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Identity processing style

Author: Dr Simon Moss


Identity processing style refers to the various processes that individuals can utilize to clarify and refine their identity--their goals, purpose, values, qualities, and interests (Berzonsky, 1988, 1990). Specifically, Berzonsky (1990) differentiated three processing styles, called informational, normative, and diffuse-avoidant.

If individuals report an informational style, they deliberately and thoughtfully seek, contemplate, and evaluate information about themselves to resolve conflicts in their identity and commit to their goals or endeavors. These individuals are willing to update their perception of themselves to reconcile contradictory feedback. They define themselves by their values and goals (Berzonsky, Macek, & Nurmi, 2003& Lutwak, Ferrari, & Cheek, 1998). This style coincides with traits such as cognitive complexity, adaptive regulation, especially in late adolescence or older, empathy, as well as values associated with openness, independence, and autonomy rather than security and tradition, often transcending selfish interests (Berzonsky, Cieciuch, Duriez, & Soenens, 2011).

In contrast to this information style, individuals who report a normative style primarily adopt the goals and standards that other figures in their life promulgate, including family, friends, religion, nation, or other relevant communities. Although these individuals might demonstrate a sense of purpose and ambition, they also experience a need for closure and limited tolerance for ambiguity (see also Duriez, & Soenens, 2006& Soenens, Duriez, & Goossens, 2005. They define themselves by their family, religion, and ethnicity (Berzonsky, 1994) as well as value security and tradition (Berzonsky, Cieciuch, Duriez, & Soenens, 2011).

Finally, individuals who report a diffuse-avoidant style attempt to divert their attention from conflicts about their identity, values, interests, and qualities. Their choices, therefore, are primarily governed by their immediate needs and imposed demands. They might comply with the suggestions of someone else, but seldom modify their behavior over extended periods (Berzonsky & Ferrari, 2009). Their perception of themselves is fragmented, partly because they attempt to suppress, deny, or evade negative feedback. They often experience an external locus of control and exhibit impulsive behavior. They primarily define themselves by their reputation, popularity, or other social attributes (e.g., Berzonsky, 1994) and cherish hedonism, power, and other selfish values (Berzonsky, Cieciuch, Duriez, & Soenens, 2011), including Machiavellian tactics such as using flattery and deceit (Berzonsky & Ferrari, 2009).

According to Berzonsky (2004) and Berzonsky, Branje, and Meeus (2007), a normative style might enhance motivation and engagement in early adolescence and thus be adaptive during this period. These individuals might not yet have developed the cognitive capacities to adopt an informational style. However, as individuals mature and develop, an informational style might facilitate the evolution of identity and thus be especially adaptive at this age.

Correlates of identity processing style

Meaning in life

An informational style tends to correlate with a sense of meaning in life (Beaumont, 2009). Specifically, when individuals adopt this style, they consider the perspectives of many people or communities to understand their role and goals in life. These reflections increase their understanding of diverse needs and communities, promoting empathy and insight. As they integrate these perspectives, they uncover broad values and principles that underpin a variety of activities. Their roles and responsibilities in life no longer seem disconnected from one another but conform to a unified purpose, instilling a sense of meaning.

Indeed, Beaumont (2009) verified this account. An informational style was positively associated with meaning in life. This relationship was mediated by a sense of self-transcendence--or the pursuit of universal or spiritual values instead of external demands--and self-actualization or autonomy.

Career aspirations

Identity processing style is also related to career aspirations and commitment. For example, in a study conducted by Pittman, Kerpelman, Lamke, and Sollie (2009), participants completed a Q sort methodology to assess their identity style. In addition, they answered questions that ascertain whether they often reflect upon their future career, epitomized with items like "How often do you think about or plan your future career?" Informational style was positively associated with this future orientation towards career. Diffuse-avoidant style was negatively associated with this future orientation.

Identity outcomes

Identity processing style is distinct from identity outcomes (Berzonsky, 1990). That is, identity processing style refers to the strategies and approaches that individuals utilize to clarify their identity. Identity outcomes refers to the upshot of these strategies and approaches. Nevertheless, measures of identity processing style do correlate with measures of identity outcome.

For example, Pittman, Kerpelman, Lamke, and Sollie (2009) showed that diffuse-avoidant style is negatively associated with an achievement identity status. An achievement identity status refers to individuals who have explored their identity, and then committed to this identity, in various domains in their life, including friendship, dating, recreation, politics, and career. A sample item to represent this identity status is "Based on past experience, I've chosen the type of dating relationship I want now".

A normative style was negatively related to moratorium, in which individuals have explored but not committed to a specific identity in these domains. A sample item that represents this identity status is "I'm looking for an acceptable perspective for my own 'life style' view, but haven't really found it yet". This status diverges from the clarity and certainty that individuals who report a normative style seek. Instead, these individuals report a foreclosed identity status, in which they have committed to an identity without exploration, epitomized by items such as "My ideas about men's and women's roles are identical to my parents' ".

A diffuse-avoidant style was positively associated with a diffusion identity status, in which individuals have not explored or committed to a specific identity. These individuals endorse items such as "When it comes to religion, I just haven't found anything that appeals and I don't really feel the need to look."

Furthermore, some of these relationships differed between achievement and interpersonal domains. For example, an informational identity style was positively associated with achieved identity status in achievement or ideological domains, such as political beliefs, but not in interpersonal domains, such as dating preferences.

Political ideologies and prejudice

Identity processing style is also associated with political ideologies. Specifically, a normative style is associate with right wing authoritarianism, at least in late adolescents (Duriez & Soenens, 2006). That is, if individuals derive their identity from other figures in their life, they tend to feel that established traditions and authorities should be followed and that people who violate these standards should be punished. This ideology is consistent with their need to perceive the world as ordered, structured, and consistent, to ensure the norms they follow do not contradict one another. Nevertheless, this ideology can also translate to prejudiced attitudes, because diversity is perceived as a threat to this clarity.

A normative processing style is also related to social dominance orientation (see social dominance theory). That is, when individuals adopt this style, they tend to feel that some groups inherently deserve more privileges than other groups (see Duriez & Soenens, 2006). This ideology enables individuals to perceive the apparent disparities in privileges and income as fair. This sense of justice also ensures the world can be perceived as ordered and consistent.

Mental health

Identity processing style is also associated with mental health. In particular, a diffuse-avoidant style seems to be associated with affective disorders or difficulties, such as depression (Nurmi, Berzonsky, Tammi, Kinney, 1997) and neuroticism (Dollinger, 1995), as defined by the five factor model.

Furthermore, diffuse-avoidant style tends to coincide with difficulties with impulse control. In particular, this style is correlated with conduct disorders (Adams, Munro, Doherty-Poirer, Munro, Petersen, & Edwards, 2001), eating disorders (Wheeler, Adams, & Keating, 2001), and problems with alcohol (Jones, Ross, & Hartmann, 1992).

Determinants of identity processing style

Relationships with parents

The relationships that adolescents form with their parents can shape their identity processing style, as shown by Berzonsky, Branje, and Meeus (2007). In this study, young adolescent participants, aged 13, completed a measure that gauges their relations with parents. One subscale, comprising five items, reflects the extent to which parents solicit information, such as "How often do your parents ask you to sit and tell them what happened at school on a regular school day". Another subscale represented adolescent disclosure and included items such as "Do you keep a lot of secrets from your parents about what you do during your free time". Finally, some questions assessed evaluation of communication with parents, including "My parents are always good listeners". In addition, participants completed an instrument that gauges their identity processing style.

An informational processing style was positively association with the inclination of parents to solicit information from their adolescent children A normative processing style was positively related to disclosure and communication with parents. A diffuse-avoidant style was inversely associated with all these parenting practices.

Conceivably, if parents often solicit information, the adolescents may develop the inclination to justify and explain their behavior. That is, they might consider their behavior from other perspectives, culminating in an informational style. Furthermore, if parents develop supportive relationships, the adolescents might feel the need to maintain these dynamics. A normative style, in which adolescents conform to the perspective of key figures, including parents, might represent an attempt to maintain these supportive relationships.

Mechanisms that underpin the effects of identity processing style

Strategic avoidance of feedback

As Berzonsky and Ferrari (2009) showed, individuals who report a diffuse-avoidant style tend to avoid any information that could highlight their limitations or deficiencies. To illustrate, these individuals often engage in self handicapping. That is, they might deliberately sabotage their performance, such as complete a task in noisy surroundings, to contrive an excuse and thus explain inadequate performance. They endorse items such as "I tend to make excuses when I do something wrong" or "I would do a lot better if I tried harder".

Similarly, these individuals tended to avoid contexts in which conflicts about their values and preferences might become apparent (Berzonsky & Ferrari, 2009). For example, when individuals need to reach a personal decision, they might become cognizant of these contradictions. If they need to decide whether to study at university, perhaps their conflicting desires to enhance their reputation but also to earn money become salient. Therefore, these individuals tend to procrastinate, endorsing items such as "I put off making decisions" as well as avoid decisions altogether, endorsing items such as "I don't make a decision unless I really have to".

Factors that moderate the effects of identity style


Some individuals often feel they are granted the autonomy to reach their own choices. They feel they can choose which careers to pursue, for example. Other individuals, in contrast, do not feel they are granted this autonomy. Their family or friends significantly constrain their choices. They feel the profound need to please other people.

When autonomy is limited, information-oriented identity processing may not be as helpful. Individuals may become more aware of the disparities between their own values and the expectations of other people. Alternatively, rather than explore their own values, their attention is oriented to goals that do not really align to their passions, preferences, and interests. Consistent with this possibility, when autonomy diminishes, the positive relationship between information-oriented identity processing and both identity commitment and self-esteem decreases significantly as well (Luyckx, Soenens, Berzonsky, Smits, Goossens, and Vansteenkiste, 2007).

Rumination and reflection

Some people often reflect upon themselves in an analytical but detached manner, like an object of interest, called self-reflection. Questions that gauge this tendency include "I love exploring my inner self". Other people tend to ruminate about themselves. They are not analytical or detached, but worry about specific features of themselves incessantly. Questions that gauge this tendency include "I often find myself re-evaluating something I have done".

In contrast to self-reflection, rumination may compromise the benefits of an information-oriented identity processing. That is, an information-oriented identity processing may simply prime memories of failures and amplify awareness of problems without resolving these matters. Indeed, as Luyckx, Soenens, Berzonsky, Smits, Goossens, and Vansteenkiste (2007) showed, when rumination increases, an information-oriented identity processing is more likely to be related to symptoms of depression.

Measures of identity processing style

The Identity Style Inventory can be administered to gauge the identity processing style of individuals. The inventory comprises 30 items. Specifically, 11 items measure information style (e.g., "I have spent a great deal of time thinking seriously about what I should do with my life")& nine items measure normative style (e.g., "I prefer to deal with situations where I can rely on social norms and standards"), and ten items measure diffuse-avoidant style (e.g., "I'm not really thinking about my future now& it's still a long way off").

Pittman, Kerpelman, Lamke, and Sollie (2009) developed a Q sort methodology to assess identity processing style. This technique was developed to overcome some of the limitations of Likert scales, such as disregard the importance or centrality of an item to the overall score. As with all Q sorts, individuals are instructed to arrange a series of descriptions in a shape that resembles a normal curve. Descriptions that are designated as "least like me" are placed towards the left side. Descriptions that are designated as "most like me" are placed towards the right side. Other descriptions are placed towards the centre. Sixty items were developed including "How I see myself feels like a roller coaster--changing from day to day", "I am someone who likes to gather a lot of information about myself", and "What my parents (parent-figures) think I should do is one of the most important influences on my life choices".

When this Q sort technique is applied, social desirability biases are unrelated to informational style, positively related to normative style, and negatively related to diffuse-avoidant style. The positive relationship with normative style, however, is consistent with theory: Individuals who strive to fulfill the social norms of their community are more likely to develop a normative style.


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Last Update: 7/18/2016