Theories Of Development

Developmental Theory

    A systematic set of principles & generalizations that explain development, generate hypotheses, 
and provide a frame work for future research.

Grand Theories

    Comprehensive theories that inspired & directed thinking about development for decades but no 
longer seem adequate.

     * Psychoanalytic ( Freud / Erikson )
      * Learning ( Watson / Skinner )
       * Cognitive ( Piaget )
Mini theories: Theories that explain some specific area of development.

Emergent / Newer Theories

•  Sociocultural (Vygotsky)     
•  Humanism - Abraham Maslow (1908-1970), Carl Rogers (1902-1987) - Stresses the potential of 
humans for good, that all people have the same needs and emphasizes what people have in common. 
•  Evolutionary Theory - Based on Darwin’s ideas which are very controversial in psychological circles, 
notes that humans are more alike than different, that human development is influenced by drives to 
survive and reproduce. Stresses selective adaptation a process by which people adapt to their environment 
•  The Epigenetic psychobiological systems perspective is an emergent theory that views development as 
a product of interaction between biological and environmental forces. It includes both the genetic origins of 
behavior and the direct influence of the environment on the expression of these genes.

Psychoanalytic Theory 

    Emphasizes that human actions & thoughts originate from powerful impulses & conflicts that often 
are not part of our conscious awareness.

* Freud - Five Stages of Development

1. Oral - Focus is on the mouth, teeth, & gums. - Age: birth to 1.5 years  
 2. Anal - Age: 1.5 to 3 years  
  3. Phallic - Age: 3 to 6 years
   4. Latency - Really not a stage but an interlude. - Age: 7- 11 years 
    5. Genital - Age: from 12 on

* Erikson  

    In an extension of Freud's theory, Erik Erikson proposed eight successive stages of development 
from infancy through old age, each stage involving a crisis that must be solved.

1. Trust versus Mistrust (infant 0-1) - Hope is the virtue that develops upon successful resolution of this stage. 
 2. Autonomy versus Shame & Doubt (toddler 2-3) - Will, Determination 
  3. Initiative versus Guilt (preschooler 3-6) - Purpose, Courage 
   4. Industry versus Inferiority (school age 7-12) - Competence 
    5. Identity versus Role Confusion (adolescence, 12- 20) - Fidelity, Loyalty 
     6. Intimacy versus Isolation (early adulthood, 20 - 40) - Love 
      7. Generativity versus Stagnation (middle adulthood, 40 - 65) - Care 
       8. Integrity versus Despair (late adulthood, 65 +) - Wisdom 

Cognitive Theory - A theory which holds that the way people think & understand the world 
shapes their perceptions, attitudes, & actions.
   * Piaget's Periods of Cognitive Development
       Birth to 2 years - Sensormotor
        2 to 6 years - Preoperational
         7 to 11 years - Concrete Operational
          12 years & up - Formal Operational
    Assimilation refers to the process of interpreting new experiences in terms of an existing scheme.
    Accommodation refers to the process of interpreting new experiences by modifying existing 
   Cognitive Equilibrium: a state of mental balance in which a person is able to reconcile new 
experiences with existing understanding. 

Behaviorism - Learning Theory 

Ψ  Behaviorism: a.k.a. Learning Theory is a theory of animal & human learning that only focuses on objectively 
observable behaviors & discounts mental activities. Behavior theorists define learning as nothing more than the 
acquisition of new behavior. 

Key Terms


Learning occurs through;

    Classical conditioning (Pavlov) - Though association a neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned

    Operant conditioning (Skinner) - Through reinforcement weak or rare responses become strong, 
frequent responses.

    Social learning (Bandura) (A refinement of behaviorism) - Through modeling, observed behaviors 
become copied behaviors. 

Sociocultural Theory 

    An emergent theory which holds that human development results from the dynamic interaction 
between developing person & the surrounding culture, primarily as expressed by the parents & 
teachers who transmit it. 

Guided Participation (Vygotsky)

    A learning process in which an individual learns through social interaction with a "tutor" (a parent, 
a teacher, a more skilled person ) who offers assistance, structures opportunities, models strategies, 
and provides explicit instruction as needed. 

Guided Participation restated

    Mentors guide learners through the zone of of proximal development. Both learner and society 
develop as a result of this collaboration. Societies and cultures change when individuals choose which 
knowledge to past on. 
*** The Ecological model, the major proponent of which is Urie Bronfenbrenner, seeks to 
explain individual knowledge, development, & competencies in terms of the guidance, support, & 
structure provided by society & to explain social change over time in terms of the cumulative effect of 
individual choices. It is a sociocultural theory. 

Epigenetic Systems Theory

    An emergent theory that emphasizes the genetic origins of behavior but also stresses that genes, 
over time, are directly and systematically affected by many environmental factors.

Selective Adaptation

    An aspect of evolution in which, over generations, genes for the traits that are most useful will 
become more frequent, within individuals, making the survival of the species more likely. Epigenetic 
theory builds on Ethnology which is the study of behavior as it relates to the evolution & 
survival of a species.


    The critical aspect of a system, is that change in one part of the system causes corresponding 
adjustments & changes in every other part. An individual is an epigenetic system whose genes form 
the foundation of that system (Goldsmith et al., 1997). 

The Five Theories (a quick review):

  Psychoanalytic theory - unconscious processes - Freud / Erikson 
       Psychoanalytic theory has made us aware of the importance of early childhood experience.     
  Learning theory (Behaviorism) - environment - Watson / Skinner 
       Behaviorism has shown the effect that the immediate environment can have on learning, step by step.   
  Cognitive theory - intellect - Piaget 
       Cognitive theory has brought a greater understanding of how intellectual processes & thinking affect actions.     
  Sociocultural theory - culture - Vygotsky 
       Sociocultural theory has reminded us that development is embedded in a rich & multifaceted cultural context.   
 Epigenetic systems theory - genes 
       Epigenetic theory emphasizes the interaction between inherited forces & immediate contexts. 


    Psychoanalytic theory - too subjective.
       Learning theory - too mechanistic.
          Cognitive theory - undervalues genetic differences.
             Sociocultural theory - neglects individuals.
                Epigenetic systems theory - neglects society


    Take an eclectic perspective, selectively incorporating ideas & generating hypothesis from all 
the theories of development when analyzing behavior. 

Key Questions

1. What function does a good theory perform?
2. What is the major assumption of psychoanalytic theory?
3. What are the key differences between Freud & Erikson?
4. What is the major focus of learning theory?
5. How are stimulus & response related in classical conditioning? In operant conditioning?
6. According to Piaget, how do periods of disequilibrium lead to mental growth?
7. According to sociocultural theory, what is the relationship between the individual & the culture?
8. Describe guided participation, using an example.
9. According to epigenetic systems theorists, how can genetic instructions change?
10. What is the ethological view of behavior? How does it relate to epigenetic systems theory?
11. What are the main differences among the grand theories & between the two emergent theories?
12. In your experience does the behavior of children at about age 4 or 5 appear to be more the result of 
nature or nurture? Why?

                                             Growth & Development
                                                 Robert C. Gates