Trust vs. Mistrust: Psychosocial Stage 1

Learning to Trust the World Around Us

Mother and child
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The trust versus mistrust stage is the first stage of psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development, which occurs between birth and approximately 18 months of age. According to Erikson, the trust versus mistrust stage is the most important period in a person’s life because it shapes our view of the world, as well as our personalities.

An Overview of the Trust Versus Mistrust Stage

This first stage of psychosocial development consists of:

  • Psychosocial Conflict: Trust versus mistrust
  • Major Question: "Can I trust the people around me?"
  • Basic Virtue: Hope
  • Important Event(s): Feeding

What Happens During This Stage

It is in this initial stage of development that children learn whether or not they can trust the world. As you might deduce, it is the care they receive from their parents and other adults that is critical to forming this trust.

Because an infant is entirely dependent upon his or her caregivers, the quality of care that the child receives plays an important role in the shaping of the child’s personality. During this stage, children learn whether or not they can trust the people around them. When a baby cries, does his caregiver attend to his needs? When he is frightened, will someone comfort him? When she is hungry, does she receive nourishment from her caregivers?

An infant's ability to communicate his or her needs are limited, so crying carries an important message.

When a baby cries, there is some need that should be met with a response from caregivers, whether it involves providing food, safety, a fresh diaper, or a comforting cuddle. By responding quickly and appropriately to an infant's cries, a foundation of trust is established.

When these needs are consistently met, the child will learn that he can trust the people who are caring for him.

If, however, these needs are not consistently met, the child will begin to mistrust the people around him.

If a child successfully develops trust, he will feel safe and secure in the world. Caregivers who are inconsistent, emotionally unavailable, or reject the child contribute to feelings of mistrust in the children they care for. Failure to develop trust can result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable.

Erikson believed that these early patterns of trust or mistrust help control, or at least exert, a powerful influence over that individual's interactions with others for the remainder of his life. Those who learn to trust caregivers in infancy will be more likely to form trusting relationships with others throughout the course of their lives, Erikson believed.

Trust May Be Genetic

There have been multiple studies devoted to understanding what goes into the tendency to be trusting, but not nearly as many in the quest to understand why certain people are more mistrustful than others. It's clear that environment has a big part in both, just as Erikson states. One recent study done with female twins, both identical and fraternal, shows evidence that while a trusting personality seems to be at least in part genetic, a mistrustful or distrusting personality seems to be learned from family and other social influences.

The Other Stages of Psychosocial Development 

Erikson's psychosocial development theory has seven other stages that span throughout a person's lifetime. They include:

Sources:

Erikson, EH. Childhood and Society. New York: W.W. Norton & Company; 1993.

Reimann, M, Schilke, O, Cook, KS. Trust Is Heritable, Whereas Distrust Is Not. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States of America. 2017;114(27):7007-7012.

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