Erik Erikson - Developmental Psychology - The Canon

Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World - Andrea Bonior 2016

Erik Erikson
Developmental Psychology
The Canon


BORN 1902, Frankfurt, Germany


DIED 1994, Cape Cod, Massachusetts


Educated at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute



When you think of psychological development, you might very well think of young children growing into their personalities, or of kids in middle school gaining maturity. Perhaps you even think of finding yourself in your late teen years or in early college. Not as many of us will think of development as a lifelong process, though, one that continues long after our bodies have matured and our cognitive capacities are at their peak. Erik Erikson, however, taught the psychology field to view development as a process that continues until the day we take our last breath.

Erikson did not see developmental stages as tied to specific ages across the board for everyone. Rather, he believed that they are emotional and cognitive transitions whose emergence is dictated both by biological maturation and by the social demands that act on a person at any given point in life. Erikson’s theory includes eight psychosocial stages, which, he postulated, all people go through, in consecutive order, throughout the life span. Each stage involves a basic conflict between two extremes; these are life crises that need to be sorted out. According to Erikson, successful navigation of the conflict results in the development of a certain virtue and paves the way for the next stage:

”The first stage, in infancy, involves the conflict of basic trust versus mistrust, leading to the development of the virtue of hope, if successfully navigated. Babies must quickly learn to trust others and discern who will be responsible for meeting their needs. The primary caregivers serve as the key social agents at this stage, and if their caregiving is erratic or neglectful, the baby may come to view the world as a scary place that is unpredictable and perhaps even hopeless.

”Toddlerhood brings the conflict of autonomy versus shame and doubt, and if this crisis is resolved, it will lead to will. Toddlers are beginning to learn how to handle some parts of taking care of themselves, from using a spoon to using the toilet to falling asleep on their own. Parents are still the key social agents here, and if toddlers have difficulty establishing their independence, they will experience doubt and shame about their ability to navigate the world.

”The preschool years bring the conflict of initiative versus guilt, with successful navigation of this struggle leading to purpose. Children at this stage will sometimes bite off more than they can chew, in terms of the goals or activities that they attempt. This can create conflict with rules and other people and can sometimes cause guilt and being in trouble. But it can also engender children’s growing confidence in what they can accomplish on their own. The family is the key social agent here.

”The grade school years, up to about the age of 12, bring the conflict of industry versus inferiority, with successful navigation leading to competence. This is when social comparisons between children and their peers start to become quite important, as children see themselves and their accomplishments in relation to others. If they are industrious and begin to master various academic and social skills, kids can feel self-assured by their successes. Otherwise, feelings of inferiority set in. Teachers and peers enter the scene here as significant social agents.

”From the teenage years to about the age of 20, there is the conflict of identity versus role confusion, with successful navigation leading to fidelity. Here lies the tension between being a child and being an adult, the essential but sometimes tumultuous push-pull of becoming a grown-up: “Who am I, really? What is my path in life, and what place do I have among people I care about?” This challenge can also be known as an identity crisis, a term first used by Erickson. The key social agents here, for better or for worse, are peers as teenagers try to establish their identities. But Erickson argued that supportive parents have a role in letting teenagers explore, without burdening them with excessively rigid expectations about who they should become.

”Erikson said that the next stage, typically associated with the early 20s until about the age of 40, involves the conflict of intimacy versus isolation, with successful resolution leading to love. This stage often brings an in-depth exploration of the nuances of real love and companionship, in both friendships and romantic relationships. Feeling a lack of true intimacy with others can bring loneliness.

”With middle adulthood comes the conflict of generativity versus stagnation, with successful navigation leading to care. What does productivity mean at work, in the family, and in life goals? Some people assume responsibility naturally; others resist, and stagnation follows. Cultural norms play a role as a key social agent here, as every culture decides for itself what it looks like to be generative. Spouses and children, when they are present, are also key social agents.

”Finally, older age brings the conflict of ego integrity versus despair, leading, if successfully navigated, to wisdom. In the late 60s and later, the individual begins to look back at his or her life and interpret its meaning. Ego integrity is the overall acceptance of one’s life, with its highs as well as its lows. But a feeling of significant disappointment, with goals unrealized or expectations unmet, can lead to despair. And thus the key agent is no longer a current social one but rather the individual’s interpretations and memories of his or her own past social experiences. Successful navigation of this phase leads to wisdom and to the ability to find meaning and eventually accept one’s life in the face of death.

Together, Erikson’s psychosocial stages paint the full picture of a life. They emphasize our relationships with others and our changing emotions, from birth to old age, and they set his theory apart from previous developmental ones. Erikson also argued that our successful or unsuccessful navigation of these phases will create the triumphs and bruises that come to define our personalities.


Erikson’s theories led to a broadened view of what psychological development means, and they served as a bridge between psychoanalytic theory and a life-span model of development. That life-span model has led to greater interest in studies of aging and gerontology. Erikson also pioneered the biographical genre known as psychohistory; his historical/psychoanalytic study of Gandhi won Erikson a Pulitzer Prize.


Whether you are 17, 43, or 91, take a moment to visualize some earlier stage of your development. There is a chance that your most vivid memories involve meeting biological milestones, or the ways in which you interacted with your physical environment. But you’re most likely to see other people in your mind’s eye. In fact, your memories of siblings, neighbors, friends, romantic partners, parents, colleagues, and teachers probably define the life stages for you, in ways that may be pleasant or not so pleasant.

Let’s take middle childhood, Erikson’s “industry versus inferiority” phase. You may not remember what all the cognitive milestones were for that stage, but you probably remember who was always beating you on spelling tests, who could shoot more baskets than you could, and whose popularity left you feeling shy and gangly. You may also remember how you first learned that you were good at art or could make your friends laugh. The indelible meanings of such early comparisons, which also lead us to start believing certain things about ourselves, stay with us for a very long time.

If you look back at yourself as an adolescent or a young adult, you’ll see that the pattern continues. It is hard to forget your first crush, your first roommate, and the first boss who made you believe that you really did know what you were doing. The social aspects of life often seem to eclipse other influences in recollections of these years, especially when it comes to reflecting on what your life has meant. Erikson’s theory captures this reality in a remarkable way, showing that how we relate to others, and the needs we have for other people in terms of our own development, may vary with our life stages but never diminish in importance.

If you have always set goals for yourself, whether with checklists or with five-year plans, you may very well look back at your past goals and find them aligned with Erikson’s eight psychosocial stages. From finding a spouse to launching a career to planning for retirement and making a bucket list, what is important during any given decade often follows a rather universal pattern. And though your particular culture may have imposed its own particular expectations (Was it assumed that you would go to college? Was it considered best to live off the land? Was it your responsibility above all else to raise your children?), there is little variance between cultures in the ways we relate to ourselves and find meaning in our relationships. From teenage angst to a midlife crisis, from redefining ourselves after retirement to determining how we want to live in our last years, we see Erikson’s social and emotional stages over and over again.