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date: 22 October 2017

Identity Development in Adolescence and Adulthood

Summary and Keywords

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.

Keywords: Identity, identity status, identity formation, adolescence, adulthood, Erikson

We know what we are, but not what we may be.

Shakespeare, Hamlet

The question of what constitutes identity has been answered differently through different historical epochs and through different theoretical and empirical approaches to understanding identity’s form and functions. However, basic to all identity definitions is an attempt to understand the entity that, ideally, enables one to move with purpose and direction in life and with a sense of internal coherence and continuity over time and place. Despite the changing physique that aging inevitably brings and the changing environmental circumstances that one invariably encounters through life, a well-functioning identity enables one to experience feelings of personal meaning and well-being and to find satisfying and fulfilling engagements in one’s social context. The means by which one experiences a feeling of sameness in the midst of continual change is the focus of identity theory and research.

Historically, concerns with questions of identity are relatively recent. Baumeister and Muraven (1996) and Burkitt (2011) have noted how changes in Western society, specifically the degree to which society has dictated one’s adult roles, have varied enormously over time. Additional changes have occurred in the loosening of social guidelines, restrictions, and constraints, such that contemporary late adolescents experience almost unlimited freedom of choice in their assumption of adult roles and values. In Medieval times, adolescents and adults were prescribed an identity by society in a very direct manner. Social rank and the kinship networks into which one was born set one’s adult roles for life. In early modern times, wealth rather than kinship networks became the standard for self-definition. In the first half of the twentieth century, apprenticeship systems that prepared adolescents for one specific line of work were giving way to more liberal forms of education, thus preparing adolescents for a broad range of occupational pathways. A more liberal educational system, however, eventually required occupational choice in line with one’s own interests and capacities. In addition, many regions in the United States became more tolerant of diversity in attitudes and values, and gender roles became more fluid. Thus, by the middle of the twentieth century in the United States and many other Western nations, the burden of creating an adult identity was now falling largely on the shoulders of late adolescents themselves.

Into this twentieth century United States context came Erik Erikson, a German immigrant (escaping Hitler’s rise to power) and psychoanalyst, trained by Anna Freud. Erikson began his clinical work and writings on optimal personality development in the Boston area, focusing, in particular, on the concept of identity and identity crisis. As an immigrant, Erikson was acutely attuned to the role of the social context and its influence on individual personality development, and, as a psychoanalyst, he was also adept at understanding the roles of conscious as well as unconscious motivations, desires, and intentions, as well as biological drives on individual behavior.

Erikson (1963) first used the term “ego identity” to describe a central disturbance among some of his veteran patients returning from World War II with a diagnosis of “shell shock” (or currently, post-traumatic stress disorder), who seemed to be experiencing a loss of self-sameness and continuity in their lives:

What impressed me most was the loss in these men of a sense of identity. They knew who they were; they had a personal identity. But it was as if subjectively, their lives no longer hung together—and never would again. There was a central disturbance in what I then started to call ego identity.

(Erikson, 1963, p. 42)

Through identity’s absence in the lives of these young men, Erikson came to understand the tripartite nature of identity, that he believed to be comprised of biological, psychological, and social factors. It was often a particular moment in a soldier’s life history where soma, psyche, and society conspired to endanger identity foundations that necessitated clinical care. And, thus, it was through disruptions to individual identity that Erikson more clearly came to understand identity’s form and functions.

Erikson has often been referred to as “identity’s architect” (e.g., Friedman, 1999), and his initial writings on identity served as the springboard for many later theorists and researchers to examine further identity’s many dimensions. Erikson’s psychosocial approach will thus serve as the organizing framework for a review of research on identity development during adolescent and adult life.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Orientation

Erikson’s (1963, 1968) understanding of identity views the phenomenon as a result of the mutual interaction of individual and context; while individual interests and capacities, wishes and desires draw individuals to particular contexts, those contexts, in turn, provide recognition (or not) of individual identity and are critical to its further development. Erikson stressed the important interactions among the biological, psychological, and social forces for optimal personality development. He suggested a series of eight psychosocial tasks over the course of the life span that follow an epigenetic principle, such that resolution to one task sets the foundation for all that follow. Identity vs. Role Confusion is the fifth psychosocial task that Erikson identified, becoming of primary importance during adolescence. Resolution to preceding tasks of Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Doubt and Shame, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority are the foundations upon which one’s resolution to Identity vs. Role Confusion is based, according to Erikson; resolution to subsequent adult tasks of Intimacy vs. Role Confusion, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair all similarly depend upon resolution to the Identity vs. Role Confusion task of adolescence.

Erikson (1963, 1968) postulated a number of key identity concepts that have served as foundations for much subsequent identity research. For Erikson, identity formation involves finding a meaningful identity direction on a continuum between identity attainment and role confusion. The process of identity formation requires identity exploration and commitment, the synthesis of childhood identifications into a new configuration, related to but different from, the sum of its parts. The identity formation process is extremely arduous for some, and the resolutions of a negative identity or identity foreclosure are two means by which the identity formation process can be bypassed. A negative identity involves identity choices based on roles and values that represent polar opposites of those espoused by one’s family and/or immediate community. Thus, the daughter of a Midwestern minister of religion runs away to become a prostitute in inner city Chicago. A foreclosed identity resolution also avoids the identity formation process by basing identity-defining choices on key identifications, mostly with parental values, without exploring potential alternatives.

Erikson (1963, 1968) also proposed several further concepts for optimal identity development. A moratorium process, the active consideration and exploration of future possible identity-defining adult roles and values, was considered vital to optimal identity development. Erikson also became well known for his use of the term identity crisis, an acute period of questioning one’s own identity directions. And finally, Erikson stressed that while an initial resolution to the Identity vs. Role Confusion task often occurs during adolescence, identity is never resolved once and for all, but rather remains open to modifications and alterations throughout adult life. The strength of Erikson’s approach lies in its consideration of both individual and sociocultural factors and their mutual interaction in identity construction and development. Erikson’s model of identity development has wide applicability across cultural contexts and highlights the ongoing nature of identity development throughout adulthood. Weaknesses include his imprecise language, which at times makes operationalization of key concepts difficult, and his historically dated concepts regarding women’s identity development.

While other psychosocial models have evolved from Erikson’s original writings (e.g., Whitbourne’s [2002] identity processing theory, Berzonsky’s [2011] social cognitive identity styles, McAdams’s [2008] narrative approach), it is Erikson’s identity formation concepts, particularly those operationalized by Marcia (1966) (Marcia, Waterman, Matteson, Archer, & Orlofsky, 1993) that have generated an enormous volume of empirical research over past decades and will be the primary focus of subsequent sections of this article.

Erikson’s Psychosocial Approach and Marcia’s Identity Status Model

As a young Ph.D. student in clinical psychology, James Marcia was interested in Erikson’s writings but suspected that the process of identity formation during late adolescence to be somewhat more complicated than what Erikson (1963) had originally proposed. While Erikson had conceptualized an identity resolution as lying on a continuum between identity and role confusion, an entity that one had “more or less of,” Marcia proposed that there were four qualitatively different pathways by which late adolescents or young adults went about the process of forming an identity. Based on the presence or absence of exploration and commitment around several issues important to identity development during late adolescence, Marcia (1966; Marcia et al., 1993) developed a semi-structured Identity Status Interview to identify four identity pathways, or identity statuses, among late adolescent or young adult interviewees.

An individual in the identity achieved status had explored various identity-defining possibilities and had made commitments on his or her own terms, trying to match personal interests, talents, and values with those available in the environmental context. Equally committed to an identity direction was the foreclosed individual, who had formed an identity, but without undergoing an exploration process. This person’s identity had been acquired primarily through the process of identification—by assuming the identity choices of significant others without serious personal consideration of alternative possibilities. An individual in the moratorium identity status was very much in the process of identity exploration, seeking meaningful life directions but not yet making firm commitments and often experiencing considerable discomfort in the process. Someone in the diffusion identity status had similarly not made identity-defining commitments and was not attempting to do so.

Marcia et al.’s (1993) Identity Status Interview was designed to tap the areas (or domains) of occupation, political, religious, and sexual values that had been described by Erikson as key to the identity formation process. In Marcia’s view, however, the nature of the identity domain was not as critical to the assessment of identity status as was finding the identity-defining issues most salient to any given individual. Marcia suggested the use of clinical judgment in assigning a global identity status, the mode that seemed to best capture an adolescent’s identity formation process. It must be noted that Marcia and his colleagues (Marcia et al., 1993) have never attempted to capture all of the rich dimensions of identity outlined by Erikson through the Identity Status Interview; such a task would be unwieldy, if not impossible. Marcia does, however, build on Erikson’s concepts of identity exploration and comment to elaborate these identity dimensions in relation to those psychosocial roles and values identified by Erikson as key to the identity formation process of many late adolescents.

Subsequent to the original Identity Status Interview, several paper-and-pencil measures were developed to assess Marcia’s four identity statuses. One widely used measure has been the Extended Objective Measure of Ego Identity Status (EOM-EIS II), devised and revised through several versions by Adams and his colleagues (Adams, Bennion, & Huh, 1989; Adams & Ethier, 1999). This questionnaire measure enables identity status assessments in four ideological (occupation, religion, politics, philosophy of life) and four interpersonal domains (friendships, dating, gender roles, recreation/leisure), as well as providing a global rating.

Different dimensions of identity exploration and commitment processes have also been identified through several recent and expanded identity status models (Luyckx, Goossens, Soenens, & Beyers, 2006; Crocetti, Rubini, & Meeus, 2008). Luyckx and his colleagues differentiated two types of exploration (exploration in breadth and exploration in depth) and two types of commitment (commitment making and identification with commitment). Exploration in breadth is that moratorium process identified by Marcia, while exploration in depth describes the process of considering a commitment already made and how well it expresses one’s own identity. Commitment making refers to deciding an identity-defining direction, while identification with commitment describes the process of integrating one’s commitments into an internal sense of identity. Later, Luyckx and his colleagues (Luyckx, Schwartz, Berzonsky, Soenens, Vansteenkiste, Smits, et al., 2008) also identified a process of ruminative exploration.

Meeus and his colleagues (e.g., Crocetti, Rubini, & Meeus, 2008) also identified three identity processes: commitment, exploration in depth, and reconsideration of commitments. Commitment here refers to the dimensions of commitment making and identification with commitment in the Luyckx, Goossens, Soenens, and Beyers (2006) model; exploration in depth corresponds to that dimension in the Luyckx model. Reconsideration of commitment refers to one’s willingness to replace current commitments with new ones. In this model, commitment and reconsideration reflect identity certainty and uncertainty, respectively, in the identity formation process.

Through cluster analysis, these two groups of researchers have extracted clusters that match all of Marcia’s original identity statuses. In addition, Luyckx and his colleagues (Luyckx, Goossens, Soenens, Beyers, & Vansteenkiste, 2005) identified two types of diffusion—troubled and carefree—while Meeus, van de Schoot, Keijsers, Schwartz, and Branje (2010) found two types of moratoriums—classical (where the individual exhibits anxiety and depression in the identity exploration process) and searching (where new commitments are considered without discarding present commitments). Work has now begun to explore the identity formation process during adolescence and young adulthood with these refined identity statuses, which hold interesting implications for understanding both adaptive and non-adaptive identity development.

Over the time since Marcia’s initial studies, the identity statuses have been examined in relation to personality and behavioral correlates, relationship styles, and developmental patterns of change over time. Most of the studies reviewed in subsequent sections address some aspect of identity development during adolescence or young adulthood; a later section will focus on identity development research during adulthood. It must be further noted that discussion of identity statuses here will be limited to general (or global) identity and its relationship to associated variables.

Personality and Behavioral Correlates of the Identity Statuses

Work utilizing Marcia’s original identity status model, as well as its more recent refinements, have focused on personality and behavioral variables associated with each identity status in order to help validate the model; such studies have produced some reasonably consistent results over time. In terms of personality variables associated with the identity statuses, Kroger and her colleagues (e.g., Martinussen & Kroger, 2013) have produced a series of findings utilizing techniques of meta-analysis. Meta-analysis is a “study of studies,” using statistical procedures to examine (sometimes contradictory) results from different individual studies addressing comparable themes over time. Results from such meta-analytic studies allow greater confidence in results than a narrative review of individual studies can provide. The personality variables of self-esteem, anxiety, locus of control, authoritarianism, moral reasoning, and ego development and their relations to identity status have attracted sufficient studies for meta-analyses to be undertaken and are described in the sections that follow. While a number of other personality variables have also been examined in identity status studies over the past decades, their numbers have been insufficient to enable meta-analytic studies.

An initial database for all studies included in the meta-analytic work described in the following sections was comprised of some 565 English-language studies (287 journal publications and 278 doctoral dissertations) identified from PsycInfo, ERIC, Sociological Abstracts, and Dissertation Abstracts International databases, using the following search terms: identity and Marcia, identity and Marcia’s, and ego identity. Cohen’s (1988) criteria were used to define small, medium, and large effect sizes. In some of the meta-analyses that follow, different methods were used to assess identity status (categorical ratings of identity status and scale measures of identity status). Separate meta-analyses had to be undertaken for studies utilizing each of these two types of identity status assessments for statistical reasons.


Ryeng, Kroger, and Martinussen (2013a) undertook meta-analytic studies of the relationship between identity status and global self-esteem. A total of twelve studies with 1,124 participants provided the data for these studies. The achieved identity status was the only status to have a positive correlation with self-esteem (r = .35), considered to be moderate in effect size. Mean correlations between self-esteem and the moratorium, foreclosure, and diffusion statuses were all negative (−.23, −.23, and −.20, respectively) and considered small to moderate in effect size. All of these correlations were significantly different from zero, based on their confidence intervals. When identity status was assessed categorically, there was no difference in effect size between achievements and foreclosures on self-esteem measures. The effect size for the foreclosure-diffusion comparison ( = −0.19) was small to medium and also significant. Remaining comparisons evidenced small effect size differences in self-esteem scores. Findings here were mixed, as previous research had also produced mixed results on the question of whether foreclosure self-esteem scores would be lower than or similar to those of the identity achieved. Here, results show that only the achieved status (when the identity statuses were measured by continuous scales) produced a moderately positive correlation with self-esteem, while there was no difference in effect sizes between the achieved and foreclosed identity status when studies assessing identity status categorically were analyzed. Thus, the relationship between identity status and self-esteem may depend upon how identity status is measured.


Lillevoll, Kroger, and Martinussen (2013a) examined the relationship between identity status and generalized anxiety through meta-analysis. Twelve studies involving 2,104 participants provided data for this investigation. Effect size differences in anxiety scores for moratoriums compared with foreclosures ( = 0.39) and for the foreclosure–diffusion comparison ( = −0.40) were small to moderate. Additionally the confidence intervals for both of these effect sizes did not contain zero, indicating a significant result. A significant moderate effect size ( = 0.46) was also found in the achievement–foreclosure comparison, but for men only. As predicted, foreclosures had lower anxiety scores compared with all other identity statuses except the achievement women. While it was predicted that those in the achievement identity status would have lower anxiety scores than those in moratorium and diffusion statuses, a small but significant effect size difference was found for the achievement–moratorium comparison only ( = −0.22). Thus, the moratoriums showed higher generalized anxiety scores than foreclosures, who, in turn, showed lower anxiety scores than the diffusions and male achievements. It appears that unexamined identity commitments undertaken by the foreclosures provided relief from the anxieties and uncertainties of uncommitted identity directions experienced by the moratoriums and diffusions.

Locus of Control

Lillevoll, Kroger, and Martinussen (2013b) examined the relationship between identity status and locus of control. Some five studies with a total of 711 participants provided data for this study. A positive correlation between identity achievement and internal locus of control (r = .26) and a negative correlation between identity achievement and external locus of control (r = −.17) was found; these effect sizes are considered small to medium. The moratorium identity status was negatively correlated with internal locus of control (r = −.17) and positively with an external locus of control (r = .17), both considered small to medium effect sizes. The foreclosure status was negatively correlated the internal locus of control (r = −.12) and positively with external locus of control (r = .19), both considered small to medium effect sizes. The diffusions’ status was negatively correlated with internal locus of control (r = −.15) and positively with external locus of control (r = .23), both considered small to medium effect sizes. Apart from the moratorium findings, which were anticipated to reflect an internal locus of control, all other results were in expected directions. It appears that the ability to undertake identity explorations on one’s own terms by the identity achieved is associated with an internal locus of control. Moratorium, foreclosure, and diffusion statuses are associated with an external locus of control.


The relationship between identity status and authoritarianism was investigated by Ryeng, Kroger, and Martinussen (2013b) through meta-analysis. Some nine studies involving 861 participants provided data for this study. The mean difference between authoritarianism scores for the achievement—foreclosure comparison ( = −0.79) was large in terms of Cohen’s criteria and significant. The mean difference in authoritarianism scores for the moratorium–foreclosure comparison ( = −0.67) was medium and significant, while the mean difference in authoritarianism scores for the foreclosure and diffusion identity statuses was medium ( = 0.42) and significant. Other comparisons were relatively small and not significant. That the foreclosures scored higher on authoritarianism than all other identity statuses is consistent with expectations. Foreclosures often base their identity commitments on their identifications with significant others, rather than exploring identity options on their own terms; thus, the rigidity and intolerance of authoritarian attitudes seem to characterize the terms of their identity commitments, in contrast to the more flexible commitments of the identity achieved or moratoriums in the process of finding their own identity directions.

Ego Development

Jespersen, Kroger, and Martinussen (2013a) examined studies utilizing Loevinger’s (1976) measure of ego development in relation to the identity statuses through meta-analysis. Eleven studies involving 943 participants provided data for this investigation. Odds ratios (OR) were used to examine frequency distributions of the categorical data. Results of correlational studies showed a moderate, positive relationship between ego development and identity status (r = .35), which was significant. Results from categorical assessments of identity status also showed a strong relationship between identity status and ego development (mean OR = 3.02). This finding means that the odds of being in a postconformist level of ego development were three times greater for those high in identity statuses (achievement and moratorium) compared with those in the low identity statuses (foreclosure and diffusion). The study also found a moderate relationship between identity achievement and ego development (mean OR = 2.15), meaning that the odds of being in a postconformist level of ego development were over two times greater for those in the identity achievement status than remaining identity statuses. However, no relationship was found between the foreclosed/nonforeclosed identity statuses and the conformist/nonconformist levels of ego development, contrary to prediction (mean OR = 1.31). While results indicate a strong likelihood of being in a post-conformist level of ego development for the identity achieved and moratoriums, as one would predict, it is somewhat surprising that the foreclosure status was not associated with conventional levels of ego development. This lack of association requires further investigation.

Moral Reasoning

A meta-analysis of moral reasoning stages (using Kohlberg’s [1976] stages in relation to the identity statuses) was also undertaken by Jespersen, Kroger, and Martinussen (2013b). Some ten studies involving 884 participants provided data appropriate for this study. Results showed a small positive mean correlation (.15) between identity status and moral reasoning development, which was significant. Results from categorical assessments of both measures indicated a strong relationship between high identity status (achievement and moratorium) and postconventional levels of moral reasoning (mean OR = 4.57). This result means that the odds of being in the postconventional level of moral reasoning are about four and a half times greater for the high identity status group (achievement and moratorium) than the low (foreclosure and diffusion) group. A strong relationship was also found between the achieved identity status and the postconventional level of moral reasoning (mean OR = 8.85), meaning that the odds of being in a postconventional level of moral reasoning were almost nine times greater for the identity achieved than for other identity statuses. However, no significant relationship appeared for the foreclosed/nonforeclosed identity statuses and the conventional/nonconventional levels of moral reasoning, contrary to prediction. While a meaningful relationship was found between postconventional stages of moral reasoning and the moratorium and achievement identity statuses, it is again surprising that no relationship appeared for the foreclosed identity status and conventional levels of moral reasoning. This finding warrants further investigation.

Additional Personality and Behavioral Variables

A number of additional personality and behavioral variables have been explored in relation to the identity statuses, but no further meta-analyses have yet been undertaken. With regard to the newer, more refined measures of identity status, some additional personality and behavioral associations have been noted. Luyckx et al. (2008) found ruminative exploration related to identity distress and low self-esteem, while exploration in breadth and depth were positively related to self-reflection. Furthermore, commitment-making (particularly identification with commitment) was associated with high self-esteem, high academic and social adjustment, as well as with low depressive symptoms. Crocetti et al. (2008) similarly found strong, positive associations between commitment and self-concept clarity, in addition to strong negative associations between in-depth exploration and reconsideration of commitment with self-reflection. Emotional stability was strongly associated with commitment and negatively with in-depth exploration.

Recent work has performed cluster analyses on the exploration and commitment variables, finding four clusters replicating Marcia’s four identity statuses (with the diffusion status including carefree and diffuse diffusions) and an undifferentiated status (Schwartz et al., 2011). In terms of psychosocial functioning, achievements were significantly higher than carefree diffusions on a measure of self-esteem; diffusions, in turn, were significantly lower than all other identity statuses on this variable. On a measure of internal locus of control, achievements and moratoriums were significantly higher and carefree diffusions significantly lower than all other identity statuses. On psychological well-being, identity achievements scored significantly higher and carefree diffusions significantly lower than all other identity status groups. For general anxiety, moratoriums and the two diffusion groups scored significantly higher than achievement and foreclosure groups, while the moratoriums scored significantly higher than foreclosures and the two diffusions groups on depression. These findings are generally in line with findings of earlier studies using Marcia’s original model.

Further behavioral studies in relation to the identity statuses have consistently found the identity diffusion status to be related to psychosocial problem behaviors. Delinquent behavior (e.g., Jessor, Turbin, Costa, Dong, Zhang, & Wang, 2003; Schwartz, Pantin, Prado, Sullivan, & Szapocznik, 2005), substance abuse (e.g., Jones & Hartmann, 1988; Laghi, Baiocco, Longiro, & Baumgartner, 2013), risky behaviors (e.g., unsafe sex, Hernandez & DiClemente, 1992), social, physical aggression, and rule-breaking (carefree diffusions, Schwartz et al., 2011), and procrastination (Shanahan & Pychyl, 2006) have all been linked with the identity diffusion status. By contrast, the identity achieved have demonstrated a low prevalence of all preceding problem behaviors, coupled with high levels of agency or self-direction and commitment making (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2011; Shanahan & Pychyl, 2006). Moratoriums have also scored relatively high on levels of social and physical aggression, although they have also scored high on a number of psychosocial measures of well-being (e.g., Schwartz et al., 2011).

Relationships and the Identity Statuses

While a number of relational issues have been explored in identity status research (e.g., parental attitudes toward childrearing, family styles of communication, and friendship styles), to date, meta-analyses have been undertaken to examine identity status only in relation to attachment patterns and intimacy or romantic relationships.


Bartholomew and Horowitz (1991) have proposed that one’s very unique attachment history and subsequent working models of attachment lead to one of four different adolescent/adult attachment styles, or patterns of relating to significant others; these attachment styles become activated particularly in times of stress. Securely attached individuals are at ease in becoming close to others and do not worry about being abandoned or having someone become too close to them. Furthermore, they are interdependent—comfortable depending on others and having others depend on them. Those using the avoidant attachment style find it difficult to trust and depend on others and are uncomfortable in becoming too emotionally close. The preoccupied (anxious/ambivalent) attachment group wants to be close to others but worries that others will not reciprocate and will abandon them, while the fearful attachment group wants to be emotionally close to others but are too frightened of being hurt to realize this desire.

These varied styles of attachment have been examined in relation to Marcia’s identity statuses among adolescents and young adults in a number of studies over the past decades, and recent meta-analytic work has explored patterns of findings across studies (Årseth, Kroger, Martinussen, & Marcia, 2009). From the large database of 565 identity status studies described earlier, some 14 had data suitable for meta-analysis (a full description of the database can be found in Martinussen & Kroger, 2013). A total of 2,329 participants were involved in this investigation. Weak to moderate correlations were found between identity status and attachment style when scale measures were used to assess each variable; the highest mean correlations were between the secure attachment style and identity achievement (r = .21) as well as identity diffusion (r = −.23). (Cohen, 1988, regarded a correlation of .30 as moderate and .10 as weak.) The diffusion status was also weakly to moderately positively correlated with the fearful attachment style (r = .19). Among categorical assessments of identity status and attachment style, results suggest there are real differences between the identity achieved and foreclosed as well as diffusion identity statuses, with the identity achieved far more likely to be securely attached than foreclosed or diffusion statuses. Data from these studies suggests that one’s relational experiences do have some links to one’s identity status.


According to Erikson’s (1963, 1968) epigenetic principle, resolution to the task of Identity vs. Intimacy should set the foundation for resolution to the task of Intimacy vs. Isolation during late adolescence and young adulthood. In Erikson’s (1968) view, true intimacy involves mutuality and commitment, an acceptance of another with all of his or her strengths and weaknesses in an interdependent, sexual relationship. Erikson (1968) believed that genuine intimacy requires a sense of identity to be firmly in place, or the relationship becomes merely a tool to help resolve identity concerns for each partner. However, Erikson was unclear about the potential for gender differences in his theory, and a number of feminist writers (e.g., Gilligan, 1982) have stressed the importance of relationship issues for women to the identity formation process. Literature examining the relationship between identity and intimacy statuses for late adolescent and young adult men and women has often produced conflicting results.

Thus, a meta-analysis of the relationship between identity status and intimacy for men and women was undertaken by Årseth, Kroger, Martinussen, and Marcia (2009). Some 21 studies with a total of 1,983 participants were included in meta-analyses here. For studies utilizing scale measures of intimacy, results indicated a low to moderate effect size for men ( = .35) and women ( = .30) considered separately, as well as for the total group ( = .40). All results were significant and indicate that high identity status individuals (achievement and moratorium) scored higher on scale measures of intimacy than low identity status individuals (foreclosures and diffusions). For categorical assessments of identity and intimacy, the picture was somewhat more complex. Among men, the mean odds ratio of having both a high identity and high intimacy status was very high at 22.09, while for women the mean odds ratio was 2.61. In terms of percentages, some 69% of high identity status men were also high in intimacy, while only 23% of low identity status men were high in intimacy. Erikson’s epigenetic principle thus finds strong support among men. Among women, while 65% of high identity status women were also high in intimacy status, some 46% of low identity status women were also high in intimacy status. Thus, the low identity status women were almost equally distributed over high and low intimacy status groups. These results indicate Erikson’s epigenetic principle also was present for a large proportion of women sampled; however, the relationship was significantly stronger for men than women (p < .001), and reasons for this gender difference require further investigation.

Identity Status Change from Adolescence Through Adulthood

Erikson (1963, 1968) had proposed that while making initial identity resolutions was a key developmental task of adolescence, identity remained malleable, open to further changes throughout adult life. Similarly, the identity status literature that has pointed to different patterns of movement during young, middle, and late adolescence clearly shows that identity will continue to meet challenges and, for some, the need for revision throughout adulthood. What are the most prevalent patterns of identity status change over the course of adolescent and adult life, and what are the key events primarily associated with these changes?

A number of studies addressing identity status changes over time have now been undertaken, and a series of meta-analytic investigations are perhaps the most effective means of summarizing common patterns of movement and stability in the identity status literature. Kroger, Martinussen, and Marcia (2010) investigated some 72 of 124 identity studies that contained developmental information from the larger database of 565 English-language identity status studies described earlier. Movement patterns were investigated in several ways.

When movements over approximately three years of late adolescence and young adulthood were examined longitudinally from data that assessed identity status in categorical terms, the mean proportion of adolescents making progressive identity status changes (D–F, D–M, D–A, F–M, F–A, and M–A) was .36, compared with .15 who made regressive changes (A–M, A–F, A–D, M–F, M–D, and F–D) and .49 who remained stable (A–A, M–M, F–F, D–D) over this time period. It is interesting that the mean proportion of those remaining stable in identity status was so high, especially during the time of late adolescence that Erikson (1968) has identified as central to the identity formation process. As anticipated, the highest mean proportions of progressive movements were from M–A (.46), F–A (.22), and F–M (.22). The highest mean proportions of those remaining stable were the committed identity achieved (.66) and the foreclosed (.53) statuses. The highest mean proportions of those making regressive movements were from A–F (.17) and M–F (.17).

For cross-sectional studies assessing identity status in categorical terms, the mean proportion of identity achievements increased steadily through the high school years, dropped upon university entry and increased to .34 by age 22 years. It was not until the 30–36 year age group that about half of the participants were rated identity achieved (.47). The mean proportion of moratoriums rose fairly steadily to age 19 years, which peaked at .42 and declined fairly steadily thereafter through the 30–36 year age span. The mean proportion of foreclosures dropped fairly steadily to a low at age 19 years of .12, but then showed and up and down movement throughout remaining ages to .17 in the 30–36 year age group. The mean proportion of diffusions declined fairly steadily from age 14–20 years of age (from .36 to .21), but by age 21 years, the diffusions rose again to .26 and showed up and down movement until the final 30–36 year age span (.14).

For cross-sectional studies using continuous measures of identity status, it was anticipated that achievement and moratorium scores would increase across age groups and foreclosure and diffusion scores would decrease over time. Studies here were based on data for early and mid-adolescents. The anticipated patterns were found, but all effect sizes were small. It may be that more pronounced identity status changes occur during and beyond late adolescence.

Additional studies of identity status change through middle and later adulthood years not included in meta-analyses have also generally found slow, progressive identity status movements over time. Fadjukoff, Pulkkinen, and Kokko (2016) analyzed identity status longitudinally in a Finnish sample of men and women drawn from the general population. Identity status was assessed at ages 27, 36, 42, and 50 years. Movement towards identity achievement was predominant on the overall measure of identity status, with women typically reaching identity achievement earlier than men. In a narrative analysis of identity pathways among women assessed from late adolescence through mid-life, Josselson (1996) found a diversity of identity pathways, with achievement and foreclosure pathways tending to be the most stable over time. Carlsson, Wängqvist, and Frisén (2015) have also examined identity status change and stability in a longitudinal study of young adults at ages 25 and 29 years in Sweden. Half of participants were coded in the same identity status at Times 1 and 2, while half who changed did so in a progressive direction. Additional identity processes of how people approach life-changing situations, the extent to which they continue to engage in meaning-making, and how they continue to develop their personal life directions were explored through narrative methods among foreclosed and achieved participants. Identity achievement was associated with continued identity development over time, while patterns for ongoing development among foreclosures were more mixed. McLean and Pasupathi (2012) have made a plea for the use of narrative methods that examine reconstructions of past events to supplement current understandings of the exploration and commitment processes involved on ongoing identity development throughout the life span. Additional identity processes may usefully be identified through such means.

Events Associated with Identity Status Change

An issue that researchers have been exploring over several decades is the question of what kinds of circumstances are associated with identity status change and, conversely, what circumstances are linked with identity status stability. Some hints have appeared in related literatures. For example, Helson and Roberts (1994) found that some optimal level of “accommodative challenge” or life stimulation is critical for adult ego development (referring to Loevinger’s, 1976, model of ego development). Accommodative challenge is a circumstance or event that involves either a positive or negative disruption to one’s life. It may be that such life challenges are important to ongoing identity development over time as well.

Anthis and colleagues (Anthis, 2002, 2011; Anthis & La Voie, 2006) have conducted several investigations into life events associated with identity exploration and commitment. In her “calamity theory of growth” model, Anthis (2002) has found stressful life events, such as divorce or job loss, to be associated with increased levels of identity exploration and decreases in identity commitments. She has also found increased levels of identity exploration to be associated with a “readiness for change” measure (Anthis & La Voie, 2006). Anthis suggests investigating how optimal levels of perceived conflict interact with other factors for different cohorts of people in exploring the role that life events may play in ongoing identity development during adulthood.

Additionally, Kunnen (2006, 2010) asks if conflict may be the driver of identity change. In a study of freshman university students, she found that students who experienced a conflict in their career goals increased identity exploratory activity and also manifested a decrease in the strength of their present commitments. Furthermore, those experiencing conflict perceived more change in their commitments as compared to nonconflicted students. The types and levels of perceived identity conflict and the mechanisms by which conflict may stimulate or impair ongoing identity development are in need of further study. Lilgendahl’s (2015) narrative work reiterates the value of negative events and their potential for psychological growth during midlife, while events that are understood as positive are key to the formation of identity commitments during young adulthood.

Identity Development in Adulthood

Research into ongoing identity development during adulthood has taken several forms. Some researchers have attempted to understand the relationship between resolution to identity issues during late adolescence or young adulthood and the Eriksonian psychosocial tasks of adulthood: Intimacy vs. Isolation (young adulthood), Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood), and Integrity vs. Despair (late adulthood). Others have attempted to examine selected issues of identity during these specific adult life phases and whether or not identity cohesion and stability increase with age over the course of adulthood. The following brief overview presents some selected findings from these strands of identity research during various phases of adult life.

According to Erikson’s (1963, 1968) epigenetic principle, resolutions to earlier psychosocial tasks will impact resolutions to all subsequent ones. Research to date has generally supported this proposal, with some caveats for the relationship between identity and intimacy, described in meta-analytic studies in a preceding section. The relationships among identity, generativity, and integrity have only recently become a focus of research attention, and they present important opportunities for future investigations. Beaumont and Pratt (2011) have examined links among Berzonsky’s (2011) identity styles, Intimacy vs. Isolation, and Generativity vs. Stagnation in samples of young and midlife adults. They found that the informational style (associated with identity achievement) was linked with both the capacity for intimacy and generativity, while the diffuse–avoidant style (associated with identity diffusion) was negatively linked with both intimacy and generativity. The normative identity style (associated with the foreclosure identity status) also positively predicted resolution to intimacy and generativity tasks of adulthood. Pulkkinen, Lyyra, Fadjukoff, and Kokko (2012) obtained longitudinal data from Finnish adults at ages 27, 36, 42, and 50 years on measures including parental identity, general identity, generativity, and integrity. Generativity scores (as well as scores for psychological and social well-being) were highest if parental identity was achieved by age 42. On a cross-sectional basis, Hearn, Saulnier, Strayer, Glenham, Koopman, and Marcia (2012) examined the relationship between identity status and a measure of integrity status. A significant relationship was found, with some 86% of integrated persons rated as identity achieved, while no despairing persons were. Those in the non-exploring integrity status (in which questions of personal life meanings were unexplored), the pseudo-integrated integrity status (in which the world was understood in terms of simplistic templates or clichéd meanings), and the despairing integrity status were most frequently in the foreclosed identity status. Hannah, Domino, Figueredo, and Hendrickson (1996) explored predictors of Integrity vs. Despair in a sample of later life adults, finding the most predictive and parsimonious variables to be trust, autonomy, identity, and intimacy, with no meaningful gender differences. Thus, Erikson’s epigenetic principle has found considerable support over time and illustrates the important role that identity resolution plays to the resolution of subsequent psychosocial tasks during adulthood.

While Erikson (1963, 1968) had postulated the ongoing nature of identity development throughout adulthood, and Stephen, Fraser, and Marcia (1992) had first proposed the likelihood of ongoing moratorium–achievement–moratorium–achievement cycles in adult identity development, there have been relatively few efforts to examine the nature of change and continuity in identity development over the course of adulthood. While some early research has estimated the likelihood of a midlife identity crisis to be about 10% (e.g., Brim, 1992), recent work has pointed to ongoing times of identity crisis (or revision) during the later adult years as well (Robinson & Stell, 2015). Experiences of well-being have been examined in relation to adult psychosocial stage resolutions in the Rochester Adult Longitudinal Study (Sneed, Whitbourne, Schwartz, & Huang, 2011), where scores on both identity and intimacy measures in early and middle adulthood predicted midlife feelings of satisfaction and well-being. A sense of coherence and life satisfaction in later adult years has been fully mediated by resolution to Integrity vs. Despair (Dezutter, Wiesmann, Apers, & Luyckx, 2013). Much remains to be learned about ongoing identity development in the adulthood years, and the relation of identity to subsequent psychosocial tasks and additional personality variables.

What the Identity Statuses Mean

Through the decades since Marcia (1966) developed his identity status model, there has been considerable discussion in the literature about what the identity statuses actually mean and how best to assess them. Marcia (1980) considers identity to be a structure for organizing individual conscious and unconscious wishes, interests, skills, and talents within the framework of one’s biology and cultural context. His identity status model was intended to reflect the movement through Erikson’s (1963, 1968) identity formation process, from an identity based on identifications (foreclosure status), through an exploration (moratorium) process, to a new configuration, based on but different from the sum of its identificatory elements (achievement).

In considering the question of what it is that actually changes in an identity status transition, Kroger (2003) has suggested that qualitatively different forms of ego organization underlie each of Marcia’s identity statuses. However, after an initial identity has formed, further use of the identity status model during adult life begs the question of what the identity statuses actually mean when applied to adults. While new identity-defining decisions may occur in adult life, is there an actual underlying structural change of identity? There may or may not be. There may actually be new or additional structures of ego organization that underlie the identity achievement status of adulthood, and future research could fruitfully explore this issue. Lile (2013, 2015) considers structural identity boundaries for each of the identity statuses and offers some empirical support for a structural model of identity that underlies the identity statuses. Identity status research in adulthood should carefully consider the meaning that the identity statuses may hold when applied to a life phase beyond that for which they were originally developed.


Historically, the task of identity formation is a relatively recent phenomenon. Erikson (1963, 1968) first used the identity concept in his clinical writings to describe that entity that seemed to be lacking in the lives of young men returning from combat in World War II. From Erikson’s early writings, several broad approaches to identity theory and research have emerged, laying differential emphasis on the psychosocial, phenomenological, and the contextual nature of identity. This article has reviewed some of the writings and research that have sprung from the identity status model of James Marcia (1966, 1980). This review has documented meta-analytic work covering the associations of Marcia’s four identity statuses with various personality, relational, and behavioral variables, as well as documenting the most common patterns of identity status change and stability during adolescence and adulthood. The review has also documented the role that resolution to questions of identity plays in resolutions to ongoing psychosocial tasks of adulthood.

Further identity research could fruitfully explore both the meaning of the identity statuses in ongoing adult identity development as well as the processes and contents of identity changes during adult life. The role of regression in adolescent and adult identity development is poorly understand, occurring more frequently than can be predicted by chance alone (see Kroger et al., 2010). Understanding what kinds of regression there may be and whether or not specific types of regression are vital to ongoing adult identity development are important avenues for further identity research. And though identity concerns of adolescence have many parallels to identity issues of later adulthood, very little identity-related theory and research has been undertaken with older adults. (For example, individuals in both phases of the life span must adjust to important biological changes, deal with philosophical questions of life’s meanings, and readjustment to changing demands from social contexts.) It is hoped that this article will present a foundation upon which future psychosocial research into the process and contents of identity development from adolescence through adulthood can take place.

Further Reading

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Erikson, E. H., & Erikson, J. M. (1997). The life cycle completed. New York: W. W. Norton.Find this resource:

Josselson, R., & Flum, H. (2015). Identity status: On refinding the people. In K. C. McLean & M. Syed (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of identity development (pp. 132–146). New York: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

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Kroger, J., & Marcia, J. E. (2011). The identity statuses: Origins, meanings, and interpretations. In S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, & V. L. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of identity theory and research (pp. 31–53). New York: Springer.Find this resource:

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