Erik Erikson was a German psychologist and psychoanalyst who contributed greatly to the field of psychological and social development. His theories and body of work centers around what he called eight developmental stages, beginning with infancy and moving through old age. During each of these stages, Erikson identifies common key attributes and factors that are psychological, such as how the brain develops, and social, such as the typical lifestyle of a member of each stage. Erikson also interprets these stages through binary reactions, such as trust and mistrust. The history and development of Erikson’s theory make it relevant, and it continues to influence psychologists today.
The eight stages of development constitute a lifecycle of changes wherein people learn to socialize and pick up what Erikson calls virtues and what Piediscalzi (1973) explains are competencies for people to behave and develop successfully and to interact successfully with others, demonstrating ethical behavior as well as behavior that encourages strong social bonds and good parenting (pp. 169–170).
The first stage of Erikson’s stages of development is the infancy stage. In this stage, the basic conflict is trust versus mistrust. During this stage, infants either trust their caregivers when they take care of them and provide loving and nurturing environments. It is not enough for a baby to be safe; he or she is to have a healthy social component to the relationship with the mother or father. If an infant is not taken care of properly, he or she will develop issues of mistrust. Erikson does not state that people live in a binary state of trust or mistrust, but that people experience both and a healthy person will know how to function positively in the presence of both (Simanowitz & Pearce, 2003, p. 34).
The second stage of development is for what people might commonly refer to as toddlers, the period of age between 1 and 3. During this developmental stage, the basic conflict is autonomy versus shame. Erikson places an emphasis on toilet training as an example of how this binary plays out during this time (Simanowitz & Pearce, 2003, p. 35). While such a focus on body and body function is not uncommon, this is perhaps one topic where Erikson’s ideas are perhaps outdated. Changes in thinking have undermined some of Freud’s psychoanalytic work, especially as it concerned sexual development and body issues, which was popular during Erikson’s time as a psychologist but has fallen out of favor in the years since.
The third stage of the developmental process spans years 3 to 6 in a person’s life. During this period, children are learning to do things for themselves, and the conflict is initiative versus guilt. Children have an internal sense of initiative to accomplish something but will feel guilty if they are rebuked or criticized by adults and caretakers (Simanowitz & Pearce, 2003, p. 35). For example, a child might have the initiative to make breakfast for the family, but if he or she makes a mess and is criticized or punished, guilt can replace accomplishment. However, the vast amount of accomplishments during this stage typically overrides guilt.
The fourth stage of development is the school social development process that spans from the time a person is 6 years old until he or she is 11 years old. During this process, children are learning new social roles as well as entering into a system of regimented learning (Simanowitz & Pearce, 2003, p. 34). Those who succeed in this system will feel a sense of accomplishment, also called industry, while those who struggle will feel a sense of inferiority. It is important at this stage to help both social and academic development, as either can cause feelings of inferiority.
As children age and become more accustomed to the social institution of school, the focus shifts more to social relationships for people when they reach the fifth stage of development—adolescence—between the ages of 12 and 18. During this stage, identify formation is important, and it is constructed in response to social pressures and feedback. People who receive positive reinforcement feel independent and have self-control, while those who receive negative reinforcement will feel unsure about themselves and their future (Simanowitz & Pearce, 2003, p. 38).
The sixth stage of development is marked by intimacy versus isolation, and this is the first stage of young adulthood. During this stage, people begin forming their first strong and intimate personal relationships. If people have had a positive upbringing and socialization experience during the previous stages of development, then relationships will be more healthy and successful. Likewise, people who are still struggling with or unsure about their identities and lives will have difficulty with relationships and may feel isolated from others or society (Simanowitz & Pearce, 2003, p. 40).
The seventh stage of development occurs during adulthood, and this is the period of time when people are settling into careers and raising families. People who are successful during this stage feel accomplished and motivated, while those who are not as successful or perhaps do not enjoy what they are doing feel unsettled and unproductive (Simanowitz & Pearce, 2003, p. 36). During this period some people can have what is referred to as a “mid-life crisis” in which their identity and purpose are called into question. According to O’Connor & Wolfe (1991), adulthood is a period where there are many possible avenues of growth and development, and a combination of internal and external factors combine to shape and guide this development (pp. 324, 337).
The final stage of development occurs during a person’s last stage in life and is a period marked by reflection. This stage is considered successful if people look back on their lives with a sense of accomplishment and pride, whereas less successful people might have regret, leading to the conflicting states of integrity and despair (Simanowitz & Pearce, 2003, p. 41).
Erikson’s theories are important for psychologists because they provide a good framework for the common developmental and social experiences that people face. Though Erikson’s theories are quite old in some cases, they are still widely used and cited, showing that they were developed thoughtfully and offer a valid insight into how people develop their identities and come to live in the world with others.
O’Connor, D., & Wolfe. D. (1991). From crisis to growth at midlife: Changes in personal paradigm. Journal of Organizational Behavior, 12(4), 323–340. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2488204
Piediscalzi, N. (1973). Erik Erikson’s contribution to ethics. Journal of Religion and Health, 12 (2), 169–180. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/27505171
Simanowitz, V., & Pearce, P. (2003). Personality development. Maidenhead, Berkshire, England: Open University Press.