Erik Erikson, a psychoanalytic theorist, proposed major revisions in Freud’s ideas about stages of development. Erikson thought that Freud had over-emphasised the biological and sexual determinants of developmental change and under-emphasised the importance of child-rearing experiences, social relationships, and cultural influences on the development of ego or self. He also believed that important developmental changes occur after childhood. He proposed a series of eight stages of development stretching over the entire life-span. Erikson’s theory has stimulated little research on young children. However, it has been influential in generating research on adolescent and adult development.
Each stage is defined by a developmental task or crisis that needs to be resolved, if the individual is to continue a healthy pattern of development.
The major concern of the first stage is establishment of trust. Erikson believed that infants develop trust when their world is consistent and predictable-when they are fed, warmed, and comforted in a consistent manner.
The second stage is described as a conflict between autonomy and shame and doubt. In the toddler period children begin to assert independence-they say no, and they can walk and run where they choose. Toilet training, often begun during this period, can become a battlefield where the child refuses to do what the parent wishes. Erikson believed that it is important to give children a sense of autonomy and not to be harsh or punitive during this period. Parents who shame their children for misbehaviour could create basic doubt about being independent.
The third stage entails a conflict between initiative and guilt. The child in this stage begins to be task oriented and to plan new activities. It is a period when masturbation and sexual curiosity are often noticed by parents. The danger in this period, according to Erikson, is that the child may develop excessive guilt about his or her actions.
During middle childhood children need to solve the conflict between industry and inferiority. Children enter school, begin to perform tasks, and acquire important skills. Achievement and a sense of competence become important; a child who has no particular competences or experiences repeated failure may develop strong feelings of inferiority.
The major conflict in adolescence is between identity formation and role confusion. The young person solidifies many elements of childhood identity and forms a clear vocational and personal identity. Failure to resolve this conflict can result in role confusion or diffusion of identity. Erikson acknowledged that identity formation might proceed somewhat differently for males than for females because society emphasises different adult roles for men and women. He thought that career identity is particularly important for males but that females’ identity might centre on their future spouses and their role as wife and mother. The changes in women’s roles in recent years have led many psychologists to revise this portion of the theory to include career goals as part of females’ identity as well.
In young adulthood the major conflict is between intimacy and isolation. Deep, enduring personal relationships need to be formed. A person who does not form such relationships may be psychologically isolated from others and have only superficial relationships. The most important intimate relationship, according to Erikson, is a committed sexual relationship with a partner of the other sex. Again, this view has been challenged as unnecessarily narrow; some people have argued that many kinds of intimate relationships are important and rewarding.
In middle adulthood the conflict is between generativity and stagnation. One form of generativity is having children, but being productive and creative in one’s work or other activities can also be important. Without a sense of producing or creating, Erikson argued, an adult stagnates and ceases to grow.
The final conflict is between ego integrity and despair. People with ego integrity have a sense of order and meaning in life and a feeling of satisfaction with what they have accomplished. There is a sense of being part of a larger culture or world. Despair can occur when people become afraid of death or do not accept the life they have led as satisfying or worthy.
Erikson was best-known for his work on identity.
Adolescents and adults with a strong sense of their own identity see themselves as separate, distinctive individuals. The very word individual. when used as a synonym for person, implies a universal need to perceive oneself as somehow separate from other people, no matter how much one may share with them. Closely related is the need for self-consistency, a feeling of wholeness. When we speak of the integrity of the self, we imply both separateness from others and unity of the self - a workable integration of the person’s needs, motives, and patterns of responding.
In order to have a clear sense of ego identity, the adolescent or adult must also have a sense of continuity of the self over time. In Erikson’s words, ‘The younger person, in order to experience wholeness, must feel a progressive continuity between that which he has come to be during the long years of childhood and that which he promises to become in the anticipated future’.
Finally, for Erikson a sense of identity requires psychosocial reciprocity - consistency ‘between that which he conceives himself to be and that which he perceives others to see in him and expect of him.’ Erikson’s assertion that one’s sense of identity is tied at least partly to social reality is important; it emphasises the fact that societal or individual rejection can seriously impair a child or adolescent’s chances of establishing a strong, secure sense of personal identity.
Developmental influences that help establish confident perceptions of oneself as separate and distinct from others, as reasonably consistent and integrated, as having continuity over time, and as being similar to the way one is perceived by others contribute to an overall sense of ego identity. By the same token, influences that impair these self-perceptions foster identity confusion (or diffusion), ‘failure to achieve the integration and continuity of self-images’.
Identity Foreclosure and Identity Confusion
Erikson pointed to two important ways in which the search for identity can go wrong: It may be prematurely foreclosed (i.e., crystallised too early), or it may be indefinitely extended.
Identity foreclosure is an interruption in the process of identity formation. It is a premature fixing of ones self-image that interferes with the development of other potentials and possibilities for self-definition. Youth whose identities have been prematurely foreclosed are likely to be highly approval oriented. They base their sense of self-esteem largely on recognition by others, usually have a high degree of respect for authority, and tend to be more conforming and less autonomous than other youth. They are also more interested in traditional religious values, less thoughtful and reflective, less anxious, and more stereotyped and superficial, as well as less close and intimate in both same-sex and opposite-sex relationships.
Although they do not differ from their peers in overall intelligence, young people whose identity has become fixed have difficulty being flexible and responding appropriately when confronted with stressful cognitive tasks; they seem to welcome structure and order in their lives. They tend to have close relationships with their parents (especially in the case of sons and their fathers) and to adopt their parents’ values with few questions. Their parents, in turn, generally appear to be accepting and encouraging while at the same time exerting considerable pressure for conformity to family values.
In contrast, other adolescents go through a prolonged period of identity confusion. Some never develop a strong, clear sense of identity; these are adolescents who cannot find themselves, who keep themselves loose and unattached. Such a person may exhibit a pathologically prolonged identity crisis, never achieving any consistent loyalties or commitments.
Young people who experience identity confusion often have low self-esteem and immature moral reasoning. They are impulsive; their thinking is disorganised; and they have difficulty taking responsibility for their own lives. They tend to be focused on themselves, and their relationships are often superficial and sporadic. Although generally dissatisfied with their parents’ way of life, they have difficulty fashioning one of their own.
Achieved Ego Integrity
Searching and confusion may sometimes be beneficial. Individuals who have achieved a strong sense of identity after a period of active searching are likely to be more autonomous, creative, and complex in their thinking than those whose identities were formed without a period of confusion. They also show a greater capacity for intimacy, a more confident sexual identity, a more positive self-concept, and more mature moral reasoning. While their relationships with their parents are generally positive, they have typically achieved considerable independence from their families.
Research comparisons show that young women who have achieved a clear sense of identity weighed a variety of occupational and ideological options and arrived at conclusions to which they are committed. They also yielded less to pressure for conformity and were less uncomfortable in resisting such pressure than other women. They chose relatively difficult college majors, and they manifested few negative feelings, such as anxiety, hostility, or depression, than women who lacked a firm identity. (
There are many variations in the process of identity formation. The popular stereotype of an acute and prolonged adolescent ‘identity crisis’ is probably exaggerated. Indeed, Erikson himself was moved at one point to ask, ‘Would so many of our youth act so openly confused and confusing if they did not know they were supposed to have an identity crisis?’