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Theories of Development


Prenatal Development

Development is the series of age-related changes that happen over the course of a life span. Several famous psychologists, including Sigmund Freud, Erik Erikson, Jean Piaget, and Lawrence Kohlberg, describe development as a series of stages. A stage is a period in development in which people exhibit typical behavior patterns and establish particular capacities. The various stage theories share three assumptions:

  1. People pass through stages in a specific order, with each stage building on capacities developed in the previous stage.
  2. Stages are related to age.
  3. Development is discontinuous, with qualitatively different capacities emerging in each stage.

Sigmund Freud’s Theory of Personality

The Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud first described personality development as a series of stages. Of these stages, Freud believed that early childhood was the most important. He believed that personality developed by about the age of five.

Freud’s theory of personality development is described in more detail on pages 268-–273 of Chapter 13, “Personality.”

Erik Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development

Like Freud, Erik Erikson believed in the importance of early childhood. However, Erikson believed that personality development happens over the entire course of a person’s life. In the early 1960s, Erikson proposed a theory that describes eight distinct stages of development. According to Erikson, in each stage people face new challenges, and the stage’s outcome depends on how people handle these challenges. Erikson named the stages according to these possible outcomes:

Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust

In the first year after birth, babies depend completely on adults for basic needs such as food, comfort, and warmth. If the caretakers meet these needs reliably, the babies become attached and develop a sense of security. Otherwise, they may develop a mistrustful, insecure attitude.

Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

Between the ages of one and three, toddlers start to gain independence and learn skills such as toilet training, feeding themselves, and dressing themselves. Depending on how they face these challenges, toddlers can develop a sense of autonomy or a sense of doubt and shame about themselves.

Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt

Between the ages of three and six, children must learn to control their impulses and act in a socially responsible way. If they can do this effectively, children become more self- confident. If not, they may develop a strong sense of guilt.

Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority

Between the ages of six and twelve, children compete with peers in school and prepare to take on adult roles. They end this stage with either a sense of competence or a sense of inferiority.

Stage 5: Identity vs. Role Confusion

During adolescence, which is the period between puberty and adulthood, children try to determine their identity and their direction in life. Depending on their success, they either acquire a sense of identity or remain uncertain about their roles in life.

Stage 6: Intimacy vs. Isolation

In young adulthood, people face the challenge of developing intimate relationships with others. If they do not succeed, they may become isolated and lonely.

Stage 7: Generativity vs. Self-Absorption

As people reach middle adulthood, they work to become productive members of society, either through parenting or through their jobs. If they fail, they become overly self-absorbed.

Stage 8: Integrity vs. Despair

In old age, people examine their lives. They may either have a sense of contentment or be disappointed about their lives and fearful of the future.

Erikson’s theory is useful because it addresses both personality stability and personality change. To some degree, personality is stable, because childhood experiences influence people even as adults. However, personality also changes and develops over the life span as people face new challenges. The problem with Erikson’s theory, as with many stage theories of development, is that he describes only a typical pattern. The theory doesn’t acknowledge the many differences among individuals.

Erikson’s Theory of Psychosocial Development
Stage Conflict Faced Typical Age Range Major Challenge(s)
1 Trust vs. mistrust First year of life Having basic needs met, attaching to people
2 Autonomy vs. shame and doubt 1–3 years Gaining independence
3 Initiative vs. guilt 3–6 years Acting in a socially responsible way
4 Industry vs. inferiority 6–12 years Competing with peers, preparing for adult roles
5 Identity vs. role confusion Adolescence Determining one’s identity
6 Intimacy vs. isolation Early adulthood Developing intimate relationships
7 Generativity vs. self-absorption Middle adulthood Being productive
8 Integrity vs. despair Old age Evaluating one’s life

Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development

While conducting intelligence tests on children, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget began to investigate how children think. According to Piaget, children’s thought processes change as they mature physically and interact with the world around them. Piaget believed children develop schema, or mental models, to represent the world. As children learn, they expand and modify their schema through the processes of assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the broadening of an existing schema to include new information. Accommodation is the modification of a schema as new information is incorporated.

Example: Suppose a young boy knows his pet parrot is a bird. When he sees a robin outside and calls it a bird too, he exhibits assimilation, since he broadened his bird schema to include characteristics of both parrots and robins. His bird schema might be “all things that fly.” Now suppose a bat flaps out at him one night and he shrieks, “Bird!” If he learns it was a bat that startled him, he’ll have to modify his bird schema to “things that fly and have feathers.” In modifying his definition, he enacts accommodation.

Piaget proposed that children go through four stages of cognitive development:

Stage 1: Sensorimotor Period

In this stage, which lasts from birth to roughly two years, children learn by using their senses and moving around. By the end of the sensorimotor period, children become capable of symbolic thought, which means they can represent objects in terms of mental symbols. More important, children achieve object permanence in this stage. Object permanence is the ability to recognize that an object can exist even when it’s no longer perceived or in one’s sight.

Example: If a three-month-old baby sees a ball, she’ll probably be fascinated by it. But if someone hides the ball, the baby won’t show any interest in looking for it. For a very young child, out of sight is literally out of mind. When the baby is older and has acquired object permanence, she will start to look for things that are hidden because she will know that things can exist even when they can’t be seen.

Stage 2: Preoperational Period

This stage lasts from about two to seven years of age. During this stage, children get better at symbolic thought, but they can’t yet reason. According to Piaget, children aren’t capable of conservation during this stage. Conservation is the ability to recognize that measurable physical features of objects, such as length, area, and volume, can be the same even when objects appear different.

Example: Suppose a researcher gives a three-year-old girl two full bottles of juice. The girl will agree that they both contain the same amount of juice. But if the researcher pours the contents of one bottle into a short, fat tumbler, the girl will then say that the bottle has more. She doesn’t realize that the same volume of juice is conserved in the tumbler.

Piaget argued that children are not capable of conservation during the preoperational stage because of three weaknesses in the way they think. He called these weaknesses centration, irreversibility, and egocentrism:

  • Centration is the tendency to focus on one aspect of a problem and ignore other key aspects. In the example above, the three-year-old looks only at the higher juice level in the bottle and ignores the fact that the bottle is narrower than the tumbler. Because of centration, children in the preoperational stage cannot carry out hierarchical classification, which means they can’t classify things according to more than one level.
  • Irreversibility is the inability to mentally reverse an operation. In the example, the three-year-old can’t imagine pouring the juice from the tumbler back into the bottle. If she poured the juice back, she’d understand that the tumbler holds the same amount of liquid as the bottle.
  • Egocentrism is the inability to take someone else’s point of view. Animism, or the belief that even inanimate objects are living, results from egocentrism. Children assume that since they are alive, all other things must be too.
Stage 3: Concrete Operational Period

From the age of seven to about eleven, children become capable of performing mental operations or working through problems and ideas in their minds. However, they can perform operations only on tangible objects and real events. Children also achieve conservation, reversibility, and decentration during this stage:

  • Reversibility is the ability to mentally reverse actions.
  • Decentration is the ability to focus simultaneously on several aspects of a problem.

Furthermore, children become less egocentric during this stage as they start to consider simultaneously different ways of looking at a problem.

Stage 4: Formal Operational Period

In this stage, which begins around eleven years of age and continues through adulthood, children become capable of applying mental operations to abstract concepts. They can imagine and reason about hypothetical situations. From this point on, people start to think in abstract, systematic, and logical ways.

Critiques of Piaget’s Theories

Although Piaget made important contributions to the research on cognitive development, his theory has come under attack for several reasons:

  • Recent research has shown that he greatly underestimated children’s capabilities. For example, researchers have shown that babies achieve object permanence much sooner than Piaget said they do.
  • Children sometimes simultaneously develop skills that are characteristic of more than one stage, which makes the idea of stages seem less viable.
  • Piaget ignored cultural influences. Research has shown that children from different cultures tend to go through Piaget’s stages in the same order, but the timing and length of stages vary from culture to culture.
  • Some people never develop the capacity for formal reasoning, even as adults.
Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development
Stage Age Important Features
1 Sensorimotor First two years of life Object permanence, symbolic thought
2 Preoperational 2–7 years Centration, irreversibility, egocentrism, and animism
3 Concrete operational 7–11 years Reversibility, decentration, decrease in egocentrism, conservation
4 Formal operational 11 through adulthood Abstract thought

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg focused on moral reasoning, or why people think the way they do about right and wrong. Influenced by Piaget, who believed that moral reasoning depends on the level of cognitive development, Kohlberg proposed that people pass through three levels of moral development. He divided each level into two stages.

Level 1: The Preconventional Level

At this level, children ascribe great importance to the authority of adults. For children in the first stage of this level, an action is wrong if it’s punished, whereas in the second stage, an action is right if it’s rewarded.

Level 2: The Conventional Level

In the next level, children value rules, which they follow in order to get approval from others. In the first stage of this level, children want the approval only of people who are close to them. In the second stage, children become more concerned with the rules of the broader society.

Level 3: The Postconventional Level

In the final level, people become more flexible and consider what’s personally important to them. In the first stage of this level, people still want to follow society’s rules, but they don’t see those rules as absolute. In the second stage, people figure out right and wrong for themselves, based on abstract ethical principles. Only a small proportion of people reach this last stage of moral reasoning.

Critiques of Kohlberg’s Theories

Research supports key parts of Kohlberg’s theory. People do tend to progress in order through Kohlberg’s stages, and cognitive and moral development do affect each other. However, critics of Kohlberg’s theory have two main concerns:

  • People often show the reasoning characteristic of several different levels simultaneously. For instance, in one situation, a person might reason as if he is at a conventional stage, and in another situation, he might use reasoning typical of a postconventional stage.
  • Kohlberg’s theory of moral development favors cultures that value individualism. In other cultures, highly moral people may base their reasoning on communal values rather than abstract ethical principles.
Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development
Level Stage What Determines Right and Wrong
1. Preconventional 1 Punishment by adults
2 Reward by adults
2. Conventional 3 Rules set by close people
4 Rules set by society
3. Postconventional 5 Rules set by society, judged by what’s personally important
6 Rules based on abstract ethical principles

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