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Erikson and Ego Psychologies

Freud believed the ego drew its energy from the id. Jung believed the source of power in the psyche was the uncon­scious. Both are termed depth psych­ologies, because they located the motivating power of personality deep in largely inaccessible parts of the psyche.

Adler and Horney, by contrast, both represented the ego or conscious self as a source of power. People could analyze their life circumstances and react to them, changing their patterns of living.

Erik Erikson was another well-known 20th Century theorist who adopted this approach. Personality theories that emphasize self-knowledge and the ability to change were called ego psychologies in the mid-20th Century.

What is ego psychology?

In Europe, the beginning of ego psychology was associated with the name of Heinz Hartmann. Hartmann, a good friend of Freud's, wrote papers in the early 1930s proposing that the ego was an active, independent force.

Hartmann coined the term ego psychology. His book Ego psychology and the problem of adaptation (1939/1958) might have had a greater impact in America if it had been available in English before its eventual translation in 1958, when ideas related to Freudian theory were already in decline.

The best-known ego psychologist in America was Erik Erikson. Erikson did his best-known work between 1950 and 1980. His wife Joan, a Canadian artist and dancer who he married in 1930, was his lifelong collaborator.

The Eriksons were good writers, and their ideas found their way into popular vocabulary. Most people have heard of searching for identity, identity crisis, and mid-life crisis. Erickson's book Gandhi's Truth won a Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award as an outstanding work of literature.

How did Erikson himself suffer an identity crisis?

Erikson went through an identity crisis himself. His parents split up before he was born. When he was three his mother re-married a pediatrician in Karlsruhe, Germany named Theodore Homberger.

This fact was concealed from young Erik, who grew up as Erik Homberger. When he found out Dr. Homberger was not his biological father, Erik felt unsure of who he really was.

Erik did poorly in school and never went to college. Resisting his adoptive father's urgings to pursue a medical education, he wandered Europe for a few years, "alienated from everything my bourgeois family stood for" (Erikson, 1975, p.28).

What are some theories about Erikson's name?

portrait of Erikson
Erik Erikson

When he emigrat­ed to the new world, Erik Homberger decided on a new identity for himself, changing his name to Erik H. Erikson. His choice of the name Erikson was never adequately explained. It was not the name of his biological father.

Perhaps it was symbolic of his self-regenerated identity: he was "son of himself." Some say he wished his two sons to be known as "Erik's sons." Erikson is also a good Danish name, and both of Erik's biological parents had been Danes.

Erikson was a friend of Sigmund Freud and never renounced Freud's theory. He claimed to be building upon its foundations. However, Hjelle and Ziegler (1992) identify four ways in which Erikson departed from Freud's assumptions.

Did Erikson renounce Freud's theory? What are some differences between his ideas and Freud's?

1. Erikson regarded the ego as an autonomous system. It dealt with reality through the conscious thought process, including perception, attention, and memory. It was not at the mercy of the id or super-ego.

2. Erikson stressed the historical and cultural setting in which a person's ego was formed. He compared the influences of different times and different cultures on ego development in his book Young Man Luther (about Martin Luther) and in Gandhi's Truth.

3. Erikson's theory covers the entire lifespan of the individual, from infancy to old age. Freud felt the major influences on the ego occurred in the early years of life.

4. Erikson emphasizes the possibility of triumph over the crises of life. Freud discussed mostly the ill effects of early crises.

Erikson's Psychosocial Stages

Childhood and Society was Erikson's first book, first published in 1950 and revised in 1963. The ideas in it were developed with his wife, Joan; references to "Erikson's work" here should be under­stood to include her strong influence.

Erikson identified a series of eight crises that, he said, characterized the growth of personality. The word crisis in this context is not entirely negative.

A crisis is a challenge to the ego, a threat but also an opportunity to grow and improve. Erikson described a lifelong series of crises and called them psychosocial stages.

How did Erikson describe development?

Erikson's stage theory was first described by Erik Erikson at a 1950 White House conference on devel­opment. Each age range was described as presenting a different challenge.

For example, infancy was characterized by a competition or conflict between basic trust and mistrust. This is like Horney's idea that the mother and young child establish a relationship that creates either basic trust or basic anxiety.

If the crisis was successfully resolved (if it had a happy outcome) the child was left with hope instead of despair. Each other crisis or challenge throughout life could result in new difficulties or a new "virtue." These virtues became part of a person's enduring personality, according to the Eriksons, and persisted into old age with distinctive results.

The Eriksons' Psychosocial Stages

Infancy: Age 0-1

Conflict: basic trust vs. mistrust

If resolved, the virtue is hope

Culmination in old age: Appreciation of interdependence and relatedness

Early childhood: Age 1-3

Conflict: autonomy vs shame

If resolved, the virtue is will

Culmination in old age: Acceptance of the cycle of life, from integration to disintegration

Play age: Age 3-6

Conflict: initiative vs guilt

If resolved, the virtue is purpose

Culmination in old age: Humor, empathy, resilience

School age: Age 6-12

Conflict: industry vs. inferiority

If resolved, the virtue is competence

Culmination in old age: Humility, acceptance of the course of one's life and unfulfilled hopes

Adolescence: Age 12-19

Conflict: identity vs. confusion

If resolved, the virtue is fidelity

Culmination in old age: Sense of complexity of life, merging of sensory, logical, and aesthetic perception

Early adulthood: Age 20-25

Conflict: intimacy vs. isolation

If resolved, the virtue is love

Culmination in old age: Sense of complexity of relationships, value of tenderness and loving freely

Adulthood: Age 26-64

Conflict: generativity vs. stagnation

If resolved, the virtue is care

Culmination in old age: Caritas (caring for others) and agape (empathy and concern)

Old age: Age 65-death

Conflict: integrity vs. despair

If resolved, the virtue is wisdom

Culmination in old age: Existential identity, a sense of integrity strong enough to withstand physical disintegration

The Eriksons' description of the eight stages of life had a lot of appeal when they came out with it. Freudian ideas were not yet in disrepute, and Erikson seemed to extend the basic Freudian framework into plausible, easily under­stood phases of ego growth.

Erikson was rated as the fifth most influential psychologist of the century in a survey of postwar psychology (Gilgen, 1982). The participation of his wife as a co-theorist and writing partner was usually not mentioned.

Much research was done to test predic­tions based on Erikson's theory, especially the adolescent crisis of identify vs. role confusion. The Eriksons were some of the few personality theorists who said anything interesting about adolescence. (Jung just called adolescence the "impossible years.")

Which part of the Eriksons' theory received the most research attention?

James Marcia (1966) proposed one of the best-known research programs that explored one of Erikson's proposed stages. He looked at identity formation in adolescence and found four distinct ego identity statuses. These can be shown as a 2 x 2 matrix that Marcia produced for a 1980 publication.

A 2 by 2 table shows Marcia's 4 types
Marcia's (1980) matrix

Marcia and co-workers found that "foreclosers" tended to have closer relationships with parents (Marcia, 1980). "Identity diffuse" students tended to regard parents as indifferent or rejecting and were more likely to respond to peer pressures.

What did Marcia and co-workers find out?

Some of Erikson's ideas did not stand up well to research. Van De Water and McAdams (1989) found that generativity, supposedly a product of middle adulthood, was not related to age.

"Midlife crisis" is famous, but it actually not very common. A 1971 study of middle-aged men found a variety of developmental paths, with few men reporting a mid-life crisis.

Stage theories in general were popular in the mid 20th Century. We have seen them in Piaget's work, Kubler-Ross's work, Maslow's hierarchy of needs, and several other places in previous chapters.

The problem with stage theories is that they are always plausible, and every­body can fit them to their own life (much like astrology readings). But there are always exceptions.

In psychology stage theories are not a strong form of scientific model, unless stated with a precision that produces surprising predictions. If they make firm predictions, stage theories tend to be disproved when actual data is collected, because there is so much variety in the human population.

Interest in Erikson's theories peaked around 1979 and dropped off thereafter. His literary contributions were celebrated, but he is not now an influential figure in personality theory, as measured by citation analysis.

Ego or Self-Concept Psychology

The distinctive thesis of ego psychol­ogists, in the mid-20th Century, was that conscious parts of the personality could play a decisive role in changing people's lives. Ego could change personality itself.

Erickson's theories are one example of this. At each stage, the self had to meet a challenge. This was not done by unearthing hidden complexes; it was the work of the conscious self, striving to make the best out of life.

The word ego itself became less popular as time went on, being associated with Freudian theory. In personality psych­ology, between about 1950 and 1980, the idea of ego was largely replaced by the idea of self-concept.

The self-concept is how a person conceives or represents his or her own personality. This is not just a passive assessment but an ongoing influence on behavior. Markus and Wurf (1987) described the view of ego psychologists in the 1980s that "self-concept [is] active, forceful, and capable of change."

The self-concept is not necessarily viewed as a unitary thing. One of the trends in modern theories of personality is to view the self-concept as flexible, malleable, and multiple, able to address the multiple roles that most of us play in different contexts of our lives.

The self-concept is "a set or collection of images, schemas, conceptions, prototypes, theories, goals, or tasks" (Markus and Wurf, 1987). "It is now commonplace to refer to the multiplicity of identity."

But not all self-representations are equally important. For example, a young man might say, "My 'musician' self is not nearly as important as my 'father' self,' and if I have to make a choice, the music can wait."

What is the advantage of the "dialogical self"?

Hermans, Kempen, and van Loon (1992) argue for the importance of the dialogical self. "The self can imaginatively occupy a number of positions that permit mutual dialogical relations." The dialogical self is used whenever you hold an internal debate or second-guess yourself after making a decision, or look at a problem from several different perspectives.

The dialogical self is one of the key attributes of human consciousness, because it allows reflection. You can examine a point of view from multiple perspectives, occupying first one position then another, arguing both sides of an issue, rather than impulsively seizing the first interpretation available.

Google's ngram viewer shows that the phrase "self concept" peaked in 1980. "Ego psychology" had a good run, from about 1955 to 2005, before dropping in frequency of usage.

"Dialogical self" first appeared around 1980 and peaked around 2004. By contrast, "trait theories" become commonly-used after 1940, jumped in the 1970s, and the phrase is still used just as frequently in the 20-teens.


Erikson, E. H. (1975). Life History and the Historical Moment. New York: Norton.

Hjelle, L. A. & Ziegler, D. J. (1992) Personality. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Gilgen, A. R. (1982) American Psychology since World War II: A Profile of the Discipline. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Hermans, H. J. M., Kempen, H. J. G., & van Loon, R. J. P. (1992). The dialogical self: Beyond individualism and rationalism. American Psychologist, 47, 23-33.

Marcia, J. E. (1966). Development and validation of ego identity status. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 3, 551-558.

Marcia, J. E. (1980) Identity in adolescence. Chapter 5 in In J. Adelson (Ed.) Handbook of Adolescent Psychology. New York: Wiley.

Markus, H. & Wurf, E. (1987) The dynamic self-concept: A social psychological perspective. Annual Review of Psychology, 38, pp. 299-338.

Van De Water, D. A. & McAdams, D. P. (1989). Generativity and Erikson's "belief in the species". Journal of Research in Personality, 23, 435-449.

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