Psychosocial Theory: Erikson

Doug Davis
Alan Clifton, Haverford '95

The Epigenetic Psychosexual Stages

Erikson believed that childhood is very important in personality development. He accepted many of Freud's theories, including the id, ego, and superego, and Freud's theory of infantile sexuality. But Erikson rejected Freud's attempt to describe personality solely on the basis of sexuality, and, unlike Freud, felt that personality continued to develop beyond five years of age.

All of the stages in Erikson's epigenetic theory are implicitly present at birth (at least in latent form), but unfold according to both an innate scheme and one's up-bringing in a family that expresses the values of a culture. Each stage builds on the preceding stages, and paves the way for subsequent stages. Each stage is characterized by a psychosocial crisis, which is based on physiological development, but also on demands put on the individual by parents and/or society. Ideally, the crisis in each stage should be resolved by the ego in that stage, in order for development to proceed correctly. The outcome of one stage is not permanent, but can be altered by later experiences. Everyone has a mixture of the traits attained at each stage, but personality development is considered successful if the individual has more of the "good" traits than the "bad" traits.

Ego Psychology

Erikson's theory of ego psychology holds certain tenets that differentiate his theory from Freud's. Some of these include:

Erikson's theory was more comprehensive than Freud's, and included information about "normal" personality as well as neurotics. He also broadened the scope of personality to incorporate society and culture, not just sexuality. Criticisms of his theories, in addition to the factors discussed in class, have noted that he did no statistical research to generate his theories, and it is very hard to test his theories in order to validate them.

Zones, Modes, and Modalities

"a" "b" and "c" identify the oral, anal, and gential zones, respectively; and numbers "1" through "5" pertain to the passive and active incorporative, the retentive and eliminative, and the intrusive modes, respectively.

Erikson's illustration of "the interplay of one zone with all the modes" (1950, p. 73ff.) by means of circles and arrows is among the most confusing moments in his book. Here are the diagrams (Erikson, 1950, p. 89), at the point male and female development are said to diverge in locomotor/intrusive/"phallic"/Oedipal Stage 3:

Each cell of the diagram represents a child at some moment of zone-mode interaction.

Note that the dark-bordered, stair-case-like, trend of developmet for the boy (Figure 4) is turned back in the case of the girl (Figure 5), but that each has the other's dominent mode in latent (dotted-border) form. The boy seems to give up much of his incorporativeness, and the girl much of her intrusiveness, at the fourth level (i.e., early in the "Initiative/Guilt" stage).

Here are the concepts in chart form
(You should be able to reproduce and explain each column)

Personality Stage

Psychosexual Mode

Psychosocial Modality


Trust vs. Mistrust




Autonomy vs. Shame, Doubt


holding on
letting go


Inititative vs. Guilt




Industry vs. Inferiority


Identity vs. Role Confusion


Intimacy vs. Isolation


Generativity vs. Stagnation


Integrity vs.Despair


Here's an expanded chart (extrapolating from Erikson) that may help as you use Erikson for the essay final.

Stage 1 - Basic Trust vs. Mistrust

Stage 2 - Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
Stage 3 - Initiative vs. Guilt

After Stage 3, one may use the whole repetoire of previous modalities, modes, and zones for industrious, identity-maintaining, intimate, legacy-producing, dispair-countering purposes.

Stage 4 - Industry vs. Inferiority
Stage 5 - Identity vs. Role Confusion (or "Diffusion")
Stage 6 - Intimacy vs. Isolation

Erikson's listed criteria for "genital utopia" illustrate his insistence on the role of many modes and modalities in harmony:

Stage 7 - Generativity vs. Stagnation
Stage 8 - Ego Integrity vs. Despair