Identity Development

Identity development is the complex process by which people come to develop a sense and understanding of themselves within the context of cultural demands and social norms. Identity development has been seen historically as a primary developmental task of adolescence—the transition from dependency in childhood to increasing responsibility for one’s own needs, interests, drives, aspirations, and desires in adulthood. This transition involves a cognitive reorganization in how youth think about themselves in relation to others as they gain physical, social, and psychological maturity. However, societal and historical shifts have complicated the developmental markers for adolescence, causing the demarcation of adolescence to become difficult to define. Additionally, despite being associated with adolescence, identity development is an ongoing process that continues throughout adulthood where one forms an identity within a larger and transitional cultural context. For example, changes in the body due to puberty, shifts in sociocultural context due to war or the civil rights movement, changes in individual role responsibility due to parenthood or divorce, and changes in cognitive processing due to aging support a life-span view of identity formation. Moreover, cultural factors such as race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexual orientation also affect the identity formation that take place on the way to and through adulthood.

Historically, psychological theories of identity development date back to Sigmund Freud’s psychosexual stages of development, which describe underlying motivations and impulses that shape the sense of self. However, Erich Fromm suggests that identity is more fluid than characterized by Freud and involves an awareness of oneself as a separate individual, in addition to a sense of agency and self-efficacy in one’s own actions in the context of social group norms. Fromm’s view also supports a view where identity formation begins prior to adolescence, when the development of a sense of self that is separate from parental figures begins and extends into adulthood, when agency and a sense of self-efficacy may be challenged with new life roles. These differences between Freud’s and Fromm’s seminal theories have led to two divergent views of identity formation in contemporary theories: the structural stage models of identity development and the more fluid and nonlinear sociocultural models of identity development.

Stage Models of Identity Development

Erik H. Erikson is the seminal figure in the area of identity development, having formulated a compelling conceptualization of development across the life span. Extending Freud’s psychosexual model, Erikson introduced a psychosocial model of identity development drawing from disciplines such as anthropology and social ecology. He was one of the first theorists to consider the development of personality as a lifelong process and identified eight developmental stages beginning at birth and extending throughout the life span. Each of the stages presents new “tasks,” or conflicts, that influence the ongoing process of identity development. The ability to negotiate conflicts successfully during each of the stages results in the development of psychological resources, which serve as the foundation for a fully integrated sense of self.

Although identity developmental tasks are encountered across the life span, identity development has been considered the primary psychosocial task of adolescence or, as characterized by Erikson, identity versus identity confusion. Adolescence is a time when, according to Erikson, individuals begin to integrate their childhood experiences, inner drives, opportunities, abilities, and social values into a sense of who they are as individuals. Within this framework, the central task of this stage is to develop a stable and authentic personal identity. Identity formation is stimulated by adolescents accelerating their psychological, physical, and social individuation from the family. Through investment in peer groups and observations of role models, adolescents learn to develop a sense of self that can be valued and shared with others.

The process of establishing an identity is not, however, easy. Adolescents, faced with many important adult and life-changing responsibilities, can become confused about their role both personally and professionally and may become unable to resolve their identity conflicts. Consequently, doubt may begin to develop about the adolescent’s ability to find a valued place in society. If pervasive, these doubts may lead to some form of identity confusion. According to Erikson, a phenomenon that reduces identity confusion is called identity commitment.

Commitment is a form of allegiance to values and ideologies. Adolescents explore alternative viewpoints and select principles that best fit their moral standards, values, and ideals. The adolescent’s fidelity to his or her ideals helps forge important bonds that help create a sense of security and stability to navigate through the doubts associated with identity confusion and progress toward identity achievement. Research has shown that being high on commitment makes for greater sense of stability, or adjustment. For example, research in vocational development confirms that commitment to career goals is associated with identity development.

One criticism of this stage and most other stage models is that the terms are vague and difficult to operationalize, making the models difficult to measure empirically. However, researchers such as Anne Constantinople and Allen Waterman, among others, have extensively examined identity development and have found some empirical evidence supporting the validity of Erikson’s model. Another criticism is that the stage model does not account for individual or cross-cultural differences; thus, it may not be applicable across different sociocultural contexts. Additionally, the model does not account for the sometimes nonlinear or cyclical movement among the various stages, which has been found to occur.

James E. Marcia, in 1966, expanded Erikson’s conceptualization by including the concept of status regression, which allowed for the movement of identity to shift from a higher-order status to a lower-order status. Status regression is supported in the developmental research as being part of the normative and continuous process of identity development. Marcia also extended Erikson’s model by delineating an ego identity status paradigm, which suggests that individuals experience identity crises involving a process of questioning, reflecting, and working through individual stages of conflict. Resolving these identity crises facilitates higher-order development, whereas not resolving them may lead to regression or becoming stuck in a particular status. The four components of Marcia’s status model are identity diffusion, moratorium, foreclosure, and identity achievement.

Identity Diffusion

This status classifies people who are not committed to a set of values, ideals, and so forth, and are not actively searching for an identity, which leads to an identity that is poorly defined and rather diffuse, as the name suggests. These individuals may seem to drift aimlessly. Research has demonstrated that people who have fulfilled the exploration-commitment process tend to be more interpersonally competent and mature than those who are diffused. Diffusion is considered to be the least advanced of the statuses followed by foreclosure, moratorium, and identity achievement. It is also generally considered that individuals will develop greater identity achievement with age and that relatively few in later adolescence will be diffused.


This status is marked by individuals who are actively searching identity alternatives and have not yet committed to an identity. These individuals tend to be ambivalent about achieving an identity and may oscillate between rebellion and conformity. Furthermore, these individuals struggle to find answers and explore various roles. Consequently, they may try different roles in a temporary and uncommitted fashion and have difficulty firmly deciding on a given set of beliefs, values, or aspirations. Because these individuals are actively exploring new ways of being, they are on the path to identity achievement. However, because moratorium involves much ambiguity—particularly in cultures and societies that value decisiveness, commitment, and goal-directed behavior—these individuals tend to score high on measures of anxiety.


This is the status most commonly endorsed during early adolescence and typically declines with age. Foreclosed individuals have committed to an identity without having explored other options. These individuals tend not to be anxious and appear goal directed, yet tend to be inflexible and defensive. They are strongly committed, though their commitments are not intrinsic. Rather, their sense of self is often based on the desires or values of family, peers, teachers, religious figures, or media personalities. Consequently, their identity commitment does not reflect an authentic expression of self but of conformity to others’ values. Consequently, they may not progress to the identity-achieved status.

Identity Achievement

Individuals in this status have explored various alternative identities and have committed to an identity. These individuals are thought to have successfully negotiated the psychosocial task of adolescence, negotiated the challenges of moratorium, and coped with identity crises. As a result, they have made a firm commitment to a given identity and are able to articulate how and why they have decided upon their particular choices. Individuals develop a comfort with themselves and their life direction. Furthermore, individuals are able to accept their limitations and appreciate their individual strengths. Identity-achieved individuals tend to score high on measures of moral development, autonomy, and creativity and perform well under stress.

Marcia identified another factor essential for the development of a mature identity in addition to commitment: exploration. Exploration refers to an individual’s active questioning of various alternatives for their identity. Exploration also involves the concept of self-efficacy, which suggests, according to Nancy Betz and Gail Hackett, that individuals who approach specific tasks with a sense of competence and confidence tend to be more engaged in the task and have more positive outcomes.

Nonlinear Identity Development Models

Departing from the clearly delineated stage models, nonlinear models are more integrative in nature and may more accurately reflect cross-cultural identity shifts. Michael D. Berzonsky’s social cognitive model of identity emphasized the differences in the sociocultural processes used by individuals to construct, conserve, and accommodate their identities. Berzonsky described three identity orientations: informational, normative, and diffuse/avoidant. Information-oriented individuals actively seek out and process information that is relevant to their identity transition. The normative identity orientation describes those who conform to the expectations and desires of authority figures. These individuals tend to disregard information that conflicts with their beliefs or values and thus appear unreceptive to differing views. Finally, diffuse/avoidant individuals tend to display an unwillingness to confront the problems and challenges associated with identity development.

Berzonsky also described the context of the attributes one uses to define one’s own identity development. As a result, he identified three identity orientations: (1) social identity, which is rooted in public self-image and includes factors such as reputation, popularity, and the impressions one manages for others; (2) personal identity, which includes private self-attributes such as values, goals, and psychological makeup; and (3) collective identity, which is grounded in extended social groups such as family, community, nation, and racial and ethnic groups. Berzonsky’s view of social, personal, and collective group identification as three layers of one’s identity that are negotiated in the process of identity formation highlights the importance of models that take into account diverse cross-cultural experiences. Particularly important are the racial identity and ethnic identity development models, in addition to emerging models of social identity and social class.

William Cross’s 1991 theory of Nigrescence, Janet Helms’s 1990 theory of racial identity development, and Jean S. Phinney’s 1996 theory of ethnic identity development have all expanded and redefined the meaning of identity development within the context of a cross-cultural society. These models of sociocultural identity development all can be integrated into Berzonsky’s three identity orientations of social, personal, and collective identity. The social layer involves the racial and ethnic perceptions and behaviors of others, the personal layer involves the racial perception of self, and the collective layer involves the larger societal view of one’s own racial and ethnic group. The racial identity and ethnic identity models also allow for fluid progression and regression within the delineated stages and are shaped by exposure to, and internalization of, various cross-cultural interactions. These interactions may include oppressive experiences and positive cross-cultural experiences during the life span.

Additionally, Henri Tajfel and John Turner proposed the social identity theory perspective, which suggests that cross-cultural identity is affected by the psychological processes that take place when one identifies with a group. Social identity theory posits that when someone identifies with a group, the person develops bias in favor of the ingroup and bias against other groups that may be seen as in competition with the ingroup. Identification with a group has been linked with an increased level of self-esteem and sense of positive ingroup racial attitudes. Social identity theory has been successfully applied to the study of racial identity and has been empirically supported for separate groups, including Latinos/as, Asians, and African Americans.

Another layer of identity that is often salient within an individual is social class status, which may also affect one’s identity development in a cross-cultural society. Social class identity development as described by Lee Nelson and colleagues occurs as one has experiences within the context of the particular social class in which the individual begins to identify. Over time these experiences become internalized and lead to identity shifts throughout adulthood that occur so that new experiences confirm the internalized beliefs the individual has developed about himself or herself. Ultimately, an individual learns to conform to the behavioral, attitudinal, and value-based expectations of his or her internalized class. Nelson and colleagues found that nearly all of the participants in their study described experiences of social isolation and deprivation when trying to move up in social class through higher education, which may have a large impact on the identity that is developed.

New Advances in Identity Development

A criticism of the models of identity development that articulate linear forms of development is that they reflect a conflict-based model where an individual (particularly an adolescent or an individual not exposed to other groups) navigates between stages of either identifying or not identifying with others’ views to arrive at a stage in which there is no longer this internal conflict and one has actualized his or her own identity. The new models of identity development conceptualize identity development as multidimensional and transitional given the context. These new models depart from conflict-based models and involve acceptance of the transitional and fluid nature of identity at any given moment.

In 1998 Robert M. Sellers and colleagues introduced the multidimensional model of racial identity, which is a multidimensional and integrated model of identity development and includes the fluid concept of saliency in identity development. More specifically, the extent to which one’s own racial or ethnic group becomes an integral part of one’s identity depends on the saliency of the attribute to the individual. The multidimensional model of racial identity takes into consideration the multitude of salient groups that an individual may identify with (e.g., gender, age, race, occupation). This integrative theory is an important departure from the stage models of identity development. It allows for flexibility across different particular cultural contexts for the individual to choose which aspect of identity becomes salient.

In 2001 Daniel P. McAdams added an important component to the area through his narrative view of identity development. McAdams’s life story model of identity states that individuals create stories about themselves and weave their own stories as they selectively remember and recount episodes that are salient to them. McAdams posited that people tell and retell their own life stories in social contexts, and these stories can be seen as a way of negotiating how they have thought of themselves throughout time.

Specifically, according to McAdams, the I is the narrator that creates the story and the me is the self-concept that is created as a result. This narrative approach model, steeped in cross-cultural and societal processes, facilitates an integrative view using the individual as the source and context for his or her own identity development given the various stages and happenings that have been most salient to them. In McAdams’s model, identity is formed not through resolving conflicts, as suggested by Erikson, or choices, as suggested by Marcia, but through creating authentic narratives about the self. Overall, McAdams’s and Erikson’s approaches suggest that identity development is fluid and influenced by both intrapersonal psychological processes and interpersonal societal experiences throughout the life span.

Implications for Counseling

With the multiple theoretical approaches to identity development and the multiplicity of cultural factors that impact identity development, shifts inherent throughout the process of identity formation have important implications for counselors. Counselors can facilitate clients’ identity searching and committing to identity alternatives as well as recognize the normative stress involved in identity exploration. By encouraging identity development, clients can develop an authentic sense of self that is able to accommodate the different experiences clients have had and will have throughout their lives. Thus, by gaining an understanding of clients’ identity development, counselors learn how the clients’ cultural worldview and view of self impacts the framework through which the client understands his or her presenting concerns, which may serve to facilitate the therapeutic alliance and the growth and healing of the client.

Future Directions

The view of identity development as being multidimensional has been supported in the racial and ethnic identity development research, yet identity development differences between those in an individualistic society and those in a collectivistic society have not been sufficiently investigated. It has been suggested that the psychosocial process of individuation occurs differently for men and women and perhaps differently across different cultural contexts. For example, those from individualistic societies are typically taught to value autonomy and independence from an early age. Yet those from collectivistic cultures learn to value relationships and connectedness, indicating potential variances within the identity development processes of those with both cultures. Future identity research could explore the vicissitudes of identity development across contexts as well as the consistencies across contexts.

Additionally, the process of sexual identity development warrants more study. There have been extensive studies on sexual body development in adolescence; however, the psychological processes that take place as relationships with same- and opposite-sex friends and partners are forged have not been fully studied. Furthermore, the stigmatization and negotiation within a social network where one’s sexual orientation may not be readily distinguishable, and the effect this may have on an individual’s identity, warrant further study.


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