A widely read book by Erik H. Erikson launched a set of ideas that stimulated the formulation of the concept of identity status. Writing from a psychoanalytic perspective, Erikson construed that individuals at each stage of life (e.g., infancy, childhood, adolescence, adulthood) have a crisis to resolve, with all positive resolutions enhancing the foundation of ego identity that is created during adolescence. Each society is thought to provide early enhancements of a child’s imitation and identification with parents. This process stimulates, in the early years of childhood, an identity that is based on parental ideals, values, or beliefs. But during adolescence, society offers a psychosocial moratorium for the youth to experiment with ideas about roles, values, goals, and possible commitments that could expand identity beyond parental ideals to a more self-constructed identity. During the psychosocial moratorium (i.e., a time to be free to explore personal and career goals and options), adolescents struggle with an identity crisis and formulate an identity or experience an unsettling state of role confusion and self-consciousness.
By resolving the identity crisis, an extreme occupation with self-consciousness is diminished, and a youth identifies a set of goals, values, and commitments that become the foundation for an adult identity. Identity resolution brings with it several strengths in personality, particularly, when the identity is well received by adult society and is encouraged and recognized by adults as a useful direction to life. This recognition can occur through ceremonies, rituals, or rites of passage (e.g., graduation, scout badges, or communion).
James Marcia used Erikson’s theory to devise a concept and research tool to assess identity. The identity-status paradigm utilizes Erikson’s concepts of crisis and identity commitments. Crisis means a turning point, a time for action, a period of exploration and discovery. Identity commitments refer to the establishment of goals, accepted values, and faith of the use and importance of ideologies (such as capitalism, denominational faith, or political party affiliation). When crisis or exploration is crossed with commitments, four identity statuses are defined. These identity statuses are labeled diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement. Diffusion status represents a person who has little or no sense of crisis or exploration and no firm set of commitments. Foreclosure represents an individual who has accepted commitments but not based on exploration or searching. The foreclosed person has commitments based on parental or adult values without the experience of exploration. This form of identity is mostly based in imitation, identification with parental ideals, and conformity without critical inspection. The moratorium status involves a person who is in a deep state of exploration and discovery but is not ready to make lifelong commitments. Identity achievement is the pinnacle of identity development. Individuals who report a state of exploration and firm commitments are identity achieved.
Identity statuses are categories of four different states in identity formation. Therefore, identity statuses are a set of typologies. Four identity statuses are readily found in any population of adolescents or emerging adults. Furthermore, over time and with increasing maturity, a youth can evolve into another typology. Most longitudinal evidence suggests that diffused youth can become foreclosed or move into a moratorium status. And most moratorium-status youth become identity achieved. However, youth can also reverse their growth from moratorium back to diffusion or maybe foreclosure. Also, identity-achieved individuals can return to moratorium but usually mature back into a new form of identity-achievement status. There is always a possibility of progression to more exploration, commitment, or both, but regression is possible where a youth reverses direction to a simpler or less complex form of identity.
Each identity status is associated with very different kinds of personal and social characteristics. Diffused youth tend to be isolated; conform to peer pressure; go along with fads; manifest depression, self-consciousness, and lower self-esteem; and are likely to engage in delinquent or criminal acts. The absence of values and goals leave the diffused youth vulnerable to undesirable social influences. Foreclosed youth conform to current social norms or rules, are rigid, and have shallow or pseudo intimacy with their friends and romantic partners. Moratorium youths are inclined to be anxious, have positive self-concepts, feel incomplete and in need of direction, but have good emotional relationships with others. Identity-achieved youth are goal directed, make judgments about life from a firm set of values, and manifest many positive personality characteristics indicative of positive mental health. They also have intimate and mature social relationships with peers and opposite-sex partners.
Identity achievement is associated with several positive ego mechanisms or cognitive operations. Identity-achieved youth have greater understanding of the self, have goals and directions in life, feel they are consistent and coherent as a person, see themselves as having free will to choose who they are or can become, and see that their futures have many positive possibilities. The other identity statuses have very little of these ego-identity strengths. Identity achievement also brings a feeling of fidelity, that is, a feeling that whatever they commit to will be received positively by others.
There are several social conditions that enhance identity achievement with its states of exploration and commitment. Parenting that is warm, democratic, and allows for increasing emotional and physical autonomy as a youth matures is connected with identity achievement. Schools that provide supportive and involved faculty are facilitative of identity achievement. Positive peer relationships, whereby the adolescent feels he or she matters to friends, are associated with identity achievement.
Each of the forms of identity can also be unproductive in certain social contexts. Diffused status makes it very difficult for adolescents and emerging adults to profit from educational environments. Foreclosed youth become anxious and depressed when their personal values are threatened or when they lose close relationships that force them to move on. Moratorium youth are anxious and unhappy in environments that demand conformity and little or no room for exploration. Identity-achieved youth become uncertain and self-conscious when they find their firm goals and values are not proving to help them achieve success.
- Adams, G. R. (1999). The objective measure of ego identity status: A manual on theory and test construction. Retrieved from http://www.uoguelph.ca/~gadams/
- Adams, G. R., Gullotta, T. P., & Montemayor, R. (1992). Adolescent identity formation. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.
- Marcia, J. E., Waterman, A., Matteson, D., Archer, S., & Orlofsky, J. (1993). Ego identity: A handbook for psychosocial research. New York: Springer.
- Schwartz, S. J. (2001). The evolution of Eriksonian and neo-Eriksonian identity theory and research: A review and integration. Identity, 1(1), 7-58.