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Developmental Psychology

published, updated 2017


Developmental psychology is a scientific approach which aims to explain growth, change and consistency though the lifespan. Developmental psychology looks at how thinking, feeling, and behavior change throughout a person’s life.

A significant proportion of theories within this discipline focus upon development during childhood, as this is the period during an individual's lifespan when the most change occurs.

Developmental psychologists study a wide range of theoretical areas, such as biological, social, emotion, and cognitive processes. Empirical research in this area tends to be dominated by psychologists from Western cultures such as North American and Europe, although during the 1980s Japanese researchers began making a valid contribution to the field.

The three goals of developmental psychology are to describe, explain, and to optimize development (Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980). To describe development it is necessary to focus both on typical patterns of change (normative development) and on individual variations in patterns of change (i.e. idiographic development). Although there are typical pathways of development that most people will follow, no two persons are exactly alike.

Developmental psychologists must also seek to explain the changes they have observed in relation to normative processes and individual differences. Although, it is often easier to describe development than to explain how it occurs. Finally, developmental psychologists hope to optimise development, and apply their theories to help people in practical situations (e.g. help parents develop secure attachments with their children).


Developmental Questions

Continuity vs. Discontinuity

Think about how children become adults. Is there a predictable pattern they follow regarding thought and language and social development? Do children go through gradual changes or are they abrupt changes?

Continuity vs. Discontinuity

Normative development is typically viewed as a continual and cumulative process. The continuity view says that change is gradual. Children become more skillful in thinking, talking or acting much the same way as they get taller.

The discontinuity view sees development as more abrupt-a succession of changes that produce different behaviors in different age-specific life periods called stages. Biological changes provide the potential for these changes.

We often hear people taking about children going through “stages” in life (i.e. “sensori-motor stage.”). These are called developmental stages-periods of life initiated by distinct transitions in physical or psychological functioning. Psychologists of the discontinuity view believe that people go through the same stages, in the same order, but not necessarily at the same rate.

Nature vs. Nurture

When trying to explain development, it is important to consider the relative contribution of both nature and nurture. Developmental psychology seeks to answer two big questions about heredity and environment:

  1. How much weight does each contribute?
  2. How do nature and nurture interact?

Nature refers to the process of biological maturation inheritance and maturation. One of the reasons why the development of human beings is so similar is because our common specifies heredity (DNA) guides all of us through many of the same developmental changes at about the same points in our lives. Nurture refers to the impact of the environment, which involves the process of learning through experiences.

There are two effective ways to study nature-nurture.

  1. Twin studies: Identical twins have the same genotype, and fraternal twins have an average of 50% of their genes in common.
  2. Adoption studies: Similarities with the biological family support nature, while similarities with the adoptive family support nurture.
Stability vs. Change

Stability implies personality traits present during present during infancy endure throughout the lifespan. In contrast, change theorists argue that personalities are modified by interactions with family, experiences at school, and acculturation.

This capacity for change is called plasticity. For example, Rutter (1981) discovered than somber babies living in understaffed orphanages often become cheerful and affectionate when placed in socially stimulating adoptive homes.


Historical Origins

Developmental psychology as a discipline did not exist until after the industrial revolution when the need for an educated workforce led to the social construction of childhood as a distinct stage in a person's life.

The notion of childhood originates in the Western world and this is why the early research derives from this location. Initially developmental psychologists were interested in studying the mind of the child so that education and learning could be more effective.

Developmental changes during adulthood is an even more recent area of study. This is mainly due to advances in medical science, enabling people to live to an old age.

Charles Darwin is credited with conducting the first systematic study of developmental psychology. In 1877 he published a short paper detailing the development of innate forms of communication based on scientific observations of his infant son, Doddy.

However, the emergence of developmental psychology as a specific discipline can be traced back to 1882 when Wilhelm Preyer (a German physiologist) published a book entitled The Mind of the Child. In the book Preyer describes the development of his own daughter from birth to two and a half years. Importantly, Preyer used rigorous scientific procedure throughout studying the many abilities of his daughter.

In 1888 Preyer's publication was translated into English, by which time developmental psychology as a discipline was fully established with a further 47 empirical studies from Europe, North America and Britain also published to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge in the field.

During the 1900s three key figures have dominated the field with their extensive theories of human development, namely Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) and John Bowlby (1907-1990). Indeed, much of the current research continues to be influenced by these three theorists.


Theories of Development


Jean Piaget

Jean Piaget

Piaget believed that children think differently than adults, and stated they go through 4 universal stages of cognitive development.

Lev Vygotsky

Lev Vygotsky

Vygotsky's theories stress the fundamental role of social interaction in the development of cognition.

John Bowlby

John Bowlby

Bowlby’s theory of attachment suggests that children come into the world biologically pre-programmed to form attachments.

Erikson's Psychosocial Stages of Development

Erikson's Psychosocial Stages of Development


References

Baltes, P. B., Reese, H., & Lipsett, L. (1980) Lifespan developmental psychology, Annual Review of Pyschology 31: 65 – 110.

Darwin, C. (1877). A Biographical Sketch of an Infant. Mind, 2, 285-294.

Preyer, W.T. (1882). Die Seele des Kindes: Beobachtungen über die geistige Entwicklung des Menschen in den ersten Lebensjahren.Grieben, Leipzig,

Preyer, W.T. (1888). The soul of the child: observations on the mental development of man in the first years of life.

Rutter, M. (1981). STRESS, COPING AND DEVELOPMENT: SOME ISSUES AND SOME QUESTIONS*. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 22(4), 323-356.


How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2017). Developmental psychology. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/developmental-psychology.html

Further Information

Jean Piaget

Vygotsky

Bruner

Attachment Theory

John Bowlby

Moral Development

Self-Concept

Erikson

Life span theory in developmental psychology (book chapter)

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