Erik Erikson

Researched and written by:  Michael Thomas
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..

“Healthy children will not fear life if their elders have integrity enough not to fear death.”

“Doubt is the brother of shame.”



Erik Homberger Erikson was born on June 15, 1902 in Frankfurt, Germany to his Jewish mother Karla Abrahamsen and to his biological father, who was an unnamed Danish man.  Erikson’s biological father abandoned him before he was born, so his mother went on to marry Dr. Theodor Homberger, who was Erikson’s pediatrician.  They then moved to Karlsruhe in southern Germany (Boeree, 1997). 


During his school years, Erikson studied art and many languages instead of chemistry and biology.  Erikson never liked formal schooling, so he decided against going to college (Sharkey, 1997).  When Eriskon graduated high school, he was interested in becoming an artist.  Around 1920, he decided to travel Europe but he had to sleep under bridges (Boeree, 1997).  After he traveled around Europe for a year, he made the decision to enroll in an art school back in Germany.  Erikson stayed at the art school for several years, so he began to teach art and other subjects to the American children who came to Vienna for Freudian training (Sharkey, 1997).


In fact, Erikson was admitted to the Vienna Psychoanalytic Institute.  In 1933, he moved to Boston, Massachusetts and filled a position at Harvard Medical School as America’s first child analyst (Sharkey, 1997).  While Erikson was at Harvard, he met psychologists such as Henry Murray and Kurt Lewin and anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Gregory Bateson.  It was said that they had as much as an impact on him as Sigmund and Anna Freud (Boeree, 1997).  Later in Erikson’s career, he held positions at Yale, Berkeley, and the Menninger Foundation (Sharkey, 1997).  While he taught at Yale and at the University of California at Berkeley, he did his famous studies on the modern life of the Lakota and the Yurok (Boeree, 1997). 


Interestingly, Erikson officially changed his named to Erik Erikson when he became an American citizen, though no one knows how he chose him name (Boeree, 1997).  Erikson is known for being a prolific writer since he wrote many books and essays.  For example, he published Childhood and Society (1950), Young Man Luther (1958), Youth:  Change and Challenge (1963), Insight and Responsibility (1964), and Identity:  Youth and Crisis (1968), (Sharkey, 1997).


Erikson left the University of California at Berkeley in 1950 because professors were asked to sign “loyalty oaths” during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s reign of terror, since Erikson refused to comply by signing the oath he left California for security. Therefore, Erikson went on to teach at a clinic in Massachusetts and then back to Harvard before he retired in 1970.  Erikson passed away in 1994 at the age of 92 (Boeree, 1997).


Erikson’s main contribution to psychology was his developmental theory.  Though Sigmund Freud influenced Erikson significantly, he believed that humans developed throughout their life span.  However, Freud believed that our personality was shaped by age five.  Erikson developed eight psychosocial stages of development and believed that each stage presented a crisis that must be resolved before one can proceed to the next stage.  The stages are Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Stagnation, and Integrity vs. Despair (Sharkey, 1997).


Erikson’s initial stage, Trust vs. Mistrust, occurred from birth to one year.  Erikson believed that if an infants needs were met, such as being fed when hungry, they would develop trust.  He also mentioned that mistrust must be learned to be able to discriminate between honest and dishonest people.  Erikson said that if mistrust wins over trust the child will likely become withdrawn and will lack self-confidence (Sharkey, 1997).  Erikson’s second stage, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, occurred between ages two and three.  He stated that parents need to create a supportive atmosphere so the child may develop self-control.  If basic trust were not sufficiently developed, the child would have developed shame and doubt about his or her sense of self-control.  This was also the stage in which rules were encountered (Sharkey, 1997).  The third stage, Initiative vs. Guilt, occurred from ages four and five.  During this stage the child discovered who he or she was going to be.  Initiative was increased when the child developed a sense of responsibility.  If the child was irresponsible and felt too anxious, they felt guilt.  Erikson believed that most guilt was compensated for quickly by accomplishment (Sharkey, 1997).


Erikson’s fourth stage, Industry vs. Inferiority, occurred between age six and puberty.  During this period, the child entered school where he or she was exposed to society’s technology.  Erikson said that teachers should “mildly but firmly coerce children into the adventure of finding out that one can learn to accomplish things which one would never have thought of by oneself” (Santrock, 2004, p. 46).  If the child had successful experiences, they received a sense of industry, which was a feeling of expertise.  But if the child failed, they felt a sense of inferiority.  The fifth stage, Identity vs. Role Confusion, occurred during adolescence.  Elements of Erikson’s previous stages contributed significantly to this stage. 


During this period the adolescent must have discovered who they were because they were seeking an identity (Sharkey, 1997).  Erikson himself was said to struggle with his own identity because during his early life, he was known as Erik Homberger.  He was a tall, blond, blue-eyed, Jewish boy who was teased for being Nordic and teased for being Jewish (Boeree, 1997).  Erikson’s sixth stage, Intimacy vs. Isolation, occurred during young adulthood.  He stated that intimacy was only possible if a reasonably well-integrated identity resulted from the fifth stage.  The seventh stage, Generativity vs. Stagnation, occurred during middle adulthood.  During this period, we must have assisted the younger generation in leading useful and productive lives.  If the individual did nothing to assist the younger generation, they felt stagnant as a result.  The eighth and final stage, Integrity vs. Despair, occurred during late adulthood.  In this stage, the individual reflected on the past.  If their prior stages developed well, they felt a sense of integrity, but if their previous stages had not developed positively, they felt a sense of despair.  Erikson believed that development was both qualitative and quantitative and that nature determined the sequence of the stages (Sharkey, 1997). 


Erik Erikson has made numerous contributions to society as a psychologist.  His developmental theory had a major impact on the way we view psychology today.  All of his professional accomplishments have lead us to a better understanding of the field of psychology and psychoanalysis and for these contributions history will never forget him.




Boeree, G. C. (1997).  Biography.  Retrieved March 29, 2005 from

Santrock, J. W.  (2004).  Life-Span Development.  New York:  McGraw-Hill.

Sharkey, W.  (1997).  Erik Erikson.  Retrieved March 29, 2005 from




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