According to William Shultz psychobiography is when one takes historically significant lives and analysis them through psychological theories and research with the intention to undercover and understand their subconscious and conscious motives (Elms, 1994). Psychobiography is often accredited to and described as Freudian. “Psychoanalysis emerged out of Freud’s self-analysis combined with analysis of hysterical patients” (Elms, 1994). Psychobiography is not always of a Freudian character though, it is just one insight. Dan McAdams for example would suggest looking at individual’s personality from three different angles; traits taken from the five factor model, characteristic adaptations and the individual’s surroundings and stories (Elms, 1994). In recent times he has added two more insights to his formula for studying ones personality; biology and culture (Elms, 1994). There are many misconceptions which surround the definition of psychobiography; many have confused it with pathography and biography (Elms, 1994). Psychobiography however does not intend to diagnose a person with a psychological disease or tell a descriptive story of one’s life. In contrast the intention is to discover the true explanation of how an individual moulded into who they are by interpreting on one particular aspect on their life (Elms, 1994). Biographers focus on a comprehensive story telling whereas psycobiographers focus on why the individual acted a certain way. For example why dis Elvis Presley always struggle to perform certain songs live? It is a distinct question which focuses on one individual. Originology is another common misconception in connection with the definition of psychobiography. An event in one’s childhood can create an emotional tone which stays with an individual for a lifetime but psychobiography is about the bigger picture as experiences in different part on one’s lifetime has just as much possibility for impact (Elms, 1994). Orinology would state that one’s personality and psychological problems can all be traced back to their childhood relationships, similar to attachment theory (Elms, 1994). According to psychobiography there is huge agreement that childhood relationships and occurrences do form a large part in who an individual is today but to say it is the complete reasoning is oversimplification and childhood should only be noted as a part of the forming of the contemporary individual (Elms, 1994). Psychobiography does not focus on one single aspect (e.g. Childhood) psychologist Sigmund Freud believed that everything is predetermined due to multiple reasons and events coinciding with ones another (Elms, 1994).This would mean that one would have to research a multitude of causes and their effects on an individual; it is about taking everything into account. An example given for this in the handbook of psychobiography where Vincent Van Gogh cutting off his ear has been explained as him subconsciously mimicking a symbolic castration in the hopes that his brother would not leave him on Christmas and as the matadors do after bullfights gave the ear to a woman as Van Gogh did to a prostitute (Elms, 1994).The above reasons each explain a fragment his reasoning, no one reason will ever be the sole reasoning for an individual’s actions (Elms, 1994). Yes psychobiography’s main aim is to understand ones personality but there is more than one aspect that is going to affect personality. It is important not to take the individuals social, political, historical and economic factors into account (Elms, 1994). Alan Elms was one of the first psychologists to question psychobiography, he did not believe that researching and learning about historically important figures gave anything new to the study of psychology as a whole (Elms, 1994). Shultz responded with the belief that the study of certain historical people would be beneficial to learn about. This might be because of their already evident positive influence on the world like Gandhi or because their cases are both well-known, influenced by a large part of the world’s population and attacked the limitations and boundaries of mankind (Elms, 1994). “Psychobiography produces inspirations, strong hunches, or insights, leading in time to formal propositions that can be tested against larger groups of people” (Elms, 1994). Historical figures are easier to research, already have great public interest and identification, and their cases can set as a stencil for larger groups of people in similar categories. Psychologists ranging from Skinner to Erikson all implemented the strategy of using one individual as their primary focus in their research (Elms, 1994). Erikson used Ghandi as his sole focus in his research in dominance behaviour in primates; this is where the origin of his self-actualisation and “super-ego-trip” surfaced (Elms, 1994). Freud himself focused on Leonardo Divinci when testing his theories of homosexuality and ideas of sublimation (Elms, 1994). Psychobiography is about taking all the surrounding aspects available to you which are relative to ones subject of study and putting them together in order to interpret and explain an individual’s actions with greater understanding (Elms, 1994). Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development are comprised of eight stages of which every healthy human must work through. Each stage has its own challenges which one needs to complete. The stages are based on eight basic human virtues and connected to certain age, period, hopes, will, purpose, competence, fidelity, love, and care (Erikson, 1986). In each of the eight life stages there is a psychosocial crisis with two contradictory forces. If the individual does not resolve the two, they will not be able to progress the next stage successfully. One does not have to overcome the challenges with flying colours, however, if they do, then the individual will have constructed those important virtues which will stay with them throughout their lives (Erikson, 1986). From birth to two years of age individuals depend on their parents and their interactions with them for survival and what their perception and understanding is going to be about the world. One’s first major development task is to learn trust; this is dependent on how their primary caregivers fulfil their basic needs (Erikson, 1986). If they are exposed to a consistently secure and warm environment then the infant will learn dependency and trust. If they primary caregivers are neglectful and inconsistent then the infant will have an independent outlook on the world. Some experiences with mistrust and neglect will benefit the child in terms of a better understanding of reality as they are then less likely to be oblivious or naïve to dangerous situations later in life (Erikson, 1986). Erikson’s second psychosocial stage concentrates on will from ages two to four years. By this age the infant should be learning to control their motor abilities and starting toilet training and dressing themselves. Although caregivers still need to guide and provide the infants base, they need to find equilibrium and encourage the infant to attempt self-sufficiency in these areas and explore their first developing interests (Erikson, 1986). Infants that enjoy their mother singing might like to play with the radio or make noises along with the television. Infants which are allowed and encouraged to explore these interests have a much higher chance of developing a sense of autonomy. Parents who constrict their children’s attempts at self-sufficiency are more likely to make the child develop shame and doubt in their individual abilities to deal with problems and be disinclined to endeavour in new challenges throughout life (Erikson, 1986). Erikson entitles the third stage as ‘Locomotor against Genital’ which is a psychosocial struggle between guilt and initiative which occurs between the ages of four and five years when one is beginning to understand how the world works, how to count, how objects move and what to do with them. They have learnt through observation and now they have a natural compulsion to try new things for themselves. Along with their new desire for exploring and creation through tools and art, a new emotion is emerging (Erikson, 1986). According to Erikson, guilt can be quite bewildering at this age and it is not uncommon for toddlers to misplace this emotion. Children between the ages of our and five often feel guilt when they do not complete a task or a new initiative as they intended. Similarly, but for different reasons, another example of misplaced guilt might occur as the outcome of frustration of failure to do something as planned thus creating aggressive behaviours which may seem overly assertive to parents (Erikson, 1986). With the infants increasing ability to undertake tasks independently, they are forced to develop their own individual sense of judgement, where they have to learn how to select what activities they are ready to successfully tackle and what they still require assistance with. It is extremely important that teachers and parents are supportive of infants’ efforts towards self-sufficiency and help guide them towards appropriate decision making when the infants do not succeed or make dangerous choices. If teachers and primary caregivers harshly reprimand or ridicule infants attempts at independence, infants will dismiss and feel guilt over their desires and needs (Erikson, 1986). Erikson’s fourth psychosocial stage ranges from the ages of five to twelve years of age. Here the crisis is between industry and inferiority; it is about the individual’s competence to make it in the world. Before infants were encouraged to and enjoyed playing games. This has now been subsided by a want to complete something productive for the reward of self-worth and accomplishment (Erikson, 1986). At this age, children have become very aware of their individuality and knowledge of their possibilities for independence, so according to Erikson, they strive for responsibility and to do all the new things they are learning to work with successfully. These would be things like spatial perception, that every action has a reaction, how to read, the differences between right and wrong and especially the differences between themselves and others; individually and culturally (Erikson, 1959). This new found independence might at times be confused with disobedience and rebellion. Elementary school is the first noticeable opportunity for children to achieve and develop their self-confidence through exploration. This is where children get their first real taste of the industry and the value of work. This view is likely to stick with them for a lifetime (Erikson, 1959). According to Erikson, motivation is crucial from a young age, especially when learning so many new skills (Erikson, 1959). Independence is not the only thing they are recognising at this time, distinctive talents and interests are also beginning to become clear and they might tend to work harder in these areas (Erikson, 1959). If a child is praised for their work then they will admire and support the industry. This will encourage them to become more diligent because they will begin to associate hard work with reward and praise. In contrast, if a child is incapable or scorned for their efforts then the probability is they are going to develop feelings of inferiority (Erikson, 1959). The fifth stage falls into adolescence which ranges from 13-19 years of age. Here fidelity is questioned along with a struggle between identity and role confusion based mainly on social relationships and how one sees themselves in the reflection of other and internally (Erikson, 1986). This stage marks the passage between childhood and manhood and is accepted in most cultures and a time of passage. In the latter stage of adolescence Erikson talks about an “identity crisis” where each individual has a stage of moratorium which is a grace period which is given to people of this age to take time to work out who they are and what they want to do with what they have been given (Erikson, 1986). Here individuals are placed in the middle of many crossroads along with a great deal of pressure and comparison from society and its expectations. Here one has to use what they have gained in the past as tools to use to create their future. This can be extremely confusing as it is highly uncommon for an individual to instantly know what they want to do for the rest of their lives. So they are antagonized with a need to explore and shape themselves into something themselves and society will accept. It is hard to explore as trying new things means giving new commitments which is difficult to do when one is not yet sure of their own thoughts on the activity or even sometimes their individual commitment capacity so it would be common for one to over commit themselves (Erikson, 1986). This is the time when individuals have to make their own decisions. These might conflict with over protective parents in political, religious and occupational cases, but it is healthy for one to make these choices themselves. The freer ones moratorium the firmer their sense of identity will be. If experimentation is cut short as will their quest for their sense of identity (Erikson, 1986).
A critical study has been taken to asses Erikson’s eight psychosocial stages and its relevance to individuals in the contemporary world. From birth this individual Cara Attewell was provided with ample amounts of love and attention from both parents. She slept in their room and had at least one primary caregiver with her at all times in this first stage. This created a secure and trusting environment for this infant. Due to Cara’s basic needs being fulfilled on a regular basis, she was able to learn trust and that others are dependable which she still believe today. These are aspects which Erikson believes were essential (Erikson, 1959). Ahead of Erikson’s schedule Cara began toilet training at 16 months and had mastered it alone by 19months (Erikson, 1959). According to Erikson this is the age where children begin to develop their first interests (Erikson, 1959). Cara’s main interest was a Disney movie called “beauty and the beast” which she used to watch day in and day out every day. Most girls this age have a fascination with princesses and fairytales.one could say many of the interests Cara is showing to have up to today are evident or possibly stemmed from watching this particular movie repetitively. For example her favourite part of the movie was singing along to the songs, this love for singing and music is still evident today. Cara never saw the beast as scary, she always wanted to save him, this could be an early sign of her interest and compassion for animals came from. Erikson would say many of ones interests stem back to their younger ages when we are learning what we enjoy (Erikson, 1959). Cara’s parents always encouraged these aspects in their child as many of them were stereotypical of girls her age and when Cara learnt something, she was very pleased with herself. Up until the age of three when her brother was born, Cara had her parents unwavering attention. This is when, rendering to Erikson, a child is developing a sense of judgement and attempting to try new things without an adults help. Cara was given a lot of time for this as her brother was born sick so a lot of attention was wavered to his care. Cara did not like that he was a boy so she did not mind this and took the initiative to explore as children this age should be doing, she especially enjoyed creating a drawing in her playroom (Erikson, 1959). Eventually she began to feel deserted and displayed aggressive behaviour as she could not do things with her parents as she did before. It was at this age that her parents provided her with a fulltime nanny, this was important as it provided the child with someone to guide her while learning how to gage her judgement and exploration. At this time, Cara and her family lived in a very small village in England, so she was allowed to wonder around the local pub with friends. Eventually Cara saw it as part of her initiative to care and mother her little brother as well and when she could not she would play dress up and pretend she was with her friends. Cara was always the outgoing and bossy one among her friends at this age. If she did not get her way with her parents she would throw tantrums, this might be where Erikson speaks of frustration on not being able to do something as planned, but only in certain situations (Erikson, 1959). At 6 years of age, Cara and her family moved to South Africa where school became a nightmare because Cara would hide under the coffee table in protest to attending school. Things were very different for her there, she now had to wear uniforms and she had none of the familiar faces she had lived with her whole life. Erikson describes these next few years as a time for a natural want to achieve and do things which were productive and they could complete on their own (Erikson, 1959). School is the chance to learn the value of work but Cara, although she was diligent, did not show any real interest or enthusiasm in doing over what needed to be done. Even once she had settled in and got excited about school again it was more of a social event. Cara’s teachers and peers noticed her lack of interest and a disinterest in her in return. Although she did have friends, she did not have the connection she had with her ones in England as she had not known them as long so she created an inferiority complex among groups and public forums (plays, singing, speeches) Car reacted with rebellious actions and being disobedient, she did not want to do as others told her. Erikson might connect this with a way of expressing independence which is common for someone at this age to strive for (Erikson, 1959). Erikson might also say that if motivation was given to Cara in some areas which Cara was not necessarily interested in then her acts of rebellion might not have been as excessive as they were (Erikson, 1959). By the time Cara reached adolescence she had become more eager to please and work hard, especially with the subjects she enjoyed. As Erikson predicts for this life stage Cara began looking at what she had and where she wanted to be. She now had a much stricter school system after spending a year in England again and one teacher in particular which pushed her to achieve (Erikson, 1959). She began putting a lot of pressure on herself to do well and joining extra activities that might help her explore and open choices for later in life. These were things like writing for magazines, poetry books, and newspapers, participating in community service and joining animal rights groups. Erikson labelled this stage the age of the “identity crisis” as the teenage years are where individuals make the transition into adulthood. This is after working through many crossroads, societies expectations and battling commitments which one might not necessarily be prone to yet (Erikson, 1959). Cara was using the moratorium to her full advantage, trying various new things. She experimented a lot with different groups of people and went from a stereotypical girl to going out to rock clubs and showing interests in different sports like rowing, touch rugby, and kick boxing. They all started out as social experiments but the more she enjoyed them the more dedication she gave to them. As Erikson predicted Cara was feeling the pressures of society and people like her family, coaches, bosses and teachers expectations on her time and commitment (Erikson, 1959). For a long period Cara fell privy to these expectations, not only from other people but for herself as well, she wanted to find things that mattered to her that she had chosen personally. She became very interested in animal rights and spent most of her Friday afternoons in confirmation classes. Many people follow the religions they are born into and the level of religion, as in Cara’s case, was not that prominent. It became important to Cara to find her religion for herself and understand and connect with it, confirmation was saying that not only had her parents accepted God into her life but she had as well and to a greater extent. Cara’s mother allowed her to experiment with all these different things, even the activities which were not as safe like going out until late and drinking as long as she was kept informed. This allowed to Cara to experiment with various different psychological and social aspects of life. This time of experimentation and exploration allowed Cara to develop a greater understanding of her surroundings and herself (Erikson, 1959). One could see several benefits to the psychological field as a whole due to the studies of Erikson’s eight stages because not only does he explain the stages and their crises but he explains ways in which they could be addressed and applied in the psychological field. This gave new techniques and brought more psychological avenues to explore study and attempt to outline and tech to others. This would have the power to help facilitate healthy emotional and cognitive development. “Every adult, whether he is a follower or a leader, a member of class or of an elite, was once a child” (Erikson, 1902-1994). Erikson took into consideration that all humans begin in the same place and that it is our upbringing that sets up apart. Sociologists like Jean Satre and Karl Marx even believed that one’s essence was shaped by their existence. This meant people were who they were because of what circumstances surrounded them. Thus one might find in naïve not to take the subjects social, political, economic and historical contexts into consideration (Marx, Engels, 1848). Cara’s parents are middle class and therefor are able to give her all the developmental tools, time and encouragement which Erikson’s stages demand (Erikson, 1902-1994). (Even if it is hiring someone else to step in and assist when they are not available). Erikson does not take different social and economic circumstances into account; there are many people who cannot afford to give their children as much time as these stages demand or even afford to put their children into an education system which can help with encouragement and development. This does not necessarily mean that these children are going to grow up with psychological problems as many cultures ideas of normal are quite different to this western view. Erikson was a student of and admired a lot of aspects about Sigmund Freud (Cole, 1970). Many would agree that the first four stages in Erikson’s psychosocial model relate to Freud’s; namely his oral, anal, phallic and latency stages. Either way it is evident that Freud would concur with Erikson’s efforts to place life stages in a cycle (Cole, 1970). Erikson said that one’s development is ever lasting through adolescence and to the end of one’s life. In contrast, according to Freud an individual’s psychological development is complete by adolescence (Cole, 1970). The subject in this case, whether it is successfully or not, seemed to be going through the same psychosocial stages which Erikson portrayed at each particular stage. There was a correlation between the trials and tribulations at each stage as well. One might find it hard to argue against the thought that there does tend to be some generalisations and stereotypes in this theory though. Many might question the similarities between classes and cultures and thus who this model is applicable to; in some cultures nursery schools not only differ but might not exist.
List of references
Cole, M., and Cole, S.R. (1989). The Development of Child Pschology. New York: W.H. Freeman & Co. Coles, R. (1970) Erik H.Erikson: The Growth of his work. Boston: Little, Brown. Elms, A. (1994). Uncovering lives: the uneasy alliance between biography and psychology. Oxford University Press. New York. Erikson, E.H. (1902-1994). Childhood and Society.
Erikson, E.H. (1959). Identity and The Life Cycle. New York: International Universities Press. Erikson, E.H. (1986). Identity, Youth and Crisis. New York: International Universities Press. Marx, K., and Engels, F. (1848). The Communist Manifesto. Germany: Brussels. Sheehy, G. (1976). Passages: Predictable Crises of Adult Life. New York: E. P. Dutton. Stevens, R. (1983). Erik Erikson: An Introduction. New York: St. Martin’s.