Understanding Psychosocial Development

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Psychosocial development describes how a person's personality develops, and how social skills are learned from infancy through adulthood. In the 1950s, psychologist Erik Erikson published his theory about the eight stages of psychosocial development. Erikson believed that during each stage, a person experiences a "psychosocial crisis" that either has a positive or negative effect on that person's personality.

This article discusses Erikson's eight stages of psychosocial development, as well as criticism of his theory.

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The Principles of Psychosocial Development

According to Erikson, an individual's personality and social skills develop in eight stages, which cover the entire life span. At each stage, a person is faced with a psychosocial crisis—critical issues—that need to be resolved. The person's personality is shaped by the way they respond to each of these crises. If they react positively, a new virtue (moral behavior) is gained.

The Stages of Psychosocial Development

The eight stages of psychosocial development are:

  1. Trust vs. Mistrust
  2. Autonomy vs. Shame
  3. Initiative vs. Guilt
  4. Industry vs. Inferiority
  5. Identity vs. Role Confusion
  6. Intimacy vs. Isolation
  7. Generativity vs. Stagnation
  8. Ego Integrity vs. Despair

Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust

The first stage of Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, trust vs. mistrust, begins at birth and lasts until around 18 months of age. During this stage, the infant is completely dependent on their caregiver to meet their needs. With consistent care, the infant learns to trust and feel secure. The virtue gained in this stage is "hope."

Success in stage 1 helps a person be able to trust others in future relationships, as well as trust in their own ability to deal with challenging situations later in life. When an infant's needs aren't met in this stage, they can become anxious and untrusting.

Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame

Stage 2, autonomy vs. shame, occurs from 18 months to around 3 years of age. During this stage, children's physical skills grow while they explore their environment and learn to be more independent.

Children react positively during stage 2 when caregivers allow them to work on developing independence within a safe environment. The virtue gained in this stage is "will."

If the child is overly criticized or lives in a controlling environment, they can feel shame and doubt their abilities to take care of themselves.

Stage 2 Skills

Examples of skills learned in stage 2 of Erikson's theory of psychosocial development include potty training, getting dressed, and brushing teeth. This stage also includes physical skills such as running and jumping.

Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt

Stage 3, initiative vs. guilt, occurs during the early school-age years of a child's life. During this stage, a child learns to initiate social interactions and play activities with other children. Children also ask lots of questions in this stage.

If the child is overly-controlled or made to feel that their questions are annoying, the child can develop feelings of guilt. However, when a child is successful in this stage, the virtue gained is a sense of "purpose."

Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority

Stage 4 of Erikson's theory of psychosocial development typically occurs between the ages of 5 and 12 years. The psychosocial crisis in this stage is industry vs. inferiority. During this stage, a child is learning how to read and write. Children in this stage also put a higher amount of importance on what their peers think about them, and start to take pride in their accomplishments.

The virtue gained when a child is successful in stage 4 is "competence." If a child responds negatively to this psychosocial crisis, it can lead to feelings of inferiority and low self-esteem.

Personality: Erikson vs. Freud

While Erikson believed that personality is developed throughout the life span, neurologist Sigmund Freud based his theories of personality development on the belief that an adult's personality is primarily determined by early childhood experiences.

Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion

Stage 5 occurs during the teenage years, between the ages of 12 to 18. At this stage, the psychosocial crisis is identity vs. confusion. During stage 5, teens are trying to "find themselves" and are searching for a sense of identity.

The virtue that can be gained in stage 5 is "fidelity," or faithfulness. In stage 5, teens also learn how to accept other people who are different than themselves.

According to Erikson, if a person responds negatively to the crisis in stage 5, it can lead to role confusion—uncertainty about themselves and how they fit into society.

Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation

The psychosocial crisis in stage 6, intimacy vs. isolation, occurs in young adulthood (ages 18 to 40 years). The main focus in this stage is developing intimate relationships, and the virtue to be gained is "love."

People who are not successful in stage 6 can feel alone and isolated. In some cases, this can lead to depression.

Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation

Erikson's seventh level of psychosocial development occurs during middle age—between 40 to 65 years of age. The crisis at this stage is generativity vs. stagnation.

Generativity is a person's way of "leaving a mark" on the world by giving back to society. This can include mentoring the younger generation, being successful at work, and positively impacting the community. The virtue that can be gained in stage 7 is "care."

When a person is not successful in stage 7, it leads to stagnation. This can cause the person to feel useless and disconnected from their community.

Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair

The final stage in Erikson's psychosocial theory of development is integrity vs. despair. This stage begins around age 65 years and continues for the remainder of a person's life. During this stage, a person reflects on their life and their accomplishments and comes to terms with the fact that death is unavoidable.

According to Erikson, if a person does not feel their life was productive, or if a person has guilt over things that occurred in the past, it can lead to feelings of despair. If a person is successful in stage 8, the virtue to be gained is "wisdom."

It is common for people in stage 8 to experience alternating periods of integrity and despair. The ultimate goal is to achieve balance.

Criticisms of Erikson's Theory

There are several criticisms of Erikson's psychosocial theory of development. Some critics believe that Erikson was too focused on the idea that these stages need to be completed sequentially, and only occur in the age ranges he suggests.

Other critics point out that Erikson used the European or American "male experience" as a template for all humans when he designed his stages of development.

In addition, Erikson does not provide information about what types of experiences have to occur for a person to be successful in resolving the psychosocial crises at each stage of development.

Summary

Erik Erikson's theory of psychosocial development is organized into eight stages based on different phases of life. At each stage, a person faces a psychosocial "crisis." The way a person responds to each crisis can have a positive or negative effect on their personality. There are some criticisms of his theory, including the fact that it is based on the male experience and is very focused on childhood events.

A Word From Verywell

While you might not agree 100% with Erikson's theory of psychosocial development, his concepts can be helpful—particularly if you are a parent or work in a field such as teaching or counseling. Erikson's theory can also provide you with insight into challenges you might be facing during a particular phase of life.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the focus of psychosocial development?

    Erikson's theory breaks psychosocial development into eight stages that occur during different phases of life. Each stage presents a "crisis" that can either lead to a positive or negative outcome that shapes an individual's personality.

  • How many stages of psychosocial development are there?

    There are eight stages in Erikson's theory of psychosocial development.

  • What is the importance of psychological development?

    Psychological development is important for building a person's intellectual, emotional, and social skills.

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5 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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