Erikson’s Psychosocial Development

A Guide to Psychosocial Development
Using Erikson’s Theory

By Elly Hurley

Erik Erikson developed an eight stage theory on the psychosocial development of an individual. The theory begins at birth and ends at death, and takes into account the social and environmental influences and how these are interpreted and used by the individual for their self development. Erikson has clearly interpreted and described these social interactions in a sequential and timely manner. Each stage comprises a positive and negative learning, and both experiences are necessary with a lean toward the positive to achieve a complete understanding and balance, which adds to the individuals personality. A successful outcome of each stage gives the individual a virtue, which they carry with them through their lifetime. The flip side of this, being a more negative learning will also influence an individual making their journey through life more challenging. Erikson’s theory provides an insightful, meaningful and understandable guide to an individuals journey through life.

Erik Erikson extended and reformulated Freud’s work on psychoanalysis. Erikson’s understanding of an ever changing world and it’s impact on the development of an individual’s personality lead to what is now known as Erikson’s eight stage theory of psychosocial development (Hall et al). Erikson’s theory covers the timing of social and environmental influences from birth to death and how these assist or hinder the development of an individuals personality. The importance of instincts and needs were not overlooked, however Erikson was more concerned with how a person interprets and acts upon them (Sollod et al). This essay will briefly describe each of the eight stages of Erikson’s theory, and discuss the strengths and weaknesses of the overall theory. For the reader’s ease each stage will be highlighted as a subheading.

The eight stages fall loosely into four broad life periods, infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood. There are positive and negative elements at each stage and to fully develop it is important to have both of these experiences. Without a degree of the negative aspects mistrust, guilt and shame for example an individual may be more susceptible to some form of harm in later life, therefore these are crucial techniques needed to deal with the everyday challenges of life (Sollod et al). Ideally the positive element will be stronger than the negative element, and each preceding psychosocial crises will be resolved before moving on to the next. Erikson aligned a psychological virtue to each crisis, which was attained once that crisis was successfully resolved. These will be introduced in the stage descriptions following. Sadly a negative conclusion of a particular stage could result in a negative virtue being adapted.

Trust versus Mistrust: Hope – The earliest basic trust develops in a newborn who is reliant on it’s mother, father or caregiver to provide food, warmth and comfort. When these are forthcoming in a continuous and caring manner the baby develops a sense of trust. Self trust develops as the baby accepts longer and longer periods of absence as it establishes a belief the caregiver will return. If however there is no consistency and a lack of caring the baby will become mistrustful, and potentially become estranged. A correct balance of trust and mistrust results in the development of hope. Erikson (1964, in Hall et al) states “Hope is both the earliest and the most indispensable virtue inherent in the state of being alive.” With a strong belief of hope anything is possible, making this perhaps the single most important virtue, the virtue required and used as the foundation of all others.

Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt: Will – The second stage is where a child develops the ability to decipher good from bad, or right from wrong. As the child’s self-control improves – most evident in it’s bodily functions and a dry or clean nappy – so does it’s want for independence. During this stage the caregivers ability to guide the child, with the appropriate level of reward and discipline as it begins to make it’s own choices with positive and negative outcomes, along with the odd ‘accident‘ will determine the child’s ability to integrate into society with a sense of pride rather than a sense of self doubt and shame. This creates the virtue of will, the ability to make self choices and act upon them accordingly and within the realms governed by society (Hall et al).

Initiative versus Guilt: Purpose – When a child begins this stage they have a strong sense of “I”. The child’s capacity to initiate actions, thoughts and fantasies are key characteristics of this crisis. (Sollod et al). As the child grows it begins to push the boundaries to test what it is capable of achieving and what it is allowed to do. How the child is dealt with when testing these boundaries will influence the balance of initiative and guilt. The correct balance supports the virtue of purpose, which requires the unconscious assimilation of right and wrong, and assists the child’s ongoing development of moral and ethical guidelines. This is further evidenced as the child begins to plan and make decisions that in the past were made on their behalf (Sollod et al).

Industry versus Inferiority: Competence – The forth stage of development begins around the time a child starts school. They quickly learns how to act in the social setting of a classroom, and are rewarded for work that is completed correctly and in a timely manner, and punished when it is late or incomplete or incorrect. From these interactions they begin to tame their urge to play as they had done during previous crises, choosing instead to focus this energy into working, generally for the reward of simple recognition and praise. In many instances their imagination is also curbed for longer and longer periods while they are concentrating on and learning new material, material they have been lead to believe will be beneficial for their longer term prospects. During this time the child also begins to understand and use technology. There is a key danger at this stage in that a child may develop a sense of inadequacy and inferiority and potentially lose some the the skills gained in earlier crises (Sollod, 2009, p. 284). Successful competition leads to the virtue competence, described by Erikson (1964) as “…the free exercise of dexterity and intelligence in the completion of tasks, unimpaired by infantile inferiority” (Hall et al).

Identity versus Identity Confusion: Fidelity – This is perhaps the most defining stage of development, whereby the now adolescent is standing on the precipice between child and adult. A successful integration of the previous four stages will provide the adolescent with a “comfortable and workable whole” (Sollod, 2009), with a strong sense of self and knowledge of where and how he fits into and should act in society. However, the flip side of this is the adolescent who has not yet managed to integrate all of the above and is therefore confused about his role. This adolescent will often find himself at odds with his family and the greater community, he will be labeled lazy and rebellious, which seems to fuel his propensity to continue with this behaviour, because he would rather be acknowledged for something bad than nothing at all (Sollod, 2009). Hence the term identity confusion, one day he will still be a child which is quite acceptable and the next he is required to make the decisions of an adult. Some people manage this confusion well and have a smooth transition, others take a little longer. An individual senses and is continually reminded of the importance of his decisions at this time, and the impact these will have on the rest of his both life and the life of his future family (Hall et al). The development of the virtue fidelity occurs during this stage, sometimes adding to the confusion and pressure of which role is applicable, that of a child or adult.

Intimacy versus Isolation: Love – As a young adult, and having found their own identity they begin the search for a special someone who they are prepared to merge identities with. This will inevitably lead to various forms of self-sacrifice, which handled correctly will cause the relationship to blossom, thereby creating the virtue of love; however if unsuccessful there is the potential the individual will retreat into isolation (Sollod, 2009, p.287). Erikson listed a 6 point characterisation of what he believed was “healthy genital sexuality” which for some will be viewed as outdated and perhaps politically incorrect; there is no room for childless families or same sex couples and there is the presupposition that genuine intimacy or love is only evident when mutual orgasm is reached (Sollod, 2009). The ability to fuse parts of one’s identity will also benefit an individual in the workplace and within society, who together with the person’s loved one with offer them a strong sense of belonging. Sadly, the inability to fuse one’s identity with others may result in complete isolation and loneliness.

Generativity versus Stagnation: Care – Erikson (1950) stated, “Mature man needs to be needed, and maturity needs guidance as well as encouragement form what has been produced and must be taken care of” (cited in Sollod). The desire of being needed is often huge, as it translates to I’ve made it and others value my views. Inherently most people want to teach and show others how something is done, the virtue of care. Or is it? Generally yes, and the teaching is delivered in a practical, optional and helpful way however there will be times when the message is lost due to the authoritarian nature of the delivery, where self satisfaction overpowers the care required.

Integrity versus Despair: Wisdom – The pinnacle of ones life, when you are able to look back and acknowledge that you have done all you could and feel proud. You were cared for in the beginning, you cared for others, and now you can care for yourself (Sollod, 2009). The virtue of wisdom is attained and he who has it can go forth without regret or despair towards one of life’s inevitablities – death. Despair on the other hand occurs when one looks back with regret and sadness at having not fulfilled their dreams and desires.

One can conclude, that Erikson’s eight stage theory on psychosocial development provides an insightful and mostly meaningful guide to one’s journey through life. His acknowledgement and acceptance that the world is a changing place is evident in most of the stages, the exception being intimacy versus isolation, where his six point characterisation is now somewhat outdated. In saying that, the basis of this stage is still applicable and easily applied in todays society. Erikson has clearly interpreted and described social interactions that occur in a sequential and timely manner. The interpretation and application of these interactions by the individual gives them the resources they require to develop the foundations and subsequent stepping stones that form their personality and allows them to live a well balanced life comfortably and securely with an intimate knowledge of who they are and what their role is in society.


Hall, C.S., Lindzey, G., and Campbell, J.B. (1998). Theories of Personality, Fourth Edition. Canada: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Sollod, R.N., Wilson, J.P., and Monte, C.F. (2009). Beneath the Mask, An Introduction to Theories of Personality, Eighth Edition. USA: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.