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Psychosocial Development

The Psychodynamic theorist Erik Erikson adhered to the Freudian concepts of Id, Ego and Superego and the existence of strong instinctual forces.

Sigmund Freud’s (1920) concept of the Id can be seen as the self-expressive side of Clare W Graves’ Spiral - with its ultimate and most visceral expression in nodal RED. The development of the self-sacrificial/ conformist side of the Spiral also parallels Freud’s thoughts to some considerable degree. Firstly, the PURPLE vMEME’s restriction of BEIGE instinct to gain acceptance sounds like the Ego’s determination to avoid the consequences of the young Id’s intentions. Then, the Superego’s Conscience element is reflected in BLUE’s drive to ‘do the right thing’; while there are strong echoes of the Superego’s Ego Ideal element - how things should be - in GREEN’s idealistic intentions toward human inter-relations.

Thus, while the Psychodynamic approach is frequently

criticised these days as ‘unscientific’ and ‘overly fanciful’, it is clear many aspects are still relevant and have much to offer in developing our understanding of Integrated SocioPsychology.

Erikson: a Post-Freudian Psychodynamic Approach

No other psychological theorist has yet come up with an explanation - or linked series of explanations - of the ‘human condition’ anything like as comprehensive as Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory, the first of the Psychodynamic theories. Yet, from the earliest days of Freud’s theorising, it was obvious there were certain inconsistencies and claims that were very unlikely ever to be verifiable. Consequently Freud’s insistence on unwavering adherence to his theories - presumably the work of his own RED vMEME! - led to a series of one-time ‘disciples’ breaking away and founding their own Psychodynamic schools. These included such ‘giant’ thinkers as Carl Gustav Jung, Alfred Adler and Karen Horney.

Erik Erikson was more of an amender of Freud’s ideas than an outright breakaway, the development of his ideas coming into the public domain way after Freud’s death in 1939 and being far less divergent than, say, Jung or Adler. Introduced to the Freuds by Dorothy Burlingham, he trained with Freud in Vienna and was mentored (and psychoanalysed) by Freud’s daughter, Anna, before moving to the United States to escape the Nazi persecution of the Jews.

Where Erikson did differ significantly from Sigmund Freud was in proposing that psychosocial development was more important than psychosexual development. The interactions of the child/teenager/adult with parents, siblings, friends and peers and other significant people were considered by Erikson to be the most important influences in shaping someone’s development. In this respect, Erikson at least partly reflects Graves’ observations into the relationship between the external Life Conditions and the development of mental coping mechanisms (vMEMES).However, given the significance that

Original Graves graphic, 1971 - copyright © 2001 William R Lee & NVC Consulting

Freud’s Oedipus Complex

Sigmund Freud’s Oedipus Complex is arguably the most controversial element of his comprehensive, interweaved set of theories.

This takes place during the 3rd (Phallic) psychosexual stage of development (3-6 years) when awareness of gender and the concentration of libido (life energy) on the genitals coincides with the child's growing awareness of being left out of some aspects of their parents' relationship. Eg: parents may be less inclined to have their child join them in bed for a cuddle/reassurance. According to Freud, every little boy in this stage wants physical intimacy with his mother. (It’s highly debatable the boy actually wants sex with his mother since children of that age usually don’t understand the mechanics of intercourse.)

This makes the father a love rival to the boy whom the boy wants to get rid of. However, the boy dreads his father finding out and castrating him (castration anxiety - around this age, according to Freud, boys realise their mothers and sister(s) do not have penises and come to  the conclusion that his father has already cut their penises off.) This fear may be reinforced by the parents telling the boy off for masturbating.

The anxiety is resolved by the boy identifying with his father, to get close to him and, thus, neutralise the threat. By modelling his father, the boy not only reduces the threat of punishment (castration) but, by 'becoming him', he can now possess his  mother. However, as the boy becomes closer to his father, he represses his desire for his mother into his Unconscious. The process of internalising the father's values and norms is known as introjection. - and the result is the formation of the Superego.

The Electra Complex

Freud’s theorising on how girls experienced the Phallic Stage was somewhat less developed. The term ‘Electra Complex’ was coined by Carl Gustav Jung (1912) and and Freud initially used it. However, Jung simplified Freud's theory into simply an inverse of the Oedipus Complex - ie: girls have sexual desires for their father and, therefore, resent their mother. Freud objected strongly to this, feeling it was  misleading to imply that the experiences of  boys and girls are similar. This was one of the causes of the bitter fall-out between Freud and Jung. Freud preferred terms such as the ‘the Feminine Oedipus Complex’.

Freud (1933) contended that girls suffer from penis envy, being "mortified by the comparison with boys' far superior equipment", and would blame their mother for their 'castrated state'. Having their father's child then becomes a compensation strategy for not having a penis. Despite Freud’s rejection of Jung’s ideas, this still makes the mother a ‘love rival’ for the father’s attentions. Freud was far less definitive in how the girl’s conflict with her mother was resolved, talking only of an anaclitic identification in which the girl models her mother’s values and behaviours.

Freud argued that fear/acute anxiety drove the boy's identification with his father whereas there was no equivalent fear to drive the girl's  identification with her mother. Therefore, the girl models her mother with less intensity and the resultant Superego is not as strong as it is in boys. This contention is, to say the least, controversial! (See Gender Bias.)

Beginnings of the Oedipus Complex

In the early days of Psychoanalysis, the uncovering of pathogenic material related to the client's infantile sex life led Freud to suspect sexual assault by the opposite sex parent. In 1895 he gave a lecture, 'The Aetiology of Hysteria', to the Society for Psychiatry & Neurology in Vienna in which he stated that, in 18 cases of previously-unexplained hysteria he had investigated, the client had been sexually abused - either by an adult or an older sibling. He claimed that repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse were the primary causal factor in the development of hysteria and other forms of neurosis. This was Freud’s so-called 'Seduction Theory'.

However, the number of clients who, in analysis, revealed troubling sexual material from their childhoods, eventually led Freud to doubt parental sexual abuse could be the cause of it. It was recalling himself (during self-analysis) being aroused by his mother's nudity that led Freud to suspect there was an alternative explanation for the sexual material in his clients' repressed thoughts. He concluded that memories of child sexual abuse were often fantasies derived from repressed remnants of incestuous desires for the opposite sex parent. Accordingly, Freud (1905) effectively abandoned the Seduction Theory in favour of developing a set of theories based on the concept of infantile sexuality, with 5 psychosexual stages to pass through and the Oedipus Complex as a key experience.

Seymour Fisher & Roger Greenberg (1977) did find evidence to support some elements of the Oedipus Complex - in particular that children do have to cope with erotic feelings towards their opposite-sex parent and hostile feelings towards their same-sex parent. Amongst males they also reported fear of physical injury, fear of death and fear of bodily  harm or attack - all of which Fisher & Greenberg  interpreted as indirect fear of castration. Interestingly, these fears intensified when they were exposed to heterosexual stimulation. Females appeared to be more motivated by fear of the loss of love. While they amassed some not-insignificant evidence, Fisher & Greenberg’s conclusions were based only on correlational studies - therefore cause-and-effect cannot be assumed.

Although periodic case studies do indeed suggest childhood Oedipal desires and occasionally there is disturbing evidence of a child having initiated a fully-fledged incestuous relationship with the opposite-sex parent, a truly-sound empirical base for the Oedipus Complex has never yet been established - nor ever looks likely to be. (Freud’s counter to this criticism was that the ego defence mechanism of repression - see Selfplex Defence Mechanisms -  made access to such memories impossible except under therapy.) Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (1984) has suggested that the invention of the Oedipus Complex actually did many of Freud’s clients the disservice of masking the harsh reality that they were in fact sexually abused as children. Based on letters from Freud to his friend Wilhelm Fleiss which Anna Freud had held back from publication, Masson (1990) also suggests that Freud was forced to develop the Oedipus Complex as an alternative explanation for the pathogenic material because the Seduction Theory met with such strong resistance from his influential peers. Masson (1990) asserts that one letter to Fleiss indicates Freud continued to believe in the Seduction Theory even after its effective abandonment. However, Allen Esterson (1998) contends that, apart from a couple of Freud’s cases where the evidence for child sex abuse does seem incontrovertible, the sexual material ‘uncovered’ by Freud was mostly his interpreting (meta-stating) of fragmentary sounds and images recalled under duress. Apparently an example of researcher bias!

Evolutionary Psychology has come to place on sex - especially with Sexual Selection - Erikson may have ‘thrown the [proverbial] baby out with the bathwater’ in so demoting the prominence of sexual motivations. Erikson didn’t exactly dismiss Freud’s Oedipus Complex completely out of hand but he certainly downplayed its importance notably when compared to the critical status Freud attached to it.

Erikson built up his theory over some 30 years. He gathered evidence for his theory while working as a practising therapist. According to  M Cole & S R Cole (1989), one of Erikson's favourite methods for testing his theory was - like Abraham Maslow in developing the Hierarchy of Needs - the biographical case study, studying such famous men as Martin Luther and Mahatma Gandhi (1963). Erikson also studied child-rearing practices of the Sioux and Yurok Indians of North America who were experiencing great social change. His findings supported his ideas.

The differences in Erikson’s approach, compared to Freud’s Psychoanalytic Theory can be summarised as...

Erikson saw development of personality as taking place over an entire lifespan whereas Freud saw personality as complete by the early-mid teens - as a result of which Erikson  attributed 8 stages of development taking place over a lifetime in contrast to Freud’s 5 stages from birth to post-puberty

Mapping Graves and Erikson

Graves, who professed to know little about the development of children and tended to deflect enquiries about such to the work of correspondents O J Harvey, David E Hunt & H M Schroeder (1961) and Hunt (1966) - see Comparison Map - was notoriously reluctant to attach time frames to the emergence of what we now call vMEMES. Instead of chronological time, Gaves preferred to talk about ‘psychological time’ - see the graphic left. In the original Graves Model, letter pairs were used to denote the life conditions (A-M) being matched by the motivating system (N-Z) for psychological health.

The benefit of relating the emergence of vMEMES to Erikson’s lifespan theory is that it provides a possible/likely timeframe for that emergence. It’s important that, in doing so, we respect Graves’ reasons for being reluctant to assign chronological timeframes to emergence - one of which was that vMEMES tend to emerge as the Life Conditions demand, not just on a rigid timeframe as predetermined by purely maturational (internal/biological) forces.

It’s also important that, in mapping Graves to Erikson - and Freud, for that matter - that we bear in mind the somewhat problematic nature of mapping development in terms of stages.The theory implies that the stages are discreet, with boundaries over which you pass from one stage to the next. However, in ‘real life’ it is rather rare for someone to be totally in

one stage one day and in a totally different stage the next. While a stage theory, of necessity, requires boundaries to delineate the stages, the drawing of such boundaries inevitably carries a decidedly arbitrary element in it. The fallacy of adhering too rigidly to a sequential stage theory is illustrated by Erikson’s Peer Relationships stage being followed by the Love Relationships stage. Many mid-teens achieve a significant degree of emotionally intimacy in romantic relationships while still forming both friendships and their own sense of identity. The messiness of real life means any stage theory needs to have a certain flexibility in how the stages are laid down and there may need at times to be a blurring of the boundaries between them.

Graves’ concept of systems that develop within us, rather than stages we pass through, overcomes the rigidity of stage theories problem. However, if taken as periods of time when a particular vMEME or harmonic of vMEMES is likely to dominate, a loose mapping to stages not only gives us a probable rough timeframe for vMEME emergence but it also enables us to apply the potent observations of such commentators as Erikson and Freud.


Updated: 6 August 2012