Adult Development

Erik Erikson (1902 - 1994)


Summary of Theory

Erikson developed his theory of psychosocial development from the late 1940's until the 1990's. He was influenced by both Sigmund and Anna Freud and Montessori education methods in the 1930s in Vienna, through his studies of the Ogallala Sioux in the USA, and by his teaching and clinical practices at Harvard, Yale and Berkley (Erik Erikson, n.d.).

Erikson first published his eight stage theory of human development in his 1950 book Childhood and Society. The chapter featuring the model was titled 'The Eight Ages of Man'. He expanded and refined his theory in later books and revisions, notably: Identity and the Life Cycle (1959); Insight and Responsibility (1964); The Life Cycle Completed: A Review (1982, revised 1996 by Joan Erikson); and Vital Involvement in Old Age (1989).

Erikson's theory asserts that people experience eight 'psychosocial crisis stages' which significantly affect development and personality. A 'psychosocial crisis' is an emotional conflict that a person must deal with in order to grow and develop (Chapman, n.d.). Successfully passing through each crisis involves reaching a balance between two opposing dispositions. He identified two words that emphasized the main healthy outcome of each stage (Chapman, n.d.). In Identity and the Life Cycle (1959), Erikson said: "...What the child acquires at a given stage is a certain ratio between the positive and negative,  which if the balance is toward the positive, will help him to meet later crises with a better chance for unimpaired total development..." 

Where passage through a crisis is not well-balanced or, worst of all, psychologically damaging, people acquire harmful emotional or psychological tendencies. These tendencies are likely to arrest further development, but may be revisited at any time that they again emerge as issues. Erikson later called these imbalances 'maladaptation' when the person adopts an overly positive extreme and 'malignancy' where the person adopts the negative extreme (Chapman, n.d.).

Finally, according to Erikson, these life crises are the result of physical and sexual growth that prompts the life issues to emerge. People experience these stages of development in a fixed sequence, but the ages at which they may occur vary according to the individual and his/her personal circumstances. The crises are therefore not driven by age (Chapman, n.d.).

Patient Teaching Loose-Leaf Library (1989) provides a useful summary of Erikson’s eight stages of man’s development:

Trust vs Mistrust
Needs maximum comfort with minimal uncertainty to trust himself/herself, others, and the environment

Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt
Works to master physical environment while maintaining self-esteem

Initiative vs Guilt
Begins to initiate, not imitate, activities; develops conscience and sexual identity

School-Age Child
Industry vs Inferiority
Tries to develop a sense of self-worth by refining skills

Identity vs Role Confusion
Tries integrating many roles (child, sibling, student, athlete, worker) into a self-image under role model and peer pressure

Young Adult
Intimacy vs Isolation
Learns to make personal commitment to another as spouse, parent or partner

Middle-Age Adult
Generativity vs Stagnation
Seeks satisfaction through productivity in career, family, and civic interests

Older Adult
Integrity vs Despair
Reviews life accomplishments, deals with loss and preparation for death
Where are my learners in this scheme?

Most of my learners will still be in the Adolescence stage ; some will be experimenting with the boy/girl relationships of Young Adulthood but they will be early and tentative forays into this arena.

In general, what does this mean about my learners?

Stage: Adolescent (approximately ages 13-19)
Need to balance: Identity vs Role Confusion
Virtue developed if successful: individual develops fidelity   
Maladaptation/malignancy developed if unsuccessful: Identity Diffusion/Fanaticism
Discussion: In this stage, adolescents develop a sense of personal identity and their ideas about their personal strengths and weaknesses, goals, future occupations, sexual identity, and gender roles.  In addition, they try out different identities, perhaps go through an identity crisis, and use peers to test these various identities.  If they resolve this crisis, they develop fidelity, "the ability to sustain loyalties freely pledged in spite of the inevitable contradictions of value systems." If they fail to resolve the crisis, they develop identity diffusion; their sense of self is unstable and threatened. If sense of self is weak, people may join cults or hate groups; if sense of self is too strong, they may show fanaticism. (Nolan, n.d.)

Stage: Young Adult (approximately ages 20-24 )
Need to balance: Intimacy vs Isolation
Virtue developed if successful:  individual develops the ability to love   
Maladaptation/malignancy developed if unsuccessful: Promiscuity or Exclusion
Discussion: Intimacy is the ability to be close, loving, and vulnerable with friends and members of the opposite sex. It is based in part upon having developed a realistic sense of self during adolescence, because, Erikson contends, we must know ourselves to share ourselves. The virtue gained is love. Failure to develop intimacy can lead to promiscuity (getting too close too quick and not sustaining it), or exclusion (rejecting relationships and those who have them) (Nolan, n.d.).

 What does this mean to me?
During these times, the potential for personal growth is high, but so is the potential for failure.
The crisis stages are not sharply defined steps. Elements tend to overlap and mingle from one stage to the next and to the preceding stages.