Identity Diffusion: Definition & Example

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  • 0:00 What Is Identity?
  • 0:34 Defining Identity Diffusion
  • 1:44 Diffusion Confusion
  • 2:15 Examples of Identity Diffusion
  • 4:59 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Duane Cloud

Duane has taught teacher education courses and has a Doctorate in curriculum and instruction. His doctoral dissertation is on ''The Wizard of Oz''.

Identity is a state of being socially distinct from everyone else. Identity diffusion is a state of not developing or possessing a distinct identity. The work of James Marcia explores identity and identity diffusion.

What is Identity?

People wear many different hats in their lives and occupy many roles. Some can be a mother, a college student, a Buddhist, and have a variety of other roles at the same time in her life. Exactly what is identity, and how does it develop? These questions were addressed by psychologist James Marcia in the development of identity theory. Marcia identified four different processes that occurred in identity development. He called these processes: moratorium, foreclosure, achievement, and diffusion. To find out more about identity diffusion, read on.

Defining Identity Diffusion

Identity can be defined as whatever makes one person different from another. Identity often refers to the unique way to conceptualize a person based on their behavior, beliefs, and choices. Sometimes, one's identity is tied up with their occupation, gender, or sexual identity. Identity is not always static and unchanging, as people can go through identity changes, such as the results of an identity crisis. This crisis is the process of reevaluating one's identity in order to fit in with one's environment and experiences.

Identity development generally occurs when a young person is a teenager or preteen. At this point in their lives, young people have come to learn much about how the world functions, and so, they begin to try to figure out where they fit in in this world.

Identity diffusion is a state of not developing or possessing a distinct identity. Often, this is a result of a young person not yet developing a firm identity, or their identity has come to a state of crisis, and they haven't committed to a resolution yet. Note that often, diffusion is a normal part of the process of identity development and not necessarily a sign of crisis.

Diffusion Confusion

What we've just discussed seems intuitive, at least to anyone who has ever watched a young person grow up. The most distinct part of diffusion is that the person in a state of diffusion isn't really looking or experimenting to find an identity. Rather, committing to an identity has been put off, for whatever reason.

Marcia's four identity states are not stages in a process, but rather fluid states that young people can cycle through continually. Even something as seemingly simple as selecting an occupation of interest can have consequences to a person's identity.


Let's take a look at some examples of identity diffusion.


Brad has been good at football all his life. He has been playing since a very young age and considers the game both rewarding and stimulating. In high school, Brad hopes to perform well enough to be put on the varsity team at his school, and attract the attention of college athletic scouts, and possibly go pro.

Unfortunately, Brad is injured in a car accident in the 10th grade. He still loves football, but cannot play the game anymore, as another neck injury could kill him. Brad's identity, and indeed entire future, are suddenly in question. At this point, Brad could enter into a state of diffusion, where he doesn't know exactly what he's going to do with his life. He doesn't consider experimenting, as he's not really considered his options. His identity could be in a state of diffusion for a long time before recovering.

Brad's diffusion is a result of a crisis. As someone who is invested heavily into football as an occupation, he has nothing to fall back on in the wake of his injury. His state of diffusion is likely to last until he finds something else that he wants out of life.

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