Biography of Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Biography of Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Erik Erikson was a 20th century psychologist who developed the theory of psychosocial development and the concept of an identity crisis.

Early Life

Erik Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1902. Erikson never knew his own father; he was raised by his mother and stepfather, who married in 1905. He struggled with his identity throughout his youth as he felt his stepfather never fully accepted him as he did his own daughters. Erikson grew up using his stepfather’s surname; he eventually adopted the name Erikson in 1939.

After meeting Anna Freud while working in Vienna, Erikson decided to pursue the field of psychoanalysis.

He studied child development at the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute through the Montessori method, which focused on psychosexual and developmental stages.

Erikson received a diploma from the institute, but he never received a formal degree. Instead, his knowledge was based upon his experiences and extensive reading.

Erikson married Joan Serson, a dancer and artist, in 1930, who helped him to develop his psychosocial development theory. Erikson, his wife, and young son fled the Nazi uprising for the Unites States in 1933. The couple raised three children.

Professional Life

The Erikson’s first settled in Boston, where he became the first male to practice child psychoanalysis in the Boston area and also served at the Harvard Medical School, Judge Baker Guidance Center, and Harvard’s Psychological Clinic, where he came into contact with psychologist Kurt Lewin and anthropologists Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson. Between 1936 and 1939, Erikson worked at Yale’s Institute of Human Relations and as a professor at the Yale School of Medicine. While there, he conducted a year-long study of Sioux children at a South Dakota Indian reservation.

When the Eriksons relocated to California in 1939, he worked with the Institute of Child Welfare in California and served on the faculty of the University of California at Berkeley and San Francisco. He continued studying Native American children, and he worked closely with the Yurok tribe.

Erikson remained on faculty at the University of California until 1951, when he was required to sign a loyalty oath claiming he was not a Communist. Erikson refused to sign the oath First Amendment grounds, even though he was not a Communist, and he was subsequently forced to resign from the university.

Erikson returned to Massachusetts, where he continued to focus his attention on emotionally challenged youth at the Austin Riggs Center. Erikson finished his professional career with a final stint as a professor of human development at Harvard, while he continued to conduct behavioral research and publish essays.

Erikson passed away in Massachusetts in 1994.

Contribution to Psychology

Erikson impacted psychological theories by expanding upon Sigmund Freud’s original five stages of development. Pioneering the study of the life cycle, Erikson believed that each person progressed through eight stages of development. Erikson emphasized that the environment played a major role in self-awareness, adjustment, human development, and identity.

Each of Erikson's stages of psychosocial development focus on a central conflict. In Erikson's theory of development, children don't automatically complete each stage on a predetermined schedule.

Instead, people face generalized challenges throughout life, and the ways in which they answer these challenges determine whether they develop further or stagnate at a particular stage of development.

Erikson’s eight stages and associated challenges include:

  1. Infancy: basic trust vs. basic mistrust. A baby will either develop basic trust in his or her caregiver or will grow to view the world as a dangerous place, depending upon whether the baby gets sensitive, nurturing care. 
  2. Early childhood: autonomy vs. shame and doubt. Children can either develop a sense of competence and independence or deep shame. This development is intimately related to toilet training. 
  3. Preschool years: initiative vs. guilt. Children develop a sense of initiative if they are able to explore their environments and discover they are able to do things on their own. If a child is made to feel guilty about making his or her own choices, the child will develop a sense of guilt rather than initiative. 
  4. School age: industry vs. inferiority. A child compares self to others during this phase and either develops a sense of industry and work ethic or feelings of inadequacy.
  5. Adolescence: identity vs. role confusion. During this period, teens may have an identity crisis, questioning their roles in the world and future goals. If parents allow youth to explore the world, they'll develop their own identities, but those who are punished for autonomy may develop role confusion. 
  6. Early adulthood: intimacy vs. isolation. The development of strong friendships and healthy intimate relationships help people develop intimacy, but people who fail at this task may become isolated.
  7. Middle age: generativity vs. stagnation. People who develop a sense of purpose—from parenting, hobbies, or a career—excel during this period, but those who find no purpose or value in their activities may stagnate. 
  8. Old age: ego integrity vs. despair. People may look back on their lives fondly or feel an overpowering sense of regret and despair. 

Erikson's wife added a ninth stage the couple's experiences in very late old age. She argued that as the body breaks down, autonomy may no longer be possible. The challenge during this stage is to begin to see oneself as connected to others and to see death as a natural part of the process of life.

Erikson further developed the field of ego psychology by emphasizing that the ego is not merely an avenue for the id to fulfill its desires as Freud claimed, but an important psychological structure in its own right. Erikson expanded on Freudian psychoanalysis in the widely acclaimed book, Childhood and Society, published in 1950.

Erikson's book Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence won Erikson a Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award. He also wrote Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, Martin Luther. He was selected to give the Jefferson Lectures in the Humanities in 1973.

Quote by Erik Erikson

Last Update: 07-27-2015


Erik Erikson

Biography of Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

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.

Un 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 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 a.

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
  • 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


  • 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


Erik Erikson (1902–1994) — Career, Contribution

Biography of Erik Erikson (1902-1994)

Child psychoanalyst Erik Homburger Erikson focused his research on the effects of society and culture on individual psychological development; he also developed the eight-stage model of human development.

Erikson was born in Frankfurt, Germany, of Danish parents who had separated before his birth. His surname for the first four decades of his life, Homburger, was that of his stepfather, a physician. Upon becoming a U.S.

citizen in 1939 he adopted the surname Erikson.


Although Erikson graduated from a classical gymnasium where he studied Latin, Greek, German literature, and history, he was not a good student. For the next seven years following his graduation, he was a wandering artist through Europe, sketching, doing woodcuts and etchings, and intermittently studying art.

In 1927, at age 25, he received an invitation from a childhood friend in Vienna to teach in a small progressive school for English and American children. While teaching art and history, he became acquainted with the Freud family and was judged an excellent candidate for psychoanalytic training.

As Robert Coles observed, at that time candidates did not apply, but were chosen.

He graduated with a diploma from the Vienna Psychoanalytic Society in 1933, where he was viewed as a gifted student. He also was one of two men to graduate from the Montessori teachers association. Upon graduation, he and his wife and young son fled from the encroaching Nazi domination to the United States.

Although Erikson had no formal degree, he became the first child analyst in Boston and a research associate at Harvard Medical School. From 1936 through the 1940s, he served as a research associate at Yale, then at the University of California, finally receiving a professional appointment at the latter institution.

During this period, in addition to his analytic work with children, he undertook the in-depth observational study of children in two American Indian tribes, the Sioux of South Dakota and the Yuron of northern California.

These studies marked the beginning of his integration of the analytic clinical perspective with the social and economic events that influence child development.

Shortly after Erikson received a professorial appointment at the University of California, the signing of a loyalty oath became a contractual requirement for faculty. Refusing to sign the oath, Erikson resigned in June 1950.

Noting that his field, psychoanalysis, included the study of hysteria, he stated he could not participate in this inadequate response to public hysteria. Erikson then returned to the analysis of troubled children by accepting a position at the Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

In 1960 he was appointed professor at Harvard University, where he remained until his retirement in the early 1970s.


Although trained as a psychoanalyst, Erikson's scholarship, which included fourteen books, transcended the discipline in his interweaving of culture, history, and the individual across a variety of topics. Specifically, he applied psychoanalysis in addressing anthropological, religious, and historical questions in addition to developing a comprehensive life span model of psychological development.

In his work, Erikson went beyond the Freudian focus on dysfunctional behavior to pursue the ways that the normal self is able to function successfully.

His unique contribution to the applications of psychoanalysis, his inclusion of the effects of society and culture on individual psychological development, led to the designation of his perspective as psychosocial.

Early examples are the study of the American Indian children, which combined anthropological observation and clinical analysis with tribal history and economic circumstances.

Erikson also applied psychoanalysis to develop richly detailed biographical histories of leaders who made a difference in society. Included are his chapter on Maxim Gorky, his lectures on Thomas Jefferson, and his books on Martin Luther (Young Man Luther:A Study in Psychoanalysis and History, 1962) and Mahatma Gandhi.

The latter work, Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence (1969), received both the 1970 Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.

In these works, Erikson applied clinical analysis to develop an understanding of the ways that leaders faced with untenable situations rose above them to forge new identities for themselves and other citizens.

In education and psychology, Erikson is best known for his eight-stage model of the human life cycle, developed with the assistance of his wife, Joan. This model identifies particular goals, challenges, and concerns at each stage of life.

They are the following: (1) Basic Trust versus Basic Mistrust (infancy); (2) Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt (early childhood); (3) Initiative versus Guilt (play age); (4) Industry versus Inferiority (school age); (5) Identity versus Role Confusion (adolescence); (6) Intimacy versus Isolation (young adulthood); (7) Generativity versus Stagnation (adulthood); (8) Ego Identity versus Despair (later adulthood). Further, the stages are interdependent in that unresolved conflicts at one stage influence development at later stages, as in the development of either a loving trusting relationship with a caregiver in infancy or mistrust of others.

Un Freud, who focused on early childhood, Erikson emphasized adolescence and adulthood. Erikson introduced the term identity and identity crisis to explain the psychological and social complexities faced by young people in attempting to find their place in a specific town, nation, and time.

Adolescent development, in other words, is a complex answer to the question, «Who am I?» and requires organization of the individual's drives, abilities, beliefs, and history into a view of oneself.

This focus reflects Erikson's own youthful wanderings before finding his place as a teacher, analyst, and writer.

In the 1960s Erikson focused on the seventh or «generative» stage of adulthood. In this stage, adults are obligated to care for the next generation, either one's own children or a broader group, through personal deeds and words.

In the case of Gandhi, his contribution to the next generation was his militant nonviolence as a means to address social injustice.

In addition Erikson described the final stage, late adulthood, as an active period that involves acceptance of self and the development of wisdom.

A third focus in Erikson's writing, ethical and moral responsibility, is reflected most prominently in Insight and Responsibility (1964).

In this work, he included a set of eight virtues that correspond with his eight life stages (hope, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, care, and wisdom). He also introduced the term pseudospeciation to describe the destructive mechanism that leads to human conflict, aggression, and war.

Specifically, pseudospeciation refers to the «arrogant placing of one's nation, race, culture, and (or) society ahead of others; the failure to recognize that all of humanity was of one species» (Friedman, p. 357).

Groups of individuals, in other words, are assigned membership in a not-quite human or pseudo-species. With this concept, as in his other writings, Erikson spoke to human psychological issues within the broader context of history and culture.

COLES, ROBERT. 1970. Erik H. Erikson: The Growth of His Work. Boston: Little, Brown.

COLES, ROBERT, ed. 2000. The Erik Erikson Reader. New York: Norton.

ERIKSON, ERIK H. 1950. Children and Society. New York: Norton.

ERIKSON, ERIK H. 1962. Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History. New York: Norton.

ERIKSON, ERIK H. 1964. Insight and Responsibility. New York: Norton.

ERIKSON, ERIK H. 1969. Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. New York: Norton.

ERIKSON, ERIK H. 1981 «The Galilean Sayings and the Sense of 'I.»' Yale Review 70:321–362.

FRIEDMAN, LAWRENCE J. 1998. «Erik H. Erikson's Critical Themes and Voices: The Task of Synthesis.» In Ideas and Identities: The Life and Work of Erik Erikson, ed. Robert S. Wallerstein and Leo Goldberger. Madison, CT: International Universities Press.

KOTRE, JOHN. 1984. Outliving the Self: Generativity and the Interpretation of Lives. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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