Why is it so hard to figure out who we are?

Today, we consider reason #6: Identity Assimilation Increases with Age.

As we have discussed in previous posts, relatively few young adults reach the Identity Achievement status. This is not because Identity Achievement is maladaptive.

On the contrary, research indicates that individuals in an Identity Achievement status show more rational and planned decision-making, demonstrate more mature moral reasoning, have more intimate relationships, are more curious, and are more open to new experiences.

Nor is it that so few young adults have failed to reach the Identity Achievement status because it is not possible to do so during, or after, late adolescence.

So, what is going on to make it so difficult to become Identity Achieved, besides the Equilibrium, Instability, Conflict, Curiosity and Context factors we have discussed in prior blog posts?

Two things. Assimilation and Accommodation, both of which are part of the adaptation process that, for Piaget, helps us think about the world as we interact with it. Both Assimilation and Accommodation are also part of the process of identity development.

Specifically, Assimilation involves interpreting new information according to the schemes, or patterns of thought, we already possess. Accommodation involves changing our schemes, or patterns of thought, to better fit with new information.

We will further consider Accommodation next month in the last post of this series on the 7 Clues to Identity Achievement.

For now then, let us delve into Assimilation. Consider the following situation.

We think of our self as an attractive friend, given we view ourselves as kind and interesting. So the first time a friend doesn't show up for the dinner reservation to which we mutually agreed, we assume that work responsibilities held up our friend at the office.

Furthermore, we do not attribute any personal motives to our friend for not showing (e.g., he/she shunning us). The failure to make such attributions means we need not re-evaluate our view of our self as an attractive friend.

So this maintaining the way we think about ourselves is the Assimilation process. This is because we simply incorporate new information (e.g., our close friend has failed to show for a dinner date) into our current understanding (e.g., we are a kind and interesting friend), rather than change our understanding of the situation, and our self.

And it is this Assimilation process that is correlated positively with age. That is, we tend to not alter the way we think about our self, and the world, the older we are.

Why? Because holding on to our commitments and/or because distorting facts that are inconsistent with our identity (e.g., perhaps we are NOT an attractive friend, but we prevent ourselves from seeing this) may be adaptive.

That is, it provides us with a sense of personal continuity and feeling that we are the same person today that we were yesterday -- especially in the face of uncertainty. Speaking of adaptive, remember that Assimilation is one part of the Adaptation process.

So as we grow older, we are more likely to seek out experiences and explanations (such as our friend not showing to dinner as a result of his/her work responsibilities, rather than his/her feelings about us) that confirm, rather than challenge, our identity.



Dunkel, C. (2005). The relation between self-continuity and measures of identity. Identity: An  International Journal of Theory and Research, 5, 21-34.

Grotevant, H. D. (1987). Toward a process model of identity formation. Journal of Adolescent Research, 2, 203-222.

Kroger, J. (2007). Why is identity achievement so elusive? Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research, 7(4), 331-348.

Luckx, K., Schwartz, S. J., Goossens, L., Beyers, W., & Missotten, L. (2011). Processes of personal  identity formation and evaluation (pp. 77-98). In S. J. Schwartz, K. Luyckx, & V. L. Vignoles (Eds.), Handbook of Identity Theory and Research: Volume 1, Structures and Processes. New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media, LLC.

Piaget, J. (1977). The development of thought: Equilibration of cognitive structures. (A. Rosin, Trans.). Oxford, England: Viking.

Whitbourne, S. K. (1996). The aging individual: Physical and psychological perspectives. New York: Springer-Verlag.




About the Author

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D.

Kristine Anthis, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at Southern Connecticut State University. She is the author of Lifespan Development, Sage Publications.

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