Micro-level Mechanisms of Identity Development: The Role of Emotional Experiences in Commitment Development

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Abstract

Based on Marcia’s theory, many researchers consider exploration and commitment as the main processes in identity development. Although some identity theorists have hypothesized that emotional experience may also be an important part of the mechanisms of identity development, empirical research to investigate this claim has been lagging behind. In this study, we shed light on the role of emotional experiences in micro-level commitment dynamics, and compare this to the role of exploration. We take a within-individual approach, and particularly focus on educational commitment. We collected weekly measurements among 103 first year university students over several months, resulting in 22 to 30 measurements for each individual. Every week, the students reported an important experience and accompanying positive and negative emotions, their level of educational exploration and commitment. We generated linear growth models for each individual separately, using Dynamic Linear Modeling. These individual models generate regression weights that indicate how strong the impact is of exploration, positive and negative emotional experiences on changes in micro-level commitment for each individual. Our main finding is that both positive and negative emotional experiences are indeed related to changes in educational commitment. Positive experiences, but surprisingly, also negative experiences, are related to increases in educational commitment for the majority of individuals. Moreover, for the large majority of individuals, the impact of emotional experiences is larger than the impact of exploration. Therefore, we conclude that it is highly likely that emotional experiences are an essential part of the micro-level mechanisms of identity development.

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