person on my own after a bit of time in Boston and Portland, OR. My twin and older sister also lived there, so my family tribe was still a part of the narrative, perhaps re-exerting some of that influence which had once been present.
Internalization and Empathy: Tools for Understanding Data
So, what is my point of all of this oversharing? After walking down memory lane, I can see how these micro-tribes consisting of family members, friends, and local area politics more heavily influence our politics than previously considered. This also applies to brands and products that we buy. We think we are the ones making the decision as educated individuals, but the environment and groups we surround ourselves with more heavily influence our behaviors.
This has become even more pronounced with the tribes and bubbles we create for ourselves on social media. It is also true that when I was younger, I was more likely to change my political views because they hadn’t become a part of my identity. I had been trying to find the party that matched my own values and beliefs, which is what caused all of these shifts. However, as I have grown older, my political views are more ingrained in my overall identity.
But this also raises a question, does age matter in this scenario? How long does it take for an individual to find their own identity? How fluid is identity itself? While I may not have the answers to these questions; one thing did become quickly apparent to me. As I read the report and its claims that decision making is so heavily influenced by factors outside of our conscious control – I began to empathize and understand the decisions of others more as I reflected on how the findings applied to me.
As so much of our work in the research industry is objective and data-driven, sometimes it’s easy to forget how a little self-reflection and empathy can bring consumer decisions to life and give us a much richer understanding of the story our insights are telling.