Erik Erikson’s Post-Freudian Theory

Overview of Erikson’s Post-Freudian Theory

Erikson postulated eight stages of psychosocial development through which people progress.  Although he differed from Freud in his emphasis on the ego and on social influences, his theory is an extension, not a repudiation of Freudian psychoanalysis.


  1. Biography of Erik Erikson

When Erik Erikson was born in Germany in 1902 his name was Erik Salomonsen.  After his mother married Theodor Homberger, Erik eventually took his stepfather’s name.  At age 18 he left home to pursue the life of a wandering artist and to search for self-identity.  He gave up that life to teach young children in Vienna where he met Anna Freud. Still searching for his personal identity, he was psychoanalyzed by Ms. Freud, an experience that allowed him to become a psychoanalyst.  In mid-life, Erik Homberger moved to the United States, changed his name to Erikson, and took a position at the Harvard Medical School.  Later, he taught at Yale, the University of California at Berkeley, and several other universities.  He died in 1994, a month short of his 92nd birthday.


III.       The Ego in Post-Freudian Psychology

One of Erikson’s chief contributions to personality theory was his emphasis on ego rather than id functions.  According to Erikson, the ego is the center of personality and is responsible for a unified sense of self.  It consists of three interrelated facets: the body ego, the ego ideal, and ego identity.

  1. Society’s Influence

The ego develops within a given society and is influenced by child-rearing practices and other cultural customs.  All cultures and nations develop a pseudospecies, or a fictional notion that they are superior to other cultures.

  1. Epigenetic Principle

The ego develops according to the epigenetic principle; that is, it grows according to a genetically established rate and in a fixed sequence.


  1. Stages of Psychosocial Development

Each of the eight stages of development is marked by a conflict between a syntonic (harmonious) element and a dystonic (disruptive) element, which produces a basic strength or ego quality.  Also, from adolescence on, each stage is characterized by an identity crisis or turning point, which may produce either adaptive or maladaptive adjustment.

  1. Infancy

Erikson’s view of infancy (the 1st year of life) was similar to Freud’s concept of the oral stage, except that Erikson expanded the notion of incorporation beyond the mouth to include sense organs such as the eyes and ears. The psychosexual mode of infancy is oral-sensory, which is characterized by both receiving and accepting. The psycho-social crisis of infancy is basic trust versus basic mistrust. From the crisis between basic trust and basic mistrust emerges hope, the basic strength of infancy.  Infants who do not develop hope retreat from the world, and this withdrawal is the core pathology of infancy.

  1. Early Childhood

The 2nd to 3rd year of life is early childhood, a period that compares to Freud’s anal stage, but it also includes mastery of other body functions such as walking, urinating, and holding.  The psychosexual mode of early childhood is anal-urethral-muscular, and children of this age behave both impulsively and compulsively. The psychosocial crisis of early childhood is autonomy versus shame and doubt.  The psychosocial crisis between autonomy on the one hand and shame and doubt on the other produces will, the basic strength of early childhood.  The core pathology of early childhood is compulsion.


  1. Play Age

From about the 3rd to the 5th year, children experience the play age, a period that parallels Freud’s phallic phase.  Unlike Freud, however, Erikson saw the Oedipus complex as an early model of lifelong playfulness and a drama played out in children’s minds as they attempt to understand the basic facts of life. The primary psychosexual mode of the play age is genital-locomotor, meaning that children have both an interest in genital activity and an increasing ability to move around. The psychosocial crisis of the play age is initiative versus guilt. The conflict between initiative and guilt helps children to act with purpose and to set goals.  But if children have too little purpose, they develop inhibition, the core pathology of the play age.


  1. School Age

The period from about 6 to 12 or 13 years of age is called the school age, a time of psychosexual latency, but it is also a time of psychosocial growth beyond the family.  Because sexual development is latent during the school age, children can use their energies to learn the customs of their culture, including both formal and informal education. The psychosocial crisis of this age is industry versus inferiority.  Children need to learn to work hard, but they also must develop some sense of inferiority. From the conflict of industry and inferiority emerges competence, the basic strength of school age.  A lack of industry leads to inertia, the core pathology of this stage.


  1. Adolescence

Adolescence begins with puberty and is marked by a person’s struggle to find ego identity.  It is a time of psychosexual growth, but it is also a period of psychosocial latency.  The psychosexual mode of adolescence is puberty or genital maturation.  The psychosocial crisis of adolescence is identity versus identity confusion.  Psychologically healthy individuals emerge from adolescence with a sense of who they are and what they believe; but some identity confusion is normal.  The conflict between identity and identity confusion produces fidelity, or faith in some ideological view of the future.  Lack of belief in one’s own selfhood results in role repudiation, or an inability to bring together one’s various self-images.


  1. Young Adulthood

Young adulthood begins with the acquisition of intimacy at about age 18 and ends with the development of generativity at about age 30. The psychosexual mode of young adulthood is genitality, which is expressed as mutual trust between partners in a stable sexual relationship. Its psychosocial crisis is intimacy versus isolation.  Intimacy is the ability to fuse one’s identity with that of another without fear of losing it; whereas isolation is the fear of losing one’s identity in an intimate relationship. The crisis between intimacy and isolation results in the capacity to love.  The core pathology of young adulthood is exclusivity, or inability to love.


  1. Adulthood

The period from about 31 to 60 years of age is adulthood, a time when people make significant contributions to society. The psychosexual mode of adulthood is procreativity, or the caring for one’s children, the children of others, and the material products of one’s society. The psychosocial crisis of adulthood is generativity versus stagnation, and the successful resolution of this crisis results in care.  Erikson saw care as taking care of the persons and products that one has learned to care for.  The core pathology of adulthood is rejectivity, or the rejection of certain individuals or groups that one is unwilling to take care of.


  1. Old Age

The final stage of development is old age, from about age 60 until death. The psychosexual mode of old age is generalized sensuality; that is, taking pleasure in a variety of sensations and an appreciation of the traditional life style of people of the other gender.  The psychosocial crisis of old age is the struggle between integrity (the maintenance of ego-identity) and despair (the surrender of hope).  The struggle between integrity and despair may produce wisdom (the basic strength of old age), but it may also lead to disdain (a core pathology marked by feelings of being finished or helpless).



Psychosexual Mode Psychosocial Crisis Basic Strength Core Pathology Significant Relations
Infancy Sensory Kinesthetic Basic Trust vs Basic Mistrust Hope Withdrawal The Mothering One
Early Childhood Anal-Urethral-Muscular Autonomy vs Shame & Doubt Will Compulsion Parents
Play Age Infantile genital-locomoteor Initiative vs Guilt Purpose Inhibition Family
School Age Latency Industry vs Inferiority Competence Inertia Neighborhood School
Adolescence Puberty Identity vs Identity Crisis Fidelity Role Repudation Peer Groups
Young Adulthood Genitality Intimacy vs Isolation Love Exclusivity Sexual Partners, Friends
Adulthood Procreativity Generativity vs Stagnation Care Rejectivity Divided labor and shared household
Old Age Generalization of Sensual Modes Integrity vs Despair Wisdom Disdain All Humanity




  1. Erikson’s Methods of Investigation

Erikson relied mostly on anthropology and psychohistory to explain and describe human personality.

  1. Anthropological Studies

Erikson’s two most important anthropological studies were of the Sioux of South Dakota and the Yurok tribe of northern California.  Both studies demonstrated his notion that culture and history help shape personality.

  1. Psychohistory

Erikson combined the methods of psychoanalysis and historical research to study several personalities, most notably Gandhi and Luther.  In both cases, the central figure experienced an identity crisis that produced a basic strength rather than a core pathology.


  1. Related Research

Erikson’s theory has generated a moderately large body of research, much of it investigating the concepts of identity and generativity.  In this section, the authors focused on (1) generativity and parenting and (2) generativity vs. stagnation.




  1. Generativity and Parenting

Dan McAdams and colleagues have developed the Loyola Generativity Scale (LGS) to measure generativity and to conduct research on this concept.  Researchers have used the LGS to investigate the impact of parental generativity on the development of children.  Bill Peterson (2006) tested his prediction that parents with high generativity should produce happy, well-adjusted offspring.  His results were supportive of the general notion that having a sense of generativity is important to effective parenting.  Not only did children of highly generative parents have more self-confidence, a stronger sense of freedom, and more general happiness with life; they also had a stronger future time orientation (Peterson, 2006).


  1. Generativity vs. Stagnation

Erikson generally considered stagnation and generativity to be opposite ends of the same continuum, so that an individual who is high on generativity tends to be low on stagnation and vice versa.  But recently researchers have been exploring stagnation and generativity as somewhat independent constructs.  Van Hiel and colleagues, again using the LGS, found that generativity and stagnation can operate separately in adults.  In addition, they found that when measured separately, stagnation is related to problems in emotional regulation, while generativity is not.  Moreover, they discovered that some people measure high on both generativity and stagnation, and that such a personality profile is not mentally or emotionally healthy, as it includes difficulties both with emotional regulation and with intimacy (van Hiel, Mervielde, De Fruyt, 2006).  In that this research preserves Erikson’s two constructs of generativity and stagnation, it is not a big departure from Erikson; however, it does show that these two constructs can, and sometimes do, function independently in adult development.


VII.   Critique of Erikson

Although Erikson’s work is a logical extension of Freud’s psychoanalysis, it offers a new way of looking at human development.  As a useful theory, it rates high on its ability to generate research, about average on its ability to be falsified, to organize knowledge, and to guide the practitioner.  It rates high on internal consistency and about average on parsimony.


VIII.    Concept of Humanity

Erikson saw humans as basically social animals who have limited free choice and who are motivated by past experiences, which may be either conscious or unconscious.  In addition, Erikson is rated high on both optimism and uniqueness of individuals.



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