Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson both made significant contributions to human development, founded on behaviour and cognition. They set up different stages of development by setting skills, abilities, emotional and cognitive experiences and goals for the stage. Although they presented the stages differently, their goals were similar: they researched possible disturbances in child behaviour, actions and thought processes to explain blocks and subsequent development or mental health issues.
Piaget based his theory on the hypothesis that children’s mental structure was fluid and could be easily changed by the environment via learning. External forces formed the stages (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal operational), but the development was based on age and ability. Thus, he focused on childhood as the main developmental phase and did not talk about change in adulthood.
Erik Erikson also developed a child psychology theory and described development stages as life hurdles. They both agreed that healthy development happens when one stage is accomplished and the child is ready for the next phase of life. A disturbance in a stage influenced the rest of the progress. Erikson also connected these hurdles to ages, but he described a lifelong process. Erikson explained the adverse outcomes of each stage with a development outcome such as trust vs mistrust, autonomy vs doubt, initiative vs guilt, industry vs inferiority, identity vs confusion, intimacy vs isolation, generativity vs stagnation, integrity vs despair; and he also explained how the result of overcoming a hurdle affected later life experiences in general. Both Erikson’s and Piaget’s stages are built on each other. They both recognised that children develop through stages in sequential order, and they both put challenges in each milestone.
Both argued the importance of nurture in personality development: personality is shaped by the family and social environment or circumstances, but nurture and positive environmental elements help positive development (e.g. trust vs mistrust). Moreover, what children (and adults in the case of Erikson) experience in their environment promote learning and that learning forms personality development.
The most striking difference is the length of the development. Erikson’s possibility of development during the whole life gave a different perspective on human development without dismissing the importance of childhood.
Erikson centred each stage around a crisis point. The success of progressing through life depended on a prior hurdle—these inner challenges or conflicts within the self push towards strength and integration (Light, 1973). Instead, Piaget examined the child’s thought process and their response to all the environmental factors around them.
The learning element of Piaget’s theory described cognitive development, Erikson’s descriptions of trust, guilt and self-confidence, self-esteem, self-actualisation and intimate relationship forming portrayed emotional development (Gilleard and Higgs, 2015).
Piaget’s concept focused on personality development, whilst Erikson’s emphasised identity (Conn, 1977), a more comprehensive explanation of who we are, including self-beliefs, qualities and personality and the ability of self-awareness and reflection on the self (Leary and Tangney, 2012). Furthermore, his theory described an ego-development rather than social development (Light, 1973).
Both theories had a significant impact on how we understand child and personality development.
They gave modern psychotherapy the most useful elements. We understand how vital childhood, nature, positive experiences are for personality development cognitively and emotionally. Their ideas reformed parenting, teaching, education and the way of upbringing in general. We also learned that lifelong learning is achievable; people can change and develop at any stage.
Both Piaget’s and Erikson’s work were paramount in child development. Piaget changed the view of children; they were not seen as mini-adults anymore. He recognised that children see the world differently and interact with it distinctively. His views about the difference between adults and children’s brains were radical and started an evolution in child psychology. He explained the importance of learning, especially autonomous learning, and provided based for cognitive therapies. He considered the learning process active; he encouraged practicals and discoveries. Piaget established a new learning goal as the capability to do something new (Collin, 2015). He also gave us explanations and guidance regarding moral education that is also based on social observations. Erikson’s theory has the same fundamental significance. Erikson gave purpose for each stage of our life. He laid down the basis of existential therapies by outlining the challenges we must face. Therapists can find those possible blocks that can obstruct happiness and guide their clients through those challenges to achieve the purpose of each stage. However, Erikson deliberated us from being perfect. He described a balance as opposed to an ideal image. He explained that well-being could be achieved by successfully passing each stage in the right balance between the conflicting extremes rather than being guided towards an ‘ideal’ extreme in each challenge or crisis point. In this respect, Erikson’s theory goes a long way to explaining why too much of anything does not help develop a well-balanced personality (Chapman, 2017). His theory is relevant to modern life for understanding and explaining how personality and behaviour develop in people and is useful for teaching, parenting, self-awareness, managing and coaching, dealing with conflict, and generally understanding self and others.
Chapman, A., 2017. Erikson’s Theory of Human Development. [online] Businessballs.com. Available at: <https://www.businessballs.com/self-management/eriksons-theory-of-human-development/> [Accessed 18 May 2021].
Collin, C., 2015. The psychology book. 3rd ed. London: Dorling Kindersley.
Conn, W., 1977. Personal Identity and Creative Self-Understanding: Contributions of Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson to the Psychological Foundations of Theology. Journal of Psychology and Theology, 5(1), pp.34-39.
Gilleard, C. and Higgs, P., 2015. Connecting Life Span Development with the Sociology of the Life Course: A New Direction. Sociology, 50(2), pp.301-315.
Leary, M., Tangney, J., 2012. Handbook of Self and Identity. 2nd ed.New York: Guilford Press
Light, D.,1973. An Analysis of Erikson’s and Piaget’s Theories of Human Growth. National Institute of Education Project 1-0529