Erikson's Psychosocial Stages

Childhood and Society was Erikson's first book, first published in 1950 and revised in 1963. It won him wide recognition as a leading ego psychologist. Erikson identified a series of eight crises that, he said, characterized the growth of personality. The word crisis in this context is not entirely negative. A crisis is a challenge to the ego, a threat but also an opportunity to grow and improve. Erikson described a lifelong series of crises and called them psychosocial stages.

How did Erikson describe development?

The following table summarizes Erikson's stage theory, first described by Erik Erikson at a 1950 White House conference on development. For example, at the top we see that infancy is characterized by a struggle between basic trust and mistrust. This is very much like Horney's idea that the mother and young child establish a relationship that creates either basic trust or basic anxiety. If the crisis is successfully resolved (if it has a happy outcome) the child is left with hope instead of despair. Hope is a willingness to enter into trusting relationships with others. Similarly, each other crisis or conflict could result in a problem or a new "virtue." Progress or development was achieved by resolving each conflict.

For example, Erikson felt that adolescents were engaged in a struggle between identity and feelings of confusion. Identity consists of self-descriptions and self-perceptions and includes one's values and beliefs. If the conflict between identity and confusion is resolved in favor of identity, the result is fidelity: the ability to be true to something, to devote oneself wholeheartedly to a good purpose

How is the resolution of conflicts at the heart of Erikson's theory?


Erikson's stages of life

Erikson's description of the eight stages of life has a lot of appeal, and Erikson himself was described in the early 1980s as the fifth most influential psychologist of the century (Gilgen, 1982). Much research has been done on predictions made by Erikson's theory, especially the adolescent crisis of identify vs. role confusion. Erikson is one of the few famous personality theorists who said anything interesting about adolescence.")

Which part of Erikson's theory has received the most research attention?

Marcia (1966) proposed four distinct ego identity statuses applied to adolescents, derived from Erikson's theory. These can be shown as a 2 x 2 matrix. If a person has experienced a crisis and made a commitment, he or she has "achieved an identity." If the young person accepts what is given by parents or some social institution, and does not feel that this conflicts with his or her own identity, this is called "foreclosure." Sometimes teenagers deliberately postpone making any lasting commitment. This is called a "moratorium" phase, with identify put on hold. Finally, there is the "identity diffuse" person who experiences neither an identity crisis nor a commitment to a definite personal identity. This has been called "a commitment to not making a commitment."


Marcia's (1980) matrix

What did Marcia and co-workers find out?

Marcia and co-workers found that "foreclosers" tend to have closer relationships with parents (Marcia, 1980). "Identity diffuse" students tend to regard parents as indifferent or rejecting and are more likely to respond to peer pressures (Adams and colleagues, 1985).

What are some findings that go against Erikson's theory?

Some of Erikson's ideas have not stood up well to research. Van De Water and McAdams (1989) found that generativity, supposedly a product of middle adulthood, is not related to age. "Midlife crisis" is very famous, but it is not very common. A 1971 study of middle-aged men found a variety of developmental paths, with relatively few men reporting a mid-life crisis. Similarly, a great deal of research shows that adolescence is not always marked by rebellion and questioning of parental values. It sometimes is marked by an identity crisis, like the one Erikson experienced as a teenager, but this only happens with a minority of teenagers.


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