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Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development

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In this essay, I will examine Erikson’s Developmental Theory known as his ‘Theory of Psychosocial Development.’ The focus of this assignment will be centred on the psychological growth during Erikson’s first three stages of development, spanning from birth to the age of four, or five. However, I will also briefly investigate the later periods of development in order to fully disclose the essence of Erikson’s groundbreaking theory.

Before my onslaught into this, the core of this essay, I will first give a brief biographical introduction to Erikson the man, and from there I will make inquiries into his relationship with Freud and the psychoanalytical movement of which he was a part. It is of my opinion that to fully comprehend and appreciate Erikson’s theory, one must fathom what constitutes the man himself, for many of his beliefs and notions appear to be derived from his own personal psychological perplexities. In addition, I will also briefly describe Freud’s theory of psychosexual development, as Erikson’s theory is largely built on the framework of this theory, and indeed incorporates much of the content and notions introduced within it.

Erik was born in Frankfurt in 1902 and spent most of his early years in Karlsruhe (1). His father had deserted his Jewish mother before he was even born. When he was three his mother married his Jewish doctor, Theodore Homburger. Erik assumed the name Homburger at this time. Young Erik was physically more alike Northern Europeans than most of the children in his stepfather’s temple. There he was referred to as Goy, while at his school he was seen as a Jew. His feeling of alienation resulted in a major sense of crisis in his adolescent life. The teenage Erik considered himself an artistic type and perhaps as a consequence of his estranged family life, he wandered Europe for many years before he landed a job, rather by chance, teaching children of the psychoanalytical community in Vienna.

Erik eventually became part of this movement and was familiar with the major players in psychoanalytical thought at this time, including Sigmund Freud himself. Indeed, as part of his training Erik was analysed by Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter. It was here among this company that he first felt a sense of his own personal identity. However, as a consequence of the threat of fascism in Europe, Erik and his wife made the decision to move to the United States in 1933.

Shortly after his arrival Erik changed his name from Homburger to Erikson. He felt he would have more success and would more likely be accepted in the professional community if he did so. In America he continued his development as a psychoanalyst and became somewhat of a specialist in child and adolescent analysis. He had already carried out considerable study on childhood development in Vienna where Anna Freud had pioneered study in this area. In the U. S., he also completed a number of specialized studies on Native American child rearing practices as well as working extensively with war veterans suffering from various forms of combat related psychological problems.

Erikson’s comprehensive study and analysis of different social groups intensified his belief in the influence of the environment as well as biology on psychological development. This is Erikson’s most obvious departure from traditional Freudian psychoanalytical thinking. It would be wrong to suggest that Erikson turns his back on his mentor, but there are a number of areas where Erikson clearly develops distinct and unique ideas from those of Freud. It would be rather pointless after all to talk about his theory, if it’s content offered nothing new.

As previously mentioned, Erikson placed a much greater emphasis on cultural and societal influences than did Freud. Drawing on the thoughts of Erick Fromm, Erikson felt a person’s goal in life was to find a sense of ‘identity’ within society (2). His own personal circumstances would almost definitely have influenced his opinion on this matter. Developing from his belief that the search for identity was the central motivating factor in human development, Erikson introduced the idea of ‘identity crisis.’ Having worked with veterans of the Second World War, Erikson observed that many of these men displayed signs of what he described as loss of identity. The psychological symptoms shown by these men were very similar in nature to those he had witnessed among adolescents. He eventually concluded that a problem of crisis of identity is prevalent throughout our lives but not usually to the extent of the situations already mentioned. The notions of identity and problems of identity crisis became an intrical component of Erikson’s theory.

There are other ideas introduced by Erikson that differentiated him from Freud. Erikson placed a much greater emphasis on the Ego than did his master. Freud’s Ego had a primary purpose, to defend and inhibit, whereas Erikson’s Ego was more in line with Neo-Freudian concept of the Ego. This Ego integrated and organized the personality. Indeed, generally Erikson felt that the Ego had a more significant role in the make-up of the unconscious than Freud would ever have acknowledged (3).

Another vital variation that exists between the two theorists is blatantly evident in their methodologies. Freud’s theory was developed as a result of his study of a very small and specific group. He arrived at his judgments largely as a consequence of his work with the mentally ill in Vienna (4). His patients were typically upper middle class women and therefore, it is difficult to conceive how he could maintain to have developed a theory that claimed to encapsulate the whole of humanity.

Erikson’s approach is very different. From his days in Vienna, working with Anna Freud he had began the use of observation, particularly in regard to children’s play. He had also moved away from the traditional Freudian method of almost exclusively studying those who were ill. His use of cross-cultural studies was another serious departure from what had previously been the norm. Another process, which came to be identified with Erikson, was his development of psychohistories of renowned individuals, both past and present.

The final material distinction I will mention between Freud and Erikson refers to the structure of their developmental theories. The importance of this is obviously immense, so the fact I have failed to mention this until now, should not be seen as a sign that it is otherwise the case. I simply wanted to tie my investigation of these differences into my discussion of the actual stages of development. The most obvious and clearly defined differences between the theories are their duration.

Freud’s theory of psychosexual development covers only a short period of the life span, from birth to adolescence. His notions and beliefs place little if any great emphasis on the remainder of an individual’s life. In fact, Freud’s theory would actually suggest the personality is largely developed in the first four to five years of life, during his ‘Polymorphous Perverse Stages’ of development. The climax of which is brought about with the Oedipus complex in males and the Electra (Negative or Feminine) Complex in females.

The duration of Erikson’s theory is much more substantial. It in fact covers the complete life span. He believed that we as beings continued to develop throughout our lives. Much as Viorst felt that our search for inner-freedom was a lifelong dynamic struggle, so too Erikson felt our psychological journey continued for the duration of our lives (5). His theory encompassed eight stages as opposed to Freud’s five. Erikson referred to these stages as the ‘eight ages of man (6).’ As his theory extended over the entire life of an individual, his students jokingly nicknamed it the ‘womb to tomb theory (7).’ As previously mentioned, Erikson’s theory inherited its framework from Freud’s. He felt it necessary however, to add a psychosocial aspect to Freud’s beliefs. For example, Erikson would have seen the toddler’s oral pleasure when making verbal sounds in a psychosexual nature like Freud. However, he would also have viewed this phenomenon in a psychosocial way, due to the infants increased ability to communicate with his parents and the wider society.

With regard to physical maturation, Erikson felt the child would face both personal and societal repercussions. If we look closer at the oral stage, we see how speech enhancement gives the infant the heightened sense of independence, and personal growth. However, Erikson would maintain that this comes at a price. With this boost of sovereignty, there ensues an escalating burden placed on the infant from those around them. This element is extremely consequential, as it underlines the strong relationship Erikson envisaged between the individual and his environment. The pure fact an infant, for example, is passing through a particular stage of development has to be seen through a wider lens. Erikson would emphasize the influence of those around them, and more specifically how they themselves are dealing with their own particular stage of development. Basically, all human interaction is intensely related.

The procedure involved in Erikson’s developmental theory is based on the Epigenetic Principle. The basic thrust of this principle is that we as beings are preordained to mature in a certain way and maturational changes occur in a precise order, at relatively predetermined ages in our lives. At birth we leave the security of the womb, and become part of the interpersonal society into which we were born. Erikson would contend that how well we advance through our somewhat predestined path is greatly affected by the opportunities and possibilities offered to us within our culture.

Built within this progression of maturation the individual must overcome a number of psychosocial crises. They must adapt to their expanding circle of critical associations with others and must learn and adjust to the rules of their particular society. In regard to the crises in which they must overcome during each juncture of development, Erikson integrates his theory much more than Freud, although certainly not as closely as Piaget. Although the emphasis is placed on initiative in his third period of development, Erikson believed it was also present during other stages as well. He certainly would propose that it was present in the period preceding and following its most emphasized stage. Erikson believed that the advances made within one stage of development would be incorporated and built upon in subsequent stages.

Each crisis in psychosocial development involves both positive and negative outcomes. It is imperative for the individual to get the balance right in order to successfully overcome the unique crisis points. In his first stage for example, ‘Basic Trust vs. Mistrust,’ Erikson would argue that it is essential to have a certain degree of mistrust to warn of potential dangers for instance. Nonetheless, to enable us to thrive as individuals living within a society, trust must outweigh mistrust. This stage of development spans the period from birth to approximately the age of one. Erikson emphasizes the mother child relationship during this period. The child’s trust in the mother’s ability to provide the things he needs is paramount. A child, who feels at ease in this regard, in getting the things he needs such as food, warmth and comfort, will develop within itself a willingness to support and trust in others.

The child’s faith in this relationship will also equip them to acquire religious faith in the ‘Cosmic Order.’ Remembering the fact that Erikson is a social theorist, the part the mother plays is also highlighted. A mother who has conviction in her own ability as a parent is much more likely to nurture a child who is trusting. Failure of an infant to develop a trusting personality will normally culminate in them being frustrated, withdrawn and lacking in confidence as adults.

The second stage of Erikson’s theory is called ‘Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt’ which runs from more or less the age of two to the age of three. During this period the infant advances greatly physically. They learn how to walk, talk and are capable of anal control. With this progression there inevitably becomes more physical and psychological independence. However, this is not always such a positive thing. A child may fail in their endeavors at anal control and a loss of self-esteem may be the outcome. With their new found limited sovereignty and their ability to have an obvious degree of control over their decision making, they may find it troublesome to contend with their own powerful and violent drives. They may also discover that their search for a heightened sense of independence is thwarted by the supremacy of their parents.

When autonomy does not win out, shame and doubt result in the child. In the main this is the result of an under developed sense of trust stemming from the first period of maturation. Alternatively, trust may have been established during the first stage of development but it has since given way to mistrust as a consequence of a failure in their attempts at achieving independence. This is particularly momentous in the realm of toilet training. In many circumstances foundering in this regard may be contingent on stern or overly severe parenting.

The psychosocial implications of this juncture in growth are holding on or letting go. Lack of success here can lead to a compulsive, or rigid character, what Freud termed an ‘Anal Personality.’ The rules and guidelines introduced to the infant during this stage (Where in the house they can go, where and when they can use the toilet, etc.) give the maturing child an idea of the real world and its many laws and regulations. Erikson believed the society in which we live is enormously relevant to our capacity to nurture our perception of independence and autonomy. In a well-structured and successfully functioning society, the autonomy established during this period of development will continue to evolve for the duration of our lives.

The third stage of Erikson’s theory corresponds with Freud’s phallic stage and is possibly the most significant period of development for both men (8). In this stage, Erikson believes the infant begins to examine what sort of person he is and what sort of individual he wishes to become. For Erikson, the answer is obvious. They want to become just like their parents. They are powerful, beautiful and like Freud’s estimates of them, very possibly dangerous. Erikson basically accepts Freud’s understanding of this stage particularly in regards to the Oedipus and Electra complex (9). However, as we would expect his focus is more on the social implications more so than the sexual. Up to this period of development, Freud and Erikson would see both male and female infants as somewhat gender neutral. However with the discovery of the fact that one either possesses or does not have a penis everything changes (10).

It was Freud’s belief that it was not uncommon for young boys to successfully complete this period of growth. The triumphant fulfillment of which resulted in the creation of the unconscious, and the development of the Super-Ego. With the establishment of a powerful Super-Ego, there followed a capability for considerable moral development. The most significant result of this being the creation of a sense of justice. For Freud, and we must assume for Erikson, the outlook was not so bright for young girls as few if any, overcame the challenges of this stage. The result of which was often Hysteria (11).

Erikson as we might suspect took a broader view of things, and considered the social implications of this period as well as the sexual. In this stage the emphasis is on ‘Initiative versus Guilt.’ The psychosocial modality of this period is making, forming and carrying out goals. The advancements physically and intellectually greatly aid this process. A child who successfully overcomes the challenges offered by this stage develops a sense of initiative, were as those who fail in their endeavors are left feeling a sense of guilt due to the establishment of an overwhelmingly severe conscience. Another detrimental effect that may arise out of this stage, according to Erikson, is the development of an overly competitive individual who is never content unless competing with others.

As previously mentioned, Erikson developed a theory that encapsulated the entire lifespan. His fourth and fifth stages of growth, ‘Industry vs. Inferiority’ and ‘Identity and Repudiation vs. Identity Diffusion’ corresponded somewhat with Freud’s ‘Latency’ and ‘Genital’ stages of development. However, whereas Freud’s theory terminated at puberty, Erikson saw psychological growth continuing for the duration of a person’s life.

Erikson added additional stages to those proposed by his master. ‘Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation’ encompassed development during young adulthood. ‘Generativity vs. Stagnation and Self-Absorption’ is how he defined progression during middle adulthood. Finally, ‘Integrity vs. Despair’ encapsulated his beliefs on late adulthood.

In evaluating Erikson’s theory, one cannot help but recognize the many positive aspects he introduced to psychoanalytical thinking. By widening its base, he greatly increased its credibility and acceptance. The broadening of the psychoanalytical framework, helped in its success in counseling and therapy particularly in adolescents. His emphasis on cultural factors and the impression he gave of universe in which all beings are somehow interlocked was also a new and attractive addition to psychoanalytical thought. That fact that his theory saw psychological growth as being a life long endeavor, and not something that was relatively complete at puberty, and after which we have little, if any control, helped ensure its acceptance.

On a more skeptical note, Erikson’s theory is comprised very loosely of observations, generalizations, and abstract claims. The major underlining problem for him is his weak methodology. Erikson’s theory cannot be measured under controlled experimental conditions and therefore for many within the psychological community in particular, it lacks legitimacy.


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in order to Grow, London: Simon & Schuster, 1986.

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