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Skinner, Erikson, and Freud Theories compared

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B.F. Skinner, Erikson, and Freud have three theories on how development takes place over a person's life. B.F. Skinner theory centers around operant conditioning, Erikson's focuses on conflict, and Freud's theory focuses on psychosexual conflict. Each theory has its merits and short comings because each theory only focuses on one aspect of development instead of development as we know it today, as a whole.

B.F. Skinner used operant conditioning to describe development. He believed that behavior was leaned and reinforced through the environment. The Skinner box was designed to test his theory. The box held a rat and had a lever, button, or other tool in it that was connected to a food source. When the lever or what have you was pressed, food would come out and the rat could eat. The rat soon learned through positive reinforcement that pushing the lever meant they could have food. The rats would soon learn to push the lever to eat (Boeree, 2006).

Skinner found different sequences made the learning more reliable. If the food only came out every other time the rat pushed the lever, the rat would be more persistent with the behavior than if it came out every time. If the food came out randomly then the rat would remember it the longest. Extinction is the rate at which a behavior is forgotten or dies out. If the rat is not longer receiving positive reinforcement for doing the behavior, the rat stops doing it (Boeree, 2006).

Skinner later found that there was also recovery for lost behaviors. If the rat was out of the box for a while and then was returned to the box with the same lever they originally had, the rat would start pushing the lever for food again. This process is called spontaneous recovery, or spontaneously remembering what needed to be done in the box to eat. The recovery was more persistent with rats that had been reinforced periodically than the rats that had been reinforced every time they pushed the lever. Eventually, if the reinforcement was not there, the spontaneously recovered behavior would become extinct again (Boeree, 2006).

Lever pushing is easy to understand, but Skinner took it further into development by adding shaping to his theory for complex behaviors. Shaping is using reinforced steps to teach a creature something. An example of shaping would be teaching a child to sound out a word. First the child learns to sing the alphabet and is encouraged to remember and sing the song. The child is then taught how to recognize the individual letters from the alphabet and praised for their recognition. The child then learns the different sounds the letters make and is praised for their ability to recognize and sound out the letters. The child is then taught how to put the letters together to make words and then the words to sentences, paragraphs and stories. The whole time, the teacher or parent is praising the child for their accomplishment. Any behavior can be traced back through this process, from behaviors as simple as eating with a fork to behaviors as complex as raising a child.

Skinner also deals with getting rid of negative behaviors through conditioning. An example would be a dog that chews furniture. If every time the dog chews the furniture, it receives negative stimuli, the dog will stop chewing the furniture. The same can be said for a child. If a child is throwing their fork at every meal and the parent shows dissatisfaction and sits the child in time out every time they throw their fork, the child will eventually stop throwing the fork.

Another way of learning is negative reinforcement or when the behavior is reinforced because a negative stimuli goes away. This is best demonstrated in parenting. When a parent picks up their screaming infant, the screaming goes away and the parent is encouraged to pick up the infant when the infant is screaming. The parent learns how to care for the infant and eventually child through a process of negative reinforcement. The child uses shaping in a way on the parent by first being satisfied with being held, then with fed, changed, rocked and what have you until the parent knows the routine of the child. Being complex creatures, humans are capable of very complex behaviors, what Skinner leaves out is what causes personality and complex thought. In his theory, the behaviors are all learned and humans along with other creatures act as robots carrying out tasks they were taught to do and not the tasks they were taught not to do. Erikson answers some of these questions by dealing with cognitive development.

Erikson's theory involved a series of conflicts a person needed to move through in order to develop successfully. Failure to pass through a conflict with a positive outcome meant that the person would form their opinion of the world around the conflict. According to Erikson, there are eight conflicts in life.

The first conflict occurs between infancy and eighteen months of age. The stage focuses around trust versus mistrust. In this stage it is important that the child be well cared for by the caregiver, be it a parent or guardian. If the relationship is loving and supportive, the child learns to trust that the world is basically a good place and has a positive outlook on life. If the child fails to establish trust, the child is likely to mistrust the world believe it is not all a good place (Harder, 2009).

The second conflict occurs between eighteen months and three years. The stage focuses on autonomy versus shame. Autonomy is mastering major skills for oneself such as walking, talking, toilet training, and self will. If the child is brought up to be ashamed of themselves, an example being public humiliation for not making it to the toilet on time, the child learns to be ashamed of themselves and live with little self-esteem for the rest of their life (Harder, 2009).

The third conflict occurs between the ages of three and five years. The major stage focuses on initiative versus guilt. The initiative is the desire to be like adults through pretend play and such. If the child feels guilt for wanting to play in a certain way they can grow up to lack purpose. A way that the child would feel guilt would be if they wanted to play with dolls but were not allowed to.

The fourth conflict occurs between six and twelve years of age. It is industry versus inferiority. Industry occurs from accomplishing various tasks and inferiority occurs from feeling inadequate. The outcome is either having or not having self-esteem (Harder, 2009).

The fifth stage occurs between the ages of twelve and eighteen years of age. The stage focuses on identity versus role confusion. In this stage the adolescent experiments with finding themselves. If they fail to make it through this stage with a sound understanding of who they are separate from their parents and peers, they are likely to experience role confusion (Harder, 2009).

The sixth stage occurs between the ages of eighteen and thirty-five. The stage focuses on intimacy and solidarity verses isolation. The goal is to find intimacy with a partner along with finding peace in time alone. If the person fails to find intimacy, they often feel isolation and may begin to look at themselves as being superior to other people (Harder, 2009).

The seventh stage occurs in late adulthood, between the ages of thirty-five and sixty-five. The stage deals with generativity versus self-absorption or stagnation. Generativity occurs when the person can pass down knowledge to family and culture. The focus is meaningful work. If the adult does not find meaningful tasks they can become self-absorbed or stagnant (Harder, 2009).

The eight and final stage in Erikson's theory occurs from the age of sixty-five and death. In this stage the goal is integrity versus despair. The purpose is to look back at one's life and find meaning in it. If the person feels they contributed and had a meaningful life, they can prepare for death. If they feel they did not accomplish what they wanted to accomplish then they are likely to feel despair (Harder, 2009).

The strengths of Erikson's developmental theory are fairly obvious. Most people have met a teenager that does not know who they are and how they fit into the world. Often times, a few years down the road, the same two people meet and the teenager has moved past the role confusion and become a well rounded individual with a strong sense of who they are and how they fit in. Most have also met a teenager that never seemed to fit in right and then run into them later on to find that they still do not know who they are or where they are going. They often have trouble with relationships and later stages in life. These examples show the strengths.

Most people have also met toddlers that had a problem learning to walk, potty train, or another independent task. These toddlers often move on and are not always ashamed of themselves with low self-esteem. There seems to be more to the process of development than just crisis after crisis. Sometimes these stages also take place in different orders and can be revisited other things can be learned like it B.F. Skinner's developmental theory.

A similar theory to Erikson's is Freud's. Freud took a psychosexual approach to development, but still divided development into stages. Each stage needs to be completed successfully in order for a person to move on. If the stage is not completed properly, the person will develop a fixation with something based on the stage.

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The first of Freud's stages is the oral stage. This stage occurs during infancy when the baby is nursing, bottle feeding, and discovering the world through their mouth. According to Freud, if the need for oral gratification is not met in the infant sufficiently, the infant will develop an oral fixation as an adult (Papalia, Olds, Feldman, 2008), such as excessive talking, smoking a cigar, nail biting, or an obsession with food.

The second stage of Freud's theory is the anal stage. This stage occurs in the toddler years when the toddler is potty training. If the child does not feel like they have proper control over themselves in this stage, they may become and anal retentive adult also known as a neat freak or controlling of their environment (Papalia, Olds, Feldman, 2008).

The phallic stage is the most important stage in Freud's theory. It is when a child discovers the difference between male and female. In this stage, they also have a conflict to deal with. According to Freud, the child develops an attraction to the parent of the opposite sex and becomes jealous of the parent of the same sex. The child supposedly decides to imitate the parent of the same sex in order to win the affection of the parent of the opposite sex. Girl's, according to Freud, have penis envy in this stage and envy the power the penis stands for. The phallic stage is followed by the calm years of the latency stage where the child focuses on social exploration, school work, and skill building (Papalia, Olds, Feldman, 2008).

The final stage is the genital stage which lasts through adulthood. In this stage sexual desires are repressed and let out through socially acceptable channels (Papalia, Olds, Feldman, 2008), such as marriage and having a family. This stage explains the need for relationships and the desire to have children with a spouse.

Freud also had parts of the personality broken down into three warring parts. The Id, Ego, and Superego. The Id is formed at birth and is a here and now part of the personality. The has its needs and it needs them right now. The Superego is formed as the child reaches the stage where they realize what society wants from them and what rules there are. Superego wants to adhere to every rule and suppress all the desires of the Id. The third part is Ego. The Ego is the middle ground that allows the Id's desires to be met in a socially acceptable way that allows for the superego to be alright with the Id's desires being met. By the genital stage, these three parts of the personality should be completely functional and the person should be able to regulate their needs and wants through the genital stage (Papalia, Olds, Feldman, 2008).

Examples of Freud's theory can be found in society even though it has been mostly discredited. Most adults have seen children that bite their nails right through adulthood or seem to talk way too much. These children have no way of saying, my oral needs were satisfied so the adult could assume that the child was not allowed to bottle feed or nurse as long as they wanted to or that they were not allowed to explore the world around them with their mouths the way a normal infant does. Children also tend to mimic the parent of the same sex, be it because they secretly desire their parent of the opposite sex or because they are trying to figure out what being a girl or boy means in impossible to tell, but children do imitate their parents.

As for the formation of Id, Ego, and Superego, they are also easy to see as a child matures. An infant (who is born with Id) always wants what they want when they want it. They do not care if you rob a bank to buy them formula as long as they get that formula when they feel hungry. In between the ages of three and four, children begin to learn the rules and think they are not flexible. If you tell the child not to lie the child assumes it is never right to lie. This is the beginning of the development of Superego. The child does not know how to handle both their desires and what society dictates is right. This is why when the child is asked if they think a dress looks nice they are apt to tell the person no even if it would have been right to save the feelings and say yes. When the child gets older, they begin to understand what rules are flexible, like never tell a lie unless it is for the better and will hurt no one in the end, and what rules are not flexible, like never rob a bank even if it is to get food for yourself.

The three theories show different aspects of what development really is. B.F Skinner was right about conditioning playing a role in development. Conditioning is used in school to learn new skills piece by piece and at home to learn behaviors that are and are not acceptable. Children condition their parents to do what they need done for them and parents condition their children into knowing what is right and what is wrong. Through this conditioning, the child gains a sense of what is needed and acceptable in society which is what Freud's superego is. The child also moves through the stages of development where they learn independence, develop self-esteem, learn how to love another person, ect.

Each theory has its merits but lacks what the other theories bring into play. The only theory that has anything to do with environment is B.F. Skinner and he is not looking at what love and encouragement do for the child as opposed to what abandonment and discouragement do in the long run.

It is now known that development is inherited, environmental, and natural. A child locked in a closet will not learn how to be a proper human, they need interaction to learn what is right and wrong. A child that is constantly commanded and not allowed to make their own decisions is not likely to be a confident adult because they have not had the chance to stretch their wings. A child that is neglected is equally as unlikely to be confident because they have never had the reassurance that well rounded home provides (Papalia, Olds, Feldman, 2008).

If a child developments physically normal, they will reach walking, potty training and all the other important milestones of Erikson's theory fairly naturally, but if they are handicapped, it does not mean that they will not adjust to the situation and become independent in the same stage. If their parents are nurturing and help them master what they can master at the same time, that stage can be overcome with success and the child learning to have self-esteem despite their physical disadvantages. Children in extreme situations of abuse or neglect can also overcome these situations when moved into a place where they can get help and experience love later in life. None of the theories make much room for the resilience that we now know children possess.

If multiple theories are strung together, they become the strongest theory for development. It is now known that development is not only social, behavioral, or environmental, but a combination of all three. No theory that neglects a part of a child's world can truly predict how the child will turn out.


Boeree, G. (2006). B.F. Skinner 1904-1990, retrieved July 26, 2010 from

Harder, A. (2009). The Developmental Stages of Erik Erikson, retrieved July 26, 2010 from

Papalia, D., Olds, S., Feldman, R. (2008). A Child's World 11th Edition, McGraw Hill Publishing

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