How much can your childhood upbringing really shape your personality as an adult? A lot, according to Erik Erikson, a prominent 1950s psychologist and professor at Harvard University and the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Erikson, who died in 1994, theorized that personality is developed through eight different life stages, later called Erik Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development.
Knowing what each stage is—and the lesson at the heart of it—can provide helpful insight into your own personality, as well as others. Here’s what you need to know about the theory and how it can inform your outlook.
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Erik Erikson's 8 Stages of Psychosocial Development
|Stage of Development||Positive Outcome||Negative Outcome|
|Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust||If an infant’s needs are met, they will develop a sense of trust toward the world.||If they are unmet, they will feel a sense of mistrust.|
|Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt||If needs are met, they will develop a sense of independence.||If needs are not met, the child will not feel they can do things on their own.|
|Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt||If needs are met, the child will feel that the world is a trustworthy place and will explore their own abilities.||If needs aren’t met, the child will not feel that the world is a safe place and will not attempt to accomplish tasks or face challenges on their own.|
|Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority||If needs are met, the child will feel a sense of accomplishment.||If needs are not met, the child will struggle to develop confidence and feel they are not as adequate as other children.|
|Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion||If needs are met, the teen will develop a strong sense of self.||If needs are not met, the teen will struggle to form an identity.|
|Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation||If needs are met, the young adult will form strong connections with others.||If needs are not met, the young adult will become lonely and isolated.|
|Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation||If needs are met, an adult will feel competent and that they are contributing to the world in a meaningful way.||If needs are not met, the adult will stay stuck in a state of stagnation.|
|Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair||If needs are met, the mature adult feels content about how their life has gone.||If needs are not met, the mature adult will feel that life has not gone as it should and have a sense of regret.|
As we grow and face new challenges and circumstances from infancy to adulthood, our personality develops through eight specific stages, suggests Dr. Erickson’s theory. These stages of human development are influenced by biological, psychological and social factors throughout our lifespan. Within each stage there is a crisis we are faced with resolving—which, in turn, impacts our personality, the theory goes.
“Erikson’s writings have been really fundamental in shaping the broader field of developmental psychology,” says Onnie Rogers, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the psychology department at Northwestern University in Chicago. Dr. Erikson, who studied under Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud “drew upon Freud’s overarching idea but believed that rather than an internal biological sexual drive as shaping the stages of development, it was really these tensions and crises with society,” she explains.
Here are Erikson’s eight stages of development, according to the the book Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial DevelopmentErikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development. StatPearls. Accessed 4/12/22. .
Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust
The first stage in Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development theory begins in infancy. “Infants need adult protection and support or they will not survive,” says Frank Worrell, Ph.D., the president of the American Psychological Association and director of the psychology program at University of California, Berkeley. “The stage of trust versus mistrust centers around the infant feeling like their needs will be met,” he explains.
For example, if the infant is hungry, will it be fed? If their diaper is soiled, will someone change it? If they’re sad, will they be comforted? This plants a seed in the infant’s mind of whether the world is a trustworthy place, says Worrell.
Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
The second stage, according to the theory, occurs during early childhood when the child starts to gain responsibility. “This is the age when children are seeing if they can do things themselves,” says Worrell.
Learning tasks like potty training and other skills that instill personal responsibility typically start here. Allowing children to make choices and gain control could help them develop a sense of autonomy and confidence, whereas being shamed for their mistakes may lead to self-doubt.
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Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt
Children enter stage three as they start preschool. “This is the first time the child is leaving the structure of their home,” says Worrell. “They can socialize and explore,” by interacting with their peers. The belief behind this stage is that successful children can approach and befriend others, while those who fail may develop a lack of initiative and guilt.
The previous stage’s outcomes carry weight here, too. A child who developed a sense of autonomy may feel confident making friends and trying new things at preschool. If they try a task and fail, they’ll try again. But a child who is coming into this stage with shame and doubt might struggle with doing things on their own. They may wander aimlessly in the classroom or avoid playing with others.
Aim to support exploration and encourage kids to try tasks, like tying their shoes, on their own during this stage, says Worrell.
Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority
By this stage in Erikson’s psychosocial development theory, children are elementary-school age. “Industry is the idea of gaining skills and competencies that are valued in your culture,” explains Rogers. For example, if you’re in first grade, the skills may have to do with whether you can count or read. “If you can’t do the things you’re expected to do or you’re feeling like you aren’t meeting these expectations, that leads to a sense of inferiority,” she says.
On the other hand, if a child has a strong sense of initiative and is encouraged by adults and peers, they’ll feel more confident in social situations.This is also the stage in which kids start to compare themselves to others, explains Rogers. “They think about who the fastest is or who’s the smartest. They start to recognize if they are inferior to others.” For this reason, it’s important for kids to feel accomplished and successful. (So yes, there’s a reason behind those participation ribbons.)
During this stage, it’s also common for kids to start to notice the messages that are being fed to them through the media, including books, TV and movies, both experts say. “They notice who gets celebrated and who is valued,” explains Rogers. That’s why it’s important for them to have access to media reflecting successful people who look like them and are valued in the world.
Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion
The crisis of identity versus confusion takes place during the teen years. This stage encompasses one’s racial background, sexual preference and what they may want to do in the future, says Worrell. “Especially if someone is a minority living in the U.S., their sense of self is going to be connected to the messages society is giving them,” he says.
The experts say a teen with a strong sense of identity will be able to answer this question more easily. But a teen on the “confusion” side of the crisis will struggle with knowing where they fit in the world, in friend groups and potentially in their career.
Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation
Stage six takes place during young adulthood and is centered around the idea that having a better sense of identity makes it easier to figure out what they are looking for in other relationships. “This stage is not just about romantic relationships, but also includes forming strong bonds with others,” according to Worrell.
Success in this stage leads to strong relationship-building skills, while the experts suggest that people without a strong sense of self may feel confusion over their identity, and will struggle forming strong bonds with others and are more likely to be lonely and isolated.
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Stage 7: Generativity vs. Stagnation
Stage seven takes place during adulthood. This stage is connected to the feeling of competency and making a contribution to the world. For some, a sense of generativity is connected to having kids, says Rogers. For others, it may be mentoring, volunteering or donating. “You’re taking your life experience and now you’re paying it forward,” she explains.
Since adults need to create or nurture something to outlast them, according to Dr. Erikson’s theory, those still consumed with figuring out who they are may not seek out these opportunities to give back, and become stagnant.
Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair
The final stage of Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development theory of integrity versus despair happens in old age. This is the point where people look back on their life and decide if they’re happy with what they contributed to the world or regret the things they left unsaid or done.
On the integrity side, you feel content, says Rogers. Life may not have always gone to plan, but you’ve seen the pieces fit together and created something special. But on the despair side, “it’s the feeling that life didn’t come together,” adds Rogers, noting that this sentiment often is connected to feeling angry and bitter.
Worrell adds that at this stage, it’s not the accomplishments themselves that matter, per se. “[A professor] may feel a sense of integrity because they taught decades of students or got them interviews for jobs. A cab driver may also feel a sense of integrity. Each person helped get people where they want to go, just in different ways. A sense of integrity doesn’t depend on education or one’s job; it depends on how much they feel connected and if they are making a contribution to the world.”
Why Is Erik Erikson's Stages of Psychosocial Development Important?
The theory Dr. Erikson came up with seven decades ago is still relevant today, says Rogers. But it isn’t the only one. Freud theorized that personality developed through five psychosexual stages, for example, and Jean Piaget is also known for developing four stages of cognitive development based on intellectual milestones. And psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg created a developmental theory focused on moral development.
Another caveat to keep in mind: Dr. Erikson’s theory, based primarily on case studies, doesn’t take into account the nuances of an individual, both experts say. It’s also centered around American culture and predominantly white men. “A challenge of Erikson’s theory is that anything that deviates from the norm is considered problematic or a deficit,” explains Rogers. “But that deviation may be part of someone’s race, socioeconomic status or culture and isn’t necessarily wrong or not valuable; it just needs to be contextualized.”
“In many ways I do think it’s [still relevant],” she adds. But whatever life ideology you follow, it’s important to look at the full picture and not get lost in the weeds. “A theory is a framework that gives us one way to view the human experience, so that’s important to keep in mind, too.”