Developmental Psychology/Psychologists

Developmental psychologists are concerned primarily with how the human mind/personality changes over the course of a lifetime, from its conception and intrauterine development through childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and old age. The field envelops nearly all aspects of life and seeks to understand the factors that influence personality, intelligence, and behavior. Initially, developmental psychologists focused primarily on childhood development, believing that with adulthood came a kind of personality stasis. One of the first to question this notion was Erik Erikson (1902-1979) in his landmark 1950 book Eight Ages of Man, laying out a schema whereby human personality continues to change and evolve throughout the life-cycle. It was chiefly due to Erikson's work that developmental psychology expanded its view, taking on what is referred to within the field as the lifespan approach.

Sigmund Freud (1856-1939), the first theorist to link childhood experience with adult behavior, proposed what is perhaps the most widely known but least understood theory of childhood development. He saw personality development as consisting primarily of a conflict between biology and culture; that is, between the genetically programmed needs of the infant/child and the ability or willingness of the parents to satisfy those needs. Freud laid out a blueprint of development consisting of four stages: the oral, the anal, the phallic, and latency. At each stage of development, which Freud believed occurred at varying ages, infants and children had different needs, all biologically determined. What Freud saw as significant was the degree to which those needs were either met or frustrated by the parents: extremes at either end, frustration of gratification, resulted in fixation which stunted development.

Freud's ideas were, and continue to be, highly controversial, mainly because he attributed feelings of sexuality to infants, but also because of his focus on male concepts and imagery to explain his theory. Later developmental psychologists would expand on Freud's work, or propose new schemes of development. One such theorist was the Swiss zoologist and psychologist Jean Piaget, who revolutionized developmental psychology with his theories of intellectual, or cognitive, development. Piaget's first contribution was to define intelligence as a process of volitional, cognitive endeavor a person undertakes to make sense of the world. He theorized that as a person passes through each of these stages she struggles to internalize or understand the novelties inherent in each stage. This process has three phases: assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium. The stages consist of the sensorimotor (0-2 years), the pre-operational (2-7 years), the concrete operational (7-11 years), and the formal operational (11-15 years). Each stage requires the mastery of the skills and understanding of the previous stage, and not everyone reaches every stage.

Erik Erikson, as earlier noted, also contributed significantly to the field of developmental psychology. One of Erikson's main tenets was the idea of crisis: a significant moment when a person's existing understanding of himself and his place in the world becomes untenable. The identity crisis, a term Erikson coined, is the most widely known such crisis. Erikson's theory of development is also based on his belief that biology, or genetics, requires that humans pass through these stages. Once pushed into them, however, culture takes over and the social/family environment greatly determines the success of the crisis resolution. Erikson's stages are laid out as a series of conflicts, thus underlining his concept of crisis. These stages, which occur at varying ages, are: basic trust versus mistrust; autonomy versus shame and doubt; initiative versus guilt; industry versus inferiority; identity versus role confusion; intimacy versus isolation; generativity versus stagnation; integrity versus despair.

Another area within the field of developmental psychology which has gained interest in recent years is moral development as pioneered by Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987). In a series of investigations in which children were presented with moral dilemmas, Kohlberg found that moral reasoning develops through three distinct levels occurring between the ages of seven and adolescence. As with all the other theories discussed, the ages at which individuals arrive at the stages vary, and, like Piaget's stages, not everyone arrives at the "highest" stage of moral development. For more information, see Kohlberg's theory of moral reasoning.



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