Freud's Psychosexual Theory vs Erikson's Psychosocial Theory of Development

Categories: Sigmund Freud

Psychology has been shaped by numerous influential theorists, but two figures stand out prominently when discussing the development of personality: Sigmund Freud and Erik Erikson. Freud, often regarded as the father of psychology, revolutionized the study of individual development. Erikson, deeply influenced by Freud's work, extended these ideas but believed that Freud's theory overlooked crucial dimensions that shape our development. Both Freud and Erikson concur that personality development is primarily an unconscious process occurring gradually over time, marked by universal stages.

They contend that personality unfolds through a sequence of predetermined stages, each posing a crisis that must be successfully navigated to progress to the subsequent stage of life. However, Freud emphasizes biological factors, basic needs, and the concept of the libido as central to personality development, whereas Erikson places greater emphasis on environmental and cultural influences (Wallerstein, Robert & Goldberger, 2000).

Freud's Psychosexual Theory

Sigmund Freud introduced the concept of psychosexual theory to describe the stages of personality development. His theory posits that individuals pass through a series of stages, each characterized by the fixation of libidinal energy on different body areas or erogenous zones (Simon & Gagnon).

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The Oral Stage (Trust vs. Mistrust)

The first stage, known as the oral stage in Freud's theory, aligns with Erikson's trust vs. mistrust stage. Both theorists recognize the significance of the trust and dependency that infants have on their mothers. In the oral stage, infants associate their mother's presence with the satisfaction of their hunger, forging a connection between physical needs and maternal care.

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However, Freud's theory differs from Erikson's when it comes to the outcomes. For Freud, the crisis in this stage revolves around weaning the child from the mother. As time progresses, infants begin to differentiate themselves from their mothers, realizing the absence of an umbilical connection, and acknowledging their separate existence (Simon & Gagnon). This differentiation, if successfully navigated, leads to optimism and passivity in later life.

Conversely, failure to make this distinction may result in pessimism, immaturity, gullibility, and oral fixations such as nail-biting, thumb-sucking, excessive eating, and verbal aggression. These behaviors are indicative of individuals who have not resolved the conflicts of the oral stage.

The Anal Stage (Autonomy vs. Shame)

In the second stage, Freud introduces the anal stage, while Erikson names it the autonomy vs. shame stage. Both theorists recognize the child's desire for personal control and the importance of toilet training in this phase. Freud posits that the child seeks to master holding on and letting go, learning to control bowel movements through toilet training.

If the child successfully navigates this stage, Freud contends that they will grow up to be creative and productive adults. However, if they fail, they may become either anal-expulsive (messy, cruel, destructive, and hostile) or anal-retentive (controlling, stingy, and stubborn) individuals.

Erikson's perspective diverges from Freud's in terms of the primary crisis. While toilet training is crucial, Erikson's focus is on control and independence. If the child does not feel adequately supported during this stage, they may develop feelings of shame and doubt. This support is essential for the development of autonomy, which encompasses a sense of will, law, and order concerning society (Cloninger, 2004).

The Phallic Stage (Initiative vs. Guilt)

Freud's third stage is the phallic stage, and Erikson's counterpart is the initiative vs. guilt stage. Both theorists acknowledge that during these stages, children begin to identify with their same-sex parents and become aware of sexual differences.

Freud introduces the concept of the Oedipus and Electra complexes in this stage. The Oedipus complex involves a son's desire to eliminate his father to be with his mother, driven by fear that his father will discover his desire for the mother and respond with castration (Cloninger, 2004).

The Electra complex, on the other hand, occurs when a girl shifts her erotic focus from her mother to her father due to feelings of anger toward her mother's perceived lack of protection from castration (Cloninger, 2004). In both cases, the child's identification with the same-sex parent is integral to the development of the superego, ultimately resolving the crisis.

If this struggle remains unresolved, individuals may face difficulties in forming a superego, experiencing confusion regarding sexual roles and identities (Simon & Gagnon).

The Latency Stage (Industry vs. Inferiority)

The fourth stage, according to Freud, is the latency stage. In this phase, Freud suggests that the sexual drive becomes dormant, and there is no specific crisis to address. Instead, children channel their repressed sexual energy into social and academic pursuits (Simon & Gagnon).

Contrarily, Erikson introduces the industry vs. inferiority stage, where children are driven to master tasks and work diligently to complete them. Success in these endeavors leads to a sense of control and independence, fostering confidence, pride, and a sense of order within society (Cloninger, 2004).

Erikson's Psychosocial Theory

Erik Erikson expanded upon Freud's psychosexual theory, developing his psychosocial theory of personality development. While Freud identified five stages, Erikson introduced an additional four stages, offering a more comprehensive framework for understanding human development.

Identity vs. Identity Diffusion

The fifth stage in Erikson's theory is identity vs. identity diffusion. This stage roughly corresponds to Freud's genital stage. Both theorists highlight the importance of building a sense of self through previous developmental experiences.

During the genital stage, Freud posits that individuals transition into adulthood with balanced personalities. Sexual desires become strong interests in the opposite sex, and adolescents seek sexual or romantic relationships (Simon & Gagnon).

Erikson's identity vs. identity diffusion stage centers on the formation of self and personal identity. Adolescents, having developed a sense of identity, embark on a quest to establish intimate relationships without fear of losing their individuality (Widick, Parker & Knefelkamp, 2006). Successful navigation of this stage results in a well-rounded sense of self and the ego skill of fidelity, along with an understanding of ideological worldviews within society.

Intimacy vs. Isolation

Intimacy vs. isolation is the stage following identity vs. identity diffusion in Erikson's theory. Both Freud and Erikson acknowledge the significance of seeking relationships with the opposite sex.

Freud's genital stage emphasizes the pursuit of pleasure through sexual contact as individuals mature into adulthood. Erikson, however, shifts the focus to the establishment of intimate relationships, moving beyond sexual pleasure (Simon & Gagnon).

In Erikson's theory, the primary crisis revolves around finding love rather than sexual satisfaction. Having developed a sense of identity, young adults can seek intimate relationships without the fear of losing their identity. Failure to establish such intimacy may lead to isolation, while success results in the development of the ego skill of love and an understanding of cooperation and competition within society (Cloninger, 2004).

Generativity vs. Stagnation

Erikson introduces the generativity vs. stagnation stage, which is not present in Freud's psychosexual theory. Both theorists recognize the importance of seeking the welfare of society and life.

In the genital stage, individuals transition from self-interest to an interest in the welfare of others as they mature into adulthood. This shift is marked by a desire to contribute to society, whether through parenting, social or political change, or artistic endeavors (Wallerstein, Robert & Goldberger, 2000).

Erikson's generativity vs. stagnation stage emphasizes the individual's desire to make meaningful contributions that will outlive them. Contributions may include raising children, advocating for societal improvements, or creating art. Those who fail to make such contributions may experience stagnation, feelings of failure, disconnection, or self-absorption. Conversely, those who successfully contribute develop a sense of generativity, along with the ego skill of care and an understanding of education and tradition within society (Cloninger, 2004).

Integrity vs. Despair

The final stage in Erikson's theory is integrity vs. despair, where individuals reflect on their life and experiences. In the genital stage, Freud's theory suggests that the personality reaches a balanced state in all aspects (Simon & Gagnon).

In contrast, Erikson's integrity vs. despair stage involves a retrospective examination of one's life. If this introspection reveals regrets or dissatisfaction, individuals may experience feelings of despair. Conversely, a sense of fulfillment and accomplishment leads to integrity, wisdom as an ego skill, and a deeper understanding of societal currents and traditions (Cloninger, 2004).


Comparing Freud's psychosexual theory and Erikson's psychosocial theory reveals both similarities and differences in their approaches to understanding personality development. Both theories share the belief that personality development is an unconscious, gradual, and universal process marked by predetermined stages. However, their emphasis on the factors influencing development and the outcomes of successful resolution of stages differs significantly.

Freud's psychosexual theory underscores the role of biology, basic needs, and the libido, while Erikson's psychosocial theory places greater importance on environmental and cultural influences. By examining each theorist's stages individually, it becomes evident how their theories converge and diverge, shedding light on the intricate process of personality development.

In summary, the comparative analysis of Freud and Erikson's theories deepens our understanding of the complexities of human development and the multitude of factors that contribute to shaping an individual's personality.

Updated: Oct 31, 2023
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Freud's Psychosexual Theory vs Erikson's Psychosocial Theory of Development. (2016, May 13). Retrieved from

Freud's Psychosexual Theory vs Erikson's Psychosocial Theory of Development essay
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