Erikson’s Theory of Development

Erikson's Theory of DevelopmentErik Erikson set forth a theory of ego identity development to account for the interactions between psychological, social, historical, and developmental factors in the formation of personality. Perhaps no single theoretician has had a greater impact on the way we perceive adolescent identity development than E. H. Erikson. His writing seems timeless, and ideas from his classic book Identity: Youth and Crisis, published in 1968, are still pertinent to this day. Originally, Erikson was concerned with the difficulties some World War II veterans encountered upon reentering civilian life, and he became interested in problems associated with acute identity diffusion. Over time and through clinical experience, he came to believe that the pathological difficulties some veterans experienced in leaving one role (soldier) and entering another (civilian) were psychologically similar to the problems some adolescents experience as they leave childhood and move through the transition of adolescence into adulthood. From this experiential framework, along with observations of Native American populations, he constructed a theory of psychological and social development with a focus on identity formation.

Erikson’s academic training was originally based on psychoanalytic theory, but he turned his attention to ego development: the portion of personality that serves the executive function of directing, guiding, and selecting thought and action. In his writings, there are many different definitions of identity. At times, he refers to the consistency and sameness that a person uses as a style of individuality and its meaning for significant others in the immediate family and community. He often stated that identity is a form of persistent character one shares with others.

Throughout his many writings, Erikson proposed that self-sameness and continuity are expressed through a conscious sense of individual identity; a coherent and stable, yet evolving, character; and the solidarity one develops with a group’s ideals and social identity. He focused most strongly on occupational, religious, and political aspects of identity formation, because each of these emerges from the interaction of the individual with the social institutions that offer a form of ideology. For example, occupational identity emerges within a communist, socialist, or capitalist ideology; religious identity is formulated within Protestant, Catholic, Islamic, or other forms of ideology; and political identity is constructed within party, state, or group ideologies, such as Republican or Democratic ideological platforms in the United States.

Life Stages

Erikson proposed an eight-stage theory of human development. These stages are set by societal expectations to accomplish specific developmental tasks. Each task, when successfully resolved, provides a particular strength to identity development. Erikson referred to each stage as a crisis. For each crisis, the individual can take one of two opposing resolutions. However, crisis is not meant to be a calamity or catastrophe. Rather, a crisis refers to a necessary turning point, a critical and crucial moment in development in which the individual moves in one direction or another. In the adolescent stage (Stage 5), this normative crisis stimulates identity consciousness, which compels the individual to explore life alternatives (with occupational or vocational choices being of great concern) and make a personal ideological or career commitment. However, it is important to restate that all crises associated with the eight stages in the life span make contributions to the nature and quality of identity. A brief description of the eight stages follows.

Erikson proposed that the eight major dilemmas of the life span are universally experienced; that is, in one form or another, an astute observer of culture can find these eight stages. Indeed, he argued that many so-called cultural differences were due to pseudospecification: the creation of an illusion that differences exist when, in reality, things are more similar than different. In the first crisis, the infant establishes a sense of basic trust through social and physical care by an effective caregiver. If not, the child will mistrust others. During the toddler years, the child explores the world and is given secure psychological space to find a sense of autonomy. If not, the child will experience shame and doubt. During childhood, the child is supported in his or her initiative to master new learning tasks and develop a sense of initiative. If not, the child will experience guilt. In early adolescence, the child is encouraged to strive toward competence, mastery, and achievement and develop a sense of industry. If not, the adolescent will feel inferior. During adolescence proper, the adolescent must search and explore the question “Who am I?” Failure to answer this question results in role confusion. During youth or emerging adulthood, the individual either finds someone to engage in mutual sharing and trust to develop a sense of intimacy or, if not, feels isolated and alone. In middle and late adulthood, the crisis focuses on generativity versus feelings of stagnation, with the positive resolution of the crisis resulting in the ability to care for others. In the final adult stage of old age, the crisis centers on integrity versus despair and depression, with resolution resulting in wisdom.

Ego Strengths

Each of the eight stages in life provides an opportunity to enhance the psychological outcomes (ego virtues) of identity formation. That is, positive resolution of each stage provides ego strengths that bolster and support a healthy personality in the form of a maturing identity. To develop trust is to provide a sense of hope for life and a positive future. To feel autonomy and openness to exploration is to promote the virtue of (free) will. To encourage the resolution of initiative is to help internalize a sense of purpose. With a sense of industry, a youth acquires the ego strength of competence. To find an answer to “Who am I?” provides the strength of fidelity. To feel capable of intimacy is to promote the ability to love. During the adult years, generativity promotes the strength of caring, and integrity promotes a feeling of wisdom.

Each virtue reflects either forward or back on the fifth stage of identity formation. Therefore, although identity is stable over relatively short periods of time, it is also transforming and growing stronger with each life stage. However, the fifth stage of life is the one in which the most obvious and visible identity “work” is evident. This is because each society provides a scheduled time period for the completion of an identity. Although he recognized tremendous cultural variations in the duration, intensity, and ritualization of adolescence, Erikson proposed that all societies offer a period of psychosocial moratorium wherein the adolescent is expected to make an initial commitment for living and to establish a firmer sense of self-definition. The psychosocial moratorium period focuses heavily on career and occupational choices, educational preparation, and vocational identity formation.


Erikson acknowledged that like all personal knowledge, the self is constructed in a relational context. In particular, he recognized the importance and power of societal institutions, such as religion, culture, work, politics, and family. The ideologies of each institution set the structure around which identity choices are made. His most observant thoughts focused on biographical accounts of individuals such as Gandhi and Martin Luther, in which he discussed the psychological and social processes surrounding their identity formation and the importance of recognition from others about personal choices that are made by the individual. Essentially, Erikson argued that socialization processes that enhance imitation, identification, and internalization of societal values, goals, and directions are the building blocks of identity formation. In addition, socialization processes demonstrate direct feedback to the individual that his or her identity matters to others, which provides the “glue” between the individual’s identity and social approval. This bond is made up of social recognition for values and goals selected, institutional support for endorsing particular ideological viewpoints, and daily recognition by family members, teachers, peers, and others that one’s identity is a good fit with the community and culture within which one lives.

Executive Functions of Identity

Erikson’s writing focused on the interconnection between identity and ego mechanisms. In particular, he believed that the ego operated to provide a self-regulatory function in the development of self and the choices in behaviors and actions from moment to moment. Researchers have inspected the writings of Erikson and concluded that he essentially discussed five basic functions of identity and self-regulation. Identity offers the following five self-regulation mechanisms:

  1. The structure for understanding who one is
  2. Meaning and direction through commitments, values, and goals
  3. A sense of personal control, free will, and self-regulatory abilities
  4. A consistency, coherence, and harmony between values, beliefs, and commitments
  5. The ability to recognize potential in the form of future possibilities and alternative choices

To give operational substance to Erikson’s self-regulatory mechanisms, Toni Serafini and Gerald Adams developed a scale to measure each of the mechanisms proposed by Erikson’s theory of identity development. In attempting to build scale items that were true to the nature of Erikson’s theoretical ideas, the researchers first operationalized the five self-regulatory functions associated with identity. Next, items were constructed that reflect each of the operational definitions. These items were then used to develop what the authors call the “functions of identity scale.” Each of the definitions is given below, with three items that measure the nature of each ego mechanism that Erikson proposed in his theoretical writings.

To Provide Structure for Understanding Who One Is

  • Definition: Identity provides an awareness of the self as an independent and unique individual. It is most apparent when it is about to transform or change, when change is accompanied by extreme identity consciousness. A sense of understanding “who one is” provides the structure for self-certainty, self-esteem, and a foundation for an emerging and unfolding self.
  • Items: I have a clear awareness of myself as a unique individual. I am most conscious of my sense of identity when I must face change. I accept who I am.

To Provide Meaning and Direction Through Commitments, Values, and Goals

  • Definition: Identity is based on the capacity for faith that commitments or chosen values or goals will receive institutional confirmation. The commitments or goals of identity direct or channel behaviors and actions.
  • Items: The values I have developed influence my behaviors. I set goals and then work toward making them happen. I believe my values and goals are congruent with my actions.

To Provide a Sense of Personal Control, Free Will, and Self-regulation

  • Definition: Identity is based on the distinctions between passivity or compliance and an active or willful nature. Passive forms of identity are based on compliance, imitation, and identification. Active forms of identity are based on self-expression, independent construction, and a sense of free will and autonomy.
  • Items: I am an independent and autonomous person. I have actively constructed a strong commitment to my values and goals. My sense of who I am is based on self-expression and a feeling of free will.

To Provide for Consistency, Coherence, and Harmony Between Values, Beliefs, and Commitments

  • Definition: Identity formation is based on the organizing agency of synthesis or integration at one point and across time. Identity offers a sense of coherence between values, beliefs, and commitments. This sense of coherence is accompanied with harmony and low anxiety and a sense of peace with oneself.
  • Items: My values and beliefs are consistent with the commitments that I make in my life. I feel a sense of peace with myself and my identity. I believe my values, beliefs, and commitments fit together.

To Provide the Ability to Recognize Potentials in the Form of Future Possibilities and Alternative Choices

  • Definition: A sense of identity is in part based on self-initiative and a sense of purpose that offers the promise of fulfilling one’s range of capacities. Thus, self-initiative, purpose, and capacities offer the promise of a tangible future.
  • Items: My sense of purpose in life will help guide my future. I have what it takes to make my future a reality. The decisions I make today about myself build the promise of my future sense of self.

Erikson wrote that passive identities based on imitation and identification will result in less strength in the form of these functions. He argued that active identity forms are associated with all five functions and that furthermore, these functions will provide the ego mechanisms that enhance personality and ego strengths.

Implications for Career Development

Erikson viewed human development as being influenced by culture, social and historical events, and economic, religious, and familial forces. In industrial societies, adolescents and emerging adults are allowed a period of psychosocial moratorium to find or construct their identities. As an individual’s identity emerges, in either a passive or active form, support from family, friends, and community members determines whether the identity is acceptable to society. In turn, as adolescents are supported by society, they develop a growing sense of fidelity: faith that they matter to people who are significant in the their lives. Identity formation enhances the use of ego mechanisms that provide powerful self-regulation systems. These functions of identity, then, enhance the ego virtues of the individual in this stage of life.

The implications for career development are clearly discussed in Erikson’s writings on occupational identity. Indeed, Erikson viewed occupational identity as the most central domain of identity formation, followed by religious and political identity. During the psychosocial moratorium, much attention and energy are directed at defining or constructing one’s work interests and building skills in the technology of the selected occupational choice.

To summarize, identity formation, such as occupational identity, is constructed within a broad contextual environment of culture, institutions, family, and friends.

As occupational identity emerges, certain important self-regulation mechanisms emerge to direct the individual in regard to values, beliefs, and commitments to work. These mechanisms promote the formation of ego virtues or strengths that enhance one’s personality. Furthermore, these factors help an adolescent emerge into adulthood with a commitment to work, occupation, and ego strengths that enhance self-esteem and mental health, and a stable and achieved sense of direction that is supported by society. However, when this important set of events is not encouraged in a psychosocial moratorium or the youth fails to meet the challenge of identity versus role confusion, there will be considerable emotional angst, anxiety, and lack of direction in the youth’s life and future.

See also:


  1. Adams, G. R. and Marshall, S. 1996. “A Developmental Social Psychology of Identity: Understanding the Person-in-Context.” Journal of Adolescence 17:551-556.
  2. Erikson, E. H. 1968. Identity: Youth and Crisis. New York: Norton.
  3. Serafini, T. and Adams, G. R. 2002. “Functions of Identity: Scale Construction and Validity.” Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research 2:361-389.