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Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, on June 15, 1902. At the age of twenty-five he accepted an invitation to educate children whose parents were studying with Sigmund Freud in Vienna. While in Vienna Erikson underwent psychoanalysis with Freud's daughter Anna Freud and was trained in the psychoanalytic tradition. Because of the rise of fascism in Europe, he immigrated to the United States in 1933 and became the first child psychoanalyst in Boston. Erikson held positions at Harvard University, Yale University, the University of California-Berkeley, and several other eminent institutions over the course of his career, despite the fact that he had no formal academic training beyond high school.

Erikson was trained as an orthodox psychoanalyst, but he extended psychoanalytic theory in several significant and important ways. In contrast to Freud's approach, in which personality was formed and relatively fixed at the age of five, Erikson took a lifespan approach to personality development, assigning importance to individuals' lives after early childhood. Erikson divided the development of personality into eight stages over the lifespan, with each stage characterized by its own crisis and two possible outcomes: (1) trust vs. mistrust; (2) autonomy vs. shame and doubt; (3) initiative vs. guilt; (4) industry vs. inferiority; (5) identity vs. role confusion; (6) intimacy vs. isolation; (7) generativity vs. stagnation; and (8) integrity vs. despair. According to Erikson, the conflicts in each stage arise because societal and maturational factors make new demands on an individual, and each conflict or crisis must be resolved before an individual is prepared to proceed to the next stage.

Erikson referred to the eight crises enumerated above as psychosocial stages of development, thereby emphasizing the important role that social and cultural factors play in personality development. This emphasis contrasted with Freud, who emphasized psychosexual development. Drawing upon his anthropological work with the Sioux and Yurok Indians as well as other groups, Erikson stressed that the sequence of the psychosocial stages was the same invariant across cultures, but the ways in which individuals from different cultures met each of the conflicts varied. Furthermore, Erikson highlighted the fact that the unique time and historical factors of the larger society also affected personality formation across the lifespan.

Further, Erikson argued that the main task for individuals in life was the quest for identity and not, as Freud believed, the defense against unpleasant tensions. Erikson placed the crisis of identity formation in the adolescent period, in which individuals must achieve an integrated understanding and acceptance of themselves in society. The achievement of identity formation was thought to be central to all subsequent stages of development.

In sum, Erikson's work has had a major impact on the field of developmental psychology. Despite the fact that many of his ideas have been difficult to test empirically, Erikson has influenced developmentalists in several areas, particularly those interested in adolescent development.


Publications by Erikson

Childhood and Society. New York: Norton, 1950.

Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton, 1968.

Matthew J. Hertenstein

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 3