Identity Formation as a Stage of Human Development

Yves here. Another post in albrt’s series on identity and its political and social implications.

A couple of introductory notes. albrt starts with a quote from Erickson on long childhoods. Later research has shown that our modern childhood seems to have been invented around the time of the Industrial Revolution. Recall that the age of consent in the Elizabethan era was ten years old. From Wikipedia:

The history of childhood has been a topic of interest in social history since the highly influential book Centuries of Childhood, published by French historian Philippe Ariès in 1960. He argued “childhood” as a concept was created by modern society. Ariès studied paintings, gravestones, furniture, and school records. He found before the 17th-century, children were represented as mini-adults.

Other scholars have emphasized how medieval and early modern child rearing was not indifferent, negligent, nor brutal. The historian Stephen Wilson argues that in the context of pre-industrial poverty and high infant mortality (with a third or more of the babies dying), actual child-rearing practices represented appropriate behavior in the circumstances. He points to extensive parental care during sickness, and to grief at death, sacrifices by parents to maximize child welfare, and a wide cult of childhood in religious practice.

Second, albrt notes in passing that Erickson had retrograde views on women but does not elaborate. Can readers pipe up?

By albrt. Originally published at his website

It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood.  Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of a man, but it also leaves a lifelong residue of emotional immaturity in him.  Erik Erikson, Childhood & Society at 16 (W.W. Norton 2d ed. 1963).

This post briefly outlines the mechanics of the Erikson model of identity formation. Erikson was trained as a Freudian psychiatrist, but he became a rock star of blending psychoanalysis with social science. His influence peaked in the 1960s.  His role in laying the groundwork for modern ideas about adolescent identity formation is almost universally acknowledged in the literature.1  I’m using Erikson as a primary source, rather than reading and summarizing a recent developmental psychology textbook, because Erikson’s books are about a much broader interface between the individual and society, which makes his books a lot more interesting than a developmental psychology textbook.

Before we get in too deep, it’s important to emphasize that the term identity crisis can be both a normal phase of development and a potential diagnosis.  Everyone goes through a phase of consolidating their individual identity. It’s called adolescence. Some people have a harder time of it than others. Erikson’s unique insight is that this process has larger social and political implications. During chaotic times, more young people (and also former young people) have issues revolving around identity.

I’m not claiming that Erikson’s model is “true” in any absolute sense, only that it is useful for at least two reasons.  First, Erikson’s model is an instrumental way of looking at the formation of and functioning of identity, which allows for a lot of hypothesizing by observers of human behavior (which is how I experience Erikson now).  The model also facilitates insight (and maybe even hacking) by individuals looking to achieve a greater level of comfort in their own identities (which is how I experienced Erikson thirty-some years ago, when I was in my late twenties).

The second reason for looking at Erikson is because his models were characteristic of the society and the historical context in which they arose.  Erikson acknowledged this, frequently pointing out that the neuroses at the center of Freud’s work were rampant in late 19th century Europe, and that identity issues were particularly common in the United States in the second half of the 20th century.  Looking at the thinking of that period can bring us useful insight, and perhaps that insight may even go beyond understanding how the Boomers got to be the way they were (and are).

Erikson’s thoughts on adolescence as a force in history and society crystallized in the mid 1950s, when he was studying adolescent emotional disturbances.  Erikson began researching the life of Martin Luther as a sort of alternative case study to counterbalance his real-life case studies. That chapter grew into the 1958 book Young Man Luther.

I have called the major crisis of adolescence the identity crisis; it occurs in that period of the life cycle when each youth must forge for himself some central perspective and direction, some working unity, out of the effective remnants of his childhood and the hopes of his anticipated adulthood; he must detect some meaningful resemblance between what he has come to see in himself and what his sharpened awareness tells him others judge and expect him to be.  This sounds dangerously like common sense; like all health, however, it is a matter of course only to those who possess it, and appears as a most complex achievement to those who have tasted its absence. . . . .  In some young people, in some classes, and periods, the crisis will be clearly marked off as a critical period, a kind of “second birth,” apt to be aggravated either by widespread neuroticisms or by pervasive ideological unrest.  Some young individuals will succumb to this crisis in all manner of neurotic, psychotic, or delinquent behavior; others will resolve it through participation in ideological movements passionately concerned with religion or politics, nature or art.  Still others, although suffering and deviating dangerously through what appears to be a prolonged adolescence, eventually come to contribute an original bit to an emerging style of life:  the very danger which they have sensed has forced them to mobilize capacities to see and say, to dream and plan, to design and construct, in new ways.

Luther, so it seems, at one time was a rather endangered young man, beset with a syndrome of conflicts whose outlines we have learned to recognize, and whose components to analyse.  He found a spiritual solution, not without the well-timed help of a therapeutically clever superior in the Augustinian order.  His solution roughly bridged a political and psychological vacuum which history had created in a significant portion of Western Christendom.  Erik Erikson, Young Man Luther at 14-15 (Norton Library ed. 1962).

Erikson had several reasons for doing historical studies (he did lots of them). He was trying to destigmatize the idea of an identity crisis by showing that it was characteristic of many great cultural and political innovators.  Erikson emphasized that people confronting these difficulties can show extraordinary resourcefulness and creativity rather than (or in addition to) just getting depressed and dysfunctional. The historical angle also may have been a good way to sell books.

Aside from historical case studies, Erikson made a real effort to take into account other cultures and subcultures for comparison in formulating his models. Erikson considered himself to be a member of a disadvantaged minority because he was Jewish, and his parents’ generation had been severely discriminated against both in Europe and in America.  Although some of his commentary seems backward today, he genuinely tried to be a sympathetic observer of others whose backgrounds and experiences were different than his. Despite his best efforts, Erikson’s comments on women in particular seem even more retrograde now than they did when I first read them in the 1980s.  I would be particularly interested in comments from readers about why Erikson’s ideas either don’t apply or apply differently to women and racial or ethnic subcultures.2

So what are the main variables in Erikson’s identity model?


Obviously, individuals have different talents, skills, and an array of Freudian psychological hangups when they reach the adolescent identity formation phase of life. I don’t need to tell you all the ways that people are different, but it is important to be clear that this is not a “blank slate” model that says everyone is formed only by environment.


As noted in last week’s post, forming an identity is a recursive process of observing and internalizing the reactions of others. “It is of great relevance to the young individual’s identity formation that he be responded to and be given function and status as a person whose gradual growth and transformation make sense to those who begin to make sense to him. . . . [S]uch recognition provides an entirely indispensable support to the ego in the specific tasks of adolescing.”  Erik Erikson, Identity Youth and Crisis at 156 (W.W. Norton 1968).


Erikson recognized that different societies offer different roles to young people at different points in history, so the young people have to form an identity “in concordance with the roles offered.”  Identity Youth and Crisis at 156. If the potential roles being offered are not very attractive, then you will have more problems with young people adapting to adulthood. This includes the core issues of jobs, houses, and spouses, but also anything else that might make you feel like you have an identity, such as a peer group that conspicuously conforms or does not conform with dominant cultural styles, a hobby, charity work, and of course kids if you eventually have them.

Again, Erikson recognized that finding a satisfactory role is not necessarily a crisis for everyone. “[T]he majority of men have always consolidated their identity needs around their technical and occupational capacities.”  Identity Youth and Crisis at 127.

Youth can be the most exuberant, the most careless, the most self-sure, and the most unselfconsciously productive stage of life, or so it seems if we look primarily at the “once-born.”  This is a term which William James adopted from Cardinal Newman; he uses it to describe all those who rather painlessly fit themselves and are fitted into the ideology of their age, finding no discrepancy between its formulation of past and future and the daily tasks set by the dominant technology. Young Man Luther at 40-41.

People who fit in relatively painlessly do exist. More of them exist when things are stable. One way you can tell things are not so stable is that a lot of people seem to be making a big deal out of identity issues.


Erikson believed that in adolescence “the ideological structure of the environment becomes essential for the ego, because without an ideological simplification of the universe the adolescent ego cannot organize experience according to its specific capacities and its expanding involvement.”  Identity Youth and Crisis at 27. As it relates to identity, ideology is “the tendency at any given time to make facts amenable to ideas, and ideas to facts, in order to create a world image convincing enough to support the collective and the individual sense of identity.”  Young Man Luther at 22.

At the most it is a militant system with uniformed members and uniform goals;  at the least it is a “way of life,” or what the Germans call a Weltanschauung, a world-view which is consonant with existing theory, available knowledge, and common sense, and yet is significantly more:  an utopian outlook, a cosmic mood, or a doctrinal logic, all shared as self-evident beyond any need for demonstration.  Young Man Luther at 41.

Erikson emphasized that for his purposes, ideology was “a psychological fact and need related to, but not explained by, political phenomena.”  Identity Youth and Crisis at 210.

It is through their ideology that social systems enter into the fiber of the next generation and attempt to absorb into their lifeblood the rejuvenative power of youth.  Adolescence is thus a vital regenerator in the process of social evolution, for youth can offer its loyalties and energies both to the conservation of that which continues to feel true and to the revolutionary correction of that which has lost its regenerative significance.  Identity Youth and Crisis at 134.

In short, ideology is simplification. Even if your ideology is complicated and relativistic, it is still a simplification of the real world.  And everybody must have an ideology in order to have a functioning identity.  This identity model gives us some tools for thinking about politics and polarization in America today, which will be the main subject next week.

But first, I’d like to note that uniqueness does not have to be an important component of identity.  In every culture that we know about, there are at least a few individuals who are unsatisfied with ordinary opportunities and want to be known for doing something different. Our culture pushes uniqueness aspirations on just about everyone.  One of my anthropology professors said that a simple society has exactly as many roles as it has members.3  I looked for a source for that idea and couldn’t find it, but I can say with confidence that our society does not have as many valued roles as members.

So why would our society put such a heavy emphasis on uniqueness when we do not have an infinite number of unique roles that need filling?  Requiring uniqueness guarantees widespread identity insecurity, especially when we have a profound mismatch between the individual’s broad media frame of reference and the individual’s ability to have an impact and be seen.

Well, perhaps identity insecurity makes individuals relatively easy to manipulate, and makes them likely to go for manipulative or totalistic ideologies to compensate.  Similarly, identity insecurity enables identity-targeted advertising to sell a wide variety of identity-adjacent consumer goods.  I, for example, proudly drink Dr. Pepper because it makes me part of an original crowd.

I would argue that the core of American resistance to socialism was convincing individual Americans that being a relatively undifferentiated member of the working class was not good enough. You are (and must strive to be) a unique and special snowflake.  All of the local things on which ordinary people traditionally built identities (unions, civic organizations, bowling leagues) have been crushed or made to seem small and silly, replaced with passive consumption of mass-media and other identity-adjacent products (such as the leather jacket in this fine example) that allow you to define your identity by what you consume.

Although this post is mainly about identity formation as a developmental stage and a cultural phenomenon rather than a mental disorder, it is worth discussing related disorders briefly for context.  When I was reading Erikson in my twenties, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) classified “identity disorder” as a diagnosis characterized by “severe subjective distress regarding inability to reconcile aspects of the self into a relatively coherent and acceptable sense of self.  There is uncertainty about a variety of issues relating to identity, including long-term goals, career choice, friendship patterns, sexual orientation and behavior, religious identification, moral values, and group loyalties.”  DSM-III, § 313.82.  Consistent with Erikson’s view, the DSM-III indicated that “[i]f the disorder begins in adolescence, it usually is resolved by the mid-20s.  If it becomes chronic, however, the individual may be unable to establish a career commitment or may fail to form lasting emotional attachments, with resulting frequent shifts in jobs, relationships, and career directions.”

The DSM-III “[t]he disorder is apparently more common now than several decades ago . . .perhaps because today there are more options regarding values, behavior, and life-styles open to the individual and more conflict between adolescent peer values and parental or societal values.”

The more recent DSM 5 has a section on identity and personality disorders (the actual DSM 5 is paywalled but here is an article talking about it). The trend seems to be toward diagnosing identity disorder in childhood so it can more readily be treated.  The contrast with Erikson is noticeable—Erikson said that society must provide adequate roles or young people will reject the roles and demand something different.  Here, there is a neoliberal emphasis on forcing small children to make adult choices and take adult actions to fortify their own personalities so they may succeed at Professional Managerial Class (PMC) roles and avoid becoming deplorable.  The individual will be made to fit the available roles, rather than the organic process Erikson envisioned of the roles and ideologies necessarily changing when they no longer suited the needs of a new generation.

The individual effect of trying to force young people to fit the available roles is that many young people will fail to integrate, with serious consequences for interpersonal relationships and general stability.  That certainly seems to be happening.

The societal effect is that many young people will accept totalizing ideological narratives to streamline the process of identity formation.  That also seems to be happening.

Next week’s post will be about how the Erikson model of identity provides insight into many aspects of our dysfunctional politics.


1 At least the literature I saw back when I was having my own identity crisis in the late 1980s, and then again when I was trolling around looking for interesting content for this series of posts in early 2024.

2 An astute reader pointed out that it is difficult to comment because I am not providing any information about the potential problems with applying Erikson’s ideas to women or subcultures.  I am genuinely asking whether any readers have their own views on this subject because I would like to understand it better.  For example, Erikson’s views are consistent with the Freudian canon tracing a lot problems back to infant sexuality and Mom, but even if you reject this gendered and heteronormative analysis completely, I am not sure how much it undermines Erikson’s ideas about identity formation.  Perhaps this will become the subject of another post if I feel like I’ve gained any insight from this exercise.

3 Simple societies are those that do not have hierarchy, mostly bands of hunter-gatherers.

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  1. geoffrey v gray

    Erik Erikson was an interesting dude. First, he had three last names. His birth name, I think Bloomberg or somesuch which was changed at 2 or 3 years of age to Holmberg, afterhis mother married a pediatrician, then finallly Erikson. So Erikcon is a made up portmanteau – the son of Erick.

    So this is important in considering Erikson’s infatuation with identity.

    If you review Erikson’s publications, you will find that his earliest papers on psychoanalysis, in the 30’s, were under the name Holmberg.

    By the way Erikson was not a psychiatrist and did not go to college. He did train in psychoanalysis.

    Another aspect of Erikson’s career largely unremarked upon are the circumstances under which he left U of Cal in the 50’s during the red scare.

    This is not to say Erikson didn’t do some interesting work.

    1. CA

      Erik Erikson

      Refusing to sign a loyalty oath required by the University of California in 1950, Erikson resigned his post and that year joined the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. He then returned to Harvard as a lecturer and professor (1960–70) and professor emeritus (from 1970 until his death).

      [ A person of wonderful integrity, with an abiding love for those with whom he worked. Understanding the love of Erikson for those with whom he worked, is critical in appreciating the work. ]

  2. t

    Regarding the fairer sex, there’s no shortage of societies and cultures which have four roles for womenfolk: infant/toddler, pre-childbearing child, childbearing, and post childbearing. And there’s no doubt about maternity so there a reliable source of adult insecurity we don’t have.

    Post childbearing is an interesting one. That role ranges from becoming an elder due all the respect of a man to being a useless burden.Depending on when and where you were born…

  3. Tom Pfotzer

    Albrt’s thesis seems to be that identity is formed mostly outward-in as a cafeteria of roles available from the prevailing culture, one aspect of which is ideology. The individual is left to select, or not, from the menu.

    If you don’t select from the menu, you’re subject to long bouts of drag and resistance from the prevailing culture, because you simply don’t fit in. Cognitive dissonance abounds, and it takes great will power and endurance to extricate from the tar-pit of conformity and establish a new role elsewhere, one that likely doesn’t and won’t get much social approbation.


    OK, that seems to fit my personal experience. That’s pretty much what happened, up to a point.

    There are a few wrinkles in my case that might be of interest. They are:

    a. Identity formation continued and accelerated way beyond adolescence, even early adulthood. I was molting identities well into my fifties. Major molts.

    b. Personality. I didn’t care nearly so much as my peers about what others thought of me, and that’s due to my parents’ teaching. They equipped me with software to evaluate and dissect feedback, and sort wheat from chaff. They also made it clear that I was a good person, and instructed me to believe in myself. So I did. The point is that family culture plays a big role in identity formation

    c. But familial affirmation wasn’t enough (key point that). So basketball happened (I’m 6’10” tall). I craved and got lots of affirmation in high school and college, but for all the wrong reasons. My father excoriated the idea of “basketballers”. Couldn’t (kindly) ridicule it enough. So I got a major infusion of approbation – which I almost immediately discarded – but it provided the velocity necessary to go formulate my (long list of new) roles later in life.

    Point: circumstances can confer emotional energy that changes the calculus of identity formulation. Albrt makes that point, but I’d like to emphasize it more. I had mentors, too, who also did key injections. That’s the culture operating, and it’s an important aspect of culture: old people are capable of performing those selective injections of emotional power. Our culture doesn’t elicit that behavior so much now, but I believe that some other cultures institutionalize it.

    Thanks albrt for making this material available. I look forward to your next articles.

    1. albrt

      Thanks. To your points, Erikson was pretty clear that you can refuse to accept the roles offered to you, but to do that successfully you have to forge an identity of somebody who is strong, creative, and unconstrained, which is not easy but can make you a hero if you tap into something other people are feeling.

      You can also forge the identity of a person who is capable of re-examining beliefs and roles throughout life, which I think Erikson was, but there is some support for the idea that you have to establish some kind of foundation in your teens and twenties to be able to be good at making big changes happily and successful later in life.

  4. Lefty Godot

    There are a couple of issues being discussed in this article. First, the idea of “childhood” as a social construct, which I hope is both glaringly obvious and also difficult to figure out a proper scheme for managing, because right now we only speak of children in terms of their ages–like there is some magical switch that gets flipped when you are 18 or 21 that takes you from “child” to “adult” and makes all kinds of social activities available to you that were forbidden before. In a society with the complexity of our recent and current one, humans from 15 to 22 are probably not as a rule qualified to be considered full adults, but they are plainly in some intermediate stage of “adult with training wheels” or some such. And humans from around 9 to 14 are in another intermediate stage that makes them different from even younger humans, although we don’t formally treat them that way. In a different type of society, those age ranges might be different. Also, in every age cohort of humans, some are substantially “ahead of” others their age, while others are “behind”, so judging matters purely by age has the potential to be very inappropriate for the outliers.

    Also, in terms of identities in the World War II and immediately after generations, at least speaking as an early Boomer from the US Northeast, ethnicity was hugely important, and different ethnicities had different rites of passage and values for one to aspire to. Religious denomination was also very important and a source of values that went into one’s identity. There was a tremendous sea change in how young people adjusted to those normative group identities during the 1960s and 1970s, to the point that by the time of Reagan’s re-election, ethnicity had almost disappeared as a major factor in identity, and the hold of religious affiliation weakened. Suddenly, those of us with European roots were just “white”, a term that would have automatically had “Southerner” attached to it a couple of decades before. So identity became less strongly correlated with locality and one’s local tribe. And, probably not by coincidence, a lot of former ethnic or denominational identities morphed into Confederate ones, with the Confederate flag waving over the beds of pickups and pseudo-country music blaring out of the cabs. Add another couple of decades to that, and tribal identities derived from the mass media (including internet social media) have created new divisions. And there are still outliers and people who don’t fit in. And, if anything, the way we relate to “childhood” in all this has become even more confused, and infused with a sense of threats everywhere that we have to defend against.

  5. David in Friday Harbor

    Erikson wrote long before current neuroscientific research on brain development suggested that there are physical milestones that continue into the early 20’s (20-21 for women; 22-23 for men), that have a profound affect on behavior. The DSM has always been a political document (see Reign of Error by Lee Coleman MD and The Selling of DSM by Kirk and Kutchins).

    I’m absolutely appalled by albert’s description of how DSM V advises forcing children and adolescents to make adult decisions geared toward entry into the PMC. I had experience rearing children in the early 21st century and saw this first-hand — and how my kids and their peers were sent down the path of becoming barely functional snowflakes as adults. There was so much pressure placed on them by the culture to choose adult identities as pre-adolescents that they were not necessarily suited for in adulthood. Young people need choices not silos and identities that aren’t defined by consumption and mass media.

    1. hk

      Exactly, wrt young people being forced into adult identities way too early. To be honest, forcing even adults to find “identities” rather than “communities” strikes me as an indicator of a deeply unhealthy society.

  6. CA

    March 30, 1975

    Erik Erikson, the Man Who Invented Himself
    By Erik H. Erikson

    Erik Erikson is probably the closest thing to an intellectual hero in American culture today. He has added striking new phrases to our language — “life cycle,” “identity crisis,” “inner space,” “psychohistory” — words that signify new ways to interpret and confront out lives. As a psychoanalyst he has played with children and unraveled marvelous hidden depths and resonances in their play. He has evoked the joy and dread of adolescence with a rare vividness and sympathy, and disclosed new dimensions of meaning in experiences we though we knew all too well. In his many case histories he has shown us people in their full actuality, neither horribly grotesque nor transcendently holy, with needs and fears and longings in which we could recognize as our own.

    He has used his splendid literary gifts to make the basic Freudian family drama more credible and compelling than ever, by showing how it works in a variety of radically different worlds: in Austrian mountain villages, Indian reservations, industrial cities, California suburbs; among the rich and the poor, the rooted and the uprooted, those who are geographically, culturally or socially on the move, whether up or down.

    Erikson has written two biographies, great historical romances — “Young Man Luther,” a drama about religion, a work of the 1950’s and “Gandhi’s Truth,” a drama of politics, a work of the 1960’s — that have developed solid ground on which psychology and history, Freud and Marx can meet. His work on personal and familial “identity crises” in the fifties predicted and analyzed incisively the tragic social and political identity crises that would overwhelm all America in the sixties; we can find here some of the most trenchant cultural criticism American culture has ever known. Finally, since the appearance of “Childhood and Society” in 1950, Erikson has given us glimpses and intimations of a vision, a beautiful myth of the organic unity and wholeness of life, as it develops from infancy to childhood to youth, through adulthood and maturity, moving toward old age and death.

    Like many of the outstanding intellectuals of our time, Erikson grew up as a Jew in Imperial and Weimar Germany, and crossed the water during the Hitler years. However, where most of the thousands of men and women who went through the great “sea change” experienced it as a sad necessity, for Erikson the passage to America seems to have fulfilled a vital inner need. We can understand this better if we compare Erikson’s sensibility to the general spirit that infused the best and the brightest of his generation…

    Marshall Berman teaches political theory at the City College, C.U.N.Y.

  7. David

    Yes, but maybe less emphasis on psychological processes – which are hard to observe – and more on sociology and anthropology. Perhaps fitting into a role (those can change) is not as critical as fitting into a community. Identity crisis may be less about failed individuation than failed belonging. If initiation process for young men is unavailable, or the community of mature men is destroyed, then you might expect some floundering. Extend this line a little further, and consider whether modern identity (whether insecure or not) is a substitute for an extended family or clan.

  8. hemeantwell

    The article does a commendable job outlining some of the parameters of the concept of identity in Erikson’s thought. But it doesn’t give enough emphasis to the way in which identity is as much about not having certain qualities or traits as about having them. With affirmations go denials.

    This can be seen more clearly if you consider what the article skates over about adolescence. It used to be psychoanalytic common sense — Peter Blos was one of many contributors — to think of adolescence as a time in which questions related to attractions to the parents, which I guess can be summarized under the notion of the incest barrier, that had been largely set aside when the child is six to ten, are revived under the pressure of hormonal development as part of physical maturation. “Identity issues” can cluster around all sorts of ideological themes, but one thing that is getting structured is, typically, a foreclosure against intimacy with parents, and also with siblings, for that matter. [If you have any doubts about this, check out how defiance of these foreclosures predominate on the porn sites.]

    All of this can get lost if we think about identity as a matter of affirmation only, typically against negative stereotypes peddled by a dominant group. The project of defining yourself socially as worthy of love and respect inevitably catches up threads of earlier, more family-centered efforts at restrictive self-definition. So-called “toxic masculinity” asserts an identity aimed at minimization, to the point of negation, of any re-experiencing of dependency needs that typically find expression in the relationship with the mother. “Identity” here becomes a way of saying you’re all in with a defensive setup that helps you to flee from those needs. It may feel very, very authentic, but it’s just a reified surrender.

  9. playon

    the age of consent in the Elizabethan era was ten years old

    In the west perhaps but was that the case in other parts of the world and in other cultures?

  10. zach

    “And everybody must have an ideology in order to have a functioning identity.”

    I’m going to have to chew on that one for a minute.

    “…I can say with confidence that our society does not have as many valued roles as members.”

    In a hyper-individualized society, the responsibility resides with the individual to provide his or her own value to the role he or she adopts.

    … if you’ll forgive the gendered terminology…

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