Character  &  Context

The Science of Who We Are and How We Relate
Editors: Mark Leary, Shira Gabriel, Brett Pelham
Feb 08, 2019

Out of Sight, but not Mind: Concealable Identity in Society

A man peaks out udner a lid from inside a container

Managing what to disclose and what to conceal has been an integral part of our everyday lives. Think about a time when you feel like you simply cannot trust someone, or perhaps that person is not as accepting as you want him to be, what would be the odds that you would open up to him? On the flip side, you probably are more likely to open up about your secrets with someone who is accepting and trustworthy.

A very critical part of our lives involves managing our own sense of identity – these are the various components that make us unique. When it comes to social identity, some information is evident without the need of disclosure (e.g., race, gender). However, there is some information that can be hidden or remains unknown without disclosure (e.g., religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation), and researchers have termed this as concealable identity.

In their symposium, Benjamin Blankenship (University of Michigan), Brandon Balzer Carr (University of California Santa Cruz), and Mora Reinka (University of Connecticut)  discussed various consequences of having concealed identities.

People who are not able to disclose their identity because they want to avoid being marginalized pay a big penalty. In her presentation, Reinka discussed how having multiple stigmatized identities, especially concealable ones, may lead to psychological distress and poor physical health. In two studies, Reinka demonstrated that people with multiple marginalized identities, concealable and visible, are more likely to anticipate being stigmatized, are more likely to ruminate on negative thoughts, and as a result, are more likely to have poor quality of life.   

It is important to note that the impact of concealing one’s identity hurts not only oneself but also social progress. The research conducted by Blankenship shows that people with concealable identity are more likely to internalize the stigma surrounding these marginalized identities. In his analyses, Blankenship showed that high internalization of stigma was associated with lower perceived importance of identity-based issues and lower likelihood of engaging in activism. Put differently, because of various social constraints, these individuals are not able to be expressive of their identity, which relates to impediment of social progress.

Although concealing one’s identity can be hard on one’s physical health and general well-being, disclosing one’s identity may also jeopardize certain aspects of life. Carr interviewed a diverse sample of people who identified as sexual minorities (e.g, gay, lesbian, transgender, pansexual, queer), and the general finding does not seem to be promising. There were a couple of themes that stemmed from Carr’s analysis: for those individuals who came out to their family members, a majority of them experienced some forms of abandonment, harassment, conflict, and loss of support.

It would appear that people who possess concealable identity experience negative consequences whether or not they disclose the information. Trying to manage what is acceptable and what is not can be challenging: on one hand, if these individuals conceal or downplay the role of their identity, they are more likely to experience psychological distress and worse physical outcomes. On the other hand, if they disclose the information about their social identity, say their sexual orientation, they might receive backlash or negative consequences.


By: M. Fazuan (Faz) Abdul Karim. Faz is a 2nd year doctoral student in the Applied Social and Organizational Psychology program at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), working with Leslie Ashburn-Nardo and Evava Pietri. His program of research focuses on two diversity-related themes: the first line of research examines compensatory strategies used by members of stigmatized racial groups to deflect discrimination and the second line of research investigates subtler forms of biases for individuals who are considered non-prototypical of their ingroup. 

Session: “Out of Sight, but Not Mind: Concealable Identity in Society," held Friday, February 8, 2019. 

SpeakersBenjamin Blankenship, doctoral candidate at the University of Michigan; Brandon Balzer Carr, doctoral candidate at University of California Santa Cruz; and Mora Reinka, graduate student at the University of Connecticut.

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Why is this blog called Character & Context?

Everything that people think, feel, and do is affected by some combination of their personal characteristics and features of the social context they are in at the time. Character & Context explores the latest insights about human behavior from research in personality and social psychology, the scientific field that studies the causes of everyday behaviors.  

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