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  • John Shrawder

Decision Making and Identity Formation

We make many large and small decisions in our personal lives. The following are some of the more important decisions that persons age 14 to 30 will have to make.


Much of the following discussion is based on the 2008 book “The Path to Purpose” by William Damon and the 2019 book “Youth Development in Identity Societies by James E Cote. Much is based on psychologist’s Erik Erikson theory of psychosocial development as applied to people age 12 to 18.


Role Societies. In more traditional societies, behavior in communities are defined by a religion or sect. These define one’s meaning and purpose. One’s position in society is determined at birth. The major decisions describe above are made by parents or others during a person’s childhood. One’s role in the community is determined while we are children. For example, Benjamin Franklin’s father choose his son’s occupation when he was 12. It is also common to choose marital partners for children. Arranged marriages have been used throughout the world and remain widespread today. There is little anxiety over the major decisions described above. The entire community is responsible for the success of failure of an individual.


Identity societies. The United States and other Western Societies are Identity Based Societies. There are no clear rules on how to make the above decisions. People’s decision making need not be dominated by parents or religion. People have contacts to many other influences that could provide information on the above decision. Each person is “free” to make the above decisions for himself or herself and has a wide range of influences in making these decisions. There is no clear cut transition to adulthood like in role societies. Every person is individually responsible for their success or failure and receives uncertain support from their communities.


Ironically, people in countries dominated by more traditional societies seem to score higher on the Freedom measure in the World Happiness Report. It could be that the freedom to make these decisions is not important to people or the long term uncertainty and responsibility of having to make decisions like these cause unhappiness.


Identity and identity Formation


A person with an identity is someone who has achieve a useful role in adult society that they enjoy. They have chosen to assume a role and have chosen not to assume other roles. A fully formed identity consists of three things.


Social integration- A person is integrated into well-functioning groups connected to higher purpose to the greater community. A person forming an identity learns the various roles within these groups and the skills, knowledge, credentials, norms, and relationships needed to be accepted by these groups.


Personal differentiation – A person’s daily activities is dominated by personal interests, tastes, and goals they find satisfying and personally meaningful. These activities cannot be simply self-serving like seeking wealth, possessions, or fame. To be accepted in a social group, activities must consist of some purpose that serve others


Continuity of the self – Sometimes achieving a useful identity can take a long time. The pursuit of social integration and personal differentiation goes beyond short term transactions and must be sustained over a period of time. A person has meaningful activities in the present, a clearly defined future purpose, and a tolerance for the difficult path to that future purpose. However, meaningful identities can frequently be found from lifestyles that do not require extensive education.


An ideal identity is one where a person is happy with their day to day actions, participates in an organization that supports them and values their actions, and lives in an overall society that values the organization. There can be imperfections in these relationships but being part of a situation like this for a long period of time should be a source of long term happiness.


A person who hates their well-respected job which is an example of a person who lacks personal differentiation. A person who lives in their parent’s basement into their 30s is an example of a person who never found social integration

Some of the difficulties in finding an identity are as follows:

  • Some pursuits are hard to sustain for long period of time

  • It is challenging to find a balance between a person’s personal interests and the social expectations of a high functioning group

  • There are so many influences in identity societies that teach us to understand how to be differentiated and too few to show us how to be integrated

In identity societies, we frequently overemphasize personal self-serving activities and deemphasize social integration.


Identity Formation Patterns Among Youth in the United States


Cote’s cites research that shows that American youth typically follow five paths in forming an identity.


Guardians. These are youth who voluntarily follow the traditions of their parents or other adults. The adults may even make the decisions for them. This comprises about 20% of the youth population. About 20% of adults reported that decisions had been made by their parents.


Resolvers. These are youth who actively engage in finding their identity. They explore their personal interests, develop their talent, learn about the world, and engage with relevant existing institutions. This is also about 20% of youth but grows to 50% of adults


Searchers. These are people who are endlessly searching. They never find interests or institutions that completely satisfy them so they commit for a short period and then move on to other interests. These are also about 20% of youth but decline to 10% of adults


Drifters and Refusers. Drifters are people who have no plans. Refusers are people who actively resist efforts to make plans or engage with adult communities. These youth typically remain youth and seek to be dependent on parents or friends. These are about 30% of youth and about 15 to 20% of adults.


Educator William Damon studied purpose in 1,200 Americans between 12 and 22 years old. He separated them into 4 groups.


Disengaged. These are youth who have no long term plan. They are often apathetic and show no interests beyond the self. This was about 25% of the youth sample.


Dreamers. These youth have long term aspirations but are doing nothing to work toward those goals. This is also 25% of the youth sample.


Dabblers. These youth engage in activities but do not connect them to a long term purpose. They may jump from activity to activity but do not connect it to a long term identity. This is about 31% of the youth sample.


Purposeful. These youth have found something meaningful, work on it for a period of time, and can articulate a long term reason for their engagement. This is about 20% of the youth sample.


Both authors show that a large number of American youth are not working toward finding a long term identity. Damon’s research shows that only 20% of youth are working effectively toward a long term identity. Cote finds that about 50% of youth have no connection to a long term identity. While 20% to 25% of people will find a long term identity as adults, about 25% to 30% of Americans will never find a long term identity.


Problems caused by weak Identity Formation


Cote connects weak identity formation to some mental health conditions.


Much of the psychological research is showing that happiness is not connected to short term goals like possessions, status, and power. The pleasures are short lived and extinguish. Genuine happiness is stable and long term. According to Damon, “A good deal of work in psychology has revealed that there is a powerful link between the pursuit of a positive purpose and life satisfaction.”


Weak identify formation can lead to personal unhappiness in many ways.

  • Inability to build mutually supportive relationships with people and institutions resulting in isolation , fantasy, and self-absorption

  • Inability to contribute to wider social goals

  • Confusion and lack of confidence at making competent independent decisions

  • Dependency on others

  • Susceptibility to deceit and manipulation

  • Risky behavior

Everyone loses because large numbers of people are not contributing to the greater needs of society.


I believe that High schools should help students work through their identity formation by teaching the following:

  • Decision making and problem solving.

  • Assessment of personal interests.

  • The present and possible future of institutions in the United States.

  • Roles within organizations

  • Norms and ethical standards of organizations.

  • The inevitability of identity crises.

  • Identity formations in caring relationships and community institutions.

This material will be shown in later blogs.

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