Chapter 8:  Erickson – Post-Freudian Theory

Part 2: Basic Concepts Underlying the Study of Development

Erikson is well known for his theory on the eight stages of development.  He did not simply theorize these stages, of course. He drew upon Sigmund Freud’s basic theories, Anna Freud’s explorations in the psychological development of children, and his own experience as a teacher and, later, as a child psychoanalyst.  In addition, he attempted to repeat many of his observations in different cultures, particularly in two Native American tribes, the Sioux and the Yurok. These basic principles and observations form the foundation upon which Erikson built his stage theory of development.

The Epigenetic Principle and Psychosocial Crises

Epigenesis is a biological term referring to the development of an embryo, and ultimately, an adult organism, from an undifferentiated egg.  Similarly, Erikson viewed psychological development as a series of predictable stages in each individual. We begin life without having faced or resolved any of these stages.  Only the experience of our life can result in moving us along. This aspect of Erikson’s theory is identical to Freud’s. Where they differ, however, is on the matter of the critical factors that drive the process of these stages.  For Sigmund Freud, it was psychosexual development, and each stage is based on the region of the body from which the child gains sexual satisfaction (first the mouth, then the anus, then the genitals, etc.). In contrast, Erikson proposed that the underlying framework for the developmental stages is a series of psychosocial crises.  Erikson used the term psychosocial crises to refer to turning points, or crucial moments, in a person’s development, which contain within them the potential for abnormal development and the failure to reach one’s development.

In other words, we face predictable, yet critical, developmental tasks as we move through our lives.  We cannot experience one aspect of a crisis without also experiencing the opposite aspect. Our goal, or task, is to achieve a greater degree of the favorable aspect of the crisis (such as being more trusting than distrusting; see below), within the context of our social and cultural environments (Erikson, 1950, 1954, 1968a).

Observing Children at Play

Erikson borrowed Freud’s famous line regarding dreams as the royal road to the unconscious mind, saying instead that play is the royal road to understanding the young child’s ego and identity development (Erikson, 1950).  With very young children, there is a unique challenge for both experimental psychologists and therapists: the child’s limited language development.  Not only does observing play allow for insight into ego development, it can also show us the capacity for the ego to find recreation and to cure itself, if necessary.  This makes play useful in the therapeutic setting, as we saw when examining the contributions of Melanie Klein.

Erikson studied childhood play extensively, publishing articles that included clinical notes on how and why children build things or choose the toys they play with (Erikson, 1937), psychological factors behind and effects of disruptions in play (Erikson, 1940), gender differences in play (Erikson, 1955), and ethnic, racial, nationality, and socioeconomic status differences in play (Erikson, 1972).  Ultimately, Erikson published Toys and Reasons (Erikson, 1977), in which he argued that childhood play provides a basis for ritualizing our life experiences, and that ritualization continues throughout the stages of life.  Whether play serves to help master and resolve traumatic experiences, provides catharsis for pent-up emotions or surplus energy, or whether it has a functional role in which a child can exercise new faculties and potentials in preparation for the future, Erikson argued that play is an act of renewal and self-expression, one that can be an expression of inventiveness and abandon.  Play provides a means for connecting with others in order to cope with the challenges of life (Erikson, 1977).

Have you ever watched children play?  What has it told you about the individual child, and is it always consistent with who you think that child is?

The Value of Cross-Cultural Studies

The value of studying other cultures was summarized rather succinctly by Erikson in an interview with Richard Evans:

The interesting thing was that all the childhood problems which we had begun to take seriously on the basis of pathological developments in our own culture, the Indians talked about spontaneously and most seriously without any prodding.  They referred to our stages as the decisive steps in the making of a good Sioux Indian or a good Yurok Indian…And “good” meant whatever seemed “virtuous” in a “strong” man or woman in that culture. I think this contributed eventually to my imagery of basic human strengths. (pg. 62; Erikson cited in Evans, 1964)

So, it was actually on the basis of cross-cultural comparisons that Erikson felt confident in proposing his eight stage theory of psychosocial development.

Erikson was deeply indebted to two anthropologists, H. Scudder Mekeel and Alfred Kroeber, who introduced him to the Sioux and Yurok tribes they had been studying.  Through their introductions, Erikson was able to gain the confidence of the individual Sioux and Yurok communities, who provided Erikson with invaluable evidence on their traditional ways of life and their child-rearing practices.  But it is important to note that Native Americans were not the only cultural groups that Erikson studied. He studied the childhood myths of Hitler and the Bolshevik myth of Maxim Gorky’s youth in an attempt to understand the terrible political events that occurred in Nazi Germany and Communist Russia.  He also examined the factors influencing Black identity in America. He suggested that one of the greatest struggles for Blacks in this country, after the Civil War had ended slavery, was the mostly false promise of a better life in the North. As they left behind their successful identity as slaves (Note: successful only means that it was a clear identity, not that it was moral or justified) for a fragmented identity of supposedly free people, though prejudice and discrimination were still rampant, even in the North.  Erikson made some interesting comparisons between Blacks and Native Americans in terms of their attempts to identify their place in American society.

According to Erikson, individuals try to resolve their identity crises in ways that are as simple and straightforward as possible.  Every group within a society is somewhat familiar with the stereotypical identity attributed to other groups, and these factors play an important role, even when they are expressed in negative ways, such as mixed-blood Native Americans calling full-blooded Native Americans “niggers.”  Erikson later noted that full-blooded Sioux on the Pine Ridge Reservation turn around and call their half-blooded brothers “white trash” (Erikson, 1980a). These factors also tell us something about the place that different groups occupy in the minds of members of other groups, and how that might influence the individuals within those groups.  We will return to the concept of identity after examining Erikson’s stages of development.

Erikson believed that his theories had been confirmed in different cultures, such as the Sioux and the Yurok.  Do you think his theories apply to all cultures? If not, what problems do you see with his work?


Text:  Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.