What Is Identity Diffusion? Definition and Examples

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Individuals in identity diffusion haven’t committed to any path for their futures, including occupational and ideological, and aren’t attempting to develop a path. Identity diffusion is one of four identity statuses defined by psychologist James Marcia in the 1960s. Generally speaking, identity diffusion takes place during adolescence, a period when people are working to form their identities, but it can continue into adulthood.

Key Takeaways: Identity Diffusion

  • Identity diffusion occurs when an individual hasn’t committed to an identity and isn’t working to form one.
  • Many people experience, and eventually grow out of, a period of identity diffusion in childhood or early adolescence. However, long-term identity diffusion is possible.
  • Identity diffusion is one of four "identity statuses" developed by James Marcia in the 1960s. These identity statuses are an extension of Erik Erikson’s work on adolescent identity development.

Origins

Identity diffusion and the other identity statuses are an extension of Erik Erikson’s ideas about identity development during adolescence outlined in his stage theory of psychosocial development. Marcia created the statuses as a way to empirically test Erikson’s theoretical ideas. In Erikson’s stage theory, stage 5, which takes place during adolescence, is when people begin to form their identities. According to Erikson the central crisis of this stage is Identity vs. Role Confusion. It is a time when adolescents must figure out who they are and who they want to be in the future. If they don't, they may descend into confusion about their place in the world.

Marcia examined the formation of identity in terms of two dimensions: 1) whether the individual has gone through a decision-making period, referred to as a crisis, and 2) whether the individual has committed to particular occupational choices or ideological beliefs. Marcia’s focus on occupation and ideology, specifically, arose from Erikson’s proposal that one’s occupation and one’s commitment to particular values and beliefs are the fundamental parts of identity.

Since Marcia first proposed the identity statuses, they have been the subject of a great deal of research, especially with college student participants.

Characteristics of Identity Diffusers

People in the status of identity diffusion are neither going through a decision-making period nor made any firm commitments. These individuals may never have gone through a period of crisis in which they explored possibilities for their future selves. Alternatively, they may have been through a period of exploration and failed to come to a decision.

Identity diffusers are passive and living in the moment with no consideration of who they are and who they want to be. As a result, their goals are simply to avoid pain and experience pleasure. Identity diffusers tend to lack self-esteem, be externally oriented, have lower levels of autonomy, and take less personal responsibility for their lives.

Research on identity diffusion indicates that these individuals may feel isolated and withdraw from the world. In one study, James Donovan found that people in identity diffusion are suspicious of others and believe their parents don’t understand them. These individuals end up withdrawing into fantasy as a coping mechanism.

Some adolescents in identity diffusion might resemble what are popularly known as slackers or underachievers. Take as an example recent high school graduate Steve. Unlike his peers who are heading off to college or taking on full-time jobs, Steve hasn’t explored any college or career options. He still works part-time at a fast food restaurant, a job he got during high school so he could make a little money to go out and have fun. He continues to live with his parents where his daily life hasn't evolved much since high school. However, he never considers finding a full-time job that could help him move out and live on his own. When it comes to occupational concerns, Steve’s identity is diffused.

Adolescents whose identity is diffused in the realm of ideology may show a similar lack of consideration and commitment in the area of politics, religion, and other worldviews. For example, a teenager who is approaching voting age may express no preference between the Democratic and Republican candidates in an upcoming election and has given no consideration to their political perspective.

Do People Grow Out of Identity Diffusion?

People can move from one identity status to another, so identity diffusion is not usually an ongoing state. In fact, it's normal for children and young adolescents to go through a period of identity diffusion. Before they hit their teen years, children often don’t have a strong idea of who they are or what they stand for. Typically, middle and older adolescents begin to explore their interests, worldviews, and perspectives. As a result, they start to work towards a future vision of themselves.

However, studies have shown that long-term identity diffusion is possible. For example, a study that assessed identity status at ages 27, 36, and 42 found that many participants who were in diffusion in various domains of life, including occupational, religious, and political, at age 27 remained so at age 42.

Furthermore, in a 2016 study, researchers found that people who were still in identity diffusion at age 29 had put their lives on hold. They either actively avoided or were unable to explore opportunities or invest in options in domains like work and relationships. They viewed the world as random and unpredictable, and therefore, refrained from developing a direction for their lives.

Sources

  • Carlsson, Johanna, Maria Wängqvist, and Ann Frisèn. “Life on Hold: Staying in Identity Diffusion in the Late Twenties.” Journal of Adolescence, vol. 47, 2016, pp. 220-229. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.adolescence.2015.10.023
  • Donovan, James M. “Identity Status and Interpersonal Style.” Journal of Youth and Adolescence, vol. 4, no. 1, 1975, pp. 37-55. https://doi.org/10.1007/BF01537799
  • Fadjukoff, Paivi, Lea Pulkkinen, and Katja Kokko. “Identity Processes in Adulthood: Diverging Domains.” Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, vol. 5, no. 1, 2005, pp. 1-20. https://doi.org/10.1207/s1532706xid0501_1
  • Fraser-Thill, Rebecca. “Understanding Identity Diffusion in Children and Tweens.” Verywell Family, 6 July 2018. https://www.verywellfamily.com/identity-diffusion-3288023
  • Marcia, James. “Identity in Adolescence.” Handbook of Adolescent Psychology, edited by Joseph Adelson, Wiley, 1980, pp. 159-187.
  • McAdams, Dan. The Person: An Introduction to the Science of Personality Psychology. 5th ed., Wiley, 2008.