Identity moratorium is a period of exploration and experimentation as individual searches for a sense of identity. During this time, they may adopt and discard different roles to discover which ones fit them best.
This theory was first proposed by James Marcia, as a development of Erik Erikson’s identity theory. He believed that during adolescence, individuals should take the time to explore different roles they may take on as adults.
For example, a teenage girl may experiment with different fashion styles, hobbies, and extracurricular activities to determine her interests.
She may also participate in different social groups and engage in diverse conversations to assess which values are important to her.
By exploring and experimenting with different options, she can eventually settle on an identity that resonates with her.
So, identity moratorium helps to identify the individual’s true interests, values, and goals and allows them to distinguish their own identity from others.
Definition of Identity Moratorium
Identity moratorium is a period of exploration, self-discovery, and experimentation in which an individual can adopt different roles to discover their identity (Louw et al., 1999).
During the identity moratorium stage, individuals are not yet firmly attached to any particular role or image and begin exploring different aspects of themselves.
They may experiment with different lifestyles, values, interests, hobbies, groups, and relationships to gain insight into their true self.
Erikson (1968) defined identity moratorium as:
“…a sort of time-out during which adolescents experiment with different roles, values, beliefs, and relationships” (Rathus, 2021. p. 530).
As Rathus (2021) states,
“…during the moratorium, adolescents undergo identity crisis, in which they examine their values and make decisions about their life roles” (p. 530).
For example, they may ask themselves questions: Who am I? What kind of person do I want to be? What do I value in life? What career do I want to pursue?
From a scientific perspective, identity moratorium is associated with self-awareness and self-regulation.
Specifically, individuals in this stage are more aware of themselves and their environment, allowing them to engage in goal-directed behavior to reach a desired identity (Bamberg et al., 2021).
Additionally, self-regulation allows individuals to make appropriate decisions that further contribute to identity formation.
The transition from this stage to the next is known as “identity achievement” when the individual settles into a self-consistent core sense across different contexts. This clarity can give them more confidence and allow them to live authentically.
Simply, an identity moratorium is a period of exploration and experimentation in which teenagers search for their true identity.
10 Examples of Identity Moratorium
- Exploring Fashion: Experimenting with different fashion styles, such as mixing and matching colors and patterns, to reflect a desired image or aesthetic.
- Trying New Hobbies: Exploring different hobbies and interests, such as martial arts or music, to determine which ones bring the most joy and excitement.
- Joining New Social Groups: Participating in different social groups, such as student organizations or religious communities, to gain insights into different value systems and beliefs.
- Career Path Exploration: Trying out various career paths to determine which one best fits their interests and passions.
- Traveling for Insight: Traveling to new places to gain perspective on how other people live their lives and what kind of lifestyle they lead.
- Relationship Experimentation: Experiment with different types of romantic and platonic relationships to better understand the nature of connections between humans.
- Personal Boundary-Pushing: Participating in activities that push personal boundaries to learn more about one’s limits, fears, capabilities, and strengths.
- Exploring various Educational Fields: Pursuing educational paths that challenge current knowledge while allowing them to develop new ideas or theories about the world around them.
- Volunteering for Various Causes: Volunteering for essential causes to gain greater insight into what matters most in life and how they can contribute effectively towards achieving it through their talents and skillset.
- Divergence from Social Norms: Thinking critically about societal norms to be able to form their own opinions about what is right or wrong for them without succumbing to external pressures.
Origins of Identity Moratorium
The theory of identity moratorium was first proposed by psychologist Erik Erikson in his groundbreaking work, “Identity and the Life Cycle” (Erikson, 1994).
In this book, Erikson (1994) posited that an individual goes through a period of exploration and experimentation from late adolescence to early adulthood (ages 15-25), known as the “identity formation stage.”
During this period, individuals are not yet firmly attached to any particular role or image, allowing them to try out different lifestyles, values, interests, hobbies, groups, and relationships.
This exploration helps them gain insight into their true self and develop a core sense of identity that will remain consistent across different contexts (Erikson, 1994).
In the 1960s, renowned psychoanalyst James Marcia extended Erik Erikson’s theories on adolescent identity development by introducing four “identity statuses”, with identity diffusion being one of them.
Psychologists and sociologists have broadly accepted the idea put forward by Erickson. Since its release to the public in 1959, this concept has remained vital until today.
As a tool for comprehending the self’s evolution, it offers insight into how every individual experiences personal growth and undertakes exploration to develop a genuine personal connection with themselves.
Stages of Identity Formation
Identity is an ever-evolving process, with different stages occurring at different points in a person’s life. Marcia proposed four conceptual phases of identity: identity diffusion, identity disclosure, identity moratorium, and identity achievement.
Each phase reflects a different level of development in the individual’s sense of self.
- Identity diffusion is the initial stage in which the individual has yet to develop a clear sense of self. It is characterized by confusion and lack of direction as the individual may not be sure who they are or what they want from life.
- Identity disclosure follows after this stage and involves developing hints about one’s true self and desires. It could include exploring different lifestyles or interests to determine what best fits them as an individual. If this is not successful, you may fall into identity foreclosure.
- Identity moratorium refers to the period from late adolescence to early adulthood in which individuals actively explore and experiment with various aspects of themselves without firmly committing or permanently identifying with one particular thing. At this stage, individuals are free to try out different roles or values before ultimately settling into what they feel most comfortable with long-term.
- Identity achievement occurs when the individual has found clarity in their values and beliefs, resulting in a strong understanding of their authentic self which remains consistent across all contexts.
So, each of these phases has its own significance in one’s life, and it is important to acquire all the stages to obtain identity achievement (Erikson, 1994).
Importance of Identity Moratorium
Identity moratorium is an essential part of the identity formation process, providing individuals with a period of exploration and experimentation.
The importance of identity moratorium lies in its ability to allow individuals to try out different lifestyles without feeling obligated or committed to any one thing.
For example, this could include trying out different hobbies or interests, exploring alternative social settings, or engaging in other activities that allow them to gain insight into their own beliefs, preferences, and sense of self.
In addition to allowing for experimentation within various settings, the identity moratorium stage can also allow individuals to reflect and consider important life questions (Erikson, 1994).
These may include: Who am I? What are my passions? Am I happy and fulfilled with my current lifestyle? These reflective moments can be incredibly valuable in helping individuals determine what they want from life and how best to achieve it.
Overall, identity moratorium is an important phase in developing a strong sense of self that will remain consistent over time.
Through this stage of exploration and reflection, individuals can begin building the foundation for their future identities.
Critique of Identity Moratorium
Although identity moratorium can be a valuable part of identity formation, it also has potential drawbacks, such as confusion, stagnation, or even a false sense of identity.
One of the critiques of identity moratorium is that it can lead to feelings of confusion and uncertainty. With the abundance of choices during this stage, individuals may struggle to make decisions and feel overwhelmed by the complexity of their options.
As a result, they may become stuck in limbo and end up unable to move forward in their journey toward self-discovery (Becht et al., 2017).
Another criticism is that personal identity can change drastically over time due to exposure to new experiences or environments, potentially leading individuals away from their initial goals and ideals.
This could create dissonance between what an individual initially valued but later chose to abandon, causing internal conflicts that may be difficult to resolve.
In addition, individuals risk getting carried away with different interests and lifestyles without considering any long-term effects on their sense of self or on others around them.
Some have argued that identity moratorium can become counterproductive and damaging if taken too far. For example, engaging in extreme behaviors without fully understanding their implications or consequences (Anisa, 2014)
Therefore, while identity moratorium can aid in developing a strong sense of self-awareness, it should be done thoughtfully and responsibly within a reasonable length of time to not impede personal growth.
Identity moratorium is a crucial stage in an individual’s development, offering an opportunity for exploration, self-discovery, and experimentation.
The insights gained from participating in this process allow people to construct an unchanging and honest identity that serves as a lifelong guide.
While it is essential to recognize potential drawbacks and challenges associated with identity moratorium, it remains a valuable period of growth and self-awareness when approached thoughtfully and responsibly.
Navigating identity moratorium and eventually reaching identity achievement allows individuals to understand who they are, what they value, and how they wish to contribute to the world around them.
Anisa, J. (2014). Identity crisis. New York: Morgan James Publishing.
Bamberg, M. G. W., Demuth, C., & Watzlawik, M. (2021). The Cambridge handbook of identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Becht, A. I., Nelemans, S. A., Branje, S. J. T., Vollebergh, W. A. M., Koot, H. M., & Meeus, W. H. J. (2017). Identity uncertainty and commitment making across adolescence: Five-year within-person associations using daily identity reports. Developmental Psychology, 53(11), 2103–2112. https://doi.org/10.1037/dev0000374
Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity and the life cycle. New York: Norton.
Louw, D. A., Ede, V., Louw, A. E., & Botha, A. (1999). Human development. Los Angeles: Kagiso Tertiary.
Rathus, S. A. (2021). Childhood and adolescence voyages in development. New York: Cengage Learning.
Yoon, S. (2015). Identity crisis. London: Wipf and Stock Publishers.