Developmental psychology is a scientific approach that aims to explain growth, change, and consistency though the lifespan. Developmental psychology examines how thinking, feeling, and behavior change throughout a person’s life.
A significant proportion of theories within this discipline focus on 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.
Developmental changes in body or behavior that result from the aging process (nature), rather than life experience, or learning (nurture).
A relatively permanent change in behavior that results from one’s experiences.
Developmental changes that characterize most people, i.e. typical / universal patterns of development.
Individual differences in the rate, extent, or direction of development.
Developmental psychologists must also seek to explain the changes they have observed about normative processes and individual differences. Although, it is often easier to describe development than to explain how it occurs.
Finally, developmental psychologists hope to optimize development, and apply their theories to help people in practical situations (e.g. help parents develop secure attachments with their children).
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?
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 talking about children going through “stages” in life (i.e., “sensorimotor 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:
- How much weight does each contribute?
- 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.
- Twin studies: Identical twins have the same genotype, and fraternal twins have an average of 50% of their genes in common.
- 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 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 that somber babies living in understaffed orphanages often become cheerful and affectionate when placed in socially stimulating adoptive homes.
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 are an even more recent area of study. This is mainly due to advances in medical science, enabling people to live to 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 procedures 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.
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.