Trust Versus Mistrust
The following entry describes Erikson’s first stage of psychosocial development, the impact of this stage on individual development, and the design of research scales to assess his theoretical ideas.
Erik Erikson obtained training in the psychoanalytic model in Vienna under Sigmund Freud. Erikson made a significant contribution to the field of psychology with his stages of psychosocial development, which he indicated drew on two major theories of psychoanalysis: psychosexual development and ego psychology (Erikson 1985). Erikson viewed his theory as an extension or an elaboration of Freud’s, adding a psychosocial dimension to psychobiology. With this addition, Erikson focused on the relationship of individuals with their culture, essentially placing the “individual in his historical time and cultural context” (Mitchell and Black 1995, p. 141). Given that Erikson’s theory is an extension of Freud’s work on psychosexual development, his stages correspond to the phases found in Freud’s famous theory.
One reason for the extension or elaboration of psychoanalytic thought during Erikson’s time was to resolve the issue of reductive thought. Erikson worked to make psychoanalysis more dialectical in terms of describing tension between opposing forces, which Erikson found more appropriate, especially in light of the influence that one’s culture has on identity (Mitchell and Black 1995). This belief was exemplified with the stages he presented, in which each one represents a crisis of the ego. While the crisis of the ego is framed as a battle with two possible outcomes, such as trust versus mistrust, Erikson viewed it as a dialectical tension with one being complemented by the other (Mitchell and Black 1995). The goal in each crisis is to reach a favorable ratio between the two poles or dialectics, achieving a sense of balance between the two. The main text of this entry summarizes Erikson’s first stage of psychosocial development, the crises of the stage, clinical implications, and assessing the theory empirically.
Overview and Research Implications
Trust versus Mistrust: The first stage in development presented by Erikson is Trust versus Mistrust. This stage is aligned with Freud’s oral psychosexual stage and is also dominated by the oral zone, influencing behavior in all of this zone, including the surface of the skin and the sensory organs associated with this area. Erikson described the zone at this stage as being “receptive and increasingly hungry for proper stimulation” (Erikson 1950, p. 74). The purpose of this stage is for the infant to build a sense of trust in the world through its caregiver, based on the experiences that an individual has as an infant during their first year. He explained that this implies that one is able to rely on others and the outside world and for them to be stable and consistent. Additionally, Erikson’s view implies that individuals are able to be trustworthy themselves, meaning they do not need a caretaker to watch or guard them as they are able to cope with and manage their urges appropriately (Erikson 1959).
Building Trust: The means for building trust in this stage is done through two substages, the first of which was described by Erikson as getting. As a newborn, the individual takes things in through its mouth, essentially living through it (Erikson 1959). For individuals to get, Erikson explained that they are “to receive and to accept what is given” (Erikson 1950, p. 75). Infants learn this through the process of feeding as they learn to regulate themselves and their system in accordance with their mother and how she implements care. This coordination between the mother and the infant results in pleasure for both of them, increasing feelings of relaxation and comfort. This then indicates to the infant a friendliness to others, resulting in the building of trust. Feeding is not the only way the infant feels pleasure and builds trust. Building trust can also occur through being rocked, spoken to, and held.
The second stage is a more active and direct one and is described as being incorporative. This occurs as the infant begins the teething process. In obtaining teeth, the mode moves from one of getting to one of taking. New pleasure is found in biting things (on, through, and off) as well as seeing and hearing things with an ability to respond. Infants will visually follow objects, focusing on them and “grasping” them. They will also follow what is heard, shifting positions and turning their heads as noises are localized. Erikson stated this change indicates an increased awareness of sights and sounds, with a “readiness to experience both more exclusively to master them more co-ordinately, and to learn their social meaning” (Erikson 1950, p. 78).
Crisis of Stage: The crisis of trust versus mistrust is seen predominantly in the second half of the first year of life. Erikson described three developments impacting the crisis. The first is a physiological development, occurring as the teeth come in and increasing the possibility of biting, especially while breastfeeding. This can result in the mother pulling away as she experiences discomfort. This can also be a time when weening begins to occur. The second development is a psychological one and is when the infant becomes aware that they are a separate and distinct person. The third development is an environmental one and is when the mother pulls away from the infant to do things that were given up, either in late pregnancy or during early infancy. These developments may leave the infant feeling abandoned or deprived in some way, resulting in feelings of mistrust (Erikson 1959).
Basic trust of the infant can be shaken throughout the first year of life. Early on it may be due to rage or exhaustion and then later due to feeling abandoned or deprived. In working to build trust in the infant, the quality of the maternal relationship is of the utmost importance. This indicates a combination of “sensitive care of the baby’s individual needs and a firm sense of personal trustworthiness within the trusted framework of their culture’s life style” (Erikson 1950, p. 249). The infant is vulnerable and the caretakers must find a balance in meeting the needs of the infant in a variety of ways, including providing adequate food, stimulation, and comfort (Erikson 1959). The infant cannot survive without trust and through trust hope arises, which is the strength Erikson proposed one achieves through the resolution of this stage in development. He stated that trust is “confirmation of hope, our consistent buttress against all the trials and so-called tribulations of life in this world” (Erikson 1985, p. 107).
Mistrust: A lack of trust, or development of mistrust, can arise through unresolved conflicts in this stage. This can result in what psychoanalytic theorists call oral pessimism, leaving the individual feeling empty and worthless. Oral pessimism is brought on by fears in infancy associated with being left empty, left out, or without stimulation. Erikson also described individuals who may exhibit an optimistic oral character. These individuals make giving and receiving the most important things in their lives (Erikson 1959). Mistrust can also develop as a result of infant neglect. If infants experience inadequate or inconsistent care, they develop a sense of mistrust in their environment. Erikson cautions that some mistrust is necessary, especially for survival, as one must learn to be wary in some situations. However, he also emphasizes that too much mistrust can deprive individuals of love and friendship (Erikson 1985).
Implications: Erikson’s stage of trust versus mistrust led to developments in attachment theory from psychologists such as John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Over the years, attachment theory has continued to grow, and a broader view of attachment aligns well with Erikson’s first stage with an emphasis placed on the feelings of security that are fostered by caregivers through attachment. Research has shown that the development of primary attachment relationships occurs during the first year of infancy. This process is critical and relies on the quality of maternal caregiving (Fox 1995). Research has also shown that attachment styles in childhood are also found in adulthood. The security of an individual’s early attachment and experience of trust versus mistrust will in some ways shape efforts at emotional intimacy later in life. An individual’s beliefs regarding love will be linked to his/her attachment style. Research also shows increased feelings of loneliness for those individuals falling in the insecure range of attachment styles (Hazan and Shaver 1987). Another area of research associated with attachment and trust involves psychological reactance (an individual’s motivation for freedom). Individuals found to be more psychologically reactant appear to be less trusting and subsequently less emotionally available to form intimate relationships. There appears to be a curvilinear relationship here, indicating a certain amount of reactance is beneficial, while too little or too much produces negative consequences, such as mistrust and poor relationships (Dowd et al. 2001).
Measures of Change: While Erikson based his ideas on clinical theory and anecdotal evidence, several research scales have been designed to assess his ideas empirically. The psychosocial inventory of ego strengths (PIES) is based on Erikson’s theory and attempts to measure such variables as identity achievement, self-esteem, and purpose in life. This assessment tool evaluates the presence of the eight ego strengths associated with Erikson’s theory. The assessment measures an individual’s overall ego strength or resiliency, based on the scores obtained, and it can be used with adolescents and adults (Markstrom et al. 1997). The Modified Erikson Pychosocial Stage Inventory (MEPSI) is another instrument with which measures development at each of the psychosocial stages. This measure can be utilized with adults and has been found to be both reliable and valid in measuring the strength of attributes associated with the psychosocial stages (Darling-Fisher and Leidy 1988). Use of these scales can demonstrate changes in ego strength and progression in the stages. Clinically, this is of importance for measuring positive change that can occur in psychotherapy. Adolescents and adults who enter therapy with impairment in basic trust may present as withdrawn, closed off, and refusing comfort. Erikson has urged the therapeutic work to focus on convincing these individuals that they can trust both the world and themselves. As Erikson has noted, basic trust is the foundation of a healthy personality. When this is lacking, psychoanalytic treatment should seek to remedy this not only through the alleviation of symptoms but also through increasing ego strength (Erikson 1964).
Trust vs. mistrust was Erik Erikson’s first stage of psychosocial development in his famous eight stage theory. Erikson’s ideas about the struggle for trust over mistrust have had profound implications for the study of attachment theory and may have important implications for health relationships across the lifespan. Erikson’s work in this area has also influenced the development of empirical research and the development of research and assessment tools to study the impact of early attachment.
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