Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson was the first professional to describe and use the concept of ego identity in his writings on what constitutes healthy personality development for every individual over the course of the life span. Basic to Erikson’s view, as well as those of many later identity writers, is the understanding that identity enables one to move with purpose and direction in life, and with a sense of inner sameness and continuity over time and place. Erikson considered identity to be psychosocial in nature, formed by the intersection of individual biological and psychological capacities in combination with the opportunities and supports offered by one’s social context. Identity normally becomes a central issue of concern during adolescence, when decisions about future vocational, ideological, and relational issues need to be addressed; however, these key identity concerns often demand further reflection and revision during different phases of adult life as well. Identity, thus, is not something that one resolves once and for all at the end of adolescence, but rather identity may continue to evolve and change over the course of adult life too.
Following Erikson’s initial writings, subsequent theorists have laid different emphases on the role of the individual and the role of society in the identity formation process. One very popular elaboration of Erikson’s own writings on identity that retains a psychosocial focus is the identity status model of James Marcia. While Erikson had described one’s identity resolution as lying somewhere on a continuum between identity achievement and role confusion (and optimally located nearer the achievement end of the spectrum), Marcia defined four very different means by which one may approach identity-defining decisions: identity achievement (commitment following exploration), moratorium (exploration in process), foreclosure (commitment without exploration), and diffusion (no commitment with little or no exploration). These four approaches (or identity statuses) have, over many decades, been the focus of over 1,000 theoretical and research studies that have examined identity status antecedents, behavioral consequences, associated personality characteristics, patterns of interpersonal relations, and developmental forms of movement over time. A further field of study has focused on the implications for intervention that each identity status holds. Current research seeks both to refine the identity statuses and explore their dimensions further through narrative analysis.
Cornelia Wrzus and Jenny Wagner
Over the entire life span, social relationships are essential ingredients of human life. Social relationships describe regular interactions with other people over a certain period and generally include a mental representation of the relationship and the relationship partner. Social relationships cover diverse types, such as those with family members, romantic partners, friends, colleagues, as well as with other unrelated people. In general, most of these relationships change in number, contact frequency, and relationship quality during adulthood and old age. For example, both the number of and contact with friends and other unrelated people generally decrease with advancing age, whereas the number of and contact with family members remain rather stable. Relatively little is known about longitudinal changes in the quality of relationships, apart from romantic relationships, because few longitudinal studies have tracked specific relationships. Some explanatory factors, which are discussed in the literature, are (a) motivational changes, (b) reduced time due to work and family demands during adulthood, and (c) resource constraints in older age. Future work on social relationships would benefit from increasingly applying dyadic and network approaches to include the perspective of relationship partners as well as from examining online and offline contact in social relationships, which has already proved important among younger adults.
Gerben J. Westerhof and Susanne Wurm
Aging is often associated with inevitable biological decline. Yet research suggests that subjective aging—the views that people have about their own age and aging—contributes to how long and healthy lives they will have. Subjective age and self-perceptions of aging are the two most studied aspects of subjective aging. Both have somewhat different theoretical origins, but they can be measured reliably. A total of 41 studies have been conducted that examined the longitudinal health effects of subjective age and self-perceptions of aging. Across a wide range of health indicators, these studies provide evidence for the longitudinal relation of subjective aging with health and longevity. Three pathways might explain this relation: physiological, behavioral, and psychological pathways. The evidence for behavioral pathways, particularly for health behaviors, is strongest, whereas only a few studies have examined physiological pathways. Studies focusing on psychological pathways have included a variety of mechanisms, ranging from control and developmental regulation to mental health. Given the increase in the number of older people worldwide, even a small positive change in subjective aging might come with a considerable societal impact in terms of health gains.