Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's stages of development articulated a psychosocial theory of human development made up of eight stages that cover the entirety of the human lifespan from birth to old age. Each stage is defined by a central crisis that the individual must grapple with in order to move on to the next stage. Erikson's theory has been highly influential on scholars' understanding of human development and identity formation.
Key Takeaways: Erikson's Stages of Development
- Erik Erikson's stages of development consist of eight stages that cover the entire human lifespan. This structure makes the point that development does not end when an individual reaches adulthood; rather, it continues throughout the entire lifespan.
- Each stage of development revolves around a central crisis that the individual must contend with in order to move on to the next stage.
- The success at each stage is reliant upon success at previous stages. Individuals must go through the stages in the order laid out by Erikson.
Stages of Psychosocial Development
The stages of psychosocial development laid out by Erikson are as follows:
1. Trust vs. Mistrust
The first stage takes place in infancy and ends around age 1. Erikson said that infants' first social achievement is to let their caretakers out of sight without becoming anxious. In other words, infants must develop a sense of trust in their caretakers and the people around them.
When infants come into the world, they are vulnerable and dependent on others for survival. When a child's caretakers successfully meet their needs-e.g. food, warmth, and safety-the child develops confidence that the world is a safe and secure place. If the child's needs are not met, however, the child comes to believe the world is an inconsistent, untrustworthy place.
This doesn't mean that all mistrust is bad. According to Erikson, a certain amount of mistrust is necessary. Without some amount of mistrust, the child could become too trusting and consequently would not know when to be skeptical of people's intentions.
However, an individual should emerge from this stage with a greater sense of trust than mistrust. If the infant is successful in this endeavor, they will develop the virtue of hope: a belief that one's desires are achievable despite the chaos of the world.
2. Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
The second stage takes place when the child is around 2 or 3 years old. As children grow, they become more capable of doing things on their own. If children are supported in their bids at independence, they will learn to have confidence in their abilities. On the other hand, if children are too controlled or criticized, they will start to doubt their ability to take care of themselves.
If the individual emerges from this stage with a greater sense of autonomy than shame or doubt, they will develop the virtue of will: the ability to make choices freely while also having self-control when appropriate.
3. Initiative vs. Guilt
The third stage takes place between the ages of 3 and 6. Preschool age children start to take initiative in pursuing their own objectives. When they are successful, they develop a sense of competence in their ability to make and achieve goals. When those objectives meet resistance or become problematic in the social world, they will experience guilt. Too much guilt can lead to a lack of self-confidence.
If the child emerges from this stage with more positive than negative experiences taking initiative, they will develop the virtue of purpose: the ability to determine what they want and go after it.
4. Industry vs. Inferiority
The fourth stage takes place from 6 to 11 years old. This stage marks the child's first forays into grade school and structured learning. It is therefore the first time the child must begin to understand and contend with the expectations of the wider culture. Children learn what it means to be a good member of society, both in terms of productivity and morality. If children come to believe they cannot function properly in society, they develop feelings of inferiority.
Children who experience success at this stage will develop the virtue of competence.
5. Identity vs. Role Confusion
The fifth stage takes place during adolescence and in some cases can extend into the 20s. With the onset of puberty, physical and cognitive changes cause adolescents to think about their futures for the first time. On the one hand, they are trying to determine who they are and what they want for their futures. On the other hand, they worry about making unwise commitments and are concerned about the way others, especially their peers, perceive them. While identity development is a lifelong process, the fifth stage a key time for identity, as adolescents start to choose and pursue the roles they wish to fulfill as adults. They also must begin to develop a worldview that gives them a sense of personal perspective.
Success at this stage will result in a coherent sense of identity that leads to the virtue of fidelity: loyalty to one's commitments.
6. Intimacy vs. Isolation
The sixth stage takes place during young adulthood. Adolescents are often too preoccupied to truly be intimate with another person. However, during young adulthood, individuals who have established a sense of their own identity can achieve a genuine connection with someone else. At this stage, those whose relationships remain impersonal will experience isolation.
People who achieve more intimacy than isolation at this stage will develop the virtue of mature love.
7. Generativity vs. Stagnation
The seventh stage takes place during midlife. It is at this time that people turn their attention to what they can offer the next generation. Erikson called this “generativity.” While his focus was on raising children, adults who produce anything that contributes to the future, including creative works and ideas, are also being generative. Adults who are not successful at this stage become stagnant, self-absorbed, and bored.
Generative adults who contribute to the next generation and avoid becoming overly self-indulgent develop the virtue of care.
8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair
The eighth and final stage takes place during old age. At this point, people start to look back on their lives. If they can accept and find meaning in what they have done and accomplished throughout their lives, they will achieve integrity. If people look back and don't like what they see, the realization that life is too short to try out alternatives and repair regrets will lead to despair.
Finding meaning in one's life in old age results in the virtue of wisdom.
The Structure of the Stages
Erikson was influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, particularly Freud's stage theory of psychosexual development. Erikson expanded on the five stages outlined by Freud by assigning psychosocial tasks to each stage, then adding three additional stages for later periods of adulthood.
Erikson's stages rest on the epigenetic principle: the idea that each stage is dependent upon the previous stage and, therefore, individuals must go through the stages in a specific order. At each stage, the individual must wrestle with a central psychosocial conflict in order to progress to the next stage. Each stage has a particular conflict because, according to Erikson, individual growth and sociocultural context work together to bring that conflict to the individual's attention at a particular point in life.
As individuals move through the psychosocial stages specified by Erikson, their success rests upon the outcomes of previous stages. For example, when infants develop more mistrust than trust in their caretakers during the first stage, they may experience role confusion during the fifth stage. Similarly, if an adolescent emerges from the fifth stage without having successfully developed a strong sense of identity, he or she may have difficulty developing intimacy during the sixth stage.
As a result of these structural elements, Erikson's theory communicates two key points:
- Development does not stop when one reaches adulthood. Rather, individuals continue to develop throughout their entire lifespan.
- Each stage of development hinges upon the individual's interaction with the social world.
Erikson's stage theory has faced some criticism for its limitations. Erikson was vague about the experiences an individual must undergo in order to successfully grapple with the conflict of each stage. He also wasn't specific about how people move through the various stages. Erikson himself was aware that his work was unclear; he explained that he intended his theory to provide context and descriptive detail for development, not precise facts about developmental mechanisms.
Nevertheless, Erikson's theory can be credited with inspiring a great deal of research into human development, identity, and personality.
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