An Introduction to Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development

A series of figures represents a man from infant to elder

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Psychoanalyst Erik Erikson's stages of psychosocial development theorize a model of human psychological growth made up of eight stages that cover the entire lifespan from birth to old age. Each stage is defined by a central crisis that the individual must grapple with to move on to the next stage. Erikson’s theory has been highly influential in scholars’ understanding of human development and identity formation.

Key Takeaways: Erikson's Stages of Development

  • Erik Erikson's stages of development describe eight periods spanning the human lifecycle.
  • Development does not end when an individual reaches adulthood, but continues for their whole life.
  • Each stage of development revolves around a central crisis that the individual must contend with to progress to the next stage.
  • Success at each stage relies on succeeding in previous stages. People must proceed through the stages in the order laid out by Erikson.

Trust vs. Mistrust

The first stage takes place in infancy and ends around age 1. Letting caretakers out of sight without anxiety is an infant's first social achievement. In other words, infants must develop a sense of trust in their caretakers and the people around them.

Newborns come into the world vulnerable and dependent on others to survive. When a child’s caretakers successfully provide for their needs—like food, warmth, and safety—the child develops confidence in the world as a safe and secure place. If the child’s needs are not met, however, they come to perceive the world as inconsistent and untrustworthy.

This doesn’t mean that all mistrust is bad. A certain amount of mistrust is necessary; without it, a child could become too trusting and consequently would not know when to be skeptical of people’s intentions. Still, an individual should emerge from this stage with a greater sense of trust than mistrust. An infant who triumphs in this endeavor will develop the virtue of hope, which is the belief that desires are achievable despite the chaos of the world.

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

The second stage takes place when the child is around 2 or 3 years old. Growing children become more capable of doing things on their own. If they are supported in their newfound independence, they learn confidence in their abilities.

On the other hand children who are too controlled or criticized will start to doubt their ability to take care of themselves. A kid who emerges from this stage with a greater sense of autonomy than shame or doubt develops the virtue of will: the ability to make choices freely while also having self-control when appropriate.

Initiative vs. Guilt

The third stage takes place between the ages of 3 and 6. Preschool-age children start to take initiative in pursuing individual objectives. When they are successful, they develop a sense of competence in their ability to make and achieve goals.

If accomplishing their goals meets resistance or becomes socially problematic, they experience guilt. Too much guilt can lead to a lack of self-confidence. Someone who emerges from this stage with an overall positive experience in taking initiative develops the virtue of purpose, or the ability to determine what they want and go for it.

Industry vs. Inferiority

The fourth stage takes place from 6 to 11 years old, marked by the child’s first forays into grade school and structured learning. This is the first time they must try to understand and contend with the expectations of the wider culture. At this age, kids learn what it means to be a good member of society in terms of productivity and morality.

Children who come to believe they cannot function properly in society develop feelings of inferiority. Those who experience success at this stage acquire the virtue of competence, developing sufficient skills and learning to be capable at different tasks.

Identity vs. Role Confusion

The fifth stage takes place during adolescence and in some cases can extend into the 20s. With the onset of puberty, physical and cognitive changes cause adolescents to consider the future for the first time. They're trying to figure out who they are and what they want. On the other hand, they'll worry about making unwise commitments, and are concerned about the way others, especially their peers, perceive them.

While identity development is a lifelong process, the fifth stage a key time for individuation as adolescents start to choose and pursue the roles they wish to fulfill as adults. They also must begin to develop a worldview that gives them a sense of personal perspective. Success here results in a coherent sense of identity that leads to the virtue of fidelity, which is loyalty to one’s commitments.

Intimacy vs. Isolation

The sixth stage takes place during young adulthood. While adolescents are often too preoccupied to truly be intimate with another person, young adults are individuals with an established sense of their own identity who can achieve genuine interpersonal connections. At this stage, those whose relationships remain impersonal experience isolation. People who achieve more intimacy than isolation at this stage will develop the virtue of mature love.

Generativity vs. Stagnation

The seventh stage takes place during midlife. At this time, people turn their attention to what they'll offer the next generation. Erikson called this “generativity.” Adults who produce something that contributes to the future, like creative works and new ideas, are being generative.

Adults who are unsuccessful at this stage become stagnant, self-absorbed, and bored. However, generative adults who contribute to the next generation avoid becoming overly self-indulgent and develop the virtue of care.

Ego Integrity vs. Despair

The eighth and final stage takes place during old age. At this point, people start to look back on their lives. If they can accept and find meaning in their lifelong accomplishments, they'll achieve integrity. If people look back and don’t like what they see, they realize that life is too short to try out alternatives or repair regrets, which leads to despair. Finding meaning in one’s life in old age results in the virtue of wisdom.

The Structure of the Stages

Erikson was influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud, particularly Freud's stage theory of psychosexual development. Erikson expanded on the five stages outlined by Freud by assigning psychosocial tasks to each stage, then adding three additional stages for later periods of adulthood.

Erikson’s stages rest on the epigenetic principle, the idea that one moves through each stage depending on the outcome of the previous one and, therefore, that individuals must go through the stages in a specific order. At each stage, individuals must wrestle with a central psychosocial conflict to advance to the next stage. Each stage has a particular conflict because individual growth and sociocultural context work together to bring that conflict to the individual's attention at a particular point in life.

For example, an infant who develops more mistrust than trust in a caretaker during the first stage may experience role confusion during the fifth stage. Similarly, if an adolescent emerges from the fifth stage without having successfully developed a strong sense of identity, he or she may have difficulty developing intimacy during the sixth stage. Because of such structural elements, Erikson’s theory communicates two key points:

  1. Development does not stop at adulthood. Rather, individuals continue to develop throughout their entire lifespan.
  2. Each stage of development hinges upon the individual’s interaction with the social world.

Critiques

Erikson's stage theory has faced some criticism for its limitations. Erikson was vague about what an individual must experience to successfully overcome the conflict of each stage. He also wasn’t specific about how people move through the various stages. Erikson knew that his work was unclear. He explained his intention to provide context and descriptive detail for development, not precise facts about developmental mechanisms. Nevertheless, Erikson’s theory inspired much research into human development, identity, and personality.

Resources and Further Reading