Erik Erikson: Biography & Quotes

Instructor: Nathan Kilgore

Nathan has taught college Psychology, Sociology, English, and Communications and has a master's degree in education.

This lesson provides a biography of Erik Erikson, explores Erikson's major contributions to psychology including notable publications, quotations, and well known theories regarding identity and development.

Erik Erikson Biography

Did you know that Erik Erikson is often compared to Sigmund Freud? This is because both Freud and Erikson are commonly known as stage theorists. Stage theorists suggest that people develop through various stages in life. Erikson contributed greatly to psychology with his concept of psychosocial stages of development, and many consider him to be one of the most influential psychoanalysts of the 1900s. Through Erikson's theories of development, professionals in the field have gained a better understanding of how people form their identity.

Erik Homberger Erikson was born in 1902 in Frankfort, Germany. Throughout his schooling years, Erikson studied art and several different languages. Initially Erikson did not go to college. Instead, he traveled around Europe, keeping a diary of his travels. Erikson pursued his interest in art after high school, and eventually enrolled in college. In 1927, he became an art teacher at a school in Vienna - a school that had been started by Dorothy Burlingham and Anna Freud.

In 1933, he came to the United States and secured a position at Harvard Medical School as a child analyst. Years later, Erikson would hold positions at Yale, Berkeley, and the Menninger Foundation. Erikson wrote numerous books and essays including Childhood and Society (1950), Young Man Luther: A Study in Psychoanalysis and History (1958), Identity: Youth in Crisis (1968), and several others. Erikson died in 1994 at age 91.

Erik Erikson
erik erikson

A Snapshot of Erikson's Contributions

  • Developed the eight psychosocial stages of development, where each stage is to be navigated throughout an entire lifespan and contains a psychological struggle that influences personality development.
  • Introduced the idea of ones concept of self (ego) forming and developing throughout an entire lifespan, opposed to being fixed and established in the earliest years.
  • Coined the term identity crisis to describe what happens when someone does not achieve ego identity during adolescence.
  • Encouraged the idea that society and environment can influence the development of personality.
  • Wrote bestselling books on Mohandas K. Gandhi (winning a Pulitzer Prize) and Martin Luther.
  • Gave numerous lectures at Harvard University, Yale University, and clinical studies on children.

Erikson's Stages of Development

Erikson is often recognized for his eight stages of development. Each stage details a conflict that an individual must overcome in order to develop to obtain emotional health. For example, the first stage of development is trust vs. mistrust. In this stage (typically birth - 2 years old), infants look to their caregiver to determine who can be trusted, and who is untrustworthy. Consider, for instance, a child who is in a room when a large dog enters the same room. The child runs over and hugs the leg of their caregiver. Erikson would be likely to label this action as one of trusting the caregiver for safety and stability. If the child is unable to find safety and stability in their caregiver, they would get 'stuck' at the stage of trust vs. mistrust and be likely to struggle throughout their lives with trusting others, feeling as though the world is unsafe and unpredictable.

Erikson placed a good bit of emphasis on identity vs. role confusion, the stage entered during adolescence. Erikson believed that during this stage, adolescents are trying to answer the question, 'Who am I' as they search to define and discover their identity. Erikson suggested that teens try on and off various identities like jackets, trying to see which one fits best. The hope is that adolescents can discover their identity and gain a sense of fidelity. Otherwise, people in this stage will experience role confusion (identity crisis), low self-esteem, and ultimately struggle to enter the next stage (intimacy vs. isolation). Erikson believed that people develop their identities over their entire lifespan. This thinking was quite different from Freud, for example, who believed that ones personality is fully developed during childhood.

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