About the Ego

Sees the ego as representing “man’s capacity to unify his experience and his action in an adaptive manner” and he makes the ego the master rather than the slave of the other two systems.

Erikson believed that the ego qualities outlined in each stage of psychosocial development develop and mature only through experience with the social environment.

Erikson proposes that just as our physical parts develop and grow, in a specific order, from a genetic design, so too do our egos, our psychological characteristics, evolve out of an earlier “ground plan.”

The ego quality that emerges at each succeeding stage of life - depends and builds on qualities developed in earlier stages.

For Erickson puberty and adolescence precede the genital stage of adulthood.

Psychosocial Theory

Erikson shows in a framework of successive psychosocial crises, how each ego quality emerges in response to both the inner “ground plan” and the social environment and how it must establish and maintain itself against the challenge it confronts.  The ego has its roots in social organization.

Crisis is interpreted as the turning point, a time when both potential and vulnerability are greatly increased, so that events may go either well or poorly.

     Trust vs. Mistrust
     (0-1 year)

The infant’s initial ability to trust itself and the correlation of its inner beliefs with outer reality provide the infant with the first rudimentary sense of ego identity.

A sound relationship with the mother that combines sensitive care of the infant’s individual needs and a sense of personal trustworthiness is the essential ingredient in a lasting sense of trust.

     Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt
     (1-3 years)

Learning to control and modulate one’s self.  Otherwise the child learns shame and doubt.

Erikson believes that too much shaming may lead the child to rebel or leave him/her with a lasting sense of insecurity.

The virture of will develops out of the child’s earliest efforts at self-control and its observations of the superior will of others. The capacity to make free choices and to restrain and apply oneself increases gradually as the child gains in powers of attention and in the ability to manipulate things, to move about on its own, and to talk.

Initiative vs. Guilt
(4-5 years)

The ego quality of initiative enables the child to plan and set about tasks.  The child is eager to learn and learns quickly.  It begins to master skills and tries hard to perform well.
Guilt - learning what is forbidden.  Sexual fantasies may arouse guilt.  As the child develops a “sense of moral responsibility” (the superego), it experiences severe conflict between the inner urges that propel its growth and the parental guidelines that it is now expected to make its own.

As it gives up some of its hopes and fantasies, Erikson says, the child may suppress an “inner power house of rage.”

The virtue of purpose, (the courage to pursue goals without fearing punishment or guilt) develops through play which is now the child’s major activity and important to development.

In play, the child learns to master reality by repeating difficult situations and tasks and by finding out what things are for and experimenting with how to make them work.  By imitating adults in its play, the child learns to anticipate future roles.

Industry vs. Inferiority

A sense of industry develops as the child learns to control its lively imagination and to apply itself to formal education.

At no time is the child more ready to learn quickly land avidly to become big in the sense of sharing obligation, discipline and performance.

Gradually, its interest in play is surpassed by an interest in producing and learning how to use the tools of work.

If the child fails or is made to feel that he has failed to master the tasks of school and home, the child may develop a lasting sense of inferiority.

In this stage the virtue of competence is developed - the exercise of dexterity and intelligence in the completion of tasks.

Identity vs. Identity Confusion

The young person is just beginning to form an identity.

Adolescents begin to sense their individuality.  They become aware that they have the strength to control their own destinies and feel the need to define themselves and their goals.  They want to take their place in society. Whether in more or less conventional roles or in roles that challenge established ways.

This is time for making plans.  A difficult choice is about one’s occupation.  Decisions made have longterm consequences.

Adolescents often experience identity confusion. (About sexual urges, about important decisions that they may feel unprepared to make; want to participate in society but are afraid of making mistakes, or being misled.)

Teens can develop a negative identity - a sense of being potentially bad or unworthy.  May project it onto others.

Adolescents often overidentify with heroes - such as rock stars - or form cliques that confer a kind of collective identity on them and in which they stereotype themselves, their ideals, and their enemies.  These behaviors are part of their effort to understand themselves and to formulate values.

Some young people are unable or not ready (developmentally) to resolve their identity crises and need a period of delay which Erikson calls a period of “psychosocial moratorium ( a time during which adult commitments are postponed).

The virtue developed is fidelity.  Erikson says to be faithful top one’s values, one needs to be developing a pretty firm sense of identity.  At the same time, fidelity supports a continuing sense of identity: the more one adheres to one’s values, no matter how they may be challenged, the more certain one becomes of one’s identity.

Intimacy vs. Isolation     
(Young Adulthood)

People are ready and eager to unite their identities with those of others.

Young adults seek relationships of intimacy - friendships and working relationships as well as loving sexual relationships.     

They are ready to develop the strengths they will need to fulfill commitments to others, eventhough commitment may call for sacrifice and compromise.

Isolation - is the inability to take chances with one’s identiy by sharing true intimacy.  This may be combined with fear of commitment.

The virtue developed is love.  According to Erikson, love is a “mutuality of devotion” that overcomes the inevitable antagonisms between people who differ in personality, experience, and roles.

Generativity vs. Stagnation
 (30-65 years)

Generativity - the concern for establishing and guiding the next generation.

Adults want to have children to whom they can transmit their values.

Includes productivity and creativity.  The need to generate products and ideas.  Some individuals fulfill the parental drive in this way rather than through children.

Stagnation results in the personality becoming improverished and regresses into self-concern.

The virtue developed is care.  The need to look after others and to teach them.  Teaching fulgills our need to feel that we are important to others; it also helps to keep us from becoming overly concerned with ourselves      and ensures that a culture will survive.

Integrity vs. Despair
(65 years - )

Life has order and meaning within a larger context.  In assessing their lives, an individual is prepared to defend the dignity of the lifestyle they choose.

The integrity of one’s life-style becomes one’s inheritance from oneself.

We inherit our integrity from outselves; our integrity reflects all that we have been and done and achieved.

In contemplating the ups and downs of one’s life and the nearness of death, one may feel despair.  One may experience the feeling that one’s life has been without meaning and there is no time to go back and begin again.

If integrity outweighs despair, the virtue acquired is wisdom - the accumulation of knowledge.

Ritualization, Ritual and Ritualism

Each developmental stage is characterized by a ritualization - a culturally patterned way of doing something in an interaction with others.

The earliest ritualization is the encounter between the mother (or mothering person) and her baby.

In adulthood, the ritualization becomes the ritual, an activity engaged in by a community of adults to mark and important event of a recurring nature. (Such as the rites of passage ceremonies.)

Ritualizations integrate the young into society by teaching them to fulfill their needs in ways that are acceptable to the culture.  It also ensures young people’s belongingness in their culture.  Ritualization also helps to prepare the young to become ritualizers themselves.     

Examples of rituals are provided in the text at each stage of development.


Erikson also engaged in psychohistory - the study of the lives of historical figures by means of both psychoanalytic techniques and historical methods of analysis.


Erickson’s theory represents philosophy, science and art.

Erikson believes that a sound personality theory requires a sound philosophical base.

Erikson believes that important moral commitments lie within the psychoanalytic framework.  He explored the evolution of the superego and distinguished among infant morality, adolescent ideology, and adult ethics.  He showed how epigenetic (progressing in a cumulative fashion) principles apply to the development of      conscience.

The ego strengths that Erikson outlines may be seen as ethical values toward which the human race can strive.

Ultimately, he aims for a universally applied ethical standard, a contemporary version of the Golden Rule, which he translates as “What is hateful to yourself, do not do to your fellow man.”

Erikson’s philosophical statements are explicit, unlike Freud’s which are implicit.

Erikson’s theory is highly comprehensive, accounting for many factors in personality development; he includes biological, cognitive, cultural and historical variables in his discussion.

Erikson believes that a narrow scientific methodology is not able to account for his findings and is not appropriate for the study of personality.  He believes that complex concepts like identity do not readily lend themselves to measurement.

Erikson’s theory links cognitive and personality development.  He explicitly states that changes in a person’s thinking skills will lead to changes in that person’s social interactions and personality.

His work has had enormous impact in the clinical area.  It has enriched formal psychoanalysis and had wide application in child psychology, education, psychotherapy, vocational and marriage counseling.

He also has provided insights into the needs of senior citizens.


Erikson's Concept of Ego Identity Reconsidered
An article published in the Journal of the American Psyoanalytic Association.

Erik H. Erikson
News and Reviews From the Archives of the New York Times  Note:  You will have to register before having access to Erikson's articles.  No charge, but a clever publicity move on the part of the New York Times.
This is a very comprehensive site on the life and works of Erik Erikson. It includes reviews of all the books written by Erikson, as well as those written about Erikson by others. It also contains interviews and news articles about Erikson. Books reviewed include: Childhood and Society (1950); Insight and Responsibility; Lectures on the Ethical Implications of Psychoanalytic Insight, (1965); Identity: Youth and Crisis, (1968); Gandhi's Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence, (1969); The Search of Common Ground: Conversations of Erik H. Erikson and Huey P. Newton, (1973); Life History and the Historical Moment, (1975); Dimensions of a New Identity, (1976); Toys and Reasons: Stages in the Ritualization of Experience, (1977); A Way of Looking At Things: Selected Papers From 1930 to 1980; and a host of articles about Erikson from others.


Erik Erikson
Jeffrey Guterman, Ph.D. discusses the theories of psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Visit for more information.