Erik Erikson

(1902 - 1994 )

Compiled by Wendy Sharkey (May 1997)

Erikson Biography
Time Line

Erik Erikson has made a contribution to the field of psychology with his developmental theory. He can be compared to Sigmund Freud in that he claimed that humans develop in stages. Erikson developed eight psychosocial stages in which humans develop through throughout their entire life span.

Erik Homberger Erikson was born in 1902 near Frankfort, Germany to Danish parents. Erik studied art and a variety of languages during his school years, rather than science courses such as biology and chemistry. He did not prefer the atmosphere that formal schooling produced, so instead of going to college he traveled around Europe, keeping a diary of his experiences. After a year of doing this, he returned to Germany and enrolled in art school. After several years, Erikson began to teach art and other subjects to children of Americans who had come to Vienna for Freudian training. He was then admitted into the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute. In 1933 he came to the U.S. and became Boston's first child analyst and obtained a position at the Harvard Medical School. Later on, he also held positions at institutions including Yale, Berkeley, and the Menninger Foundation. Erikson then returned to California to the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Palo Alto and later the Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco, where he was a clinician and psychiatric consultant.

Erikson's interests were spread over a wide area. He studied combat crises in troubled American soldiers in World War II, child-rearing practices among the Sioux in South Dakota and the Yurok along the Pacific Coast, the play of disturbed and normal children, the conversations of troubled adolescents suffering identity crises, and social behavior in India. Erikson was also constantly concerned with the rapid social changes in America and wrote about issues such as the generation gap, racial tensions, juvenile delinquency, changing sexual roles, and the dangers of nuclear war.

Developmental Theory

Erikson recognized the basic notions of Freudian theory, but believed that Freud misjudged some important dimensions of human development. Erikson said that humans develop throughout their life span, while Freud said that our personality is shaped by the age of five. Erikson developed eight psychosocial stages that humans encounter throughout their life. The stages are Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair.

The first stage, Trust vs. Mistrust, occurs from approximately birth to one year. Erikson defined trust as an essential trustfulness of others as well as a fundamental sense of one's own trustworthiness. He thought that an infant who gets fed when he is hungry and comforted when he needs comforting will develop trust. He also said that some mistrust is necessary to learn to discriminate between honest and dishonest persons. If mistrust wins over trust in this stage, the child will be frustrated, withdrawn, suspicious, and will lack self-confidence.

The second stage, Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt, occurs between ages two and three. During this period it is important that the parents create a supportive atmosphere in which the child can develop a sense of self-control without a loss of self-esteem. Shame and doubt about the child's self-control and independence occur if basic trust was insufficiently developed or was lost such as when the child's will is broken by an over controlling parent. In this stage, Erikson said the child encounters rules, such as which areas of the house he is allowed to explore.

The third stage, Initiative vs. Guilt, occurs between ages four and five. This is the stage in which the child must find out what kind of person he/she is going to be. The child develops a sense of responsibility which increases initiative during this period. If the child is irresponsible and is made to feel too anxious then they will have uncomfortable guilt feelings. Erikson believed that most guilt is quickly compensated for by a sense of accomplishment.

Erikson's fourth stage, Industry vs. Inferiority, occurs between six years and puberty. This is the period in which the child wants to enter the larger world of knowledge and work. One of the great events of this time is the child's entry into school. This is where he is exposed to the technology of his society: books, multiplication tables, arts and crafts, maps, microscopes, films, and tape recorders. However, the learning process does not only occur in the classroom according to Erikson, but also at home, friend's houses, and on the street. Erikson said that successful experiences give the child a sense of industry, a feeling of competence and mastery, while failure gives them a sense of inadequacy and inferiority, a feeling that one is a good-for-nothing.

Components of Erikson's prior four stages contribute to the fifth stage, Identity vs. Identity Confusion. This occurs during adolescence. During this period the identity concern reaches climax. According to Erikson this is the time when adolescents seek their true selves.

Erikson's sixth stage, Intimacy vs. Isolation, occurs during young adulthood. Intimacy with other people is possible only if a reasonably well integrated identity emerges from stage five. The main concern of Erikson's seventh stage, Generativity vs. Stagnation, is to assist the younger generation in developing and leading useful lives. When the individual feels that he has done nothing to help the next generation then they experience stagnation. The final stage, Integrity vs. Despair, occurs during late adulthood. This is the time in which the individual looks back and evaluates their life. If the previous stages have developed properly then they will experience integrity. If the previous stages have not developed in a positive way then they will feel despair.

Erikson believed that development is primarily qualitative because changes are stage like, but also quantitative as one's identity becomes stronger and one's convictions solidify. He believed that nature determines the sequence of the stages and sets the limits within which nurture operates. However, all must pass through one stage before entering the next in the stated order.

Time Line of Erikson's Life

1902 Born in Frankfort, Germany
1920(approximately) Started wandering about Europe, keeping a diary of his experiences
1933 Came to the U.S. and became Boston's first child analyst. Obtained position at Harvard Medical School
1950 Published Childhood and Society
1958 Published Young man Luther
1963 Published Youth: Change and Challenge
1964 Published Insight and Responsibility
1968 Published Identity: Youth and Crisis


Miller, P. (1983). Theories of Developmental Psychology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.
Santrock, J.(1996). Child Development. Dubuque, IA: Brown and Benchmark Publishers.

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