Identity Moratorium: A Key Status in Human Development

One of the most rewarding parts of teaching at a university is observing my students grow intellectually and socially as they journey through early adulthood.

Many of them experience identity moratorium when they are in college.  Although the term sounds like one is at a standstill, it often involves a crisis period, according to Erik Erikson, which is not resolved until they are comfortable with who they are. 

What is Identity Moratorium?

Identity moratorium is a status in human development involving a search for identity.  Marcia (1966) expanded on Erikson’s initial idea about identity, by introducing statuses, including identity moratorium. 

While Erikson saw identity development as mainly something to be resolved at critical points during the life span (ego identity vs. identity diffusion, primarily in adolescence), Marcia conceptualized identity as states of being.

Identity moratorium is a period where the individual is striving to resolve their own capabilities, parents’ wishes, and society’s demands on them. 

In other words, the individual is ambiguous toward making a commitment, because there are other forces they need to consider. They have to make a decision about where their desires stop and where other’s wishes begin. 

There are two types of identity moratorium.  One is classical moratorium, suggested by Marcia where one experiences a crossroads related to identity. 

A person would experience low commitment, some exploration, and high reconsideration.  The other is searching moratorium, an idea developed by Crocetti, Rubini, Luyckx, and Meeus (2008).  Searching moratorium involves high commitment, high exploration, and high reconsideration. 

What Are Some Examples of Identity Moratorium?

Identity moratorium takes many forms.  We experience identity moratorium not just in career choices but also in religion, politics, family, friendships, ethnic, and gender roles. 

For example, some people who run for public office have not always embraced their current political affiliations.  Being in the identity moratorium status gives them the impetus to change. 

An example might be someone who grew up as a Republican in their younger years, but who may switch to being a member of the Libertarian party when circumstances prompt an exploration of alternatives.

For many college students who change their majors, identity moratorium occurs in their career choices.  For example, I went to college as an accounting major, because I loved numbers. 

Then I switched to architecture because I liked to draw and look at house plans in the Sunday paper. 

When I realized that over my adolescent years, my friends were telling me their problems (and strangers would tell me stories, unprompted), I gravitated to psychology, ultimately resolving identity moratorium, in the professional realm. 

There were a couple of other times I found myself in identity moratorium, due to my interest in other fields, but I recommitted to psychology.

Does Everyone Experience Identity Moratorium?

Yes, everyone experiences periods throughout their lives where they find themselves in identity moratorium status.  However, one does not go through it at the same time as everyone else. 

Meeus, van de Schoot, Keijsers, Branje (2012) found that 20% of the adolescent participants in their study were in identity moratorium status.  When people experience identity moratorium status, it is often dependent on events the individual would be going through at the time. 

For instance, a person spurred toward DNA testing due to curiosity about their heritage could be in their 20s or in their 50s.  Identity moratorium is what led them to consider DNA testing in the first place.

Why is Identity Moratorium Considered a Status Instead of a Stage?

Identity moratorium is considered a status instead of a stage because you can experience it at different times throughout your life.  While a stage involves movement from one point to another point, a status involves a state of being or where one is in life. 

For example, once you learn how to talk, you do not go back to learning how to talk (unless one experiences a health challenge).  When a person is in a status, or state of being, they can return to that status when the situation warrants it. 

An instance would be when one is making a decision regarding their religious affiliation.  If they were raised to be a Christian, but are no longer comfortable with its tenets, they may decide to explore other religions.

Another reason that identity moratorium is considered a status goes back to Erikson’s initial ideas about identity. 

He believed that during each stage (now here is where stage comes in) of development, an individual has to resolve conflicts between two competing issues.  During adolescence, the pull between ego identity and identity diffusion would begin to be resolved. 

Today, we cast the adolescent period as extending to the end of age 25, due to recent research related to the brain suggesting that it is not fully developed until that age.  In other words, cellular connections in the brain are completed at the age of 25. 

According to Erikson, then, one begins the search for identity during this stage; however, he also believed that who we are can change as we go through the life span.

What Are Other Identity Statuses, in Addition to Identity Moratorium?

There are three other identity statuses:  identity achievement, foreclosure, and identity diffusion.  Ego identity/identity achievement is necessary in preparation for “adulting”, according to Erikson (1956). 

Marcia (1966) found that those in this status were grounded in their aspirations and more protected against negative information about themselves.  In the foreclosure status, individuals question neither society’s expectations nor parental (expectations). 

Furthermore, they are more likely to have authoritarian personality characteristics, such as obedience and respect for authority.  The individual in this status was found to have unrealistic/lofty goals about themselves and fragile self-esteem. 

The third, identity diffusion, involves adolescents who are least likely to explore or commit to a particular identity. Marcia (1966) gave the example of a playboy in college.

The process by which we develop our identities during identity moratorium, as well as the other statuses, has been explained by Crocetti and colleagues. 

They include commitment, in-depth exploration, and reconsideration of commitment.  Commitment is about how sure you are in your identity.  In-depth exploration involves gaining information to guide your choices. 

Reconsideration of commitment consists of weighing current commitments with alternative commitments, according to Crocetti, et al (2008). 

Achievement is marked by high commitment, high in-depth exploration, and low reconsideration of commitment. 

Foreclosure entails high commitment, low to moderate in-depth exploration, and low reconsideration of commitment.  Diffusion is characterized by low commitment, low in-depth exploration, and low reconsideration of commitment. 

All of the identity statuses and their processes are best illustrated in the chart below. 

Status Commitment In-depth Exploration Reconsideration of Commitment
Identity Achievement/Ego Identity High High Low
Identity Diffusion Low Low Low
Identity Moratorium (Searching) (Classical) High Low High Moderate High High
Identity Foreclosure High Low to moderate Low

As you can see, all of the statuses require a certain degree of exploration. One never stops learning as a result.  Exploration is an integral part of identity moratorium and informs the other statuses.

Is Identity Moratorium Valuable?

Most definitely.  The beauty of identity moratorium is that it gives us an opportunity to explore our identity. 

We can question both society’s notions of ourselves in addition to our parents’ conceptualizations, in pursuit of becoming the person we want to eventually be. 

Marcia (1966) found that individuals in this status, surprisingly, resembled those who had consolidated their identities. 

Identity moratorium is also valuable because Marcia (1966) noted that it is related to positive aspects of healthy self-esteem. 

Researchers found that college students with an informational identity style had positive educational outcomes; they were most often in identity moratorium status, compared to other statuses (Berzoni, Sky & Kuk, 2000). 

Thus, it is best to send your child into the world when they are in identity moratorium status, particularly when compared to the identity diffusion status, which consisted of youth who had the worst outcomes in their study.

What Are the Challenges of Identity Moratorium?

The challenges of identity moratorium are psychological in nature.  Past researchers have reported relationships between one’s identity moratorium status and anxiety or depression. 

Although depression was higher during identity moratorium, when compared to the other identity statuses, early to middle, diverse Dutch adolescents reported less depression in searching moratorium, compared to classical moratorium in a study by Meeus, van de Schoot, Keijsers, and Branje (2012).

Challenges to identity moratorium may come from parents themselves.  A prime example is the college admissions scandal.

Parents, in that case, were concerned that their children would not get into the school they wanted for them. Consequently, they paid a college consultant to ensure their admission.

Those students, who were in the beginnings of identity moratorium, were hindered by their parents and simultaneously had their emerging self-confidence shaken. 

Had parents trusted them to experience identity moratorium, as the parents themselves most likely did, a different result would have emerged. 

On the other hand, one might also draw the conclusion that the youth were in foreclosure status. It is easier to simply follow what our parents want us to do. 

Unfortunately, when parents give mixed messages, this causes youth to experience identity moratorium beyond what is necessary at that time.  In an attempt to help their children, they may have, without meaning to, stunted their psychological growth.

How Can Parents Support Their Children During Identity Moratorium?

Parents can support their children during identity moratorium in a number of ways. 

Encouraging youth toward being their own person and teaching them how to make small decisions at an early age prepares them for adolescence. 

During adolescence, when identity moratorium first takes place, the young person is ready for the process because they are in the habit of making choices based on their past experiences. 

Providing support for them, even if it goes against your dreams for them of becoming a doctor or lawyer, allows them to incrementally commit to the person they will turn into. 

The flipside of support was noted in a study by Sandhu, Tung, Kundra, and Singh (2012). 

Among their Indian participants, they reported a negative relationship between father’s parenting acceptance and identity moratorium among girls. 

In other words, fathers were less accepting of their daughters experiencing identity moratorium, when compared to sons.  Mothers were less accepting of both boys and girls identity moratorium status. 

Fathers’ parenting attitudes of avoidance were also related to identity moratorium experienced by boys and girls.

Culture plays an important role in identity moratorium.  Crocetti et al (2008) found as much in their research among a diverse group of youth in the Netherlands. 

Ethnic minority adolescents were more likely to be in the classical moratorium and searching moratorium statuses, compared to Dutch adolescents in the majority, who tended toward foreclosure and diffusion statuses. 

The reason for the identity moratorium status of ethnic minority adolescents in the Netherlands mirrors those reasons for similar populations in the U.S.

Adolescents’ search for identity in an environment where they are not in the majority is common.  The authors of the study mentioned that acculturation was part of the resolution of this status. 

They also found that older adolescents were more likely to be in moratorium and foreclosure statuses, compared to younger adolescents. 

This, too, makes sense as it sets the stage for our lifelong exploration into getting a sense of who we are. 

Parents can support their children during the identity moratorium status by understanding that youth in this status are low on agreeableness. 

This was also reported by Crocetti et al(2008).  This makes sense as it fits with making sure they can search on their own without heavy outside influences. 

How Does Identity Moratorium Look in Adulthood?

Many believe that once identity achievement occurs, one no longer goes through identity moratorium.  However, Erikson viewed the process of achieving identity as a life long process (Sokol, 2009). 

Consequently, we have to be open to our individual processes.  For instance, the question of who you will be when the children finish high school and go out on their own looms large for many parents. 

The relationship between you and your child will change.  Are you prepared for the positive and negative aspects of identity moratorium when you re-experience that status?

Those who have experienced identity moratorium during adulthood might find themselves going back to a career choice they abandoned as a young person.

An individual who always wanted to go into a helping profession, but was encouraged to major in business or math instead, might find themselves deciding to go back to school for nursing.

Experiencing searching moratorium as a youth can save one year of time in a profession one does not have a passion for or married to a person who does not want to grow with their spouse.

What if You Feel You Have Never Experienced Identity Moratorium?

Some people think that they have never experienced identity moratorium.  Although as children we initially accept our parents’ and society’s conceptions of how life should be, following our own path requires searching for information during some parts of our lives. 

Since each of the statuses involves some level of exploration, one can still experience psychological growth.

Additionally, the key feature of identity moratorium as exploration indicates that at some point, regardless of your status, you experienced it.

How Do You Know When Your Status in Identity Moratorium Ends?

When you are ready to connect with the community that you can identify with, that is when you are emerging out of identity moratorium. 

For instance, Cote and Schwartz (2003) found that a diverse sample of college students from Canada and the US who were in the identity moratorium status were less likely than the other statuses to engage the community. 

No longer feeling uncertain about your place in the world is a sign that you have emerged from identity moratorium.

Identity moratorium, whether it is searching or classical, gives us the space to grow as we go through this thing called life. 

Because it exists, we have the ability to adapt successfully to our circumstances.  You never know when you might have to reassess how you move in the world.  But as my grandfather used to say, “keep on living.”

References

Cote, J. & Schwartz, S. (2002). Comparing psychological and sociological approaches to identity:  Identity status, identity capital, and the individuation process.  Journal of Adolescence, 25, 571-586.

Crocetti, E., Rubini, M., Luyckx, K., & Meeus, W. (2008).  Identity formation in early and middle adolescents from various ethnic groups: From three dimensions to five statuses. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 37, 983–996.

Erikson, E (1956). The problem of ego identity.  Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, 4, 56-121.

Marcia, J. (1966). Development and validation of ego identity status.  Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551-558.

Meeus, W., van de Schoot, R., Keijsers, L., & Branje, S. (2012). Identity statuses as developmental trajectories:  A five-wave longitudinal study in early-to-middle and middle-to-late adolescents.  Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 1008-1021.

Sandhu, D., Singh, B., Tung, S., & Kundra, N. (2012). Adolescent identity formation, psychological well-being, and parental attitudes.  Pakistan Journal of Psychological Research, 27, 89-105.

Sokol, J. (2009). Identity development throughout the lifetime:  An examination of Eriksonian theory.  Graduate Journal of Counseling Psychology, 1, 139-147.

Dr. Marilyn Lovett Hampton

Dr. Marilyn Lovett-Hampton is a contributing writer for Strategies for Parents. She is an expert in youth development, health promotion, and cultural identity. Her research has been presented at community forums and professional conferences, while her publications range from encyclopedia entries to peer reviewed journals. Dr. Lovett has over 20 years of professional experience in higher education as a faculty member, researcher, and an administrator. She earned her doctoral degree in Psychology from the University of Cincinnati and is the founder of Huduma Services, a college consulting enterprise. Her hobbies are reading and traveling.

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