Once described by a colleague as “Freud in sonnet form”,  psychological giant Erik Erikson blurred the line between science and art. A prolific researcher best known for his model of human development as a series of eight stages, Erikson’s long and abundantly rich life demonstrated a keen appreciation for the art of living. A look into the life and life’s work of Erik Erikson reveals the lasting impact of this great thinker.
Summary: Self-perception theory describes the process in which people, lacking initial attitudes or emotional responses, develop them by observing their own behavior and coming to conclusions as to what attitudes must have driven that behavior.
Originators and Key Contributors: Psychologist Daryl Bem originally developed this theory of attitude formation in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Keywords: identity, perception, behavior, attitude, marketing, therapy
Summary: Social identity theory proposes that a person’s sense of who they are depends on the groups to which they belong.
Originators and Key Contributors: Social identity theory originated from British social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in 1979.
Keywords: identity, ingroup, outgroup, social comparison, categorization, intergroup
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Your intelligence and other characteristics – where do they come from? Can they change?
People vary in the degree to which they attribute the causes of intelligence and other traits. Are they innate and fixed factors (“fixed” mindset) or are they variable factors that can be influenced through learning, effort, training, and practice (“growth” mindset)? A “growth” mindset is generally seen as more advantageous.
Carol S. Dweck, a psychologist on the faculty at Stanford University, proposed mindset theory as a way to understand the effects of the beliefs that individuals hold for the nature of intelligence. This in turn has implications for learning and education.
Keywords: mindset, intelligence, traits, fixed mindset, growth mindset
Kernberg describes the significance of object-relations on self-esteem regulation and pathological narcissism.
Otto Kernberg’s theories have been instrumental in the continual development of the ‘Object-relations theory’ of psychology. This field of thought, developed by Melanie Klein in the mid 1900s, is one of the central schools of thought stemming from Freud’s psychodynamic theory. It emphasizes early interactions between infants and their primary caretakers (i.e. objects). These interactions are internalized over time as mental constructs and thus affect self concept and the nature of future relationships.
Kernberg has left numerous marks on object-relations theory, including his theory on narcissism, a form of transference based psychotherapy, a developmental model, and a construct for analyzing personality organization (most notably, borderline personality organization). His work on narcissism is often contrasted with that of Kohut, which although discusses similar phenomena, is marked by opposing points of view.
In Kernberg’s theory on narcissism, he focuses on the effect of object-relations on self-esteem. He refers to narcissism as a basic structure of typically developing individuals. He defines it as libidinal investment of the self. Practically, it refers to the way in which self-esteem is regulated. Various forms of narcissism are discussed, as delineated below.
Normal adult Narcissism
Normal adult narcissism is considered the narcissism characteristic of typically developing individuals. This state is achieved to due the existence of healthy object relations. Meaning, the individual has experienced positive relationships with early caretakers, and has thus internalized a positive mental concept of the self and of others (objects).
A by-product of positive object relations is an integrated sense of self. The individual is able to cope with ambivalence and with the coexistence of good and bad in individuals and the self. Furthermore, the superego is adaptive and able to cope with disparity between the self and ideal self. Thus, a stable self concept is formed that can readily regulate self-esteem from within. Individuals who present normal adult narcissism have an inner voice which tells them they are good enough. With this basis, individuals can be active and effective players in their lives, and have a stable moral system while expressing innate drives such as aggression and sexuality in acceptable ways.
Normal infantile narcissism
As children develop, their objects relations and self concept are not yet fully integrated. Therefore, their regulation of self- esteem is partly focused at external gratification. In order to feel good about themselves, they need others to admire them or their possessions. However, at an early stage of development, this is age appropriate.
Regression to infantile narcissism
This is a pathological form of narcissism in which the superego has remained infantile, and thus maintained childish values and ideals.
Narcissistic personality disorder
This is the classic narcissistic pathology. These individuals present aberrations in self-love, expression of love to others, and a deviant moral system and superego. Self- love refers to characteristic self absorbance. They are grandiose, and fantasize about excessive success in love, beauty, happiness, and influence. However, their self-love is excessively unstable and relies exclusively on praise and admiration of others.
When the environment does not respond as expected, or when they perceive an inability to achieve their grandiose aspirations, they come crashing downwards with intense feelings of worthlessness, depression, and extreme anger. Relationships are usually functional in nature, as they are necessary for regulating the narcissists’ self-esteem. When they perceive that others have achieved or own something that they haven’t, they present extreme envy and work toward destroying the object or achievement of the other by devaluation. They have a tendency to take advantage of others in order to feel superior. This precludes the ability to form stable and long lasting relationships.
According to Kernberg, this pathology develops as a result of early pathological object relations, which result in negative and ambivalent internalized mental images of the self and other. The defense mechanism characteristic of this state is splitting, a primitive method where the self and others are regarded as either entirely good or entirely bad. Having been let down by early relationships, the narcissist develops a mechanism where he becomes self sufficient by creating a pathological symbiosis between the self, the ideal self, and the ideal object. Meaning, in fantasy, the narcissist unifies the desires he has of himself and other, and therefore does not need others.
However, by taking the ideal self from the superego and unifying it with the self, the superego is weakened and becomes overly strict. Thus, it becomes increasingly difficult for the individual to pass the superego’s high standards. Taken together with the fact that the narcissist does not have comforting object relations to fall back onto, failure becomes imminent and debilitating. When they manage to override the strict ambitions of their superego they feel on top of the world, but when they don’t manage to get there, they come crashing down with no internal structure telling them they are good enough.
Additional Resources and References
- Kernberg discusses treating patients with personality disorders: Resource 1 description
- Borderline Conditions and Pathological Narcissism (The Master Work Series).
- Kernberg, O. F. (1985). Borderline conditions and pathological narcissism. Rowman & Littlefield.
- Kernberg, O. F. (1993). Severe personality disorders: Psychotherapeutic strategies. Yale University Press.
An eight stage theory of identity and psychosocial development.
Erik Erikson, a German psychoanalyst heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud, explored three aspects of identity: the ego identity (self), personal identity (the personal idiosyncrasies that distinguish a person from another, social/cultural identity (the collection of social roles a person might play).
- Erik Erikson (1902 -1994)
Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development considers the impact of external factors, parents and society on personality development from childhood to adulthood. According to Erikson’s theory, every person must pass through a series of eight interrelated stages over the entire life cycle.
1. Infancy: Birth-18 Months Old
Basic Trust vs. Mistrust – Hope
During the first or second year of life, the major emphasis is on the mother and father’s nurturing ability and care for a child, especially in terms of visual contact and touch. The child will develop optimism, trust, confidence, and security if properly cared for and handled. If a child does not experience trust, he or she may develop insecurity, worthlessness, and general mistrust to the world.
2. Toddler / Early Childhood Years: 18 Months to 3 Years
Autonomy vs. Shame – Will
The second stage occurs between 18 months and 3 years. At this point, the child has an opportunity to build self-esteem and autonomy as he or she learns new skills and right from wrong. The well-cared for child is sure of himself, carrying himself or herself with pride rather than shame. During this time of the “terrible twos”, defiance, temper tantrums, and stubbornness can also appear. Children tend to be vulnerable during this stage, sometimes feeling shame and and low self-esteem during an inability to learn certain skills.
3. Preschooler: 3 to 5 Years
Initiative vs. Guilt – Purpose
During this period we experience a desire to copy the adults around us and take initiative in creating play situations. We make up stories with Barbie’s and Ken’s, toy phones and miniature cars, playing out roles in a trial universe, experimenting with the blueprint for what we believe it means to be an adult. We also begin to use that wonderful word for exploring the world—”WHY?”
While Erikson was influenced by Freud, he downplays biological sexuality in favor of the psychosocial features of conflict between child and parents. Nevertheless, he said that at this stage we usually become involved in the classic “Oedipal struggle” and resolve this struggle through “social role identification.” If we’re frustrated over natural desires and goals, we may easily experience guilt.
The most significant relationship is with the basic family.
4. School Age Child: 6 to 12 Years
Industry vs. Inferiority – Competence
During this stage, often called the Latency, we are capable of learning, creating and accomplishing numerous new skills and knowledge, thus developing a sense of industry. This is also a very social stage of development and if we experience unresolved feelings of inadequacy and inferiority among our peers, we can have serious problems in terms of competence and self-esteem.
As the world expands a bit, our most significant relationship is with the school and neighborhood. Parents are no longer the complete authorities they once were, although they are still important.
5. Adolescent: 12 to 18 Years
Identity vs. Role Confusion – Fidelity
Up until this fifth stage, development depends on what is done to a person. At this point, development now depends primarily upon what a person does. An adolescent must struggle to discover and find his or her own identity, while negotiating and struggling with social interactions and “fitting in”, and developing a sense of morality and right from wrong.
Some attempt to delay entrance to adulthood and withdraw from responsibilities (moratorium). Those unsuccessful with this stage tend to experience role confusion and upheaval. Adolescents begin to develop a strong affiliation and devotion to ideals, causes, and friends.
6. Young adult: 18 to 35
Intimacy and Solidarity vs. Isolation – Love
At the young adult stage, people tend to seek companionship and love. Some also begin to “settle down” and start families, although seems to have been pushed back farther in recent years.
Young adults seek deep intimacy and satisfying relationships, but if unsuccessful, isolation may occur. Significant relationships at this stage are with marital partners and friends.
7. Middle-aged Adult: 35 to 55 or 65
Generativity vs. Self absorption or Stagnation – Care
Career and work are the most important things at this stage, along with family. Middle adulthood is also the time when people can take on greater responsibilities and control.
For this stage, working to establish stability and Erikson’s idea of generativity – attempting to produce something that makes a difference to society. Inactivity and meaninglessness are common fears during this stage.
Major life shifts can occur during this stage. For example, children leave the household, careers can change, and so on. Some may struggle with finding purpose. Significant relationships are those within the family, workplace, local church and other communities.
8. Late Adult: 55 or 65 to Death
Integrity vs. Despair – Wisdom
Erikson believed that much of life is preparing for the middle adulthood stage and the last stage involves much reflection. As older adults, some can look back with a feeling of integrity — that is, contentment and fulfillment, having led a meaningful life and valuable contribution to society. Others may have a sense of despair during this stage, reflecting upon their experiences and failures. They may fear death as they struggle to find a purpose to their lives, wondering “What was the point of life? Was it worth it?”
Additional Resources and References
- The Life Cycle Completed (Extended Version): Erikson’s own well-written book that explains the stages and identity crisis directly from the firsthand source.
- Handbook of Identity Theory and Research [2 Volume Set]: This impressive handbook brings “unity and clarity to a diverse and fragmented literature.” presenting perspectives from many different theoretical schools and empirical approaches: psychology (e.g., narrative, social identity theory, neo-Eriksonian) and from other disciplines (e.g., sociology, political science, ethnic studies).
- Erikson, E. H. (1994). Identity: Youth and crisis (No. 7). WW Norton & Company.
- Erikson, E. H. (1993). Childhood and society. WW Norton & Company.
Summary: Carol Dweck and others have Identified two implicit theories of intelligence. Those learners who have an “entity” theory view intelligence as being an unchangeable, fixed internal characteristic. Those who have an “incremental” theory believe that their intelligence is malleable and can be increased through effort.
Originators: Carol Dweck, based on over 30 years of research on belief systems, and their role in motivation and achievement.
Key Terms: entity theory, incremental theory