Sigmund Freud is probably the most familiar name that comes to mind when one thinks of famous psychologists. Freud was born in Freiberg, Moravia in 1856, but when he was four years old his family moved to Vienna, where Freud was to live and work until the last year of his life. The scope of Freud’s interests, and of his professional training, was very broad – he always considered himself first and foremost a scientist, endeavoring to extend the compass of human knowledge, and to this end, rather than to the practice of medicine, he enrolled at the medical school at the University of Vienna in 1873. He concentrated initially on biology, doing research in physiology for six years under the great German scientist Ernst Brcke, who was director of the Physiology Laboratory at the University, thereafter specializing in neurology. Eventually, Freud set up a private practice in the treatment of psychological disorders, which gave him much of the clinical material on which he based his theories and his pioneering techniques.(Amacher)
Freud’s theories of development relied heavily on the belief that infantile sexuality must be seen as an integral part of a broader developmental theory of human personality. This had its origins in, and was a generalization of, Breuer’s earlier discovery that traumatic childhood events could have devastating negative effects upon the adult individual, and took the form of the general thesis that early childhood sexual experiences were the crucial factors in the determination of the adult personality.(Freud2) From his account of the instincts or drives it followed that from the moment of birth the infant is driven in his actions by the desire for bodily/sexual pleasure, where this is seen by Freud in almost mechanical terms as the desire to release mental energy. This lasts until puberty, when mature genital development begins, and the pleasure drive refocuses around the genital area.(Amacher)
It was also a friend and fellow psychoanalyst of Freud’s, Erik Erickson, who created one of the major theories that open a window to the development of everything that makes us who we are on the inside. It is referred to as Erickson’s Theory of Human Development and it simplifies the complex topic of human personality.(Miller)
First, let’s talk about the man himself. Erik Homberger was born in Frankfurt, Germany in 1902. The conditions under which he began life give a great deal of insight into his obsession with identity. He was challenged with it from the start. His parents weren’t married and his Danish father left before Erik was born. His Jewish mother married Erik’s pediatrician when he was three. Erik had Nordic features; he was tall, blond and had blue eyes. Neither the Jewish children at temple nor the German children at school accepted him.(Miller)
As he grew up, psychology and art began to interest Erik and led him to various institutes including one where he was psychoanalyzed by Anna Freud, the daughter of Sigmund. Both later became close friends to Erickson. When the Nazis came to power, Erik moved to Boston where he studied child psychoanalysis and was influenced by many psychologists and anthropologists.(Battino)
He is considered a Freudian ego-psychologist, meaning he takes the basic foundation of Freud’s theories, but veers away by focus on social and cultural orientation. Erickson’s theory closely ties personality growth with parental and societal values. His 1950 book, Childhood and Society, is considered a classic in its field.(Miller) According to Erickson, there are eight stages of human development, each focusing on a different conflict that we need to solve in order to development successfully into the next stage of our lives. The idea is that if we don’t resolve each stage or we choose the wrong of two choices, our ability to deal with the consecutive stages is impaired and the failure will return to us at some point later in life.(Battino)
Erikson believed that childhood is very important in personality development. He accepted many of Freud’s theories, including the id, ego, and superego, and Freud’s theory of infantile sexuality. But Erikson rejected Freud’s attempt to describe personality solely on the basis of sexuality, and, unlike Freud, felt that personality continued to develop beyond five years of age.
All of the stages in Erikson’s epigenetic theory are present at birth, but unfold according to an innate plan, with each stage building on the preceding stages, and paving the way for subsequent stages. Each stage is characterized by a psychosocial crisis, which is based on physiological development, but also on demands put on the individual by parents and/or society. Ideally, the crisis in each stage should be resolved by the ego in that stage, in order for development to proceed correctly. The outcome of one stage is not permanent, but can be altered by later experiences. Everyone has a mixture of the traits attained at each stage, but personality development is considered successful if the individual has more of the “good” traits than the “bad” traits.(Miller)
Sigmund Freud began his researches into the workings of the human mind in 1881, after a century during which Europe and America saw the reform of the insane asylum and an ever-increasing interest in “abnormal” psychological states, especially the issue of nervous diseases, which was the first phenomenon that Freud studied, examining the nervous system of fish while gaining his medical degree at the University of Vienna from 1873 to 1881. Freud turned to the issue of psychology after reading in 1884 about Breuer’s treatment of hysteria by hypnosis and after studying under Charcot at the Sorbonne in 1885.(Freud1)
Although he often distinguished his ideas from medicine and biology, Freud was especially interested in establishing a scientific basis for his theories and, so, he often turned to biological models in order to underline the empirical basis for what were, by necessity, subjective interpretations of apparently illogical and certainly multivalent symbols. In A Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis, Freud confesses of the difficulties faced by a psychoanalytical critic at the turn of the twentieth century: no empirical evidence; a reliance on the spoken word, because of the talking cure; the extremely personal nature of sexual drives, which therefore resist exposure and civilization’s “natural” antipathy to the revelation of the instinctive pleasures that we continually sacrifice for the common good.(Freud1)
Despite these caveats, Freud was, indeed, drawn by scientific models for his theories. Although Freud’s main concern was with “sexual desire,” he understood desire in terms of formative drives, instincts, and appetites that “naturally” determined one’s behaviors and beliefs, even as we continually repress those behaviors and beliefs.(Freud1) Following a biological development scale, Freud therefore established a rigid model for the “normal” sexual development of the human subject, what he terms the “libido development.” Freud often changed his mind about the actual dates of the various stages and also acknowledged that development varied between individuals. Stages can even overlap or be experienced simultaneously.(Freud2)
Freud’ stages of psychosexual development and Erickson’s stages of psychosocial development differ in several ways. While Freud believed that the sexual drive or “libido” was the essential force that drove personality, Erickson placed more emphasis on the influence of the parents and society. Freud’s theory assumes that adult personality is essentially formed by age 5 ,with the resolution of the Oedipus conflict, and only describes personality development into adolescence; on the other hand, Jung believed that personality continued to develop across the lifespan and describes stages of adult development not considered by Freud. Both theorists emphasized the unconscious, but Erickson went beyond this to discuss the importance of the collective unconscious; an idea Freud particularly rejected. Both theorists had little physical evidence to support their hypothesis, however because of the early stages of development that the field of psychology was in, they were accepted based primarily on merit, and have been later evaluated by evidence, and some parts accepted and others disregarded.
Amacher, Peter. ‘Freud’s Neurological Education and Its Influence on Psychoanalytic Theory.’Psychological Issues IV, no. 4, monograph 16. New York: International Universities Press, 1965.
Battino, R., ; South, T. 1997. Ericksonian Approaches: A Comprehensive Manual. Neuyptology Press
Freud, Sigmund, Brill, A. A., ed. (1938). The Basic Writings of Sigmund Freud, New York: The Modern Library
Freud, Sigmund. (1935). An Autobiographical Study., London: Hogarth Press.
Miller, P. (1983). Theories of Developmental Psychology. San Francisco: W.H. Freeman and Company.