Key theories of identity development

It is an eternal question if developmental changes occur gradually (continuously) or in major qualitative leaps. Some believe it is continuous and effects of maturity are gradual. These (maturational) theorists think that achievements at each level build on those of the previous level and environment helps us very little until we are "ready". Stage theorists (discontinuous change/ qualitative leaps) believe that there are number of rapid qualitative changes that usher in new stages of development. Discontinuous biological changes provide potential or psychological changes where sequences are the same but timing can be different.

Whichever standpoint we agree with, it is practical to divide human development into stages to understand it easier. If we divide development into stages:

we can name the orientation and characteristics of changes;

we can understand the characteristics of the stages and the differences between the given stage and the ones before and after;

we can emphasize the developmental tasks of the stage and can understand what kind of problems can emerge in the stages and what the solution can be;

we can define the role of nature and nurture and the interactions that are necessary;

we can recognize what kind of abilities and skills emerge during the stage;

we can recognize the problems, crises and blocks of the certain stage;

transitions can be better understood.

There are more theories providing important knowledge about identity and its development. The focuses of these theories are different but all of them give something fundamental about human development. In our point of view psychosocial developmental theory of Erik Erikson is the focus but before presenting this theory we shortly overview some other developmental theories also (Cole & Cole, 2006).

Attachment Theory

Theorists such as Mary Ainsworth, who studied attachment in infancy, observed and explained concepts of development. In her theory, infants who have learned trust grow into children who believed in possibilities of life. These children have a trusting and accepting relationship with their mother and their personality can be expected to be characterized by basic confidence. Failure in attachment and in trust results in a confused child who is not sure in his/her mother and in the world that it can be a safe place (Cole & Cole, 2006).

Social Learning Theory

Social learning theorists believe that self-concept is built upon the identification with role models, an assessment of self-worth, and a preferred pattern in relating to the external world. Children learn to interact through modelling and imitation of others, particularly role models. Anyone may be a role model for the child in early childhood whom the child admires. The influence of a role model can affect individuals' personality, ambitions or interest. Self-worth is based on children's self-assessment of their capabilities in comparison to others. Assessment is appropriate for individuals to classify themselves into categories. Positive assessment suggests that it is worth to do because the individual is better in that activity than others. Negative assessment signs if there is a skill needed to develop. Becoming too many negative assessments leads the individual to a negative self-assessment and may result in an overall feeling of inadequacy (Cole & Cole, 2006).

Psychosexual developmental theory

According to Sigmund Freud childhood sexuality and unconscious motivations influence personality and behaviour. He thought that our thoughts and actions are caused by unconscious motives and conflicts. He believed that the unconscious is responsible for most of our everyday behaviours. Freud’s theory divided human personality into three parts: the Id, the Ego and the Superego.

Structure of personality

Id (pleasure principle functioning). It is the storage unit for all psychic energy, the primitive, instinctive component of personality. It is the raw, unorganized, inborn part of our personality and represents the primary drives of hunger, sex, aggression, and irrational impulses. This part always wants immediate gratification of urges, the goal is to maximize satisfaction and reduce tension.

Ego (reality principle functioning). It is the mediator between the Id and the real world, the decision-making component of personality (Superego). This part of personality is rational, reasonable and seeks to delay gratification of urges to satisfy society’s norms.

Superego (morality principle functioning). It is the moral component related to internalized social standards about right and wrong. Superego communicates values, standards and behaviours that are expected, it is the individuals’ conscience.

Behaviour is the outcome of series of internal conflicts among Id, Ego and Superego. Id wants immediate gratification, but norms of society (Superego) dictate otherwise and the ego tries to equilibrate between them. Conflicting personality structures lead to anxiety and/or tension.

Stages of psychosexual development

Early experiences play a significant role in human development and continue to influence behaviour later in life. Freud's developmental theory is called ’theory of psychosexual development’, because developmental periods with characteristical sexual focus leave mark on adult personality. There are 5 developmental stages in Freud’s theory: oral stage, anal stage, phallic stage, latent period, genital stage (see Table 1) (Garcia, 1995).

Freud believed that human development moves on through a series of stages during which the pleasure-seeking energies of the Id become focused on certain erogenous areas. This psychosexual energy (or ’libido’) was described as the driving force behind behaviour. Each stage has its own unique developmental challenge. The way these challenges are handed shapes personality. If the psychosexual stages are completed successfully, the result is a healthy personality. If certain issues are not resolved at the appropriate stage, ’fixation’ can occur. A fixation means that too much libido will be invested in the certain psychosexual stage and individual will behave in some ways that are characteristic of that stage.

Table 1. Freud’s Stages of Psychosexual Development (Source: Author's own table)

Psycho-sexual Stage



Oral stage

Birth to 1 year

Primary interactions (eating, sucking) with the world are through the mouth. In this stage the oral cavity is the primary focus of libidinal energy. If this need is not met, the child may develop an oral fixation later in life, examples of which include thumb-sucking, smoking or overeating.

Anal stage

1 to 3 years

With the advent of this stage toilet training comes the child's obsession with the erogenous zone of the anus. Toilet training is a primary issue with children and parents: too much pressure can result in an excessive need for order or cleanliness later in life, while too little pressure from parents can lead to messy or destructive behaviour later in life.

Phallic stage

3 to 6 years

The phallic stage is the setting for the most crucial sexual conflict in Freud's theory. In this stage, the child's erogenous zone is the genital region. The child becomes more interested in his genitals, and in the genitals of others.

Latent period

6 to 11 years

The resolution of the phallic stage leads to the latency period. It is not a psychosexual stage of development, but a period in which the sexual drive lies dormant. During the latency period, children pour repressed libidinal energy into asexual pursuits (school, sport, friendships).

Genital stage

11 to 18 years

In puberty the libido becomes active once again. During this stage, people develop a strong interest in the opposite. If development has been successful, the individual will continue to develop into a well-balanced person.

Cognitive Developmental Theory

Jean Piaget and the cognitive psychologists recognized age-related strategies of children in reasoning. Cognitive reasoning is necessary for establishing identity, but before adolescence there are limits in children's reasoning. Existence of cognition in infancy is emphasized by babies being able to recognize their mothers’ voice and smell even from birth. Babies can be comforted by their mothers’ voice and feel secure in her presence.

In early childhood self-concept is constantly changing because of cognitive development. Piaget calls the period of development in cognitive functions between the ages of 2 and 6 years of age the preoperational phase. Children at this age do not use logical strategies. Therefore, they tend to focus on only one feature of an object and do not understand the identity principle that things do not change essentially even though they change one of their features. In describing themselves, children will focus on only one aspect of who they are. During middle childhood, children develop the capacity for logical reasoning, which marks this period as the cognitive stage of concrete operations. Children are increasingly capable of classifying and cross-classifying objects and characteristics. Due to classification, children can identify their own strengths and weaknesses and express an expectation of stability in their characteristics. During adolescence individuals can reason beyond the concrete. They have increased capabilities for abstract reasoning and with this ability comes awareness that they have a future for which they need to prepare. This unexpected realization is the beginning of the identity crisis and which usually occurs in the formal operational stage according to Piaget’s model (Piaget, 1964).

Psychosocial Developmental Theory

Erik Erikson's theory of ’psychosocial development’ is one of the best-known theories in psychology. Erikson believed that personality develops in a series of stages and he describes the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan. One of the main elements of Erikson's psychosocial stage theory is the development of ’ego identity’ that is the conscious sense of self that we develop through social interaction.

Our ego identity constantly changes due to new experiences and information we acquire in our daily interactions with others. Development is motivated by the sense of competence: each stage in Erikson's theory is concerned with becoming competent in an area of life. If the stage is accomplished well, the person feels a sense of excellence, which is usually referred to as ego strength or ego quality. If the stage is managed poorly, the person will emerge with a sense of inadequacy.

In each stage, the individual experiences a conflict that serves as a turning point in development. These conflicts are centred on either developing a psychological quality or failing to develop that quality. During these times, the potential for personal growth is high, but so is the potential for failure (Erikson, 1994).

The eight stages of Psychosocial Development are presented in the Figure 1.

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Figure 1. Life Cycles (Source: Author's own figure)

Psychosocial Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust

The first stage of Erikson's theory of psychosocial development occurs between birth and one year of age. According to Erikson, this stage is the most important period in a person’s life. An infant is entirely dependent upon his or her caregivers; the quality of care plays an important role in the shaping of the infant’s personality. The development of trust is based on the dependability and quality of the child's caregivers. During this stage, children learn if they can trust the people around them. Is there anyone to help when the baby cries? When the baby is frightened, is there anyone to comfort him/her? If these needs are consistently met, the child will learn that (s)he can trust the people who are caring for him/her. If these needs are not consistently met, the child will begin to mistrust the people around him. Successful development of trust is important for the individual feeling safe and secure in the world. Failure of developing trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable.

Psychosocial Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

This stage occurs between the second and the third years of age and is focused on children developing a greater sense of personal control. Just like Freud, Erikson also believed that toilet training was a vital part of this process; however, Erikson's reasoning was quite different. Erikson believed that learning to control one's bodily functions is important for feeling in control and a sense of independence. Other important events are gaining more control over food choices, toy preferences and clothing selection. Children who successfully complete this stage feel secure and confident, while those who do not are left with a sense of inadequacy and self-doubt.

Psychosocial Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt

This stage occurs during the preschool years, between the ages of three and five when children try their power and control through directing play and other social interactions. Children begin to exercise volition, develop independence and initiate activities. Children can assert control and power over the environment by taking initiative, facing challenges, planning processes and accomplishing tasks. Play and imagination have an important role at this stage. Children have their sense of initiative reinforced by being given the freedom and encouragement to play. During this stage caregivers should encourage exploration and help children make appropriate choices. Children who are successful at this stage feel capable but those who fail to acquire these skills are left with a sense of guilt, self-doubt, and lack of initiative. Success in this stage leads to a sense of purpose, while failure results in a sense of guilt.

Psychosocial Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority

This stage occurs between the ages of six and eleven when children need to cope with new social and academic demands. School and social interaction play an important role in a child’s life during this period when children become capable of performing increasingly complex tasks. Different kinds of activities at school are fundamental for developing skills and accomplishing results. Reading, writing, drawing, solving problems or social activities are tasks that children need praise and attention for performing successfully. This stage is vital in the development of self-confidence. Successful outcome of this period is the feeling of competence and belief in skills. Children who receive little or no encouragement from parents, teachers, or peers will doubt their abilities to be successful.

Psychosocial Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion

Identity versus confusion is the fifth stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development theory. This stage occurs during adolescence when teens need to develop a sense of self and personal identity. During adolescence, children explore the world and develop their independence and a sense of self. During the transition from childhood to adulthood, teens feel confused or insecure about themselves and how they will be able to fit in to society. As they seek to establish a sense of self, they explore and try out different roles, activities and behaviours. This exploration is very important for forming a strong identity and developing a sense of direction in life. Successful outcome of this period is a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control for those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will feel insecure and confused about themselves and the future.

Psychosocial Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation

This is the sixth stage of Erikson’s theory. This stage takes place during young adulthood between the ages of approximately 19 and 40. The major conflict of this stage centres on forming intimate, loving relationships with other people. Previous steps are really important for the success of this stage. A strong sense of personal identity is important for developing intimate relationships. A fully formed sense of self is essential for being able to form intimate relationships. Successful outcome of this stage leads to strong relationships, while failure results in loneliness and isolation. Those who fail to attain this skill will feel unproductive and uninvolved in the world.

Psychosocial Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation

Generativity versus stagnation is the seventh stage of the model. This stage takes place during middle adulthood between the ages of approximately 40 and 65. During this time, adults are intent on creating or nurturing things and living beings; often by having children or contributing to positive changes that benefits other people. Generativity is related to contribution and ’making your mark’ on the world, through caring for others, creating things and accomplishing things that make the world better. During adulthood individuals’ focus is on career and family. Those who are successful in this period will feel that they are contributing to the world by being active in their home and community. Those who fail to attain this skill will feel unproductive and uninvolved in the world.

Psychosocial Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair

This phase occurs during old age and is focused on reflecting back on life. Individuals in this period try to reconsider their accomplishments and qualify themselves. Those who feel proud of their accomplishments will feel a sense of integrity. Successfully completing this phase means looking back with few regrets and a general feeling of satisfaction. These individuals attain wisdom, even when confronting death. Those who are unsuccessful during this stage will feel that their life has been wasted and will experience many regrets. The individual will be left with feelings of bitterness and despair.

The following Table 2 summarises the main characteristics of the above described stages of psychosocial development.

Table 2. Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development (Source: Author's own table)

Psycho-social Stage


Psychosocial Conflict

Major Question

Ego strength or ego quality

Important Event(s)

Successful outcome



Trust vs. Mistrust

"Can I trust the people around me?"



Trust and Optimism



Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

"Can I do things myself or am I reliant on the help of others?"


Toilet Training

Secure, Self confidence



Initiative vs. Guilt

Am I good or bad?”


Exploration Play

Sense of purpose, Initiative



Industry vs. Inferiority

"How can I be good?"



Feeling of competence



Identity vs. Confusion

"Who am I?"


Social Relationships

Indepencence, Strong sense of self


Young Adulthood

Intimacy vs. Isolation

"Will I be loved or will I be alone?"


Romantic Relationships

Intimacy, Strong relationships


Middle Adulthood

Generativity vs. Stagnation

"How can I contribute to the world?"


Parenthood and Work

Activity, Productivity


Late Adulthood

Integrity vs. Despair

"Did I live a meaningful life?"


Reflecting on life

Integrity, Wisdom

Many theorists studying identity achievement have expanded or modified Erikson's ideas. James Marcia examined the major influences and processes related to identity achievement and identified four possible statuses.

James Marcia’s theory about identity

Similarly to Erikson, Marcia (1993) sees the identity crisis as beginning when adolescents recognize the need to establish an identity that can prepare them to meet the challenges of adulthood. For true identity achievement adolescents need to explore the many possibilities in lifestyles, roles and career choices. We can detect identity achievement when individuals gain a clear understanding of their own strengths and weaknesses and a clear set of personal standards. In Marcia’s theory exploration and commitment are the main dimensions determining the status of identity. According to his investigation there are four identities resulting from the combinations of low and high values of the dimensions (Table 3).

Table 3. Marcia’s Identity statuses (Source: Author's own table)

Identity statuses

Identity diffusion

Identity foreclosure


Identity achievement





in progress





not typical


Real identity achievement is based on meeting the challenge (exploration) and making the commitment. There are some who try to avoid the crisis, some try to avoid the commitment, and some try to avoid both. If either the challenge or commitment is avoided, role confusion takes place. Identity diffusion is the first status, when adolescents avoid the challenge and refuse to make a commitment. The danger of this status is that diffused individuals are weak in self-management and handling negative influence. The second status is foreclosure, when the individual avoids challenge by making a commitment without any exploration. This happens often when individuals try to serve the plans and goals of their parents and not their own ones. The third status is moratorium, when the individual consolidates exploration and challenge without making a commitment. The forth status is identity achievement. It means that the individual makes commitments after collecting experience and testing challenges.

These four identity statuses (Identity diffusion, Identity foreclosure, Moratorium, Identity achievement) describe phases along a continuum moving from an initially diffuse, undefined individual identity to a highly specific, individual sense of self. In Marcia's theory is the assumption that a mature and well-adjusted person possesses a well-defined and specific identity.

This assumption reflects an implicit set of values common to many developed Western societies; but, this set of values may not be universally shared. In contemporary Western cultures great value is placed upon individual needs, rights, and freedoms. Therefore it can be understood why such societies define maturity in terms of a highly evolved sense of an individual self. But in other cultures needs of the larger community are more important than any single individual's. In such cultures, maturity is defined by the ability to subjugate individual pursuits and desires in the service of the group's greater good.