Evaluation Freud, another well-known psychoanalyst, psychologist, and the

Evaluation of Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stages

Part
A. Background Information

Erik Erikson was a psychoanalyst and
developmental psychologist from the mid-1900s who is most well-known for his
stage theory of psychosocial development. During each of the eight stages he
outlined, an individual faces a psychosocial conflict which must be overcome in
a positive way for successful personality development and the attainment of a
virtue. Virtues are strengths which can help with the resolution of ensuing
crises. Because Erikson strongly emphasized adolescence as a crucial period
related to identity development, this paper will be focusing on adolescence and
early adulthood.

Erikson’s ideas were greatly influenced
by Sigmund Freud, another well-known psychoanalyst, psychologist, and the creator
of id psychology. Meanwhile, Erikson is considered the creator of ego
psychology, which emphasized the role of the ego as being more than a servant
to the id. Freudian theory stressed conflict between the id and the superego
and focused on sexual development, while Erikson emphasized conflict that can
take place in the ego itself and focused on the role of society on growth and
sense of self. Like Freud, Erikson’s believed that personality develops in a
fixed order and that each stage is built upon the effective completion of the
previous stage. However, Erikson furthered Freudian understanding by developing
his stage theory to encompass the entire lifespan, suggesting that there is always
room for continued growth and development throughout one’s life. While both
believed that each stage consists of a crisis crucial for development, Erikson considered
these crises to be psychosocial because “they involve psychological needs of
the individual (i.e. psycho) conflicting with the needs of society (i.e.

social)” (McLeod, 2017). His research suggests that each individual must learn
to acknowledge both extremes of each stage, not rejecting one or the other.

Only when both extremes are understood and accepted as essential and useful can
the stages virtue surface. Virtues are often considered character strengths,
which the ego can use to resolve subsequent crises. Erikson also hinted that
the outcome of one stage is not permanent and can be modified by later
experiences (McLeod, 2017).

Erikson’s theory of psychosocial
development consists of eight stages: trust vs. mistrust, autonomy vs. shame,
initiative vs. guilt, industry vs. inferiority, identity vs. role confusion,
intimacy vs. isolation, generativity vs. stagnation and ego integrity vs.

despair. The first of the eight stages as outlined by Moore (2017a) occurs
during infancy. Whether an infant develops a sense of trust or mistrust depends
largely on the quality of the maternal relationship. If the baby receives care
that is constant and reliable they will develop a sense of trust and obtain the
virtue of hope. The second stage, autonomy versus shame and doubt, occurs
during toddlerhood. As a child begins to discover their independence, it is
important that parents encourage exploration. Discouragement can lead to feelings
of shame and doubt, while success in this stage will result in the virtue of
will. Stage three of Erikson’s theory occurs during early childhood and is
classified by a conflict between initiative and guilt. Children begin to play,
makeup games, initiate activates with others, and ask countless questions due
to their thirst for knowledge. If this tendency is squelched through criticism
or control, children may develop a sense of guilt. A healthy balance between
initiative and guilt is important so a child knows how to exercise self-control
and produces in the virtue of purpose. Industry versus inferiority, the fourth
stage, occurs during middle to late childhood and results in the virtue of
competence. As children interact more with peers through classrooms and clubs,
peer groups become a major influence on child’s self-esteem. As children
attempt to win approval they demonstrate talents/skills that when reinforced, children
begin to take pride in. Encouragement leads to the child feeling confident in
their abilities and industriousness, while discouragement causes feelings of
inferiority. The fifth stage, identity versus role confusion takes place during
adolescence. Through exploration of beliefs, values, and goals, teens search
for a sense of self and a personal identity. Success in this stage will lead to
the virtue of fidelity. Stage six occurs in young adulthood as individuals
begin to explore romantic relationships. By forming healthy relationships with
others, individuals experience intimacy and gain the virtue of love. Generativity
versus stagnation takes place during middle adulthood as individuals begin to
establish careers and families. Giving back to society by raising children,
being productive at work, and becoming involved in the community leads to the
virtue of care. The final of the eight stages takes place as persons enter
senior citizenship. It is at this time, post-retirement, that individuals begin
to reflect on their life and either view life as being successful or
unproductive. Seeing life as negative results in feelings of dissatisfaction
and despair, but viewing life as complete leads to the virtue of wisdom and the
acceptance of death without fear.

The development of identity appears to be
one of Erikson’s greatest concern in his theory, as well as in his own life. Identity
versus role confusion plays out during adolescence (approximately ages 12-18),
at which time peer relationships begin to gain new meaning and importance. For
positive resolution, during this stage, an adolescent must undergo a conscious
search for identity, which is built on the resolution of—and virtues from—previous
stage conflicts. Erikson proposed that two different identities must be
understood: the sexual and the occupational. The importance of forming a sexual
identity was especially important to Erikson’s theory because the following
stage (intimacy vs. isolation) focuses on the formation of durable romantic
relationships. An individual must actively ask—and seek the answers to—questions
like “Who am I?” and “Who do I want to be?” They must develop a sense of self,
identify what they want to do or be, and recognize their sexual role. From this
they will obtain fidelity, which involves maintaining personal beliefs in spite
of opposition; being faithful, loyal, and committed to oneself and to others.

An adolescent who successfully reaches fidelity is more likely commit to
personal values and to institutions. When individuals become unsure about
themselves or their role in society, role confusion (or identity crisis—a term
coined by Erikson) may develop. In this case, individuals may begin to experiment
with different lifestyles or rebel against society. If a teenager feels
pressured into an identity from his or her parents, they are also likely to
rebel, establishing a negative identity in addition to feelings of malcontent
(Moore, 2017b).

Intimacy versus isolation occurs during
young adulthood and, as was the case with identity versus role confusion, is
firmly built upon the successful resolution of previous stages. Intimacy
signifies one’s ability to interact lovingly and openly with another human
being on a deep and personal level. According to Erikson, to fully commit to
another, one must give up parts of the self; intimate couples need to compromise
without losing a sense of self. Without the sense of identity from adolescence,
an individual will often fear committed relationships and instead withdraw
themselves into isolation, which sometimes results in depressive feelings.

Successful resolution of this stage comes from young adults learning to
developed intimate relationships with others, and leads to the virtue of love.

Young adults who are successful during this stage become more willing to
sacrifice and compromise for the sake of their relationships, learn to connect
with others on social and interpersonal levels, form sincere relationships, and
develop the faculty to commit to others for mutual fulfillment. Young adults
who do not successfully move through this stage can develop unhealthy
expressions of intimacy, such as promiscuity or reclusively (Moore, 2017b).

Part B. Critique Based on Contemporary Empirical Evidence

Erikson strongly emphasized the
importance of developing a sexual identity during the fifth stage of his
theory. His theory supports the idea that acknowledging one’s true sexual
identity will lead to healthy personality development. In a world where
non-heterosexuals are the minority, Becker, Cortina, Tsai & Eccles (2014), sought
to analyze conflicts in the process of identity formation for non-heterosexual
youths compared to their heterosexual peers. Assuming both non-heterosexual and
heterosexual adults discern their true identity, they should eventually have
roughly equal mental health indicators (depressive affect, suicidal thought or
ideation, and alcohol/drug use). Becker et al. (2014) measured three primary
outcomes: (a) indicators of mental health; (b) feelings of social alienation;
and (c) self-esteem as an indicator of psychological well-being. They
hypothesized that these three markers of conflict in identity formation may be
higher for non-heterosexual youths because their minority status creates stress,
such as having a lack of access to positive role models. Due to minority stressors,
non-heterosexual identity is likely to be formed in isolation, with little
social support, at least until the individual embraces their minority identity
and actively seeks minority group support (& role models). To this extent,
identity must be formed before youths can successfully cope with potential stressors.

 Looking at a total sample of 2,451
students from southeastern Michigan, ages 16 to 28, they were able to confirm
their hypothesis. Compared to their heterosexual peers, depressive symptoms,
suicidal ideation, alcohol consumption, and social alienation were higher in
non-heterosexual youths. It was also found that during earlier development (16-20
years), non-heterosexual adolescents grew towards increasingly higher risk behaviors
than their peers, but the two groups began to converge in the years following
high school. This is consistent with Erikson’s theory which indicated that non-heterosexual
and heterosexual adults should, eventually, have roughly equal mental health
indicators as long as they achieve a firm sense of identity.

Erikson proposed that teens who struggle
with identity confusion (often due to parental pressures) are more likely to experiment
with different lifestyles, exhibit acts of delinquency, and establish a
negative identity that may restrict with future identity development (e.g.

developing a criminal record that limits future career options). A study
performed by Mercer, Crocetti, Branje, van Lier & Meeus (2017), thoroughly
explored the relationship between identity formation and delinquency. During
five annual assessments (spanning from age 14 to 18) adolescents’ delinquency
was rated by the adolescents themselves, as well as their mothers and fathers.

Using a sample of 47 Dutch adolescents, they were able to conclude that
experimentation with delinquency debilitates identity formation by increasing
individuals’ reconsideration of commitments (negative comparison of current
commitments to possible alternatives), and in turn, decreasing adolescents’
commitment (both social and personal). According to Erikson, adolescents who
move from one commitment to another lack a sense of meaning or purpose, which
contributes to identity confusion. Research also found that delinquency often
occurs in adolescents who are using it to differentiate themselves from their
childhood roles, exert autonomy and independence from their parents, and
explore possible identity alternatives. To this degree, Erikson’s theory
appears to be accurate; lack of concrete personal identity leads to rebellion
and the potential establishment of negative identities, while delinquency
cyclically interferes with personal identity development. It was identified in
this study that encouraging young adults to increase exploration (active
investigation of commitments and discussion of commitments with others), may
lead to manageable short-term goals, which increase engagement and ultimately
identity formation.

Erikson defines fidelity as “the ability
to sustain loyalties freely pledged in spite of the inevitable contradictions
of value systems” (Erikson, 1968). Erikson maintained that fidelity is a
necessary component in healthy development, and without it an individual is
more likely to struggle with future positive development. Brittian & Lerner
(2013) developed a study to analyze the validity of this claim. To measure
fidelity, youth (starting in 6th grade and continuing till 10th
grade) were asked questions about how important six different items were to
their life. Items included “Doing what you believe is right, even when it is
unpopular;” “Telling the truth, even when it’s not easy;” and “Standing up for
equality.” These items were chosen because they were believed to reflect a
commitment to personal and prosocial values when faced with opposition. Through
the analysis of over 7,000 youths, researchers were able to identify three
distinct developmental trajectories in relation to adolescents’ fidelity: high
and increasing, moderate and increasing, and low and decreasing. Based on
Erikson’s belief that fidelity links individuals to their context, researchers
hypothesized that youth who show high fidelity are also more likely to
demonstrate higher community contribution and lower levels of risky problem
behaviors. Upon thorough data analysis, their hypothesis was confirmed. Several
contextual factors were also identified as associated with different fidelity
trajectories. Youth with adult mentors and/or parents who exhibited high
degrees of warmth, involvement, and knowledge were more likely to display high
fidelity. In general, boys were more likely to be in the lowest trajectory
group. However, this study only found partial support for fidelity being a
predictor of development in later adolescence. Without significant data, this
study does not fully support Erikson’s claim that fidelity is a key component
in healthy development, but it does not in any way oppose his theory. “There is
no certain way of knowing if these adolescents’ fidelity would continue to
change through the end of adolescence and into the beginning of young
adulthood, given that we only examined trajectories from Grade 6 to Grade 10.

However, based on the relative stability of the trajectory groups identified in
the present research, one could hypothesize that there would not be dramatic
changes within or across groups” (Brittian & Larner, 2013).

Erikson strongly believed that it is only
possible to experience genuine intimate relationships after one has established
a secure sense of identity because “the condition of twoness is the one must
first becomes oneself” (Erikson, 1980). In the 21st century, young
adults in western societies are more commonly delaying adult commitments to
attend college. According to Beyees & Seiffge-Krenke (2010), this allows them
to extend the number of years during which they explore life alternatives, which
disconnects them from commitment and intimate relationships leading to changes
in expectations, quality, and duration of romances. Because many of the
developmental tasks previously thought to occur during adolescence (i.e.

identity formation) now extend into emerging adulthood, researchers are
questioning whether Erikson’s developmental ordering of identity and intimacy
is still valid, or whether they are in fact overlapping. To evaluate the
validity of Erikson’s developmental ordering of identity and intimacy in the 21st
century, Beyees & Seiffge-Krenke (2010) collected data from 93 German
youths (52 females and 41 males) over the course of 10 years. They assessed
identity and intimacy in adolescence (age 15) and then again during emerging
adulthood (age 25). Findings showed a strong positive developmental progression
in both identity and intimacy from age 15 to 25. At age 25, however, intimacy
with a partner was strongly predicted by identity development during
adolescence, reflecting Erikson’s developmental ordering. Their ten-year
longitudinal study revealed that identity development proceeds and is strongly
linked to intimacy development for youths in westernized nations in the 21st
century, proving that Erikson’s ordering of his developmental stages is
accurate and consistent.

            According
to Erikson and many others, intimacy is a key component of a successful
marriage. Boden, Fischer, & Niehuis (2009) set out to understand the extent
to which emotional intimacy and changes in intimacy during young adulthood
predicted marital adjustment 25 years later. Early indications of intimacy (with
a friend, romantic partner, or spouse) were assessed at college graduation and
annually over a period of 2 years, and again 6 years later. Marital adjustment
of individuals who got married or remained married was assessed 25 years after initial
contact. A sample of 422 individuals, 49.8% male and 50.2% female, completed a
questionnaire measuring demographic information, marital status, duration of
marriage, income, religion, ethnicity, and emotional intimacy. Emotional
intimacy was assessed using a predetermined scale consisting of 39 items meant
to evaluate feelings, attitudes and behaviors of affection, closeness, sharing,
and relationship problem-solving. Researchers were able to conclude that
intimacy and increases in intimacy from the first wave of data retrieval to the
fourth wave greatly predicted marital adjustment 25 years later. Because
intimacy is an emotional skill which is not only developed in late adolescence
but groomed throughout young adulthood, individuals who have refined this skill
in their close relationships are more likely to reap benefits later on in
midlife. Whereas those who did not practice emotional intimacy in late
adolescence and young adulthood reported lower levels of intimacy and
experienced less marital adjustment in the final stage of data retrieval.

Researchers suggested that this may be because individuals with higher levels
of intimacy can better identify others’ emotions, needs, and desires. This
study strongly supports Erikson’s belief that intimacy must be achieved during
young adulthood for future healthy committed relationships to develop. This
study shows that intimacy skills acquired in late adolescence and further
developed throughout young adulthood have a long-reaching effect on marital
adjustment.

            Even
decades later, Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development remains authentic
and reliable. At least with stages 5 and 6, which occur during adolescence and young
adulthood, there are many longitudinal studies that support Erikson’s theory. Becker
et al. (2014) confirmed Erikson’s notion that identity must be formed in adolescence
for positive developmental growth through analyzing mental health indicators of
non-heterosexual youths who face conflict in the process of identity formation.

Erikson’s hypothesis that there is a correlation between lack of identity development
and delinquency was confirmed by Lier & Meeus (2017), who found that
delinquency often occurs in adolescents who feel they have not identified a
concrete sense of self and are attempting to pursue independence from their
parents. Brittian & Lerner (2013) confirmed that the virtue of fidelity,
which emerges alongside identity formation, is another necessary component in
healthy development. Erikson’s stage theory relies heavily on the successful
resolution of earlier stages. Without a sense of identity and fidelity to build
upon, Erikson believed an individual in young adulthood is not capable of
forming truly intimate relationships. Beyees & Seiffge-Krenke (2010) solidified
this claim through a longitudinal assessment that recognized identity
development at age 15 to be a strong predictor of intimacy with a partner at
age 25. This concept was further supported by research of the association
between emotional intimacy during young adulthood and later marital adjustment
by Boden et al. (2009). Of course, due endless societal evolution and the sequentially
new issues that come along with it, the validity of Erikson’s psychosocial
theory—and ultimately all developmental theories—should be questioned and
studied repeatedly.