Psychosocial Theory

Erikson's Psychosocial Theory of Human Development

Erik Erikson’s psychosocial theory of personality development is a refinement of Freud’s theory of psychosexual development. Erikson revised Freud’s theory of psychosexual development to include not just the vicissitudes of biological drives but also social needs and crises (conflicts) that change across development.

Erik Erickson (1963) posits that a series of biological propensities and social influences converges to shape a person’s personality development. According to him, while these forces interplay, an individual experiences eight stages of psychosocial development (during which essential life tasks must be accomplished), each with its own critical crises.

And each crisis must be resolved successfully in order to prepare the individual for a healthy psychological adjustment in next developmental stage.

  • Psychosocial, within this theory, means specifically that the complete stages of a person’s life cycle from birth to old age are affected by social influences interacting with a physically and psychologically maturing individual.
  • Crisis, in this theory, does not signify a catastrophe or problem; rather, it suggests a critical moment normative of that stage that has the potential of setting forth the emergence of psychic capabilities and strengths as well as leading to specific vulnerabilities and pathological tendencies.

Based on analyses of clinical cases, cultural influences, and the course of individual lives, Erikson posited eight psychosocial stages, each defined by a critical life task to achieve. The tasks reflected the interplay of biological propensities and social influences.

According to Erikson’s theory, if tasks are not completed at the appointed time, they may never be fully resolved. Furthermore, faulty resolution of early tasks endangers the resolution of ones in later stage.

Specifically, each developmental stage features (see table below) two opposing attitudes, which result from a positive or negative resolution to the problem faced at the given stage.

Stages and Critical Tasks of Erikson’s Psychosocial Framework
Oral-sensory (birth to 1 year)Trust versus mistrust
Muscular-anal (1 to 3 years)Autonomy versus shame and doubt
Locomotor-genital (3 to 6 years)Initiative versus guilt
Latency (6 to 11 years)Industry versus inferiority
Puberty and adolescent (11 to 19 years)Ego identity versus role confusion
Young adulthood (20 to 40 years)Intimacy versus isolation
Adulthood (40 to 65 years)Generativity versus stagnation
Old ageEgo integrity versus despair

In Erikson’s view, personality is shaped by the way the individual confronts the tasks of each stage. The life tasks challenge one’s sense of self. Enduring attitudes toward self and society are determined by efforts to meet the challenges and by society’s responses to one’s efforts.

These crises inherently change from one stage to the next. Below is a brief description of each of Erikson’s eight psychosocial stages.

  1. Trust versus Mistrust
    In the first months of life, the interaction between infant and mother is crucial for growth. From this interaction the infant develops a sense of trust that basic needs will be gratified. If needs are frustrated more often than gratified, the infant will be disappointed, and basic trust will not be established.

    During the second six months of life, the infant adds biting to its initial sucking activities. In psychoanalytic terms, dual drives are operating: erotic (sucking) and aggressive (biting) (Abraham 1953). Gradually the infant realizes this separateness from his mother, and if early experiences have been positive, he has developed a reservoir of trust and hopefulness from which to draw. Mother is the key social agent
  2. Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt
    Children must learn to be autonomous—to feed and dress themselves, to look after their own hygiene, and so on. According to Erikson, the period of toilet training is one of madness and mystery for the child, and he warns against excessive parental expectations.

    If toilet training is not accompanied by shaming tactics, and if parenting is consistent and moderate, the child gains confidence and takes pleasure in autonomous actions. Children subjected to excessive control, on the other hand, may force the child to doubt his or her own abilities and feel shameful. Parents are the key social agents.
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  4. Initiative versus Guilt
    Children attempt to act grown up and will try to accept responsibilities that are beyond their capacity to handle. They sometimes undertake goals or activities that conflict with those of parents and other family members, and these conflicts may make them feel guilty. Successful resolution of this crisis requires a balance. The child must retain a sense of initiative and yet learn not to impinge on the rights, privileges, or goals of others. The family is key social agent.
  5. Industry versus Inferiority
    Children must master important social and academic skills to enhance productivity and industriousness. This is a period when the child compares himself or herself with peers. The child who feels inferior becomes afraid of the tasks and enterprises and is reluctant to try them. In addition, as the child’s world expands, it becomes necessary to reconcile parental values with those of the outside world. Significant social agents are teachers and peers.
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  7. Ego Identity versus Role Confusion
    This is the crossroad between childhood and maturity. During this time, the adolescent grapples with the question “Who am I?” He or she is less inclined to accept the guidance of parents and is greatly influenced by peers.

    Adolescents must establish basic social and occupational identities, or they will remain confused about the roles they should play as adults. Erikson was sympathetic toward the dilemma of adolescence and called these years a “moratorium” between parental values that were once accepted by the child and a new adult code of ethics not yet determined. The key social agent is the society of peers.
  8. Intimacy versus Isolation
    The primary task at this stage is to form strong friendships and to achieve a sense of love and companionship (or a shared identity) with another person. Feelings of loneliness or isolation are likely to result from an inability to form friendships or an intimate relationship. Key social agents are lovers, spouses, and close friends (of both sexes).
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  10. Generativity versus Stagnation
    At this stage, adults face the tasks of becoming productive in their work and raising their families or otherwise looking after the needs of young people for the betterment of society.

    These standards of “generativity” are defined by one’s culture. Those who are unable or unwilling to assume these responsibilities will experience stagnation and /or self-centeredness—living only for their own pleasure and comfort.

    In Erikson’s view, preoccupation with self is detrimental to society and to the individual. Here, significant social agents are the spouse, children, and cultural norms.
  11. Ego Integrity versus Despair
    As people grow old, they must come to terms with their own mortality. The idea of death—their own and that of loved ones—brings despair unless they can achieve a sense of purpose and acceptance of their own place in the progression of generations.

    A backward look at one’s own life and accomplishments can promote ego integrity if the retrospective view is positive. However, if retrospection focuses on failures or a major disappointment full of unfulfilled promises and unrealized goals, the result is despair. One’s life experiences, particularly social experiences, will determine the outcome of this final life crisis.

The life cycle of a person coexists with the life cycle of the social institutions, and the specific psychosocial strength is the person’s heritage from and contribution to the succession of generations and to society’s establishment.

According to Erickson’s psychosocial theory of development, as a person enters adolescence, he or she is confronted with the crisis of identity. Equipped with physiological maturation and intellectual maturation, a young person faces impending adulthood, that is, one has to find one’s place in society through useful work, meaningful cause and practical life.

Erikson’s model is highly functional. It organizes the primary challenges and transitions that mark the life of individuals in Western society. It valuably highlights processes of emotional and social development. It is flexible, in that it recognizes that any given challenge may present itself again later in development.

Erikson also recognizes that different challenges will vary in importance in different societies; nonetheless, in all societies optimal development involves harmonizing nature and culture in the service of personal growth.

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