Identity status / Psychology in fiction writing

I’m fascinated by psychology and think that my understanding of it helps me with character development. One thing I find intriguing is that many of my favorite writers have a background in this subject.

A few years ago I took a course in developmental psychology. It introduced me to several theories about how the personality of an adolescent emerges. One I found particularly interesting was that of Canadian psychologist James Marcia, who says that there are four identity statuses.  To understand these, you need a couple of definitions:

Crisis: The period of identity development when a person is choosing between various alternatives, trying on different skins.

Commitment: A personal investment made when an individual chooses what to do with his life.

The four identity statuses:

Identity diffusion: The state in which an adolescent has not yet experienced an identity crisis or demonstrated commitment. A sort of blissfully ignorant and unaware position that is the standard before the individual begins to examine his life and values.

Identity foreclosure: The state in which an adolescent has made a commitment without experiencing a crisis.  Example: a person adopting his parent’s religious beliefs without examining them for himself or questioning them in any way.

Identity moratorium: The state in which an adolescent is in crisis, but has not yet defined his commitment, or has defined it in only a vague way. Example: an individual who bounces from subject to subject in college, never  deciding on a major, or continually changing her major.

Identity achievement: The state in which an adolescent has undergone crisis and made a commitment.  Example: a person questioning the beliefs of the church he was raised in, exploring other religions, and deciding that he agrees with the values of his own faith after all.

I think that limiting these statuses to teenagers is shortsighted.  Many adults never go beyond identity foreclosure, while others are forever mired in identity moratorium. I also think you can have a crisis, make a commitment, then find yourself back in crisis.

In my own life, I cycle between identity moratorium and identity achievement. I think this is why it’s so easy for me to channel my ‘inner teen’.  In fact, I’m not convinced that I ever really grew up. One might consider this a sign of immaturity or lack of commitment, but I think it shows a willingness to explore new ideas, challenge ingrained beliefs, and open one’s self to ongoing growth.  There’s always room to tweak your ethic core as you develop new strengths and are exposed to new ideas.  After all, no one so far has achieved perfection.

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7 Responses to Identity status / Psychology in fiction writing

  1. I learned something new with this! Love it. I remember identity diffusion… Everything seemed so simple, and I couldn’t understand why older people always had to make life so complicated!

    I was once told by an ex-boyfriend that my curiosity about other religions and belief systems made me “wishy-washy.” He believed that by the time you’re 25, you should make up your mind about religion and politics and that’s it for the rest of your life. Talk about foreclosure! (Needless to say, we soon parted ways.)

    Very cool post, Lisa.


  2. Katy Skinner says:

    I agree! I don’t think most of us ever lose our inner 16 year old.


  3. Tony Orlando says:

    I discovered your homepage by coincidence.
    Very interesting posts and well written.
    I will put your site on my blogroll.


  4. shelli says:

    awesome information thanks Lisa!


  5. Alice Lynn says:

    My degree is in psychology but I never heard of, let alone studied James Marcia. I appreciate the succinct definitions and overview of the teen-age “ego” formation. Kudos for sharing this intriguing information with others. Alice


  6. Pravin says:

    Very beautifully explained the james marcia theory. I m studying developmental psychology and came across this identity crisis, found interesting as me also felt this crises before taking admission in psychology. Thanks for the blog.


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