Elvis Presley is something of a paradox as an entertainer. He became famous for singing traditionally 'black' songs although he was a white singer with a largely white fan base. He began young and poor and died after creating 'Graceland,' his residence which became a museum to excess as well as his legacy as a singer. He also died overweight and addicted to prescription drugs. How did such a famous star come so far, yet fall so swiftly, a victim of his own success?
According to Erik Erikson's theory of human stages of development, all "people experience a conflict that serves as a turning point in development" at every stage (Cherry, 2012, Erikson's psychosocial stages of development). For example, during the first stage of development, that of trust vs. mistrust, the infant learns to trust his or her caregivers or develops a sense of fear and mistrust towards others. As with all of the stages of development, if this stage is not resolved successfully, the individual will continue to experience conflict related to this issue. "Failure to develop trust will result in fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unpredictable" (Cherry, 2012, Erikson's psychosocial stages of development). However, Elvis developed a trusting relationship with his mother that was to sustain him for much of his life during his early years (Elvis Presley, 2012, Biography).
The second stage of toddlerhood is defined by a conflict of autonomy vs. shame and doubt. If successfully resolved, the child gains a sense of autonomy over personal choices. Given that Elvis' parents moved around a great deal, this could have created some destabilization of the self. However, overall Elvis seemed to continue to build up a strong sense of self-esteem, thanks to the support of his mother and his growing confidence in his musical ability (Elvis Presley, 2012, Biography). The third stage, that of initiative vs. guilt is when "children begin to assert their power and control over the world through directing play and other social interactions" during their early schooling years (Cherry, 2012, Erikson's psychosocial stages of development). The fourth stage, that of industry vs. inferiority during the middle school years is when "children begin to develop a sense of pride in their accomplishments and abilities" (Cherry, 2012, Erikson's psychosocial stages of development). By the age of ten, Elvis had received his first guitar and developed his first sense of mastery and power over the world with his talent (Elvis Presley, 2012, Biography).
The fifth stage of identity vs. confusion takes place during adolescence, and is when children develop a sense of control over their respective futures. "Those who receive proper encouragement and reinforcement through personal exploration will emerge from this stage with a strong sense of self and a feeling of independence and control" (Cherry, 2012, Erikson's psychosocial stages of development). Elvis' success came early in his life, during this period of development. In 1956, Elvis signed with RCA Records and had his first number one single and album. He also signed a film deal with Paramount Studios (Elvis Presley, 2012, Biography). Although these were extremely positive developments for Presley, this meant that his identity in life became almost entirely bound up with his identity as a singer and a performer. His self-esteem was linked to the degree to which the public esteemed him.
The sixth stage, of young adulthood or intimacy vs. isolation is when Presley's development seems to be the least successfully resolved and shows the clearest signs of strain. "Erikson believed it was vital that people develop close, committed relationships with other people. Those who are successful at this step will form relationships that are committed and secure" (Cherry, 2012, Erikson's psychosocial stages of development). During this time Elvis served in the army and married. But his career began to falter and so did his marriage. Elvis grew increasingly isolated and began to search for other ways to 'feel good,' including chemical alternatives. The seventh stage, generativity vs. stagnation, was a series of 'hits and misses' for Elvis, creatively speaking. "Presley was also wrestling with other personal problems, including a growing addiction to prescription drugs; the once-thin rock star was battling a weight problem, and his destructive lifestyle caught up with him that fall, when he was hospitalized for drug-related health problems" (Elvis Presley, 2012, Biography).
Although Elvis made several popular comebacks in Las Vegas, he was increasingly seen as a parody of his younger self, and never created a new persona to suit that of the tastes of the 1970s. Some people were loyal to Elvis as fans but his popularity never regained its former glory. He became increasingly dependent upon his doctors because of his addiction. After so many years associating his ego and identity with that of his rock star persona, Elvis floundered. Elvis never mature to the final stage of development, that of integrity vs. despair, and died at the age of forty-two (Elvis Presley, 2012, Biography).
In contrast to Erik Erikson, who would see Elvis' problems as rooted in his stagnation in an unsuccessfully resolved phase of adulthood, the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg might see Elvis' failure as rooted in a failure to develop morally as well as an inability to establish a sense of an independent identity outside of the music world and the ups and downs of his fame. Kohlberg saw all individuals as proceeding through certain moral stages, beginning with a rote sense of obedience in which the young child makes decisions solely based on a fear of punishment (much along the lines of the fire-and-brimstone gospel tradition in which Presley began his work as an artist). Then, children proceed to a second "individualism and exchange" stage in which they can make moral decisions based upon the ability to advance self-interest (Crain 1999). Socialization brings with it the third stage of conventional morality or that of the need to live up to the "expectations of the family and community" (Crain 1985). Elvis' desire to please his mother, manager, and spouse, as well as his willingness to enter the army during the height of his popularity underlines the fact that he had advanced to this stage of moral development. The fourth stage is that of an acknowledgement of the need to obey social laws, also seen in Elvis' attempts to honor his commitments as a spouse and a citizen. However, these moral impulses were often thwarted by his insecurities and other motivational influences.
Many people do not attain the higher stages of moral development, that of stage five, in which people ask 'what makes a good society' or the best way to balance the needs of the social contract vs. individual rights (Crain 1985). Elvis' moral identity remained mired in adolescence, with a focus either upon ego and a focus upon the need to please others, such as his mother, manager, and the public. Very few people reach the sixth stage, that of universal principles. While "stage 5 respondents are working toward a conception of the good society...stage 6 -- [asks] which the principles by which we achieve justice' (Crain 1985). Elvis was unable to view his life as part of a larger moral struggle, as evidenced by his artistic detachment from the moral questions of his era such as the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War.
Part B: Subject's Motivation
According to Abraham Maslow, all human needs exist on a hierarchy. Basic needs such as need for sustenance and shelter must be met before higher-order needs can be satisfied. "This hierarchy is most often displayed as a pyramid. The lowest levels of the pyramid are made up of the most basic needs," such as physiological needs, while the more complex needs are located at the top of the pyramid" such as the need for self-actualization (Cherry, 2012, Hierarchy of needs). When Elvis was growing up poor, his basic needs for food and shelter were not met. Yet contrary to Maslow's hypothesis, Elvis was able to pour himself into his music. Paradoxically, after his lower needs were satisfied financially, Elvis grew increasingly focused upon satisfying himself on a physical level with drug and alcohol addition, rather than turning his focus to higher-order needs. Of course, it is possible to argue that addiction short-circuits the idea of what constitutes a basic necessity. Even though the drugs and over-eating were hurting his career, Elvis considered these needs to be unmet fundamental needs at the base of his personal hierarchy of needs. He put his need for drugs ahead of the need to advance his career and to maintain his health.
Another explanation for Elvis' self-destructive behavior can be found in David McClelland's theory of motivation, which does not place needs on a hierarchy. McClelland believed that all human beings were motivated in varying degrees by three basic needs: the need for achievement, the need for power, and the need for affiliation. Elvis' early striving shows examples of all three needs -- his desire to escape…