Erik Erikson was an ego psychologist who developed one of the most popular and influential theories of development. While his theory was impacted by psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud's work, Erikson's theory centered on psychosocial development rather than psychosexual development.

Freud’s emphasis on the developmental unfolding of the sexual, aggressive, and self-preservative motives in personality was modified by the American psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson, who integrated psychological, social, and biological factors. Erikson’s scheme proposed eight stages of the development of drives, which continue past Freud’s five stages of childhood (oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital) and through three stages of adulthood. The stages proceed in leaps according to what is called an epigenetic process. The term epigenesis, borrowed from embryology, refers to the predetermined developmental sequence of parts of an organism. Each part has a special time for its emergence and for its progressive integration within the functioning whole. Each phase of emergence depends upon the successful completion of the preceding phase. According to Erikson, environmental forces exercise their greatest effect on development at the earliest stages of growth, because anything that disturbs one stage affects all of the following stages. As if controlled by a biological timetable, each given stage must be superseded by a new one, receding in significance as the new stage assumes dominance. A constant interleaving at critical periods—in which some parts emerge while others are suppressed—must proceed smoothly if personality problems are to be avoided.

The Freudian theory of development with Erikson’s modifications provides for a succession of drive-control (inner and environmental) interactions. These can be fit into a schema of polar attitudes that develop in progressive stages of a person’s life, creating a conflict at each stage which should be resolved to avoid extremes of personality development. Erikson thus evolved his eight stages of development, which he described as: (1) infancy: trust versus mistrust; (2) early childhood: autonomy versus shame and doubt; (3) preschool: initiative versus guilt; (4) school age: industry versus inferiority; (5) puberty: identity versus identity confusion; (6) young adulthood: intimacy versus isolation; (7) middle adulthood: generativity versus stagnation; and (8) late adulthood: integrity versus despair.

Stages Of Psychosocial Development

Many people are familiar with Erikson’s eight stages of life, but what is less well known is that each stage is tied to specific, basic social institutions and is also associated with a particular strength, which Erikson believed gave the individual a “semblance of instinctive certainty in his social ecology” (Erikson, 1968a; see also Erikson, 1950). Each stage can also be viewed as awakening a specific sense of estrangement, which can become the basis for psychopathology. As we are about to see, the first stage is basic trust vs. basic mistrust. If a child develops basic trust, they will also develop the basic strength of hope. Then, as they progress through life, they will likely encounter situations in which people cannot be trusted, but the person can remain hopeful. In contrast, hopelessness is a term closely identified with depression, and it is easy to see how a person who learns from the beginning of life that the people around them, indeed the whole world (as they perceive it), is a threatening and untrustworthy place. As each of the eight stages is introduced, the title will begin with the general age at which the stage occurs, the psychosocial crisis experienced during that stage, and finally, the primary human strength that is associated with the successful resolution of the crisis.

Trust vs. Mistrust

From birth to 12 months of age, infants must learn that adults can be trusted. This occurs when adults meet a child’s basic needs for survival. Infants are dependent upon their caregivers, so caregivers who are responsive and sensitive to their infant’s needs help their baby to develop a sense of trust; their baby will see the world as a safe, predictable place. Unresponsive caregivers who do not meet their baby’s needs can engender feelings of anxiety, fear, and mistrust; their baby may see the world as unpredictable. If infants are treated cruelly or their needs are not met appropriately, they will likely grow up with a sense of mistrust for people in the world.

Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt

As toddlers (ages 1–3 years) begin to explore their world, they learn that they can control their actions and act on their environment to get results. They begin to show clear preferences for certain elements of the environment, such as food, toys, and clothing. A toddler’s main task is to resolve the issue of autonomy vs. shame and doubt by working to establish independence. This is the “me do it” stage. For example, we might observe a budding sense of autonomy in a 2-year-old child who wants to choose her clothes and dress herself. Although her outfits might not be appropriate for the situation, her input in such basic decisions has an effect on her sense of independence. If denied the opportunity to act on her environment, she may begin to doubt her abilities, which could lead to low self-esteem and feelings of shame.

Initiative vs. Guilt

Once children reach the preschool stage (ages 3–6 years), they are capable of initiating activities and asserting control over their world through social interactions and play. According to Erikson, preschool children must resolve the task of initiative vs. guilt.By learning to plan and achieve goals while interacting with others, preschool children can master this task. Initiative, a sense of ambition and responsibility, occurs when parents allow a child to explore within limits and then support the child’s choice. These children will develop self-confidence and feel a sense of purpose. Those who are unsuccessful at this stage—with their initiative misfiring or stifled by over-controlling parents—may develop feelings of guilt.

Industry vs. Inferiority

During the elementary school stage (ages 6–12), children face the task of industry vs. inferiority. Children begin to compare themselves with their peers to see how they measure up. They either develop a sense of pride and accomplishment in their schoolwork, sports, social activities, and family life, or they feel inferior and inadequate because they feel that they don’t measure up. If children do not learn to get along with others or have negative experiences at home or with peers, an inferiority complex might develop into adolescence and adulthood.

Identity vs. Role Confusion

In adolescence (ages 12–18), children face the task of identity vs. role confusion. According to Erikson, an adolescent’s main task is developing a sense of self. Adolescents struggle with questions such as “Who am I?” and “What do I want to do with my life?” Along the way, most adolescents try on many different selves to see which ones fit; they explore various roles and ideas, set goals, and attempt to discover their “adult” selves. Adolescents who are successful at this stage have a strong sense of identity and are able to remain true to their beliefs and values in the face of problems and other people’s perspectives. When adolescents are apathetic, do not make a conscious search for identity, or are pressured to conform to their parents’ ideas for the future, they may develop a weak sense of self and experience role confusion. They will be unsure of their identity and confused about the future. Teenagers who struggle to adopt a positive role will likely struggle to “find” themselves as adults.

Intimacy vs. Isolation

People in early adulthood (20s through early 40s) are concerned with intimacy vs. isolation. After we have developed a sense of self in adolescence, we are ready to share our life with others. However, if other stages have not been successfully resolved, young adults may have trouble developing and maintaining successful relationships with others. Erikson said that we must have a strong sense of self before we can develop successful intimate relationships. Adults who do not develop a positive self-concept in adolescence may experience feelings of loneliness and emotional isolation.

Generativity vs. Stagnation

When people reach their 40s, they enter the time known as middle adulthood, which extends to the mid-60s. The social task of middle adulthood is generativity vs. stagnation. Generativity involves finding your life’s work and contributing to the development of others through activities such as volunteering, mentoring, and raising children. During this stage, middle-aged adults begin contributing to the next generation, often through childbirth and caring for others; they also engage in meaningful and productive work which contributes positively to society. Those who do not master this task may experience stagnation and feel as though they are not leaving a mark on the world in a meaningful way; they may have little connection with others and little interest in productivity and self-improvement.

Integrity vs. Despair

From the mid-60s to the end of life, we are in the period of development known as late adulthood. Erikson’s task at this stage is called integrity vs. despair. He said that people in late adulthood reflect on their lives and feel either a sense of satisfaction or a sense of failure. People who feel proud of their accomplishments feel a sense of integrity, and they can look back on their lives with few regrets. However, people who are not successful at this stage may feel as if their life has been wasted. They focus on what “would have,” “should have,” and “could have” been. They face the end of their lives with feelings of bitterness, depression, and despair.





Desired outcome


Trust vs. mistrust

Birth to 12–18 months

A sense of trust and security


Autonomy vs. shame & doubt

18 months to 3 years

Feelings of independence lead to belief in yourself and your abilities


Initiative vs. guilt

3 to 5 years

Self-confidence; the ability to take the initiative and make decisions


Industry vs. inferiority

5 to 12 years

Feelings of pride and accomplishment


Identity vs. confusion

12 to 18 years

A strong sense of identity; a clear picture of your future


Intimacy vs. isolation

18 to 40 years

Safe relationships filled with commitment and love


Generativity vs. stagnation

40 to 65 years

The desire to give to family and community, and to succeed at work


Integrity vs. despair

Over 65 years

Pride in what you’ve achieved leads to feelings of satisfaction


Conflict During Each Stage

Each stage in Erikson's theory builds on the preceding stages and paves the way for following periods of development. In each stage, Erikson believed people experience a conflict that serves as a turning point in development.

In Erikson's view, these conflicts are centered on either developing a psychological quality or failing to develop that quality. During these times, the potential for personal growth is high but so is the potential for failure.

If people successfully deal with the conflict, they emerge from the stage with psychological strengths that will serve them well for the rest of their lives. If they fail to deal effectively with these conflicts, they may not develop the essential skills needed for a strong sense of self.

Mastery Leads to Ego Strength

Erikson also believed that a sense of competence motivates behaviors and actions. Each stage in Erikson's theory is concerned with becoming competent in an area of life.

If the stage is handled well, the person will feel a sense of mastery, which is sometimes referred to as ego strength or ego quality. If the stage is managed poorly, the person will emerge with a sense of inadequacy in that aspect of development.

The Importance of Identity

The developmental crisis that Erikson focused much of his career on was that of developing one’s identity. From the beginning of publishing his theories, he emphasized that a lot of the psychological distress and pathological symptoms seen in childhood can be interpreted as the child expressing their right to find an identity in the world, and neurosis typically results from the loss of one’s identity (Erikson, 1950). Erikson returned to this theme repeatedly in books such as Identity and the Life Cycle (Erikson, 1980a; originally published in 1959), Identity: Youth and Crisis (Erikson, 1968b), and Dimensions of a New Identity (Erikson, 1974). He also published A Memorandum on Identity and Negro Youth at the height of the Civil Rights Movement in America (Erikson, 1964). The importance of identity, and the stage of identity vs. role-diffusion and confusion, is that only upon completion of the first four stages of life is the ego fully mature, the point at which a person is ready to be an adult. But the entire period, the entire psychosocial crisis, is a critical time of transition:

Adolescents have always been especially open to conversion or to what is now called consciousness-expansion in the direction of physical, spiritual, and social experience. Their cognitive capacities and social interests are such that they want to go to the limit of experience before they fit themselves into their culture and fit their culture to themselves. (pg. 37; Erikson cited in Evans, 1964)

A General Definition of Identity

Since Erikson labeled his fifth stage of development identity vs. role diffusion and/or confusion, it is common to think that identity formation is something that occurs during adolescence. Actually, identity formation begins at birth, and continues throughout the lifespan. It is only in adolescence that the individual finally has the material around which to form an integrated identity that can remain somewhat stable, hence the psychosocial crisis that arises during that process of integration and more stable identity formation. Thus, a child will have some sense of self, but it is not until adolescence that it becomes a crisis. So what is that sense of self that forms the identity? Erikson himself turned to two great men, whom he described as “bearded and patriarchal founding fathers of the psychologies on which our thinking on identity is based:” William James and Sigmund Freud (Erikson, 1968).

A man’s character is discernible in the mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt himself most deeply and intensely active and alive. At such moments there is a voice inside which speaks and says: “This is the real me!” (pg. 19; William James in a letter to his wife, cited in Erikson, 1968)

Moving beyond James’ very personal description, Freud spoke of his Jewish identity as something that provided a cultural context in which he lived his life, even though he was never religious, and openly despised religion. He felt that he shared a Jewish cultural nature, which offered an explanation for, as well as a justification for, aspects of his personality that defied any other obvious explanation.

Based on these perspectives by James and Freud, Erikson described identity as a process rooted in the core of the individual, yet also rooted in the core of their communal culture. This complicated process involves both judging oneself in light of how others judge you, as well as judging the judgments others make about you. Eventually, the interplay between psychological and social factors results in an identity based on psychosocial relativity (Erikson, 1968). In other words, one’s identity is very much influenced by where a person sees themselves fitting into their world. Consequently, a person may develop a healthy identity, or they can just as easily develop a negative identity (see below).

The term identity crisis was first used by Erikson during World War II, to describe a particular psychological disorder. They encountered patients, who had been fighting in the war, who had become severely disturbed. However, they could not be described in the typical ways, such as being “shell-shocked” or just faking mental illness to escape combat. Instead, they had lost a sense of personal sameness and historical continuity. Erikson proposed that they had lost the central control over that part of their self that psychoanalysts could only describe as the ego. Thus, he described these patients as having lost their “ego identity.” Since World War II, Erikson felt that he and his colleagues were observing the same fundamental disorder in many severely conflicted young patients. These disturbed individuals were, in a sense, waging a war within themselves and against society. An identity crisis of this sort can affect groups as well as individuals (Erikson, 1968). In an interesting, and somewhat amusing example of group identity crisis, we can look at the reaction of the psychoanalytic community to the theories of Carl Jung. In Erikson’s view, the psychoanalytic community reacted to Jung’s proposal of the collective unconscious and archetypes as a threat to scientific approach advocated by Freud. Consequently, the majority of the psychoanalytic community ignored Jung’s reasonable observations as well as his somewhat less scientific interpretations (Erikson, 1980a).

Obstacles to the Development of Identity

Erikson talked about two obstacles to the development of identity: ratio and negative identity. Ratio refers to the balance between the opposite poles of each psychosocial crisis: trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame, etc. Although it may be best for the ratio to favor trust, autonomy, and so on, it is unreasonable to expect a person to develop without any experience of trust being misplaced or without any feelings of shame. This helps to ground the person in the real world, particularly as it is appropriate to the customs of their culture (see Evans, 1964). Indeed, Erikson felt that identity could be viewed as being that subsystem within the ego that is closest to social reality, based on the integrated self-representations formed during the psychosocial crises of childhood. Thus, identity:

…could be said to be characterized by the more or less actually attained but forever-to-be-revised sense of the reality of the self within social reality; while the imagery of the ego ideal could be said to represent a set of to-be-strived-for but forever-not-quite-attainable ideal goals for the self. (pg. 160; Erikson, 1980a)

Negative identity is often expressed as an angry and snobbish rejection of the roles expected by one’s family, community, or even society. It is a profound reaction to the loss of identity that typically arises when identity development has lost the promise of wholeness that one expects to obtain from their identity. The consequences can be severe, for both individuals and groups of young people. Erikson worked with young people who were beginning to make choices in life that could easily lead them toward their vindictive fantasies of becoming prostitutes or drug addicts (an extreme way of rebelling against their parents). As such disturbed young people gather together, they can form gangs, drug rings, sex clubs, and the like (Erikson, 1968b, 1980a). Society, according to Erikson, often makes the mistake of enhancing this maladaptive behavior:

If, for simplicity’s sake or in order to accommodate ingrown habits of law or psychiatry, they diagnose and treat as a criminal, as a constitutional misfit, as a derelict doomed by his upbringing, or indeed as a deranged patient a young person who, for reasons of personal or social marginality, is close to choosing a negative identity, that young person may well put his energy into becoming exactly what the careless and fearful community expects him to be - and make a total job of it. (pg. 196; Erikson, 1968b)

Erikson believed that women and minorities (indeed, oppressed people in any situation) face special problems in the formation of their identity. Erikson considered men and women to be fundamentally different, but more importantly, he believed that only women could ensure the future of humanity. According to Erikson, men try to solve problems with “bigger and better wars.” And now, with the advent of nuclear bombs, men have nearly reached the limit of their ability to destroy each other. The future, therefore, requires the feminine aspects of personality, including realistically caring for the home, responsibly raising the children, being resourceful in peacekeeping, and devotion to healing:

Strengths and Weaknesses of Erikson's Theory

Erikson's theory also has its limitations and attracts valid criticisms. What kinds of experiences are necessary to successfully complete each stage? How does a person move from one stage to the next?


One major weakness of psychosocial theory is that the exact mechanisms for resolving conflicts and moving from one stage to the next are not well described or developed. The theory fails to detail exactly what type of experiences are necessary at each stage in order to successfully resolve the conflicts and move to the next stage.


One of the strengths of psychosocial theory is that it provides a broad framework from which to view development throughout the entire lifespan. It also allows us to emphasize the social nature of human beings and the important influence that social relationships have on development.

Researchers have found evidence supporting Erikson's ideas about identity and have further identified different sub-stages of identity formation. Some research also suggests that people who form strong personal identities during adolescence are better capable of forming intimate relationships during early adulthood. Other research suggests, however, that identity formation and development continues well into adulthood.