Psychosocial Development Theory


Qualitative shifts in modes of cognition

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … range of developmental possibility
  • Knowing is … stage-influenced interpretations of prior construals
  • Learner is … a developing agent
  • Learning is … construing and reconstruing
  • Teaching is … occasioning, prompting, triggering, listening




Psychosocial Development Theory combines sensibilities from Developmental Discourses and Psychoanalytic Theories in its identification of eight successive challenges that might be met by the individual. Each stage is described as a crisis of biological and sociocultural forces – which, if successfully reconciled, affords a virtue which enables the individual to live a more adjusted existence. The crises (and virtues, along with approximate ages) are: Trust vs. Mistrust (Hope, under 2 years), Autonomy vs. Shame (Will, 2–4 years), Initiative vs. Guilt (Purpose, 5–8 years), Industry vs. Inferiority (Competence, 9–12 years), Identity vs. Role Confusion (Fidelity, 13–19 years), Intimacy vs. Isolation (Love, 20–39 years), Generativity vs. Stagnation (Care, 40–59 years), and Ego Integrity vs. Despair (Wisdom, 60+ years). Mastery of one stage is not necessary for taking on subsequent stages, but unmet challenges may return as maladjustments in the future.


As with many 20th-century Developmental Discourses, the research subjects for Psychosocial Development Theory were mainly white American males, presenting complex gender, racial, classist, and cultural limitations. As well, the rather precise sequences and age ranges posited by the theory are often criticized, although authors were cautious to build in multiple qualifications and cautions – in particular, asserting that the stated ages are more about periods of prominence than actual ranges.

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Sigmund Freud; Erik Erikson; Joan Erikson

Status as a Theory of Learning

Psychosocial Development Theory is a theory of learning.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

Psychosocial Development Theory is not a theory of teaching, but it has been argued to afford insight into what may or may not be learnable by individuals at different points in their lives, according to theory ability or willingness to negotiate challenges. For example, a child in first grade who has been unable to develop a stable sense of Hope or a robust sense of Will is unlikely to be especially prepared to engage with the spectrum of learning demands, ranging from those associated with focused skills (e.g., reading, basic arithmetic) to social competencies (e.g., friendships, respect of adult authority).

Status as a Scientific Theory

Psychosocial Development Theory is supported by coherent and focused programs of research, and proponents claim a substantial research base. Detractors frequently accuse researchers of theoretical and methodological flaws, and those accusations are sufficiently supported to suggest that Psychosocial Development Theory may not fully meet our criteria of a scientific theory.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Psychosocial Development Theory” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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