Erik Erikson

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Erik Homburger Erikson (June 15, 1902 – May 12, 1994) was a developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst known for his theory of human psychosocial development, and for coining the phrase "identity crisis." Although lacking academic credentials, he was an excellent writer and insightful researcher, winning prizes for his writings and becoming a distinguished professor at Harvard University. Erikson's own life experiences, growing up as an outsider, led him to study cultural influences on personality development.

Erikson's theory proposes that psychological development is a combination of pre-programmed biological changes in the body in the context of the social environment, and the person's responses to social situations—especially at points of developmental crisis. By resolving each crisis successfully, people can develop a stable, integrated personality. He applied this mechanism to the development of virtues such as courage, loyalty, care, and wisdom. By going beyond the Freudian focus on childhood sexuality, by including social environmental factors, and by dealing with a person's entire life-cycle from childhood to adulthood, Erikson's theory proved to be a major advance.


Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany on June 15, 1902. His biological father was a Danish man who abandoned Erik's mother, Karla Abrahamsen, a young Jewish woman. She married Erik's pediatrician, Dr. Theodor Homberger, when Erik was three years old. They then moved to Karlsruhe in southern Germany.

Erikson grew up as an outsider, and his personal struggle to develop a sense of identity fueled his interest in psychosocial development. As a child he was Erik Homberger, a blond-haired, blue-eyed boy raised in a Jewish family and community. His Nordic appearance caused him to be teased by his Jewish peers; at grammar school, he was teased for being Jewish. As a young man, he traveled throughout Europe as a wandering artist. While in Vienna, he was trained in psychoanalysis by Anna Freud, receiving a certificate from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society. During that time he met and married Joan Serson, with whom he had three children.

Following the Nazi's rise to power, they moved to the United States where he changed his name to Erik Homberger Erikson. Erikson taught at major universities including Harvard, Yale, and the University of California at Berkeley, without formal academic qualifications. During this time he carried out studies of the Lakota and the Yurok Native American tribes. Erikson published the results of these studies in 1950 in Childhood and Society, the first account of his theory of psychosocial development. Refusing to sign the "loyalty oath" required of all professors in the McCarthy era, Erikson returned to Massachusetts to work in a clinic, and later rejoined the faculty at Harvard.

Erikson analyzed the life of Luther (1958), and Mohandas Gandhi (1969) for which he won a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, combining his interest in historical figures and the influence of culture on personality. He also wrote about other topics which concerned him, such as juvenile delinquency, racial tensions, and other social issues in America. In 1970, he retired from teaching. He remained a professor emeritus at Harvard, continuing to write and carry out research with his wife until his death in 1994.

Erikson's view of identity

Erikson's life experience was one of being the outsider, different from his peers, both during his childhood and his academic life. His search for his own personal identity led him to postulate the importance of personal identity in psychological growth. He saw the desire to achieve an integrated identity as a positive force for healthy psychological development; failure, however, could lead to mental illness.

Erikson was trained in psychoanalysis, and accepted the basic tenets of Freud's theory. However, while Freud focused on sexual factors as the driving force in psychological development, Erikson believed that social factors also played a vital role. Unlike Freud, who claimed that personality is shaped by the age of five, Erikson believed that we continue to develop our personality, or identity, through adolescence and even throughout our adult lives.

His model of psychosocial development consists of eight developmental stages, each characterized by a psychological "crisis." Erikson firmly believed that these stages are biologically determined, occurring in a fixed order, each with an optimal timeframe. In other words, it is not advisable to push children to achieve adult personalities at an early age, nor to keep them protected from their natural course of development into maturity.

The first four crises, which are based on Freud's theory, are encountered in childhood, and the second set begins in adolescence and continues through adulthood:

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust (between birth and one year)
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame & Doubt (ages two to three)
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt (ages four to five)
  4. Industry vs. Inferiority (ages six to puberty)
  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion (adolescence)
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation (young adulthood)
  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation (middle adulthood)
  8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair (late adulthood)

When the outcome of a crisis is favorable, the person achieves a certain virtue or strength; when it is unsuccessful, the person develops a maladaptive character and continues to struggle with this conflict later in life. Thus, if infants learn to trust appropriately they develop the virtue of hope. If, however, they become overly trusting they develop maladaptive gullibility, or if they become overly mistrustful they develop withdrawal tendencies, which may lead to depression and even psychosis. Through these eight "identity crises" people have the opportunity to develop the virtues of hope, determination, courage, competence, loyalty, love, care, and wisdom.


Erikson was a Freudian, accepting both Sigmund and Anna Freud's basic theory and concepts. However, he was also an anthropologist, and so was greatly concerned with the impact of society and culture on human development. As a result, his work has been well-received by non-Freudians and Freudians alike.

His major departure from Freud, giving social factors an important role and so expanding the stages of personality development beyond childhood to cover the entire lifespan, is one reason his work has been influential among professional clinical psychologists and counselors. The fact that he was an excellent writer contributed to popular interest in his ideas.


Major works

  • Erikson, Erik. 1950. Childhood and Society. New York: Norton (current edition: 1993). ISBN 039331068X
  • Erikson, Erik. 1958. Young Man Luther. New York: Norton (current edition: 1993). ISBN 0393310361
  • Erikson, Erik. 1964. Insight and Responsibility. New York: Norton. ISBN 0393094510
  • Erikson, Erik. 1968. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton (current edition: 1994). ISBN 0393311449
  • Erikson, Erik. 1969. Gandhi's Truth New York: Norton (current edition: 1993). ISBN 0393310345
  • Erikson, Erik. 1959. Identity and the Life Cycle. New York: Norton (current edition: 1980). ISBN 0393311325
  • Erikson, Erik, and J.M. Erikson. 1982. The Life Cycle Completed. New York: Norton (current edition: 1997). ISBN 0393317722


  • S.P. Schlien (ed). 1995. A Way of Looking at Things: Selected Papers 1930-1980. New York: Norton. ISBN 039331314X
  • Robert Coles (ed). 2001. The Erik Erikson Reader. New York: Norton. ISBN 039332091X

Related works

  • Lawrence J. Friedman. 1999. Identity's Architect: A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. New York: Scribner. ISBN 0684195259
  • Kit Welchman. 2000. Erik Erikson, His Life, Work, and Significance. Buckingham, Great Britain: Open University Press. ISBN 033520158X

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Boeree, C. George. 1997. Erik Erikson. Retrieved October 2, 2013.
  • Koch, Sigmund, and David E. Leary (eds). 1992. A Century of Psychology as Science. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association. ISBN 155798171X


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