Identity Development Theory

Identity Development Theory

A well-developed identity is comprised of goals, values, and beliefs to which a person is committed. It is the awareness of the consistency in self over time, the recognition of this consistency by others (Erikson, 1980). The process of identity development is both an individual and social phenomenon (Adams & Marshall, 1996). Much of this process is assumed during adolescence when cognitive development allows for an individual to construct a ‘theory of self’ (Elkind, 1998) based on exposure to role models and identity options (Erikson, 1980).  Erikson (1968) believed this period of development to be an ‘identity crisis,’ a crucial turning point in which an individual must develop in one way or another, ushering the adolescent toward growth and differentiation.  Identity is formed through a process of exploring options or choices and committing to an option based upon the outcome of their exploration. Failure to establish a well-developed sense of identity can result in identity confusion. Those experiencing identity confusion do not have a clear sense of who they are or their role in society.

Identity development is vital to a person’s understanding of self and participation in their social systems. Adams and Marshall (1996) established that identity formation provides five functions: a structure and order to self-knowledge; a sense of consistency and coherence to beliefs, goals, and self-knowledge; a sense of continuity for one’s history and future; goals and direction; a sense of personal control of their choices and outcomes.

Erikson’s Identity vs. Role Confusion

Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development emphasizes the social nature of our development. His theory proposed that our psychosocial development takes place throughout our lifespan. Erikson suggested that how we interact with others is what affects our sense of self, or what he called the ego identity. He also believed that we are motivated by a need to achieve competence in certain areas of our lives.

According to psychosocial theory, we experience eight stages of development over our lifespan (Table 8.1), from infancy through late adulthood. At each stage, there is a conflict, or task, that we need to resolve. Successful completion of each developmental task results in a sense of competence and a healthy personality. Failure to master these tasks leads to feelings of inadequacy.

Figure 8.3.1. Erik Erikson

Table 8.3.1. Erikson’s psychosocial Stages of Development

Stage Age (years) Developmental Task Description
1 0–1 Trust vs. mistrust Trust (or mistrust) that basic needs, such as nourishment and affection, will be met
2 1–3 Autonomy vs. shame/doubt Develop a sense of independence in many tasks
3 3–6 Initiative vs. guilt Take the initiative on some activities—may develop guilt when unsuccessful or boundaries overstepped
4 7–11 Industry vs. inferiority Develop self-confidence in abilities when competent or sense of inferiority when not
5 12–18 Identity vs. confusion Experiment with and develop identity and roles
6 19–29 Intimacy vs. isolation Establish intimacy and relationships with others
7 30–64 Generativity vs. stagnation Contribute to society and be part of a family
8 65– Integrity vs. despair Assess and make sense of life and meaning of contributions

Video 8.3.1. Erikson’s Psychosocial Development explains all stages of this theory.

Erik Erikson believed that the primary psychosocial task of adolescence was establishing an identity. Erikson referred to life’s fifth psychosocial task as one of identity versus role confusion when adolescents must work through the complexities of finding one’s own identity.  This stage includes questions regarding their appearance, vocational choices and career aspirations, education, relationships, sexuality, political and social views, personality, and interests. Erikson saw this as a period of confusion and experimentation regarding identity and one’s life path. During adolescence, we experience psychological moratorium, where teens put on hold commitment to an identity while exploring the options.

Individual identity development is influenced by how they resolved all of the previous childhood psychosocial crises, and this adolescent stage is a bridge between the past and the future, childhood, and adulthood. Thus, in Erikson’s view, an adolescent’s central questions are, “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” Identity formation was highlighted as the primary indicator of successful development during adolescence (in contrast to role confusion, which would be an indicator of not successfully meeting the task of adolescence). This crisis is resolved positively with identity achievement and the gain of fidelity (ability to be faithful) as a new virtue when adolescents have reconsidered the goals and values of their parents and culture. Some adolescents adopt the values and roles that their parents expect for them. Other teens develop identities that are in opposition to their parents but align with a peer group. This change is common as peer relationships become a central focus in adolescents’ lives.

The culmination of this exploration is a more coherent view of oneself. Those who are unsuccessful at resolving this stage may withdraw further into social isolation or become lost in the crowd. However, more recent research suggests that few leave this age period with identity achievement and that most identity formation occurs during young adulthood (Côtè, 2006).

Marcia’s Identity Statuses

Expanding on Erikson’s theory, Marcia (1966) described identity formation during adolescence as involving both exploration and commitment with respect to ideologies and occupations (e.g., religion, politics, career, relationships, gender roles). Identity development begins when individuals identify with role models who provide them with options to explore for whom they can become. As identity development progresses, adolescents are expected to make choices and commit to options within the confines of their social contexts. In some cases, options are not provided or are limited, and the individual will fail to commit or will commit without the opportunity to explore various options (Marcia, 1980).

Identity confusion/diffusion occurs when adolescents neither explore nor commit to any identities. Foreclosure occurs when an individual commits to an identity without exploring options.  A moratorium is a state in which adolescents are actively exploring options but have not yet made commitments. As mentioned earlier, individuals who have explored different options, discovered their purpose, and have made identity commitments are in a state of identity achievement.

Figure 8.3.2. Marcia’s identity statuses. Adapted from Discovering the Lifespan, by R. S. Feldman, 2009.

The least mature status, and one common in many children, is identity diffusion. Identity diffusion is a status that characterizes those who have neither explored the options nor made a commitment to an identity. Marcia (1980) proposed that when individuals enter the identity formation process, they have little awareness or experience with identity exploration or the expectation to commit to an identity. This period of identity diffusion is typical of children and young adolescents, but adolescents are expected to move out of this stage as they are exposed to role models and experiences that present them with identity possibilities. Those who persist in this identity may drift aimlessly with little connection to those around them or have little sense of purpose in life. Characteristics associated with prolonged diffusion include low self-esteem, easily influenced by peers, lack of meaningful friendships, little commitment, or fortitude in activities or relationships, self-absorbed, and self-indulgent.

Those in identity foreclosure have committed to an identity without having explored the options. Often, younger adolescence will enter a phase of foreclosure where they may, at least preliminarily, commit to an identity without an investment in the exploration process. This commitment is often a response to anxiety about uncertainty or change during adolescence or pressure from parents, social groups, or cultural expectations. It is expected that most adolescents will progress beyond the foreclosure phase as they can think independently, and we multiple identity options. However, sometimes foreclosure will persist into late adolescence or even adulthood.

In some cases, parents may make these decisions for their children and do not grant the teen the opportunity to make choices. In other instances, teens may strongly identify with parents and others in their life and wish to follow in their footsteps. Characteristics associated with prolonged foreclosure well-behaved and obedient children with a high need for approval, authoritarian parenting style, low levels of tolerance or acceptance of change, high levels of conformity, and conventional thinking.

During high school and college years, teens and young adults move from identity diffusion and foreclosure toward moratorium and achievement. The most significant gains in the development of identity are in college, as college students are exposed to a greater variety of career choices, lifestyles, and beliefs. This experience is likely to spur on questions regarding identity. A great deal of the identity work we do in adolescence and young adulthood is about values and goals, as we strive to articulate a personal vision or dream for what we hope to accomplish in the future (McAdams, 2013).

Identity moratorium is a status that describes those who are actively exploring in an attempt to establish an identity but have yet to have made any commitment. This time can be an anxious and emotionally tense period as the adolescent experiments with different roles and explores various beliefs. Nothing is guaranteed, and there are many questions, but few answers. This moratorium phase is the precursor to identity achievement. During the moratorium period, it is normal for adolescents to be rebellious and uncooperative, avoid dealing with problems, procrastinate, experience low self-esteem, feel anxious, and uncertain about decisions.

Identity achievement refers to those who, after exploration, have committed. Identity achievement is a long process and is not often realized by the end of adolescence. Individuals that do reach identity achievement feel self-acceptance, stable self-definition, and are committed to their identity.

While Marcia’s statuses help us understand the process of developing identity, there are several criticisms of this theory. First, identity status may not be global; different aspects of your identity may be in different statuses. An individual may be in multiple identity statuses at the same time for different aspects of identity. For example, one could be in the foreclosure status for their religious identity, but in moratorium for career identity, and achievement for gender identity.

Further, identity statuses do no always develop in the sequence described above, although it is the most common progression. Not all people will reach identity achievement in all aspects of their identity, and not all may remain in identity achievement. There may be a third aspect of identity development, beyond exploration and commitment, and that is the reconsideration of commitment. This addition would create a fifth status, searching moratorium. This status is a re-exploring after a commitment has been made (Meesus et al., 2012). It is not usual that commitments to aspects of our identity may change as we gain experiences, and more options become available to explore. This searching moratorium may continue well into adulthood.

Video 8.3.2. Macia’s Stages of Adolescent Identity Development summarizes the various identity statuses and how an individual may move through them.

Supporting identity development

As the process of identity development can be a confusing and challenging period, how can adults support adolescents through this process? First, affirm that the anxiety, doubts, and confusion are reasonable and that most teens do not complete identity achievement before graduating high school. Exposing adolescents to various role models can help them imagine different roles or options for their future selves. Role models can come from within the family, schools, or community. Adults should talk with adolescents about their values, goals, and identities to help build awareness. They may be interested to know how others made decisions while developing their own identities. Finally, support the commitments that adolescents have made. Identity commitments can help someone feel grounded and less confused while they engage in identity exploration.

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