Identity achievement refers to the phenomenon of an individual finding their true self. It involves understanding who and what you are, and completely and accurately knowing your strengths and weaknesses.
For example, identity achievement might involve finally fining your right career path that fulfills you after years of searching.
Identity Achievement Overview
Identity achievement is one of four types of identity statuses proposed by Marcia (1966), representing a culmination of an identity journey.
The four identity statuses are:
- Identity Diffusion: People in identity diffusion appear to be uninterested in forming an identity
- Identity Foreclosure: This status refers to people that have made a firm commitment to an identify without much exploration.
- Identity Moratorium: Individuals at this stage are actively exploring options but have not yet made a commitment.
- Identity Achievement: After exploration, a commitment is finalized. The individual has arrived a decision regarding their social, political, and religious beliefs.
To reach the point of identify achievement takes time. It is a continuous process that can take years to accomplish.
Most people undergo a great deal of personal exploration, discovery, and growth during their teen years and on through young adulthood.
By observing oneself in a variety of situations and challenges, the individual comes to understand their capabilities and limitations.
They gradually form a set of interests and beliefs, and may begin to adhere to a sociopolitical ideology.
However, all of the above can change with time and expanded experience. Although there may not be dramatic changes from young adulthood to senior citizenship, it is also not unusual for some people to evolve over decades.
Identity Achievement Examples
- Starting a Small Business (Identity Achievement): The eldest sibling in a family of five started a small business in high school and has decided to forego university study to pursue their entrepreneurial ambitions.
- Skipping School to Practice Guitar (Identity Achievement): As the story goes, rock guitarist Eddie Van Halen rarely went to school. Instead, he stayed home and practiced playing guitar all day and night on his way to becoming a rock star legend.
- Change in Careers (Identity Achievement): After 12 years as a pharmaceutical sales rep and doing well financially, a young professional decides that money isn’t everything, so they go back to school to become a social worker.
- Environmental Activism (Identity Achievement): A young woman grows up in a small, industrial town with poor air quality. Over time, she becomes deeply interested in environmental science and commits to a career in environmental advocacy, aiming to improve her hometown’s situation and prevent similar conditions elsewhere.
- Alternative Medicine Practitioner (Identity Achievement): After experiencing the benefits of alternative medicine during a personal health crisis, an individual decides to commit their life to studying and practicing alternative medicine to help others.
- Transgender Identity (Identity Achievement): After years of feeling uncomfortable in their assigned gender, someone explores various gender identities and finally identifies as transgender. They commit to transitioning and living as their true self.
- Career in Education (Identity Achievement): A man has always been passionate about learning and has a deep respect for teachers. After exploring various professions, he decides to commit to a career in education to inspire future generations.
- Religious Commitment (Identity Achievement): After exploring various faiths and spiritual practices, a woman decides to convert to Buddhism, finding it aligns with her personal beliefs and aspirations.
- Political Activist (Identity Achievement): Inspired by political leaders and activists during a turbulent political period, a person decides to commit to a life of political activism and policy change, even choosing to study political science.
- Health and Fitness Coach (Identity Achievement): After a personal transformation through diet and exercise, an individual decides to become a health and fitness coach to motivate others to make healthier lifestyle choices.
- Humanitarian Work (Identity Achievement): After volunteering in different parts of the world, a person decides to dedicate their life to humanitarian work, committing to an organization that aligns with their personal values.
- LGBTQ+ Activist (Identity Achievement): A person realizes they identify as gay after years of exploration and self-questioning. They decide to use their experiences to help others, becoming an activist for LGBTQ+ rights.
- Marine Biologist (Identity Achievement): A child grows up fascinated by sea creatures and, after exploring different fields of study, decides to commit to a career in marine biology to contribute to marine conservation efforts.
- Musician (Identity Achievement): After dabbling in various forms of art, a teenager decides to commit to music, practicing intensely and aiming to become a professional musician.
- Sustainable Fashion Designer (Identity Achievement): Following a growing concern for the environment and a passion for fashion, an individual commits to creating a sustainable fashion brand, utilizing ethical production methods and sustainable materials.
Origins of Identity Achievement
James Marcia (1967; 1980) formulated a theoretical framework for identity achievement that describes the process that each individual experiences to reach a point of identity achievement.
Marcia identified exploration/crisis and commitment as two distinct processes that each individual goes through in that journey.
His theory was inspired by Erikson’s (1950) ego psychoanalytic theory, which was partly rooted in Freud’s (1946) concepts of the id, ego, and superego.
Erikson based much of his eight stages of ego growth on those insights and added value by creating a more formal, systematic framework.
At each stage of ego growth, the individual experiences a specific psychosocial crisis that results from struggles with the social environment.
Around the same time, scholars such as Adler (see Ansbacher & Ansbacher, 1956) were also theorizing on the role of interpersonal relations and society on ego development (Rapaport, 1958).
Rapaport (1958) explains the dynamic interplay between individual and society:
“neither does the individual adapt to society nor does society mold him (sic) into its pattern; rather, society and individual form a unity within which a mutual regulation takes place…. Society is not merely a prohibitor or provider; it is the necessary matrix of the development of all behavior” (p. 104).
Marcia’s framework was later extended by Berzonsky (1988) with the notion that there are three identity processing styles: informational, normative, and diffuse-avoidant.
- Informational Style: Individuals with the informational style rely on, and critically evaluate, identity relevant information from various sources to incorporate, or not, into their self-concept.
- Normative Style: Individuals with a normative style rely less on exploration and more so on norms and behaviors of established role models such as peers, teachers, and parents.
- Diffuse-Avoidant Style: Individuals with the diffuse-avoidant style postpone identity formation and are more influenced by varied situational dynamics.
They may engage in behaviors to avoid situations that would allow self-discovery (Berzonsky & Ferrari, 2009).
Informational and normative identity styles are considered the most adaptive (Berzonsky, 2003; Dollinger, 1995) and some research has supported this contention.
For example, Phillips and Pittman (2007) found that adolescents with either of these two styles reported being more optimistic and had higher self-esteem. Crocetti and Shokri (2010) found that both styles were related to higher levels of reported psychological well-being.
Four Identity Statuses
As an individual goes through life and accumulates various experiences, they may reach different states of identity on their journey to identity achievement. Marcia believes that this journey can be characterized by four identity statuses which define the actions of the individual on their unique path.
1. Identify Diffusion
People in identity diffusion appear to be uninterested in forming an identity. They do not spend time exploring identities and have not made firm commitments to any particular social, political, or religious perspectives.
People that stay in this status too long seem to lack direction and purpose and may not form close personal relationships with others.
2. Identity Foreclosure
This status refers to people that have made a firm commitment to an identify without much exploration.
It is likely that others in their life such as parents have pushed them in certain directions and made decisions for them.
In a similar vein, these individuals may choose to follow their parents as role models, so that the formation of an identity is a matter of choice, even though it lacked exploration.
3. Identity Moratorium
Individuals at this stage are actively exploring options but have not yet made a commitment. It is a period of trial an error and can be characterized as a time of emotional and psychological confusion.
The individual experiences inner turmoil as they confront many questions about life and who they want to be, but struggle reaching firm conclusions.
4. Identity Achievement
After exploration, a commitment is finalized. The individual has arrived a decision regarding their social, political, and religious beliefs.
They have formed a coherent identity based on personal experiences and thought processes. Although this is the ultimate goal of most, it often does not occur by the end of adolescence.
Examples of Other Identity Statuses
- Going to Medical School (Identity Foreclosure): With three generations of doctors in the family line, the decision to continue the tradition and pursue a career in medicine was set in stone at an early age.
- Playing Video Games in the Basement (Identity Diffusion): Living at home in their parents’ basement at the age of 27, with no ambition to develop a career or go to college, some young adults seem a bit directionless.
- The Blank Stare (Identity Diffusion): When asked about their opinion regarding various sociopolitical issues, some teens may not have an answer because they haven’t given it much thought.
- Extracurricular Pursuits (Identity Moratorium): In their freshman year of high school a teen joins the art club and drama club. The next year they try out for the debate team, before switching to athletics their last two years of high school.
- Joining the Military (Identity Foreclosure): From the time he was a child, his father has been preparing him to join the military and serve his country, just as his father and grandfather had done.
- A Busy Weekend (Identity Moratorium): Some parents spend the entire weekend taking their children to soccer practice, dance class, music lessons, and Girl Scout meetings because they want them to explore the world and find what feels right for them.
- Powerful Role Models (Identity Foreclosure): Sometimes one’s purpose in life comes from an external source. In the case of role models, a person may become so inspired by the impact of a single individual that they decide to follow in their footsteps.
Factors Related to Identity Achievement
1. Familial Factors
Although not always explicitly using the term identity achievement, several studies have examined how parental relations affect the formation of identify.
Kaniušonytė and Žukauskienė (2018) found that positive parental relations facilitate psychosocial adjustment of Lithuanian children.
More specifically, responding to children’s need for autonomy and emotional warmth were connected to identity management and overall positive development in emerging adulthood.
Sartor and Youniss (2002) examined identity achievement and parental factors such as emotional support and monitoring of social and school activities. Results indicated that these factors were significant predictors of identity achievement in both males and females.
Yousefi (2012) found that a democratic family style and family cohesion in Iran predicted foreclosure status, while authoritarian style and religious orientation predicted identity diffusion.
2. Cross-Cultural Studies
Bergh and Erling (2005) examined gender differences in Sweden. Their results revealed that female adolescents were more likely categorized as in the moratorium status than males, whereas males were more likely in identify diffusion than females.
Graf et al. (2008) compared gender differences in identity status in India and the US. Results revealed that Asian Indian adolescents scored higher in identity diffusion, foreclosure, and moratorium than US adolescents. Both male and female adolescents in India scored higher in identity moratorium than their US counterparts.
Comparing Dutch and Italian adolescents, Crocetti et al. (2012) found that Italian teenagers were more likely to be searching for an identity whereas Dutch teenagers were more likely to be in early foreclosure.
Comparisons between American and Norwegian adolescents (Jensen et al., 1998) found that Norwegian teenagers tended to score lower on each identify status. Similar findings were found between American and Swedish adolescents (Schwartz et al., 2006).
There are a variety of explanations for the differences obtained in each study, most of which center on cultural differences in terms of societal and familial expectations for emerging into adulthood.
Identify achievement is the point in an individual’s life when they have arrived at a clear understanding of who they are.
Although the journey can be different for each person, most experience the journey by grappling with psychosocial crises while exploring the world, and eventually making a commitment to one identity.
Marcia identifies four identity statuses which point to the individual’s level of identity exploration and degree of commitment to a specific identity.
Identity achievement has its roots in Erikson’s psychosocial stages of development and Adler’s theory of personality development.
Research has examined the role of familial factors such as parental warmth in adolescent identity status, while a number of cross-cultural studies have examined differences in identity status in several countries.
Ansbacher, H. L., & Ansbacher, R. R. (Eds.). (1956). The individual psychology of Alfred Adler. Basic Books, Inc.
Bergh, S., & Erling, A. (2005). Adolescent identity formation: A Swedish study of identity status using the EOM-EIS-II. Adolescence, 40(158), 377–396.
Berzonsky, M. D. (2003). Identity style and well-being: Does commitment matter? Identity, 3(2), 131-142.
Berzonsky, M.D., & Ferrari, J.R. (2009) A diffuse-avoidant identity processing style: Strategic avoidance or self-confusion? Identity, 9(2), 145-158.
Crocetti, E., & Shokri, O. (2010). Iranian validation of the identity style inventory. International Journal of Testing, 10(2), 185-199.
Crocetti, E., Schwartz, S. J., Fermani, A., Klimstra, T., & Meeus, W. (2012). A cross-national study of identity status in Dutch and Italian adolescents. European Psychologist.
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Sartor, C. E., & Youniss, J. (2002). The relationship between positive parental involvement and identity achievement during adolescence. Adolescence, 37(146), 221.
Schwartz, S. J., Adamson, L., Ferrer-Wreder, L., Dillon, F. R., & Berman, S. L. (2006). Identity status measurement across contexts: Variations in measurement structure and mean levels among White American, Hispanic American, and Swedish emerging adults. Journal of Personality Assessment, 86(1), 61-76.
Yousefi, Z. (2012). Family functioning on the identity statues in High School Boys in Isfahan, Iran. International Journal of Psychology and Counseling, 4(10), 127-135.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]