Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development Explained

Erikson's StagesIn 1623, William Shakespeare wrote, “one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages,” from screaming infant to the finality of oblivion.

Three hundred years later, and the psychologist Erik Erikson offered a more modern, and less sexually biased (equality was very much an issue in Tudor England), take on psychological transformation.

In Childhood and Society, he examined and mapped the personal development of humans throughout their lifetime (Erikson, 1950).

Erikson, a psychoanalyst and professor at Harvard, produced what was to become psychology’s most popular and influential theory of human development. His model—including eight stages of psychosocial growth—replaced Freud’s controversial theory centered on psychosexual development.

Perhaps, most importantly, each stage—influenced by biological, psychological, and social factors—was sequential, from birth to infancy, childhood into adulthood, middle age into, finally, old age.

And, unlike other theories, the personality transformation did not end with adolescence but, arising from conflict, continued through to finality.

This article explores the eight stages that configure Erikson’s developmental theory before discussing subsequent criticisms and our own resources for supporting growth and strength building.

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Stages of Psychosocial Development

Erik Erikson’s psychosocial development theory proposes that our personality develops through eight stages, from infancy to old age (Erikson, 1958, 1963).

He argued that social experience was valuable throughout life, with each stage recognizable by the specific conflict we encounter between our psychological needs and the surrounding social environment.

To become fully-functional, confident members of society, we must successfully complete each stage and resolve two conflicting states, for example, that of trust versus mistrust, and autonomy versus shame.

When successful, we acquire basic human virtues and a healthy personality; we become well-adjusted and better prepared for challenges later in life.

Failure, on the other hand, leads to difficulty navigating our future and a profound impact on our sense of self, our personality. We are left feeling inadequate.

The diagram below represents Erikson’s eight psychological stages and the tensions most relevant at particular stages of the lifespan (modified from Syed & McLean, 2018).

Erik Erikson stages of Psychosocial Development

Note that the age ranges below are indicative of the stages described by Erikson and vary across the literature.

 

Stage 1: Trust versus Mistrust

Trust versus mistrustIn the first stage of Erikson’s psychosocial model, infancy is crucial to our psychosocial development.

During our initial 18 months, we are uncertain about the world in which we find ourselves and must develop basic trust.

After all, we are entirely reliant on our caregivers for warmth, love, stability, and nurturing. If reliable, and predictable, we gain that confidence, a sense of security, and a feeling of safety in the world (Syed & McLean, 2018).

If care is inconsistent and unreliable, then trust will fail. For example, where caregivers reject us, fail to meet our needs, or are emotionally detached, we may conclude that we cannot rely on adults.

Failure in stage one results in the development of fear, mistrust, suspicion, and anxiety, and ultimately a belief that the world is unpredictable. We may become anxious, believing we have no control or influence on our environment.

A good balance between trust and mistrust means we remain open to experience and yet aware of the potential for danger. After all, it is unlikely, and ill-advised, for a child to become entirely trusting or lacking in trust.

Success within stage one leads to the virtue of hope — the sense that whatever crises we meet, there will be someone around to provide support and help.

 

Stage 2: Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt

Stage two focuses on early childhood—18 months to three years—and we are gaining independence, along with an increased perception of control over our physical skills (Erikson, 1958, 1963).

Though early on in development, we begin to develop a heightened sense of personal control and acquire feelings of independence.

Typically, around this time, parents, teachers, and caregivers begin giving children some degree of choice, letting them perform actions on their own. Therefore, we become increasingly mobile and develop physically, asserting our independence, putting on clothes, and playing with other children and toys.

According to Erikson, potty training is crucial to learning physical control and, ultimately, the development of autonomy.

Success over bodily functions and taking control of simple choices leads to a sense of personal power, feelings of autonomy, increased independence, and a greater sense of being able to survive in the world.

During stage two, parents should expect and encourage their child to explore limits, gently stretching them, while avoiding criticism when they fail. The resulting feeling of security and confidence are crucial for our progress in subsequent stages and leads to the virtue of will.

However, if we are overly criticized and controlled, or prevented from asserting ourselves, we may feel unable to survive, lacking in self-esteem, and excessively dependent on others. Indeed, feeling a sense of shame over toilet accidents can impact our sense of personal control and increase levels of doubt.

An appropriate balance between shame and doubt, and autonomy is essential to the virtue of will – the child believing they can act with intention, rather than experience a sense of inadequacy and doubt.

 

Stage 3: Initiative versus Guilt

Erikson's Stage 3Erikson’s third stage of psychosocial development occurs during preschool, between the ages of three and five years.

At this point in our psychosocial development—where conflict occurs between initiative and guilt—we learn to assert ourselves and typically begin to direct play and social interactions.

To our parents, our behavior may seem vigorous, overly assertive, or even aggressive, and yet we are exploring our interpersonal skills.

If overly restricted from such exploration—either by parental control or through increased criticism—we can develop a sense of guilt. Similarly, while constant questioning, at this time, can, at times, be tiring, if curtailed by caregivers, we may see ourselves as a nuisance, inhibiting our interactions with others.

And yet, if we are successful in stage three, we learn to feel capable, secure, and able to use our initiative.

If we fail, we may suffer guilt and self-doubt and become less likely to lead.

Success in stage three is vital to building the virtue of purpose as opposed to feelings of guilt. However, a balance between initiative and guilt remains key to developing a healthy mindset.

 

Stage 4: Industry versus Inferiority

In stage four of Erikson’s psychosocial theory—aged five to 12 years—we are immersed in a world of education, learning to read, write, and solve math puzzles (Erikson, 1958, 1963).

Teachers play an essential role in our continued growth within this stage. At the same time, peer groups and social interactions are increasingly relevant in the development of our self-esteem, and feelings of pride arise as we successfully perform or complete tasks.

Indeed, winning approval is a motivating factor, and we soon learn to associate it with displaying specific competencies valued by our peers and adults.

Over these years, demands on us increase considerably; it becomes essential for us to learn how to handle the many social and academic expectations (Syed & McLean, 2018).

If successful, development leads to the virtue of competence, while failure can result in a sense of inferiority, where we feel unable to perform specific skills.

Balance in stage four leads to a sense of accomplishment and competence, where we start to believe in our ability to handle existing and novel situations.

Indeed, learning to fail can be a crucial element in our maturation—leading to the development of modesty—while success meets our basic psychological need for feelings of competence (Ryan & Deci, 2018).

 

Stage 5: Identity versus Role Confusion

Identity versus Role ConfusionTeenage years can be daunting, both to the adolescents and parents.

New opportunities, experiences, and changes to the body and mind in stage five are crucial to our sense of who we are and have a considerable bearing on our adult years.

These formative years—aged 12 to 18— provide a valuable and in-depth exploration of beliefs, goals, and values while searching for personal identity and a sense of self.

The transition between childhood and being an adult is crucial. We become increasingly independent and begin to consider careers, family, friends, and our place in society.

According to Erikson, the fifth stage of psychosocial development, exists “between the morality learned by the child, and the ethics to be developed by the adult” (Erikson, 1963).

As such, it is vital for us, as young adults, to learn the roles that we may adopt once mature—including sexually—as our body image transforms.

Success leads to the belief we are staying true to who we are, expressed by virtue of fidelity. Erikson claims that we grow into our bodies and begin to form our identity as a result of our ongoing explorations. And, with appropriate encouragement and reinforcement, we move towards increasing independence, and a stronger sense of control and self (Marcia, 2010).

Otherwise, our inability to create a sense of identity within society—“Who am I?”I don’t know what I want to do when I am older,”—results in confusion and a poor sense of self. This failure can only lead to insecurity, unsure of ourselves, our future, and where we fit.

Success in stage five, according to Erikson, leads to fidelity – alignment with the standards and expectations of the social group to which we belong. After all, our conscious sense of self results from this social interaction and is crucial in our balance between identity and confusion.

Ultimately identity provides us with our integrated sense of self—avoiding identity crisis—that will last throughout our lives, guiding how we behave and what we believe.

 

Stage 6: Intimacy versus Isolation

As young adults, we are motivated to explore personal relationships and our desire to form intimate relationships.

In the sixth stage of Erikson’s psychosocial development theory, young adulthood takes place between the ages of 18 and 40. During this time, major conflict can arise as we attempt to form longer-term commitments outside of our family, with varying degrees of success.

And yet, positive outcomes result in healthy, happy relationships that are secure and enduring, developing the virtue of love. Erikson’s view is that the ability to love marks the ultimate success of stage six– when relationships are meaningful and lasting (Erikson, 1963).

Failure—whether beyond, or within, our control—to form appropriate bonds or the avoidance of intimacy, may result in loneliness, a sense of isolation, and depression.

Those with a poor sense of self are typically emotionally isolated and less committed to relationships.

The intimacy versus isolation stage builds upon the success or failure of stage five. After all, a strong sense of personal identity is crucial to developing relationships that are intimate and strong.

 

Stage 7: Generativity versus Stagnation

Generativity versus StagnationThe seventh stage of psychosocial development—generativity versus stagnation—occurs between 40 and 65 years of age.

During middle adulthood, we display our need for longevity, not necessarily in a physical sense, but life’s continuation in our children or the long-term impact we have on others.

We aim to make a mark on the world, to nurture things, outside of who we are, that will outlive us. We may look for ways to be more productive and valuable to our society, with an eye on the bigger picture.

Success is exemplified by virtue of care —the feeling of being useful in life, accomplishing something, and contributing to society. We are proud of who we are, what we have achieved, our children, and who they have become, along with a strong relationship with our partner.

Failure looks quite different. We feel we have had little impact on the world, failing to make that dent in the universe as the late Steve Jobs described. If so, we feel unproductive, uninvolved, disillusioned, and disconnected from the world in which we live.

 

Stage 8: Integrity versus Despair

Unlike previous theories, Erikson’s model covered the entirety of life ‘from the cradle to the grave.’

Our final stage of psychosocial development takes us from 65 years of age to death — known as maturity.

This stage is one of reflection. We slow down, are less productive, and spend time reviewing our accomplishments throughout life.

Success is in the belief we have achieved our goals and found happiness, leading to the feeling of integrity, “a sense of coherence and wholeness” (Erikson, 1982). We feel we have achieved much and are ready to meet our end with a sense of peace. Success leads to the virtue of wisdom – a sense of completeness.

On the other hand, failure may be experienced as despair and regret over things not done, completed, or mistakes made. We are bitter about past and present, frightened about coming to the end of our life without a sense of having lived well.

 

Criticisms of Erikson’s Theory

While Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development theory has been incredibly influential, it has received several challenges, including (Marcia, 2010; McCrae & Costa, 1997; Brown & Lowis, 2003; Orenstein, 2020).

  • Stages may not be sequential and play out in the order described.

  • The age range for each stage may not be correct.

  • Stage 8 suggests a move from activity to passivity, and yet, many people are highly productive, active members of the community in their later years.

  • Searching for identity may occur many times throughout our lives, not only during the adolescent years.

  • The development processes involved in each stage are unclear.

  • How does the individual resolve the conflicts and move on to the next stage? A single, universal mechanism seems unlikely.

  • How do we truly define success? After all, the idea of balance will vary between individuals, cultures, and even, over time, within ourselves.

  • How do we resolve such conflicts later in life?

In Insight and responsibility, Erikson himself acknowledges some of the above points. He suggests that the theory offers a descriptive overview of psychosocial development and does not attempt to define the detailed mechanisms or steps involved.

 

5 Books On The Topic

Erik Erikson had a long career and left an extensive legacy. Below is a reduced list of his key works, along with other guides to his theory:

  • Childhood and Society – Erik Erikson (Amazon)
  • Insight and Responsibility – Erik Erikson (Amazon)
  • Identity: Youth and Crisis – Erik Erikson (Amazon)
  • Identity’s Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson – Lawrence Friedman (Amazon)
  • The Oxford Handbook of Identity Development – Kate McLean and Moin Syed (Amazon)
  • The SAGE Encyclopedia of Intellectual and Developmental Disorders – Ellen Braaten (editor) (Amazon)

 

Relevant PositivePsychology.com Resources

We have many resources at PositivePsychology.com that will help you to explore personal development:

Finally, the Maximizing Strengths Masterclass© is the ultimate tool in helping yourself and others identify and develop their strengths. This coaching package is just what you need to become a strengths-based practitioner and help clients reach their potential.

 

A Take-Home Message

Erikson’s psychosocial model extends the idea of personal development across our lifetime from our early years as a baby to old age.

His work was ground-breaking. The staged psychosocial theory led to a reconceptualization of how we develop as humans and an awareness that we continue to grow throughout life, not only in our early years.

Nevertheless, we must be aware that the model is a helpful tool rather than a testable theory; it provides a lens through which we can review our lifelong transformation rather than a prescribed set of steps.

And yet, the model’s greatest strength is its ability to connect our psychological transformation from physical birth to death, overcoming conflicts along the way.

While we may question whether the stages are a good fit personally, we recognize the stages, the progression of our development, and how we carry forward learnings into later life.

Use Erikson’s model alongside the personal development tools provided as a way of looking at human growth over time, offering insightful analysis, and a focus for dialogue and self-discovery.

We hope you enjoyed reading this article. Don’t forget to download three Positive Psychology Exercises for free.

If you wish for more, our Positive Psychology Toolkit© contains over 300 science-based positive psychology exercises, interventions, questionnaires, and assessments for practitioners to use in their therapy, coaching, or workplace.

  • Brown, C., & Lowis, M. J. (2003). Psychosocial development in the elderly: An investigation into Erikson’s ninth stage. Journal of Aging Studies, 17(4), 415-426.
  • Erikson, E. H. (1950). Childhood and society. New York: Norton.
  • Erikson, E. H. (1958). Young man Luther: A study in psychoanalysis and history. New York: Norton.
  • Erikson, E. H. (1963). Youth: Change and challenge. New York: Basic books.
  • Erikson, E. H. (1964). Insight and responsibility. New York: Norton.
  • Marcia, J. E. (2010). Life transitions and stress in the context of psychosocial development. In T. W. Miller (Ed.), Handbook of stressful transitions across the lifespan (p. 19–34). Springer Science + Business Media
  • McCrae, R. R., & Costa Jr, P. T. (1997). Personality trait structure as a human universal. American Psychologist, 52(5), 509.
  • McLeod, S. A. (2018, May 03). Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.
  • Orenstein, G. (2020, March 09). Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development. Retrieved July 28, 2020, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK556096/
  • Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2018). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. New York: The Guilford Press.
  • Syed, M., & McLean, K. C. (2018). Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development. In E. Braaten (Author), The SAGE encyclopedia of intellectual and developmental disorders. Los Angeles: SAGE Reference.

About the Author

Jeremy Sutton, Ph.D., is a writer and researcher studying the human capacity to push physical and mental limits. His work always remains true to the science beneath, his real-world background in technology, his role as a husband and parent, and his passion as an ultra-marathoner.

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