Psychological Theories that Explain Life Span Development

Using academic sources, discuss the psychological theories that explain life p development

Human behavior has changed and developed due to many different factors. This assignment will focus on the social influences on development, whilst drawing in key theories such as Piaget’s stages of development.

The idea  of childhood has changed drastically through history, from children being viewed as ‘little adults’ in the medieval period to the reformation period where religion strongly influenced how children were viewed. During the 17th century, Locke developed the view that children go through stages of development and that their behavior will change at later stages due to an increase in experience.

By the 20th century, theories about child development had expanded around the world and laws were passed to protect children. There are three key theories that explain the development of children that will be outlined in this assignment.

The behavioral approach of developmental stages was constructed through the 20th century with its main assumption being that behaviour is learned from the environment through the process of conditioning.

Pavlov’s concept of classical conditioning explained behaviour strictly in terms of stimuli and responses, therefore demonstrating a relationship between stimuli and behaviour. His model explains how humans and other animals respond to stimuli in specific, predictable ways. A key experiment used by Pavlov to outline the concept of classical conditioning is the dog experiment. At first when the bell rings, the dog takes no notice of it what so ever, however when food is presented the dog saliva’s.

Pavlov witnessed the effect of the food and therefore started a period of training, he was trying to train the dog to salvia every time the bell rings. When the dog is given food, the bell is ringing, and the sight of food increases the secretion of salvia. After a few trials, the dog begins to pay attention to the bell, so now when the bell rings, the dog salivates as if he is expecting to get food.

Similarly, B.F. Skinner (1990) accepted Pavlov’s theory of classical conditioning but he developed the theory by adding the idea of consequences. According to the principles of operant conditioning, the chance that a behaviour will be repeated depends highly on the amount of pleasure or pain that the behaviour has caused before. Skinner developed his ideas of learnt behaviour, through observing rats who were isolated in a box.

The box contained a lever which when pressed, would release a pellet of food. At first the lever being pressed was accidental but afterwards the rat began to the associate pressing the lever with getting a reward. Therefore, pressing the lever was the operant whilst receiving the food is considered as the reinforcer.

Another theory of development is the cognitive approach, which was developed by Piaget, who described intellectual development as occurring through stages which were thought to be ‘building blocks’ in a child’s life, since it was only possible to move onto the next stage once the first had been mastered.

Piaget (1935) argued that these stages were innate and universal, since younger children did not have the capabilities of those older than them, the only way to enquire these was to go through the stages of cognitive development. From birth to two years old, a child goes through a period of sensorimotor activity, in this stage the dominant activity was mainly on focused on perception.

Although Piaget’s (1953,1954) ideas could be considered outdated considering that research on babies have under gone a revolution, they are still accepted in principle by such authorities as Butterworth (1981). The next stage is the pre-operational stage which develops from the age of 2 years to 7 years old. This is where the first word has been learnt and symbolic representation has begun. During the first stage, action was dominant it still is in this stage, but it has become internalized.

Concrete operational is the next stage which is developed through the years of 7 to 11, this is where it was thought that most of replication and development of Piaget’s work had taken place. The final stage of development occurs from 11 years onwards and is known as the formal operational stage. This stage focuses on the theoretical, hypothetical and counterfactual thinking processes.

Lev Vygotsky formed the socio- cultural theory through his development of Piaget’s ideas, he saw child as active learners although their knowledge is socially constructed. He constructed the concept of social transmission, this is where young children are active learners who get passed on knowledge and skills from those much older than them.

Alternatively, the biological approach which only studies observable and measurable behaviour could be considered as the most scientific theory of development. It states that humans are born with a developmental clock which have milestones that need to take place, these are called the sensitive and critical period. Arnold Gesell developed the maturational theory, which focused on demand parenting during the early years of development.

Development through childhood is defined by biological makeup, therefore an individual’s rate of development is pre-determined by genetics. Behaviours such as speech, play and reasoning would emerge according to a pre – determined timetable. Unlike Gesell, Konrad Lorenz focused on innate behaviour which had been developed in a natural setting.

These behaviours were thought to have a motivation and a survival value. Behaviour of imprinting was a focus point in Lorenz’s research, his research concluded that new born of most species will recognise and seek proximity with the first object they encounter, this attachment is formed within a critical period after birth.

Genetics is the study of heredity, a biological process where parents pass genes onto their offspring. Every child inherits genes from their biological parents and these genes in turn express specific traits (Ananya Mandal, MD 2009). These genes are found on chromosomes, each child has two sets of 23 chromosomes, one set from each parent. Genetics have a strong influence on behaviour, a child could inherit a genetic tendency towards alcoholism which could develop based on their upbringing.

Although these theories offer explanations for the changes in human behaviour throughout development, behaviour can also be influenced and determined by many variables such as social and cultural factors.

Development can be affected by an individual’s personal relationships and social history, this can include family traditions or characteristics built from personal experiences. John Bowlby’s theory emphasises the importance of having a good relationship with your parents and the impact it can have not only on the child’s development but also later social relationships (Bowlby,1969).

This can be shown in a study conducted by Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters & Wall (1978), who found that those who had a close relationship with their mothers throughout their childhood, were much more likely to have higher self-confidence and better social relationships later in life.

Media is now seen as an ‘extension of everyday life and tool of cultural change’ (Singh, 2010). Therefore, identity as a social concept is being transformed in new global ways. Developments in technological advances have led to an increase in the use of social media. The increase in the use of social media has led to the creation of media imagery. The media advertises ‘strong’ men and ‘thin’ women across different platforms as if its society ideal image of individuals, this could lead to a sense of feeling not good enough.

The influence on media on an individual’s self – identity has a greater impact when combined with peer influence. From the age of 11, peers as an agent of socialization becomes the main source for socialising children. Children learn norms and values as well as behaviour by observing other people, this is how they develop new skills and gain knowledge through a process called social transmission (Bandura,1977). The friendships build can be seen to be superficial with groups only forming due to mutant interests.

Boys will gain status from being brave, sports oriented and ability to attract the attention of others, whilst girls focus on activities that have a more distinguished social interaction.

Culture can play a huge role in the shaping of an individual’s identity and behaviour, this can happen through a theory known as the ‘tool kit’ theory. The tool kit theory as introduced by Swidler (1986), is a combination of the internal and external elements of culture. An individual seeks out activities that cater to their cultural competences in order to be successful, these competences may be a big part of someone’s identity.

For example, if an individual considered being a student as a main factor of their identity and they were intellectually developed, using this competence they could have a higher chance of succeeding academically. In addition to this, culture can modify behaviour as culture dictates the expectations that have to be met to ensure acceptance into a social group. Individuals will modify their behaviour to fit others as this will provide a sense of belonging and protection.

Psychological problems can occur in relation to human development, an example of this would be anxiety.
Anxiety is a feeling of unease, such as worry or fear, that can be mild or severe (NHS, 2016). According to the National Institute of Mental Health, there is evidence to suggest that both genetic and environmental factors contribute to the onset of an anxiety disorder.

Therapies that are being used to address anxiety include the cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), psychotherapy and medication.

Medications are perhaps the fastest method of treating anxiety disorders, even though they can have numerous side effects and consequences. Benzodiazepines such as Ativan and Xanax produce a sense of calm, this could cause patients to become dependent on the sedatives. The medication can only help the patients to feel better but in the long run, they would have a better effect when combined with other therapy such as psychotherapy.

Psychotherapy is a term used to define the interactions between a patient and a psychiatrist where talking about the problem is the main solution for treating the mental illness. Psychotherapy splits into behavioural and cognitive therapy, cognitive therapy helps the patient to adapt their problematic thought patterns into those which are healthier whilst behavioural therapy helps the patient to combat the undesirable behaviour which often come hand in hand with anxiety (American Psychological Association, 2004).

Compared to medication, psychotherapy can be considered as more favourable as it has less side effects. However, improvements in the behaviour of the patient can take up to 6 weeks plus for psychotherapy to show compared to the 4 to 6 weeks for drug therapy.

To conclude, development can be influenced by many factors and these factors can potentially influence the onset of psychological problems.
Although psychological theories offer clear explanations for a child’s development over their life p such as learning from the environment or inheritance and even the focus on development occurring through the mastering of stages, these explanations can be considered as reductionist.

There needs to be consideration for the influence of social and cultural factors on identity and personal development since it can be argued that factors such as social media and personal social upbringing can play a major role in the development of children.

However as stated, these influences combined can lead to the onset of psychological problems such as anxiety and behavioural disorders. Therefore, perhaps there should be further research into this area as theories such as the behavioural explanation conducted research into children which could be considered as unreliable now since research into children has undergone a revolution.


  • American Psychological Association. (2004). Anxiety Disorders: The role of psychotherapy in effective treatment. Available from:
  • Blazevic,I (2016) Family, peer and social influence on children’s social development. World Journal of Education. Vol.6 (2), p42-49. Available from: doi: 10.5430/wje.v6n2p42
  • Kholer, I (1962) Pavlov and his dog. The journal of genetic psychology. Vol.100 (2), p331-335. Available from: doi: 10.1080/00221325.1962.1053360
  • Longe, L. J, (2016) Ed. The Gale Encyclopaedia of Psychology. 3rd ed. Farmington Hills, MichMiles, A. (2014). Addressing the Problem of Cultural Anchoring: An Identity-Based Model of Culture in Action. Social Psychology Quarterly. Vol.77 (2), p210-227. Available from: doi: 10.1177/0190272514524062
  • Sutherland,P.(1992) Cognitive development today: Piaget and his critics. London, SAGE Publications Ltd
  • The National Institute of Mental Health. (2018). Anxiety disorders. Available from:

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