Journal of Youth and Adolescence

, Volume 48, Issue 5, pp 891–907 | Cite as

Identity Structure and Processes in Adolescence: Examining the Directionality of Between- and Within-Person Associations

  • Annabel BogaertsEmail author
  • Laurence Claes
  • Seth J. Schwartz
  • Andrik I. Becht
  • Margaux Verschueren
  • Amarendra Gandhi
  • Koen Luyckx
Empirical Research


Developing a stable and coherent identity structure (i.e., a synthesized sense of self that can support self-directed decision making) represents a lifelong task. A person’s identity structure is continually revised through ongoing processes of identity exploration and commitment. However, longitudinal studies linking identity structure to identity processes are largely lacking. The present three-wave longitudinal study among 530 Flemish high school students [50.6% female; Mage = 15; SD = 1.85; age range = 11–19 years] examined the directionality of both between- and within-person associations linking identity synthesis and confusion to identity exploration and commitment processes. Between-person cross-lagged models indicated that adolescents who scored high on identity synthesis relative to their peers also scored high on proactive exploration and commitment processes, and low on ruminative exploration one year later, again relative to their peers. Adolescents who scored high on identity confusion relative to their peers also scored high on ruminative exploration one year later, again relative to their peers. With respect to effects of identity processes on identity structure, adolescents who scored high on identification with commitment relative to their peers also scored low on identity confusion one year later. Within-person cross-lagged models indicated that, when adolescents scored high on identity synthesis relative to their own average score, they reported increased proactive exploration processes one year later. In general, reaching a degree of identity synthesis appears to represent a prerequisite for proactive identity exploration at both the between- and within-person levels.


Identity structure Identity processes Adolescence Between-person Within-person Longitudinal 


Authors’ Contributions

A.G. and L.C. oversaw the data collection; A.B., L.C., and K.L. conceived of the study, constructed the hypotheses, analyzed the data, and interpreted the results; A.B. wrote the manuscript with critical revisions from all authors (K.L., L.C., S.J.S., A.I.B., M.V., and A.G.); S.J.S. and A.I.B. contributed to the data analyses and interpretation of the results. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


There was no funding provided for this study.

Data Sharing and Declaration

This manuscript’s data will not be deposited.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

The present study was approved by the ethical committee (SMEC) of the Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences at the University of Leuven.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


  1. Achenbach, T. M., McConaughy, S. H., & Howell, C. T. (1987). Child/adolescent behavioral and emotional problems: Implications of cross-informant correlations for situational specificity. Psychological Bulletin, 101, 213–232. Scholar
  2. Adachi, P., & Willoughby, T. (2015). Interpreting effect sizes when controlling for stability effects in longitudinal autoregressive models: Implications for psychological science. European Journal of Developmental Psychology, 12, 116–128. Scholar
  3. Anderson, T. N., & Kida, T. E. (1982). The cross-lagged research approach: Description and illustration. Journal of Accounting Research, 20, 403–414. Scholar
  4. Arnett, J. J. (2000). Emerging adulthood: A theory of development from the late teens through the twenties. American Psychologist, 55, 469–480. Scholar
  5. Becht, A. I., Nelemans, S. A., Branje, S. J. T., Vollebergh, W. A. M., Koot, H. M., & Meeus, W. H. J. (2017). Identity uncertainty and commitment making across adolescence: Five-year within-person associations using daily identity reports. Developmental Psychology, 53, 2103–2112. Scholar
  6. Bosma, H. A., & Kunnen, E. S. (2001). Determinants and mechanisms in ego identity development: A review and synthesis. Developmental Review, 21, 39–66. Scholar
  7. Campbell, J. D., Trapnell, P. D., Heine, S. J., Katz, I. M., Lavallee, L. F., & Lehman, D. R. (1996). Self-concept clarity: Measurement, personality correlates, and cultural boundaries. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 70, 141–156.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Chen, F. F. (2007). Sensitivity of goodness of fit indexes to lack of measurement invariance. Structural Equation Modeling, 14, 464–504. Scholar
  9. Claes, L., Luyckx, K., & Bijttebier, P. (2014). Non-suicidal self-injury in adolescents: Prevalence and associations with identity formation above and beyond depression. Personality and Individual Differences, 61–62, 101–104. Scholar
  10. Claes, L., Luyckx, K., Bijttebier, P., Turner, B., Ghandi, A., Smets, J., & Schoevaerts, K. (2015). Non-suicidal self-injury in patients with eating disorder: Associations with identity formation above and beyond anxiety and depression. European Eating Disorders Review: The Journal of the Eating Disorders Association, 23, 119–125. Scholar
  11. Côté, J. E., & Levine, C. (1987). A formulation of Erikson’s theory of ego identity formation. Developmental Review, 7, 273–325.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Côté, J. E., & Levine, C. (1988). A critical examination of the ego identity status paradigm. Developmental Review, 8, 147–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Côté, J. E., & Levine, C. G. (2002). Identity formation, agency, and culture: A social psychological synthesis. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  14. Côté, J. E., & Schwartz, S. J. (2002). Comparing psychological and sociological approaches to identity: Identity status, identity capital, and the individualization process. Journal of Adolescence, 25, 571–586. Scholar
  15. Crocetti, E. (2017). Identity formation in adolescence: The dynamic of forming and consolidating identity commitments. Child Development Perspectives, 11, 145–150. Scholar
  16. Crocetti, E., Cieciuch, J., Gao, C. H., Klimstra, T., Lin, C. L., Matos, P. M., & Meeus, W. (2015). National and gender measurement invariance of the Utrecht-Management of Identity Commitments Scale (U-MICS): A 10-nation study with university students. Assessment, 22, 753–768.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Crocetti, E., Rubini, M., & Meeus, W. (2008). Capturing the dynamics of identity formation in various ethnic croups: Development and validation of a three-dimensional model. Journal of Adolescence, 31, 207–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Dimitrova, R., Hatano, K., Sugimura, K., & Ferrer-Wreder, L. (2018). The Erikson Psychosocial Stage Inventory in adolescent samples: Factorial validity and equivalence of identity as measured from the United States and Japan. European Journal of Psychological Assessment, 1–5.
  19. Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York, NY: Norton.Google Scholar
  20. Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity, youth and crisis. New York, NY: Norton.Google Scholar
  21. Gandhi, A., Luyckx, K., Maitra, S., Kiekens, G., Verschueren, M., & Claes, L. (2017). Directionality of effects between non-suicidal self-injury and identity formation: A prospective study in adolescents. Personality and Individual Differences, 109, 124–129. Scholar
  22. Grotevant, H. D. (1987). Toward a process model of identity formation. Journal of Adolescent Research, 2, 203–222.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Hamaker, E. L., Kuiper, R. M., & Grasman, R. P. P. P. (2015). A critique of the cross-lagged panel model. Psychological Methods, 20, 102–116. Scholar
  24. Harter, S. (1999). The construction of the self: A developmental perspective. New York, NY: Guilford.Google Scholar
  25. Hatano, K., & Sugimura, K. (2017). Is adolescence a period of identity formation for all youth? Insights from a four-wave longitudinal study of identity dynamics in Japan. Developmental Psychology, 53, 2113–2126. Scholar
  26. Hatano, K., Sugimura, K., & Schwartz, S. J. (2018). Longitudinal links between identity consolidation and psychosocial problems in adolescence: Using bi-factor latent change and cross-lagged effect models. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 47, 717–730. Scholar
  27. Hu, L., & Bentler, P. M. (1999). Cutoff criteria for fit indexes in covariance structure analysis: Conventional criteria versus new alternatives. A Multidisciplinary Journal, 6, 1–55.Google Scholar
  28. Kaufman, E. A., Montgomery, M. J., & Crowell, S. E. (2014). Identity-related dysfunction: Integrating clinical and developmental perspectives. Identity, 14, 297–311. Scholar
  29. Keijsers, L. (2015). Parental monitoring and adolescent problem behaviors: How much do we really know? International Journal of Behavioral Development, 40, 271–281.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Klimstra, T. A., Kuppens, P., Luyckx, K., Branje, S., Hale, W. W., Oosterwegel, A., & Meeus, W. H. J. (2016). Daily dynamics of adolescent mood and identity. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26, 459–473. Scholar
  31. Kline, R. B. (2015). Principles and practice of structural equation modeling (4th ed.). New York, NY: Guilford press.Google Scholar
  32. Koepke, S., & Denissen, J. J. A. (2012). Dynamics of identity development and separation-individuation in parent-child relationships during adolescence and emerging adulthood - A conceptual integration. Developmental Review, 32, 67–88. Scholar
  33. Lichtwarck-Aschoff, A., van Geert, P., Bosma, H., & Kunnen, S. (2008). Time and identity: A framework for research and theory formation. Developmental Review, 28, 370–400. Scholar
  34. Little, R. J. (1988). A test of missing completely at random for multivariate data with missing values. Journal of the American Statistical Association, 83, 1198–1202. Scholar
  35. Little, R. J. A., & Rubin, D. B. (1987). Statistical analysis with missing data. London: Wiley.Google Scholar
  36. Luyckx, K., Apers, S., Rassart, J., Klimstra, T., Dezutter, J., Moons, P., & Goossens, E. (2012). The 13-item Sense of Coherence scale in Dutch-speaking adolescents and young adults: Structrual validity, age trends, and chronic disease. Psychologica Belgica, 52, 351–368. Scholar
  37. Luyckx, K., Gandhi, A., Bijttebier, P., & Claes, L. (2015). Non-suicidal self-injury in female adolescents and psychiatric patients: A replication and extension of the role of identity formation. Personality and Individual Differences, 77, 91–96. Scholar
  38. Luyckx, K., Goossens, L., & Soenens, B. (2006). A developmental contextual perspective on identity construction in emerging adulthood: Change dynamics in commitment formation and commitment evaluation. Developmental Psychology, 42, 366–380. Scholar
  39. Luyckx, K., Klimstra, T. A., Duriez, B., Petegem, S., Van, Beyers, W., Teppers, E., & Goossens, L. (2013a). Personal identity processes and self-esteem: Temporal sequences in high school and college students. Journal of Research in Personality, 47, 159–170. Scholar
  40. Luyckx, K., Klimstra, T. A., Duriez, B., Schwartz, S. J., & Vanhalst, J. (2012). Identity processes and coping strategies in college students: Short-term longitudinal dynamics and the role of personality. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 1226–1239. Scholar
  41. Luyckx, K., Klimstra, T. A., Duriez, B., Van Petegem, S., & Beyers, W. (2013b). Personal identity processes from adolescence through the late 20s: Age trends, functionality, and depressive symptoms. Social Development, 22, 701–721. Scholar
  42. Luyckx, K., Schwartz, S. J., Berzonsky, M. D., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., Smits, I., & Goossens, L. (2008). Capturing ruminative exploration: Extending the four-dimensional model of identity formation in late adolescence. Journal of Research in Personality, 42, 58–82. Scholar
  43. Luyckx, K., Schwartz, S. J., Soenens, B., Vansteenkiste, M., & Goossens, L. (2010). The path from identity commitments to adjustment: Motivational underpinnings and mediating mechanisms. Journal of Counseling and Development, 88, 52–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Luyckx, K., Soenens, B., & Goossens, L. (2006). The personality-identity interplay in emerging adult women: Convergent findings from complementary analyses. European Journal of Personality, 20, 195–215. Scholar
  45. Luyckx, K., Teppers, E., Klimstra, T. A., & Rassart, J. (2014). Identity processes and personality traits and types in adolescence: Directionality of effects and developmental trajectories. Developmental Psychology, 50, 2144–2153. Scholar
  46. Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego-identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551–558.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  47. Marcia, J. E. (1980). Identity in adolescence. In J. Adelson (Ed.), Handbook of adolescent psychology (pp. 159–186). New York, NY: Wiley.Google Scholar
  48. Marcia, J. E. (1988). Common processes underlying ego identity, cognitive/moral development, and individuation. In D. K. Lapsey & F. C. Power (Ed.), Self, ego, and identity: Integrative approaches (pp. 211–266). New York, NY: Springer-Verlag.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Marcia, J. E. (1994). Identity and psychotherapy. In S. L. Archer (Ed.), Interventions for adolescent identity development (pp. 29–46). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  50. Marcia, J. E. (1995). The empirical study of ego identity. In D. J. de, L. H. A. Bosma, T. L. G. Graafsma & H. D. Grotevant (Ed.), Identity and development: An interdisciplinary approach (pp. 67–80). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  51. Marcia, J. E. (2002). Identity and psychosocial development in adulthood. Identity, 2, 7–28.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Marcia, J. E. (2006). Ego identity and personality disorders. Journal of Personality Disorders, 20, 577–596. Scholar
  53. Markovitch, N., Luyckx, K., Klimstra, T., Abramson, L., & Knafo-Noam, A. (2017). Identity exploration and commitment in early adolescence: Genetic and environmental contributions. Developmental Psychology, 53, 2092–2102. Scholar
  54. Meeus, W., Iedema, J., & Maassen, G. H. (2002). Commitment and exploration as mechanisms of identity formation. Psychological Reports, 90, 771–785.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Mercer, N., Crocetti, E., Branje, S., van Lier, P., & Meeus, W. (2017). Linking delinquency and personal identity formation across adolescence: Examining both between- and within-person associations. Developmental Psychology, 53, 2182–2194.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  56. Moshman, D. (2011). Adolescent rationality and development: Cognition, morality, and identity. 3rd ed Philadelphia: PA: Psychology Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Muthén, L. K., & Muthén, B. (2017). Mplus: The comprehensive modeling program for applied researchers: User’s guide. Los Angelos, CA: Muthén & Muthén.Google Scholar
  58. Orth, U., Robins, R. W., & Roberts, B. W. (2008). Low self-esteem prospectively predicts depression in adolescence and young adulthood. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 95, 695–708.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  59. Papp, L. M. (2004). Capturing the interplay among within-and between processes using multilevel modeling techniques. Applied & Preventive Psychology, 11, 115–124. Scholar
  60. Podsakoff, P. M., MacKenzie, S. B., Lee, J.-Y., & Podsakoff, N. P. (2003). Common method biases in behavioral research: A critical review of the literature and recommended remedies. Journal of Applied Psychology, 88, 879–903.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  61. Rosenthal, D. A., Gurney, R. M., & Moore, S. M. (1981). From trust to intimacy: A new inventory for examining Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 10, 525–537.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  62. Satorra, A., & Bentler, P. M. (2001). A scaled difference chi-square test statistic for moment structure analysis. Psychometrika, 66, 507–514. Scholar
  63. Schafer, J. L., & Graham, J. (2002). Missing data: Our view to the state of art. Psychological Methods, 7, 147–177.CrossRefPubMedPubMedCentralGoogle Scholar
  64. Schwartz, S. J. (2001). The evolution of Eriksonian and, neo-Eriksonian identity theory and research: A review and integration. Identity, 1, 7–58. Scholar
  65. Schwartz, S. J., Adamson, L., Ferrer-Wreder, L., Dillon, F. R., & Berman, S. L. (2006). Identity status measurement across contexts: Variation in measurement structure and mean levels among White American, Hispanic American, and Swedish emerging adults. Journal of Personality Assessment, 86, 61–76.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  66. Schwartz, S. J., Côté, J. E., & Arnett, J. J. (2005). Identity and agency in emerging adulthood: Two developmental routes in the individualisation process. Youth and Society, 37, 201–229. Scholar
  67. Schwartz, S. J., Donnellan, M. B., Ravert, R. D., Luyckx, K., & Zamboanga, B. L. (2013). Identity development, personality, and well-being in adolescence and emerging adulthood: Theory, research, and recent advances. In J. M. (Vol. E. I. B. Weiner (Series Ed.), & R. M. Lerner, A. Easterbrooks (Eds.), Handbook of psychology, vol.6: Developmental psychology. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  68. Schwartz, S. J., Klimstra, T. A., Luyckx, K., Hale, W. W., Frijns, T., Oosterwegel, A., & Meeus, W. H. J. (2011). Daily dynamics of personal identity and self-concept clarity. European Journal of Personality, 25, 373–385. Scholar
  69. Schwartz, S. J., Klimstra, T. A., Luyckx, K., Hale, W. W., & Meeus, W. H. J. (2012). Characterizing the self-system over time in adolescence: Internal structure and associations with internalizing symptoms. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 41, 1208–1225. Scholar
  70. Schwartz, S. J., Meca, A., & Petrova, M. (2017). Who am I and why does it matter? Linking personal identity and self-concept clarity. In K. G. D. (J. Lodi-Smith (Ed.)), Self-concept clarity: Perspectives on assessment, research, and applications (pp. 145–164).
  71. Schwartz, S. J., Pantin, H., Prado, G., Sullivan, S., & Szapocznik, J. (2005). Family functioning, identity, and problem behavior in Hispanic immigrant early adolescents. Journal of Early Adolescence, 25, 392–420.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  72. Schwartz, S. J., Zamboanga, B. L., Luyckx, K., Meca, A., & Ritchie, R. A. (2013). Identity in emerging adulthood: Reviewing the field and looking forward. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 96–113. Scholar
  73. Schwartz, S. J., Zamboanga, B. L., Wang, W., & Olthuis, J. V. (2009). Measuring identity from an Eriksonian perspective: Two sides of the same coin? Journal of Personality Assessment, 91, 143–154. Scholar
  74. Schwartz, S. J., Zamboanga, B. L., Weisskirch, R. S., & Rodriguez, L. (2009). The relationships of personal and ethnic identity exploration to indices of adaptive and maladaptive psychosocial functioning. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 33, 131–144. Scholar
  75. Verschueren, M., Rassart, J., Claes, L., Moons, P., & Luyckx, K. (2017). Identity statuses throughout adolescence and emerging adulthood: A large-scale study into gender, age, and contextual differences. Psychologica Belgica, 57, 32–42. Scholar
  76. Waterman, A. S., Schwartz, S. J., Hardy, S. A., Kim, S. Y., Lee, R. M., Armenta, B. E., & Agocha, V. B. (2013). Good choices, poor choices: Relationship between the quality of identity commitments and psychosocial functioning. Emerging Adulthood, 1, 163–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  77. Yoder, A. E. (2000). Barriers to ego identity status formation: A contextual qualification of Marcia’s identity status paradigm. Journal of Adolescence, 23, 95–106. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of Psychology and Educational SciencesKU LeuvenLeuvenBelgium
  2. 2.Faculty of Medicine and Health SciencesUniversity AntwerpAntwerpBelgium
  3. 3.Department of Public Health Sciences, Leonard M. Miller School of MedicineUniversity of MiamiMiamiUSA
  4. 4.Research Centre Adolescent DevelopmentUtrecht UniversityUtrechtThe Netherlands
  5. 5.UNIBSUniversity of the Free StateBloemfonteinSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations