School of Family and Consumer Sciences at The University of Akron
Professor Susan D. Witt, Ph.D.

Background Information
Born in Germany in 1902, died in 1994, Erikson was a psychoanalyst whose mission was to extend and refine Freud’s notions of personality development.  Erikson came to the U. S. in 1933, became a citizen and began a clinical practice here.  He did not publish his first book until he was 48 years old, but he became a leader in the psychoanalytic study of human growth and development.  His writings came out of his experiences doing field work with the Oglala Sioux of South Dakota and the salmon-fishing Yurok of northern California.  He did clinical treatment with disturbed children and adolescents and also wrote biographies of Martin Luther and Mohandas Gandhi.  Over a period of several decades, Erikson made significant contributions to the literature on psychoanalysis, personality theory, educational practice and social anthropology. 

Basic Proposals of Erikson
While recognizing Freud’s contributions to our understanding of human development, Erikson moved away from the fatalism of Freudian theory.  Erikson’s view is a more optimistic one that emphasizes success, greatness and the flowering of the human potential (Roazen, 1976).  He challenges Freud’s notion that one’s personality is primarily established during early childhood.  Erikson says that personality continues to develop over the entire life cycle.

Three of the most significant features of Erikson’s refinements of Freud’s ideas have been his proposals regarding:
1) Development of the healthy personality, in contrast to Freud’s emphasis on the cure of neurotic behavior.
2) The process of socializing the child into a particular culture through a series of psychosocial stages, rather than Freud’s psychosexual stages.
3) The individual’s task of achieving ego identity by means of solving identity crises at each psychosocial stage of growth.    

In Erikson’s system, ego identity has two aspects:
1) The person’s acceptance of him/herself and his/her place in the continuity of time.
2) The person’s recognition of and identification with the ideals and essential pattern of his/her culture; this includes sharing some kind of essential character with others.

The person who has achieved ego identity has a clear picture and an acceptance of both his/her inner essence and the group culture in which he/she lives. Erikson formulated eight major stages of development with each stage posing a unique developmental task.  At each stage, individuals face a crisis which they must struggle through.  Erikson defined crisis as a “turning point, a crucial period of increased vulnerability and heightened potential.” According to Erikson, individuals develop a “healthy personality” by mastering “life’s outer and inner dangers.”  Development follows the epigenetic principle - “anything that grows has a ground plan and. . .out of this ground plan the parts arise, each having its time of special ascendancy, until all parts have arisen to form a functioning whole.”  Thus, according to Erikson, each part of the personality has a particular time in the lifespan when it must develop if it is going to develop at all.  If development doesn’t happen on schedule, the rest of development is unfavorably altered.  The individual is then hindered in dealing effectively with reality (Lerner, 1976).  The interaction that takes place between a person and society during each stage can change the course of personality in either a positive or negative direction.  The following are Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development.

1) Trust vs. Mistrust - Infancy (Birth - about 2 years)
The family is the predominant social setting.  Whether children come to trust or distrust themselves and other people depends upon their early experiences.  Infants whose needs are met and who are cuddled, fondled and shown genuine affection evolve a sense of the world as a safe and dependable place.  On the other hand, when child care is haphazard, unpredictable, and rejecting, children approach the world with fear and suspicion.  These basic attitudes are not resolved in a once-and-for-all fashion.  They arise again at each successive level of development.  Thus, the favorable outcome of this stage is for the child to develop trust in him/herself, parents, and the world around him/her.

2) Autonomy vs. Shame and doubt - Early childhood (2 yrs. - 3 yrs.)
The family is still the predominant social setting.  As children begin to crawl, walk, climb and explore, a new conflict confronts them - whether or not to assert their wills.  When parents are patient, cooperative, and encouraging, children acquire a sense of independence and competence.  In contrast, when children are not allowed such freedom and are overprotected, they develop an excessive sense of shame and doubt.   An important developmental task that occurs during this time is toilet training.  Children need to move through this at their own pace, without being hurried or made to feel ashamed when they have accidents. Thus, the favorable outcome of this stage is for the child to develop a sense of self-control without loss of self esteem.

3) Initiative vs. Guilt - Around 3 to five years
The family is still the predominant social setting.  During this stage the repertoire of motor and mental abilities that are open to children greatly expands.  Parents who give their children freedom in running, sliding, bike riding, skating and rough-housing are allowing them to develop initiative.  Parents who curtail this freedom are giving children a sense of themselves as nuisances and inept intruders in an adult world.  Rather than actively and confidently shaping their own behaviors, such children become passive recipients of whatever the environment brings.  Thus, the favorable outcome for this stage is for the child to learn to acquire direction and purpose in activities.

4) Industry vs. Inferiority - Sixth year to onset of puberty
At this time, the neighborhood and the school become the predominant social setting.  During the elementary school years a child becomes concerned with how things work and how they are made.  As children move into the world of school, they gain a sense of industry by winning recognition for their achievements.  But they may instead acquire a sense of inadequacy and inferiority.  Parents and teachers who support, reward and praise children are encouraging industry.  Those who rebuff, deride, or ignore children’s efforts are strengthening feelings of inferiority.  Therefore, the favorable outcome of this stage is for the child to acquire a sense of mastery and competence.

5) Identity vs. Role confusion (diffusion) - Adolescence
During this stage the predominant social setting is the peer group and outgroups.
As children enter adolescence, they confront a “physiological revolution.”  Their bodies are changing, sometimes in uncomfortable ways, and at the same time they must answer the question, “who am I?”  They try on many new roles as they grope with romantic involvement, vocational choice, and adult statuses.  In the process they must develop an integrated and coherent sense of self.  When the adolescent fails to develop a “centered” identity, he or she becomes trapped in either role confusion or “negative identity.”  The identities and roles of “delinquent” and “druggie” are examples of this.  The favorable outcome of this stage is for the young person to develop an ego identity - a coherent sense of self.

6) Intimacy vs. Isolation - Young adulthood
During this stage the predominant social setting is with partners in friendship and sex.
Erikson viewed intimacy as the capacity to reach out and make contact with other people - to fuse one’s identity with that of others.  Intimacy finds expression in deep friendships.  Central to intimacy is the ability to share with and care about another person without fear of losing oneself in the process (Elkind, 1970).  Close involvement may also result in rejection. Thus some individuals opt for relationships of a shallow sort.  Their lives are characterized by withdrawal and isolation.  Thus, the favorable outcome of this stage is for the individual to develop the capacity to work toward a specific career and to involve him/herself in an extended intimate relationship.

7) Generativity vs. Stagnation - Adulthood
Predominant social setting is with the new family and work.  What Erikson means by generativity is the reaching out beyond one’s own immediate concerns to embrace the welfare of society and of future generations.  Generativity involves an element of selflessness. On the other hand, stagnation is a condition in which individuals are preoccupied with their material possessions or physical well-being.  Scrooge in Dicken’s A Christmas Carol is an example of a self-centered, embittered adult.  The favorable outcome of this stage is for the individual to become concerned with others beyond the immediate family, with future generations and with society.
8) Integrity vs. Despair - Old age
The predominant social setting during this stage is retirement and impending death.  As individuals approach the end of life, they tend to take stock of the years that have gone before.  Some folks feel a sense of satisfaction with their accomplishments; others experience despair - the feeling that time is too short for the attempt to start another life and to try out alternate roads to integrity.  The favorable outcome of this stage is for the individual to acquire a sense of satisfaction in looking back upon his/her life.

(Much of the above information came from Vander Zanden, 1981, Human Development).


Is Erikson’s view of the lifespan valid and realistic? 
Should there be more stages during adulthood and old age? 
Are there other outcomes that are possible during each of these stages?

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