Applied History of Psychology/Social Development

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Erick Erikson

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Freud’s work attracted many followers, however his pupils did not always agree with his teachings. Many began to modify Freud’s work and as a result, became important theorists in their own right. Among the most notable neo-Freudian scholars was German born, Erik Homburger Erikson(1902–1994).

It was in the summer of 1927 when Erik, then a young artist, took a job in a school founded for the children of Sigmund Freud’s patients and friends. While working in this school, he associated with the psychoanalysts and later became trained by them. He began to practice psychotherapy, marked by a change in his name from Homburger to Erikson, and eventually began to promote his own ideas on the nature of human personality and its development. While he maintained several of Freud’s ideas in his theorizing, he made several of his own contributions to psychoanalytic thinking around development (Burger, 2000).

One of Erikson's greatest contribution was to propose eight stages of development, versus Freud's suggested five. Particularly, Erikson expanded Freud's genital stage to include adolescence and three stages of adulthood. Erickson also expanded Freud's theory by emphasizing the psychosocial outcomes of development by suggesting that a major psychological conflict is resolved at each psychosexual stage of development, which allows the individual who resolves the conflict to acquire skills and attitudes that permit him or her to contribute constructively to the society (Berk, 2000).

Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development contended that each life stage includes a crisis that requires resolution. Erikson posited that young children wrestle with issues of trust, autonomy, and initiative; school aged children wrestle with the issue of competence; adolescents wrestle with the issues of identity and itimacy; and adults wrestle with issues of generativity and integrity.

Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development - Adapted from (Myers, 1998)

  • Infancy (1st year): Trust vs. Mistrust:
If needs are met, infants develop a sense of basic trust
  • Toddler (2nd year): Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt:
Toddlers learn to exercise will and do things for themselves, or they doubt their abilities
  • Preschooler (3–5 years): Initiative vs. Guilt:
Preschoolers learn to initiate tasks and carry out plans, or they feel guilty about trying to be independent
  • Elementary School (6 years to puberty): Competence vs. Inferiority:
Children learn the pleasure of applying themselves to tasks, or they feel inferior
  • Adolescence (Teen years into 20s): Identity vs. Role Confusion:
Adolescents aim to refine a sense of self by testing and integrating ‘roles’ to form a single *Young Adulthood (20s to early 40s): Intimacy vs. Isolation:
Young adults struggle to form close relationships and capacity for intimate love, or they feel socially isolated
  • Middle Adulthood (40s – 60s): Generative vs. Stagnation:
Middle-aged adults discover a sense of contributing to the world (usually through family and work), or they may feel a lack of purpose
  • Late Adulthood (Late 60s and up): Integrity vs. Despair:
Older adults develop a feeling of satisfaction when reflecting on their life, or they may feel a sense of failure

Erikson's interests in social development and in particular, the development of one's sense of self, can be traced back to his childhood experiences and personal struggles with his own identity. Born to a Jewish father and Danish mother, Erikson grew up conflicted by his sense of self, he was “scored as a Jew in school but mocked as a Gentile in the synagogue because of his blond hair and blue eyes” (Hunt, 1993, p. 391).

Contributions and Criticisms of Erikson’s Theory:

Erikson's theory of social development is typically more accepted than Freud's theory which emphasizes humans' instinctual drives (Shaffer, 1999). Rather than viewing children as passive beings, driven by their instincts and shaped by their parents, Erikson stressed that children are active, curious explorers who are rational, adaptive in nature and impacted by social and cultural influences. In his eight proposed stages of development, he captured many of life’s central issues, such as, emotional development in infants, self-concept development in childhood, identity issues in adolescence, etc. His work is relatable, as it emphasises many of the personal dilemmas and social conflicts that people experience and are able to recognize in others (Shaffer, 1999).

Despite his lasting contributions to the thinking around development, Erikson has been criticized by his peers for being too vague about the actual causes of development. Unfortunately, Erikson was not explicit about what influences an individual to develop in certain ways or how the outcome of each psychosocial stage later influences personality. However, Erikson’s work has helped to advance our understanding of social development, his theory being more descriptive in nature has also left some unanswered questions about how or why development takes place (Shaffer, 1999).