Identity Versus Confusion - Psychosocial Stage 5

Stage Five of Psychosocial Development

Identity vs Confusion
Identity versus role confusion is the fifth stage of psychosocial development.. Moxie Productions / Getty Images

Identity versus confusion is the fifth stage of Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. This stage occurs during adolescence between the ages of approximately 12 to 18. Teens need to develop a sense of self and personal identity. During this stage, adolescents explore their independence and develop a sense of self.

According to Erikson, people progress through a series of stages as they grow and change throughout life.

During each stage, people face a developmental conflict that must be resolved to successfully develop the primary virtue of that stage.

During the identity versus confusions stage, this conflict is centered on developing a personal identity. Successfully completing this stage leads to a strong sense of self that will remain throughout life.

A Closer Look at the Identity versus Confusion Stage

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Identity Versus Confusion
  • Major Question: "Who am I?"
  • Basic Virtue: Fidelity
  • Important Event(s): Social Relationships

As they transition from childhood to adulthood, teens may begin to feel confused or insecure about themselves and how they fit into society. As they seek to establish a sense of self, teens may experiment with different roles, activities, and behaviors. According to Erikson, this is important to the process of forming a strong identity and developing a sense of direction in life.

Development During the Adolescent Years

Madelyn, for example, is 14 years old and exploring a variety of different identities and roles. She often changes her hairstyle, clothes, and even her friends. She has also started rebelling against her parents and rejecting their expectations of her.

Teen behavior often seems unpredictable and impulsive, but all of this is part of the process of finding a sense of personal identity.

Parents and family members continue to exert an influence on how teens feel about themselves, but outside forces also become particularly important during this time. Friends, social groups, schoolmates, societal trends and even popular culture all play a role in shaping and forming identity.

Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control. Those who remain unsure of their beliefs and desires will remain insecure and confused about themselves and the future.

Resolving the crisis at this stage of development involves committing to a particular identity. This might involve committing to a career path, deciding what social groups to associate with and even developing a sense of personal style.

As she grows older, Madelyn starts to become more assured about her choices. She commits to a particular identity and starts to realize things about herself that will play a role in shaping her future.

She loves animals, for example, and now realizes that she would like to become a veterinarian.

Madelyn is on track to successfully form a strong sense of self as she nears the end of the identity versus confusion stage. She knows who she is, what she likes and what she would like to be. She has achieved what Erikson referred as fidelity, a psychological virtue characterized by the ability to relate to others and form genuine relationships. This ability plays an important role in the upcoming stage known as intimacy versus isolation.

So what happens to those who do not end up successfully forming an identity at this point in development? Kids who are not allowed to explore and test out different identities might be left with what Erikson referred to as role confusion. These individuals are not sure who they are or what they like. They tend to drift from one job or relationship to another, never really sure what they want to do with their lives. Instead of feeling a sense of personal cohesiveness, they are left feeling disappointed and confused about their place in life.

Next: Stage 6 - Intimacy Versus Isolation

Return to The Psychosocial Stages


Erikson, E.H. (1982). The Life Cycle Completed. Norton, New York/London.

Erikson, E.H. (1968). Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.

Erikson, E.H. (1963). Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

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