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How humans understand identity

by Nima Kamoosi
13 min read
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What is identity and how to define it?

Lack of great user experiences is often raised as one of decentralized identity’s (and public blockchain’s) missing ingredients for ubiquitous adoption. However to arrive at usable experiences across the industry, we first need to reach consensus around basic user personas and mental models, then design and build interoperable system accordingly.

In “the internet’s missing identity layer” we took a stab at an acceptable set of personas and solution criteria for this self-described identity system.

In “Economics of identity systems” we also observed how users already interact with identity-related concepts in their day-to-day economic activities, and the artifacts they use as tools to accomplish them.

This article explores the different aspects of how a typical user understands concepts related to identity through the use of economiccognitive, and design lenses, as well as through historical observation, and application of first principles.


No typical human explicitly understands abstract terms like “identity”. People may intuitively understand such concepts without the ability to articulate what they are, while there certainly are other terms they can explicitly understand.

We start by defining a few abstract terms such as digital identityidentity systems, social contexts, etc., then move on to explicit ones. As a result of exploring a typical user’s mental models, as well as historical patterns of human economic activities, we identify more innate and explicitly understood concepts such as self-identities, perceived identitiesconnectionsaccountsconversationsmessages, etc.

We then explore how multiple identities play a part in a user’s cognitive understanding of their place within multiple social contexts. We extend this exploration with anonymous and pseudonymous identities for private and task-based contexts.

Then we explore how identity-related tools and artifacts have historically been used and understood by people. This includes the ways people use artifacts that function as a combination of IDscredentials, and/or keys. This also includes how people use complementary organization and storage tools for managing large numbers of these artifacts.

Building systems and applications that operate based on concepts paralleling a typical user’s mental models, will inherently result in better user experiences, as well as the user’s more intuitive understanding of the system’s underlying processes.


As explained in “What identity means”, the word “identity” is overloaded on many levels. Few regular users understand abstract words like identity, authentication, credentials, or authorization. So here, let’s reiterate the basic terms and concepts that will be reused throughout this article to discuss users’ consciously or subconsciously understood concepts.

Identity systems — The identity industry is built upon the development, maintaining and usage of identity systems; Systems which ultimately help us be more efficient and secure our daily transactions and mitigate undesired outcomes such as fraud.

Identity instances — Any virtual representation of persons or organizations in any system, be they digital, paper-based, or mental.

Cognitive realm — The sometimes oversimplified approach of looking at our cognition as systems and processes, can result in valuable insights. As such the cognitive realm considers the representation and interaction of real world things as reflected onto our mental information space.

Digital realm — As a subject of interest and source of great societal impact, digital systems are of growing importance in our lives, highlighted by the prominence of terms such as internet, web and so called “cyberspace”. The digital realm considers the representation and interaction of real world things as reflected onto digital systems in the form of data.

Digital identities — a sub-type of identity instance — within the context of digital identity systems, these are specific instances of an an entity’s representation, a digital twin so to speak. In other words, digital identities, are records of a person or organization within digital systems that are uniquely secured for common low level operations such as lookup, authentication, recovery, sharing, etc.

Social context —aka Social circle — Is both a mental and sociological context that is defined within a well-known social circle. For example, close friends and professional social circles are two completely different contexts with different rules. Accordingly, we mentally identify as separate (yet related) beings depending on this context.

Self-identity —aka Self — Is a type of mental identity instance that identifies the “self” within a given social context. As such, our overall self, is made up of a collection of context-based self-identities which differ significantly. For example the “self” of personal relationships is very different from that of professional social circles.

Perceived-identity —aka Identity — Is a type of mental identity instance that identifies other people or organizations, again within the context of a given social context. Instances of this type of identity are generally represented in external digital or paper-based identity systems.

Identity information (fragment) — Additional information associated with an identity that further describes a person, organization or thing, and possibly helps identify it through language, visual or other sensory input.

Identity in the cognitive domain
Identity in the cognitive domain

In order to design intuitive identity systems for consumers, we necessarily have to align the concepts (and taxonomies) we use to that of our natural mental models.

Economic activities and mental models

As subjects of life evolution, we are inherently economic individuals and societies, sustained through value surplus. As such our mental models have evolved with significant influence from the economic activities that help sustain us and our societies. Using this view we should look at human mental models of specific types of activitiesartifactstools as well as mental contexts that are closely related to our use of identity systems.

It can be argued that our minds come equipped with a cognitive identity system, one that intuitively interoperates with the real world, and is sometimes aided by external identity systems, including digital or paper-based ones, together ultimately forming a hybrid system.

In “Economics of identity systems” we touched on the frequent and high-value activities that help us support transactions, and create economic value.

Transaction support activities
Transaction support activities

These activities point to five distinct mental contexts involved, namely:

  • Information (or data) — Is the generalized form of information about the real world, and how we organize and make sense of it. This mental context has to do with mentally gathering, organizing and accessing information.
  • Identity (self) —Is the context of identifying ourselves to others, within various and specific social contexts. Sometimes this includes self-promotion to enhance others’ perception of us by including trust information such as credentials. This mental context specializes in helping others identify us.
    Perceived identities and verification are included under connections.
  • Money (or valuables) — Is the mental monetary understanding of valuables natural to our evaluation of property, transactions and surplus. The mental functions are closely related to identities and connections.
  • Connections (aka contacts and relationships) — Are the mental social understanding around the state of belonging to specific groups or relationships. It specializes in this understanding and the protocols of mutual expectations that go with building relationships.
    – Perceived Identities (and verification) — Is the mental context of identifying others (as perceived identities) and verifying them using objective and subjective trust information.
    There is a clear overlap between the contexts of perceived identities and connections. For simplicity, here we include perceived identities as a sub-context of connections.
  • Messages (or conversations) — Represent our mental specialization in communication through spoken language, written language or any other media. This context has to do with the mechanics of conversations, specifically in terms of message fragments and replies.
Transaction support activities and mental contexts (transaction, interaction, ownership, connection)
Transaction support activities and mental contexts

The above root level concepts are generally and explicitly well understood by typical users. In addition, the following extended list of core concepts are expected to be explicitly understood by typical users, as they seem to represent innate cognitive constructs:

  • Information (fragment) — Given the composability of information, humans intuitively understand and handle fragments of information for the purposes of mental storing, organizing and retrieving. While a typical user may be unable to articulate what an information fragment is, they can intuitively navigate information systems such as libraries, books, newspapers, and the web.
    The world wide web is a special case, which has achieved functionality such as digitally publishing, addressing, organizing and consuming public information, through (relatively intuitive) interaction with human minds.
  • Social circle (or context) —As detailed in our definitions, as humans we are intuitively and explicitly aware of social circles (or contexts) we are a part of. These contexts vary across different groups, common goals and interests, as well as particular relationships with individuals.
  • Self-identity —Depending on a given social context, we take on dynamic roles which manifests in separate but related self-identities. Simple examples are our roles and identities as parents, siblings, citizens, team members, etc.
  • Self-identity information (fragment)—For each given social context and self-identity there may be unique fragments of information that we associate with ourselves and potentially present to others. For example we may take on a special nickname for designated social contexts such amongst close friends, or amongst our extended family.
  • (Perceived) Identity — High level information about another person (or organization’s) is mentally stored for the purposes of identifying that person in future interactions. This is different than that person’s self- identity which belongs to them, however it is deeply affected by how that person presents themselves, and asks to be remembered. Humans may not explicitly know they are dealing with a perceived identity but they can intuitively navigate it, even with help of external tools such as directories and address books etc.
  • (Perceived) Identity information (fragment) —Each given perceived identity is mentally associated with possibly unique fragments of information. For example we may remember a friend’s phone number, as well as a secret handshake between us.
  • Connection (or contacts and relationships) —Perceived identities can be mentally stored even without an actual connection or relationship existing. However, existence of connections suggest some state of trust or long term understanding between two parties, or an individual and a group. As such, connections often require varying levels of maintenance.
  • Account (or perceived connection) —When dealing with businesses that keep track of customers, we often perform the equivalent of opening up an account with them. An account is essentially the other party’s record or mental store of their connection with us. The goal is often for that business and us to help maintain the state of that account in good standing.
  • Conversation —As part of connections with others we may partake in long-term and short term conversations with them. We may mentally store and recall the state of these conversations, or use external tools such as letters or electronic mail or instant messages to keep track of them.
  • Message —Messages are the atomic sub-component of conversations, that can be mentally tracked individually. As humans we can intuitively recall specific messages including their contexts, as well as enhance productivity through navigating external tools such as instant messaging or electronic mail.

As a result of the users’ explicit understanding of the above concepts, they are expected intuitively deal with them as digitally represented artifacts.


As mentioned in the previous sections, a person’s self-identity is not one static thing, it morphs depending on the context of the social circle or context it is embedded in. Each of these multiple identities take on a well-defined role within their target social context, and may be associated with separate identity information fragments.

Cognitive multi-identity
Cognitive multi-identity

A list of some well known social contexts include but are not limited to:

  • Core — This is what a person means to themselves. It represent ones true relationship to themselves and the core of one’s identity.
  • Public (social) — This is the most public aspect of our self-identities there for all to see. This context has not commonly existed for everybody before the advent of internet and social networks. An example of the digital representation of our identity in this context is our facebook public profile.
  • Social (within a given circle) — A context meant mainly for general socializing and forming medium-strength social connections within a social group sometimes bound by factors such as class, geography, beliefs, etc.
  • Professional — The context represented by professionals working within a given group under the same company, organization, career path, specialization, etc. LinkedIn is the example of a typical online professional social network.
  • Intellectual — A social arena where people pursue intellectual betterment through learning or thought leadership in order to share. Specific fields of academia fit this context. Also twitter can be typically identified as a leading intellect-based online social network.
  • Sports — A social community where people may share and consume sports news, reactions and trivia as well as participate in actual sport competitions. The sports team a person plays for, or the sport tournament bracket at the office are examples of such contexts.
  • Romance (and/or sexuality)— Social networks or mutual relationships based on romance or possibility of finding it. Dating networks or events, as well as people’s romantic relationships are examples of such contexts.
  • Family (core and/or extended)— Social groups based on family relations, be they small and intimate or larger and more extended. That is, a person’s immediate family including partner and children, or extended family such as grandparents and cousins are examples of such contexts.
  • Friends (core and/or extended) — A group of mutual friends, a pair of best friends, or the larger circle of old-time friends can make up the friends social context.
  • Acquaintances — The larger circle of temporary or relatively weak social relationship that we maintain in case they become advantageous at a later time. Networking activities and events are one of the way people participate in this circle and gain new acquaintances.
  • Retail (or other consumption)— The relationships we have with brands and companies we transact with to purchase goods, products and services. These relationship contexts are often isolated and transactional, although they may be persistent across sessions of interaction.
  • Citizenship (local, state and/or national)— The social context of belonging, and feeling allegiance to a given locality, state or nation. This often comes with a sense of community and loyalty to the larger entity.
  • Common interest (or hobby)— A social group brought together by common interests such as a hobby, technology, activity or topic. Such social contexts often benefit from a sense of community.

There are certain task-based relationships where one’s self-identity is not consequential. Often such tasks can be completed using a completely or partially anonymous identity, at other times they can be accomplished using a pseudonymous identity that is correlated across sessions yet unidentified (and uncorrelated to one’s other identities).

  • Anonymous — A completely unidentified and un-correlate-able one-time-use identity. This type of identity offers maximum privacy benefits.
  • Pseudonymous — An unidentified persona that is correlate-able by other parties across sessions. It is used when anonymity is desired but some state across sessions is required for interactions to work properly.
  • Incognito — aka partially anonymous — Is a mostly anonymous identity with some correlate-able or identifiable information, in cases complete anonymity cannot be achieved due to technical or environmental limitations.

For example buying a pack of cigarettes from a convenience store using cash can be done mostly anonymously, however creating content in social media under a well-known private persona with long-term reputation can only be done pseudonymously. Browsing the internet can be performed incognito, that is mostly anonymously, but with minimal information leakage such as with one’s IP address.

Identity as a tool

Often the way identity concept manifest themselves in the external physical or virtual worlds has to do with how we use “identity” as a tool for accomplishing everyday tasks.

In “The economics of identity systems” we take an in depth look at how we historically use identity-related artifacts and tools, and reveal the insight that humans have been using different identity-related tools to accomplish essentially the same set of activity verbs despite having gone through various waves of technologies.

Artifacts we tend to use under the name IDidentification card, or identity, across different technology waves have historically performed a combination (one, some or all ) of the following functions:

  1. Identification artifact —aka ID (or identification document)— Act as a medium for the user to communicate identifying information such as name, address, etc to another party in order to facilitate a mutually beneficial transaction.
  2. Credential — Is used to present a claim and/or to promote the user’s perceived level of trustworthiness to a transaction participant, by demonstrating verification by a trusted third party.
  3. Key — Is used to securely interact with a system and access its functions, while the system prevents unauthorized parties from unauthorized access. This is typically done by authenticating the key artifact used, and trusting that the holder was originally granted that same key, or is authorized by the grantee to use it.
ID function mapped to tools and verbs
ID function mapped to tools and verbs

When dealing with a large number of these artifacts and tools, we often resort to using additional tools meant for organization and access. These specialized tools seem to naturally fit how we mentally organize and access related concepts. For example for physical tools like hammers and wrenches, we use complementary tools such as tool-belts and toolboxes to either temporarily store and immediately access them, or store them for longer term safe-keeping and access.

Similarly, for artifacts such as IDs (identification document), cardskeyspayment cards, or contact cards we utilize similar storage and organization tools such as walletskeychains, and rolodexes.

Tool, tool-belt, toolbox analogy for identity system artifacts
Tool, tool-belt, toolbox analogy for identity system artifacts


Our ultimate goal of understanding the mental models of typical users is building intuitive identity systems and applications. They need to operate based on parallel concepts to the mental models described above in order to achieve better user experiences and intuitive interactions.

This article expands this understanding first by taking a stab at identifying concepts that are likely to be innate to human cognitive constructs. It explores how multiple identities innately make up people’s understanding of themselves. It also touches on the common patterns of artifact and tool usage, as well as complementary storage and organization tools.

post authorNima Kamoosi

Nima Kamoosi, Nima Kamoosi is the founder of Universal Identity (https://universal.id). He is a former Microsoftie, with well over a decade of experience as engineer and product manager. He is currently helping build the internet’s identity layer with Universal Identity, by focusing on decentralized identity systems and consumer experiences.

Ideas In Brief
  • This article explores the different aspects of how a typical user understands concepts related to identity.
  • In order to explicitly understand abstract terms like “identity”, Nima Kamoosi**,** Founder at Universal Identity, suggests looking closely at the following points:
    • Definitions (reiteration of the basic terms and concepts)
    • Economic activities and mental models (our mental models have evolved with significant influence from the economic activities that help sustain us and our societies)
    • Multi-identity (a person’s self-identity morphs depending on the context of the social circle or context it is embedded in)
    • Identity as a tool (identity-related artifacts and tools)
  • The ultimate goal of understanding the mental models of typical users is building intuitive identity systems and applications.

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