Erik Erikson

Erik Erikson

Psychosocial Theory of Human Development
Erik Erikson (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Erik Erikson (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Erik Erikson’s relationship with Harvard spanned decades, coinciding with some of his most influential works.  Born in Frankfurt, and trained in psychoanalysis in Vienna by Anna Freud, Erikson came to Boston in 1933.  He accepted an appointment as a research associate at the Harvard Psychological Clinic; in conjunction with that position Erikson started to work on a graduate degree in psychology at Harvard.  Finding himself at odds with the quantitative, empirical focus of Harvard’s Psychology Department, Erikson discontinued his studies in 1936 without finishing his degree.  For the next two decades he pursued his interests in human development by conducting research at Yale and Berkeley, as well as continuing his private psychoanalytic practice.

Erikson’s humanist theory of psychosocial development deviated significantly from the traditional Freudian psychosexual theory of human development in two ways. Erikson believed that humans’ personalities continued to develop past the age of five, and he believed that the development of personality depended directly on the resolution of existential crises like trust, autonomy, intimacy, individuality, integrity, and identity (which were viewed in traditional psychoanalytic theory as mere by-products of the resolution of sexual crises). Erikson’s highly influential eight-stage theory of development also expanded Freud’s original five stages to encompass the years of life after early childhood. Within this theory, Erikson introduced and described the characteristics of adolescent identity crisis and the adult’s midlife crisis.

Despite his lack of a doctorate, Erikson returned to Harvard in 1960 as Professor of Human Development and Lecturer in Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School, and was invited to be an unofficial member of the Department of Social Relations.  There he taught popular undergraduate and graduate courses on human development. In the ensuing decade Erikson published three books, Insight and Responsibility (1964), Identity Youth and Crisis (1968) and Gandhi's Truth (1969).  The latter won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.  

Erikson was awarded the AM (hon) on appointment in 1960, and the LLD (hon) in 1978. He retired as Professor Emeritus in 1970.  Erik Erikson is listed as number 12 on the American Psychological Association’s list of the 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century.


Coles, R., Hunt, R., and Maher, B. (2002).  Erik Erikson:  Faculty of Arts and Sciences Memorial Minute.  Harvard Gazette Archives.  Retrieved October 17, 2007 from

Eminent psychologists of the 20th century.  (July/August, 2002). Monitor on Psychology, 33(7), p.29.

Friedman, L. J. (1999). Identity's Architect; A Biography of Erik H. Erikson. Scribner Book Co., New York.