Adolescent Psychological Development, Part III: Identity Formation

Imagine an individual who has agency, that is this individual “engages in actions and thus has (or at least attempts to have) an impact in the world” (Moshman, 2005, 91). This individual shows “a sufficient degree of behavioral consistency across contexts” (92) such that one might say he possesses singularity. This individual believes he existed in the past, exists now, and that in all probability he will continue to exist in the future; this individual possess “continuity.” This individual is rational, possesses metacognition, and as such knows to not distract himself while working on some particular difficult task. Further, imagine this individual regularly engages in fantastically risky, pointless, or destructive behavior, and when questioned about it cannot form any semblance of a coherent motive.

In other words, imagine this individual is four.

Can we say only this individual is a person? Certainly only those who support abortion in the 19th trimester would say no. Can we say this individual is a rational agent? Only those of infinite patience and charity would say yes. Thus, I fervently agree with Moshman (2005, 93) that there are at least four aspects of personhood: “agency, rationality, singularity, and continuity.” And yet I fully disagree with him when, in the very next sentence, he writes “At the very least, persons are rational agents extending across time, acting in diverse contexts on the basis of their own reasons, and responsible for their actions [emphasis mine].”

In the same way I earlier cleaved rationality from rational agency, I now separate personhood from identity. I accept Moshman’s definition of identity as a “theory of oneself” … that is “coherent” or “organized to generate an integrated conception” and “explanatory” or “structured in such a way as to enhance self-understanding” and further is “explicit” and therefore “known to the individual” (90-91).

To have an identity in the manner that Moshman uses the term requires rational agency. Certainly there are other views on this (see Maalouf, 2001, for a particularly readable exposition), but it is a fair explanation that the requirements for identity outlined above more than fulfill the requirements for rational agency held previously. To steal Moshman’s style, I say at the very least, persons with identity are rational agents.

In an earlier essay, I left it open whether rationality agency was rational. However, if rational agency is viewed as merely a means of achieving identity, then perhaps a better question can be ask: is it rational to achieve an identity? Of course, it would be irrational to view identity as an end in itself. So what other ends does identity co-vary with? Does it bring about objective benefits or at least benefits that can be agreed upon, by the means symmetrical social interaction, as valuable?

Certainly there are intersubjective and circular benefits toward identity. For instance, ethnic identity leads to higher reported feelings towards one’s ethnic group (Phinney, Cantu, & Kurtz., 1997), which is another way of saying that self-congratulatory explicit attitudes lead to self-congratulatory explicit attitudes. Note though that, at least among blacks, these benefits exist in the absence of cultural or material well-being (Taylor & Walsch, 1979) or even implicitly favorable views of their own ethnicity (Ashburn-Nardo, Knowles, & Monteith, 2003). Rather, what is needed is evidence extending the benefits of identity to something concrete: for instance, general intelligence, life-expectancy, wealth, income, (im)probability of dying a violent death, etc.

Further, even if these are shown, it must also be demonstrated that the “benefit” is caused by, and not a cause of, the identity. As late as 2005, for instance, Moshman could write that “no one believes that political or religious commitments are genetically determined” when it now it appears that just that is partially the case (Alford, Funk, & Hibbing, 2005; Hatemi, et al., 2007). Identity can no more assumed to be (completely) environmentally determined than politics is.

It may well be wise to define personhood such that all members of the species homo sapiens qualify. Even a more restrictive definition surely include preschool tots. Identity though is more narrowly defined, and this narrow definition allows an open debate on whether fostering it is a worthwhile goal. At least for now, the jury is out.

Adolescent Psychological Development, a tdaxp series
1. Cognitive Development
2. Moral Development
3. Identity Formation
4. Advanced Psychological Development
5. Bibliography

2 thoughts on “Adolescent Psychological Development, Part III: Identity Formation”

  1. I won't comment on your ideas about the racial implications of the theories you discuss, because what I know about the history of intelligence testing tells me that g has a lot to do with eugenics and, especially in the US, keeping those believed to be “undesirables” out of universities. (Ok, I just commented on it. Forgive me.) Anyhow, your response brought up a few questions that I don't have the answers to, but was definitely wondering about:

    “Further, imagine this individual regularly engages in fantastically risky, pointless, or destructive behavior, and when questioned about it cannot form any semblance of a coherent motive.”

    In your (or Moshman's) view, might this suggest that agency/rationality means not necessarily having coherent motives, but being able to put forth a coherent motive? Might rational agency (to some degree) relate to being able to “invent” motivation?

  2. fl,

    First, congrats on your new blog [1]! It's linked [2]!

    The question of rationalization is a good one. I believe Moshman's position is that rational agency requires one to be the mover, not moved, to have rational reasons for one's actions, and to be able to express those regions.

    He writes well, but I find him heavily biased towards language and linguistic thinking.


  3. I can't wait until Dan tdaxp sires a flaming liberal.

    It's interesting to see how many people talk about HRC's not being a flaming liberal as a reason why they are warming to her. They often cite that she grew up in a fine Republican household.

  4. sonofsamphm1c ,


    Until that inauspicious day, my reasons for sympathy toward Senator Clinton have a lot more to do with her work in the Senate pre-election and her husband's policies than her upbringing.

    (If not for her position on judges, I would think about voting for her. Certainly she would be a better president than Edwards or Obama)

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