Modern Approaches to Identity in Psychology

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  • 0:00 Identity
  • 0:59 Trauma vs. Motivation
  • 2:22 Life Cycle Theory
  • 2:52 Primacy Theory
  • 3:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Modern psychologists are usually not much concerned about tracing adult motivations back to childhood traumas. Instead, modern psychologists focus on how the environment influences how we see ourselves. This lesson explores these modern views of self-concept.


Manuel is trying to figure out who he is and how that influences his behaviors. He knows he's very different from his friends, who are not Mexican-American like he is. But that can't be the only thing that makes him different, because he's also very different from his sister, who is not as studious as he is. What's going on?

Manuel is thinking about identity, which is who you are and how you think of yourself. Essentially, identity is the self. When you think of what makes you you, you are thinking about identity. Identity is both a process and a product. When Manuel thinks about himself, that is the process of identity. The definition of who he is that comes out of that process is the product of identity.

To help Manuel understand how the process and product of identity can be different in diverse people, let's take a look at some approaches to identity in psychology, including the differences in trauma and motivation views of identity.

Trauma vs. Motivation

Manuel doesn't know why he's different from his friends and his sister. He just knows that he is. But why? What drives him to study a lot, while his sister never cracks a book?

One way of looking at the differences in identity is the trauma view, which says that people's identities are formed from trauma, especially childhood trauma, when their needs aren't met. For example, maybe Manuel's mother is very warm and loving of his sister, but cold and distant towards him. The trauma view would say that his identity as a studious person comes from a desire to get his mom's approval.

The trauma view was very popular decades ago. But today, many psychologists instead think of identity as something influenced by motivation, or something that drives behavior. For example, hunger drives a person to eat and anger drives a person to lash out at others.

The motivation view of identity says that a person's self-concept, or their identity, is the motivator that drives their behaviors. For example, the motivation view might say that Manuel believes he can do well in school and therefore is motivated to study. His sister, on the other hand, might believe that she'll fail no matter what, so she doesn't study.

As mentioned, the role of motivation in a person's identity is a popular modern approach to identity. There are different versions of this approach, though most of them look at how a person's self-concept is a driving motivator of his or her behavior.

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