Simplified Identity Formation Theory

Welcome to theory corner! Today’s blog post is addresses identity theory in the context of science motivation. 

Identity, in the psychosocial sense, is the means by which individuals comprehend themselves to be unique and discrete from others but also connected to others through social affiliations. Identity is a balancing act between distinctiveness and affiliation resting on a sense of continuity, or personal narrative..

Erik Erikson (born 1902) was a guy who understood what it is to have identity issues. His parents hid his rather scandalous origins from him for many years [1]. Turns out his father was his adopted father. His mother had been married when she became pregnant with Erik by another (never named) man and fled her home in Denmark for Germany. Erikson who was Jewish also had to deal with anti-semitism from Christian Germans and mockery for his Norse looks (probably inherited from his Danish father) from fellow Jewish children.  

Erikson definitely had skin in the game when it came to understanding the importance of the personal narrative in building an identity. He’d had his own identity challenged and unsettled plenty. Despite never holding an advanced degree, Erikson became a preeminent theorist and researcher and is consider the progenitor of modern identity theory. In his work, Erikson identified 8 stages of identity development over the human lifespan that are represented by identity conflicts that individuals must resolve in order to move on [2]. The most studied of these stages is known as “Identity vs Role Confusion”  and covers the adolescence age group. The result of this particular identity conflict has some of the most consequential results for individual identity development. 

A number of researchers have expanded on Erikson’s work. One particular formulation of youth identity development that I’ve found useful in my work and research is the Simplified Identity Formation Theory (SIFT)[3]. SIFT authors Côte and Levine, lay out three key elements of identity development continuityintegration, and differentiation. Building on these foundational concepts they lay out a nuanced, but intuitive approach to thinking about adolescent identity formation. 

Before I dive into the SIFT, I should like to point out that there is no “one” master explanation for human identity development. What I mean by this is not that we haven’t hit on the exact right arrangement yet, but that rather, humans are malleable, social creatures, capable of radically different developmental processes. In the natural sciences we tend to think foundationally. That is, the more we investigate and research the closer we get to understanding the exact way the universe works. Applying this foundationalist approach to the human ecosystem would be a mistake. Conceptions of identity are heavily culturally rooted and the process by which identity formation takes place is dependent on this context. That is to say, what I’m about to describe is a pretty good approach to understanding youth identity formation in the developed world of the early 21st century. 

Côte and Levine present the ideas of differentiation and integration as balancing act mediated by narrative continuity. An individual with a stable identity (personal narrative), feels distinct from others, but also has connections and ties to social groups and individuals. If something about a core narrative (continuity) is challenged or found to be false, the balance can be radically shifted. If the balance gets off kilter, identity crisis occurs. 

To demonstrate the ecological process by which identity formation takes place, Côte and Levine propose a triadic identity model. I’ve taken some liberties with their original elegant model involving a few ovals and arrows to visually represent the various identity types and processes in with a science focus.

Image Credit: B. Todd

Image Credit: B. Todd

At the top we see social identity. This is the level at which individuals are influence by social contexts and pressures to fit into available objective identities. These roles tend to be the “big ticket” demographic items (race/ethnicity, gender, class) as well as socially defined aspirational roles such as occupation or education status, though it’s important to note that not all people integrate their work/education into their identity. That tends to be a feature of the professional more than the working classes.

Social Identity - The surface stuff everyone sees can dictate many identity options and heavily influence even more.

Social Identity - The surface stuff everyone sees can dictate many identity options and heavily influence even more.

Personal Identityis the interstitial zone between social identities and individually unique traits and experiences. This can be thought of as “style” or persona. Personal identity is very important in youth and you can see them trying on and defining a personal style through clothing, interest in cultural properties like music and entertainment, and social roles like “athlete” or “drama kid” or “slacker.”  

Personal identity expression in adolescents often involves dress and persona types.

Personal identity expression in adolescents often involves dress and persona types.

Ego Identity is the individual sense of continuity and narrative and manifests in commitments, goals, and beliefs. It can be thought of as a sense of purpose. All three identity levels have both internal and external components, but ego identity is the most reliant on idiosyncratic nature and differentiation.

Ego identity is rooted in personal narratives about commitments and goals. Family, friendships, career aspirations, and key group associations are part of the personal continuity.

Ego identity is rooted in personal narratives about commitments and goals. Family, friendships, career aspirations, and key group associations are part of the personal continuity.

We talk about identity as though it were a fixed property with events (conflicts/crises) that are resolved for ever and ever, but in reality, identity is a constantly ongoing and shifting process. Once integrated, identities tend to stick around, but they shift in importance and relevance over time and even from setting to setting. 

I like to give this example of a change in identity over time. The summer before 7thgrade my best friend and I spend nearly every day playing badminton in my yard. We got pretty good for a couple of 12 year-olds and when school started we won the 7thperiod girls badminton tournament. Neither of us were at allathletic (I could frequently be found wheezing on the sidelines of gym class or whining about the simplest activities) but we put in the work and for that short 3 day period we were gods of the badminton court. We were praised and mentored by parents, grudgingly acknowledged by peers, and given literal pats on the back by our teacher. We even beat our social nemesis in the final match (despite their attempts to cheat). It had all the makings of classic mini heroes journey. For years, I shared the tale of our victory with anyone who would listen and proudly called myself a badminton player. Over time, as other identities to precedence, badminton queen largely dropped out of my thoughts. But, to this day, when badminton is mentioned, I perk up and will proudly tell the story of my 7thgrade victory. Here’s the thing though. I’m just not that good at badminton. A reasonably well motivated 12 year old could punk adult me. I haven’t even played for years. But somewhere underneath educator, and nerd, and parent, is a tiny little identity as Brandy, Badminton Player. That’s the power of identity.

OK, back to the model. The real meat of the matter is in the interactions between the identity levels and how the social and interpersonal interacts with the intrapersonal.

Starting at the top and moving clockwise on the model (this is entirely arbitrary, you can actually start anywhere), you see how social identity location can limit available personal identities. This limitation takes place in the form of validationand challenges. Take my once four year old son and his love of mermaid princess costumes [4] and you can immediately imagine the sorts of challenges a male child might get to this sort of personal identity expression. Often, individuals don’t even need to get to the point of external identity challenge before discarding a personal identity expression. The mere expectationthat there might be challenges can deter expression. This is where social norms and stereotypes are so powerful.

Adolescents observe behavior and identity expressions.

Adolescents observe behavior and identity expressions.

Take our example girl, she enjoys science and does well at it. She might aspire to become a scientist someday. However, the only models of female scientists she sees are biologists and veterinarians. She also sees lots of messages about scientists being weird and socially awkward. She thinks, maybe a career in marine biology or biochemistry would be good. She could do science and work with animals or help develop medicines in a discipline with plenty of other women. 

Moving between personal and ego identity are individual interpretations of identity displays. This is a processes of internalization of the cumulative validations and challenges (perceived and actual). At this phase the individual synthesizes interactions into the ego identity, makes modifications, and adopts identity strategies for the future. The result is a sense of the “type” of person one is. Some of this work goes on unconsciously and some is very conscious and goal oriented. “How can I fit in with group X? What behaviors or expressions will help me gain status? How can I avoid embarrassment or censure?”

As individuals receive validation they internalize norms, concepts, and behaviors about the forming identity and synthesize them with the internal sense of self.

As individuals receive validation they internalize norms, concepts, and behaviors about the forming identity and synthesize them with the internal sense of self.

As our future marine biologist spends time learning more about science and aquatic animals she’s also learning about how scientists act and how others react to girl scientists. She receives approval for her interest in rescuing wildlife (consistent with gender ideas of women as caring). Family and friends give her stuffed starfish and dolphins and books about the ocean. She hears messages that math is hard, girls aren’t good at math (despite the fact that she performs well in math class) and that a biochemistry career require math. She internalizes the notion that among the sciences, a marine biology career is probably the better fit. 

In next process, the individual self-presents as a member of the identity group using the language and identity displays in social contexts (back to personal identity). Our girl scientist, she refocuses her interest on marine biology, using more of the language and behavior that aligns with a possible career with aquatic animals. She beings using scientific names for animals and becomes familiar with their habitats. She favors clothing that is practical for seaside outings.

The internal becomes external as the individual begins presenting behavior and other symbols of the identity group.

The internal becomes external as the individual begins presenting behavior and other symbols of the identity group.

Finally, social engagement, the individual joins socially with an identity group through conformation to group norms (with suitable individual differentiation) . . . and we’re back at social identity and the pattern continues on ad infinitum. Our girl scientist joins the “Save the Ocean” club and participates on online chats with marine biologists.

Integration into the identity group through collective activity.

Integration into the identity group through collective activity.

In this example, our girl got pretty far into a science identity, but her generalized interest in science was quickly channeled into a “gender appropriate” education and career track. Many girls get filtered out of science entirely early on in this process. The importance of this process cannot be over stated. Research shows that attitudes toward science are usually fixed by age 14 [5].

It is generally accepted in psychology that challenges and negative feedback are more powerful than validation. Adolescents in particular are very susceptible to disapproval by peers and parents [6], but especially peers. They are also keenly in tune to social messaging about suitable identities. 

When you consider that adolescents are navigating a number of major social identities, over which they have little control, it can be very challenging to integrate an identity that complicates a major social identity, like say, gender. Stereotypes of science identities are very much at odds with most validated expressions of gender identity. It takes a hardy, or perhaps reallystubborn kid to go against type and risk compromising a core identity like gender. The situation only becomes more fraught for non-conforming or non-binary gender kids who have to navigate a gender identity that doesn’t fit neatly in the preassigned boxes.

As educators, and parents, and role models, it’s up to adults to help kids reframe these stereotypes and create new pathways to building STEM identities that provide a range of ways to be a scientist that do not imperil or challenge core social identities. These can be done by presenting scientists not only as super smart white dudes with poor social skills. We can present scientists as questioners, facilitators, explorers, problem-solvers, and risk takers. We can offer stereotype defying ways of being scientists with as many flavors as the tee-shirt wall at Hot Topic.

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[1] Erikson’s life would probably make for a really interesting movie.

[2] Failure to resolve an identity crises is really not fun, but outside of the scope if this article. 

[3] Côte, J. E. and Levine, C.G. (2016) Identity formation, youth, and development: A simplified approach. Psychology Press: New York.

[4] He’s a 14 year old jock now and waves dismissively at me every time I talk about this phase of his life.

[5] Tai, R., et al. (2006). "Planning early for careers in science." Science 312: 1143-1145.

[6] Even though it feels like they live to argue with and dismiss everything we say.