Theories of Development: Overview and Analysis

Human development is regarded as the scientific study of psychological changes that occur in human beings over their life stages. This is also termed as Developmental Psychology. There exist several concepts or approaches which are related to human development. The three main theories among them are stage theory, differential approach and the ipsative approach. The stage approach is also known as developmental or classical approach since it was the first development theory to be formulated (Lerner, 1997). Even though many researchers have taken into consideration, the different aspects of development while using the classic approach, all of them showed certain similar attributes. All the theories of human development stress on the fact that people pass through a consecutive sequence of stages of organization which are qualitatively dissimilar and hence the sequence of such levels are perpetual.

For a researcher who advocates developmental approach, there exist universal levels in development. As per this approach, an individual passes through all these levels of development in a fixed order while they develop. Besides the sequence of these stages tend to be incessant and hence an individual cannot jump from one stage to another by skipping a stage. People cannot reorder the stages also.

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There are mainly three stage theories which are prominent- those of Piaget, Kohlberg, and Freud. Even though these theories are proposed by three persons, they do have certain similarities. Piaget’s theory is based on cognitive development while Kohlberg proposed moral reasoning. The theory of Freud relates to psychosexual development. The main similarity in all these theories is that people who undergo development will pass through the stages in a constant sequence. Hence these theories represent the qualitative stages that every individual must pass during development. The differential approach but considers how people are sorted into different categories or groups during their development time. The theorists who propose this approach are mainly concerned about the interconnections between chosen status and behavioral characteristics. The third approach is ipsative approach which evaluates the consistencies within a person as well as changes in one’s characteristics and the relation between the attribute of an individual over the period of his development.

Two theories of life span development that are compared and contrasted here are cognitive and behavioral theory. Behavioral approach advocates that an individual’s behavior is influenced and determined by the environment in which he lives (Maultsby and Mariusz, 1998). Thus this approach believes that individuals as well as their issues concerning them can be understood by observing and analyzing their behavior. Hence as per this theory, every human being is of similar behavior when they are born and their behavior is then changes according to their living circumstances (Kondrat, 2009). Behaviorism believes that individuals learn when they link certain events with its consequences. Therefore they will behave in such a way that they will get the most desirable consequences.

Cognitive theory considers thinking process and cognition as a major factor which determines the behavior in individuals. Cognition is the process of knowing or understanding. This theory also explains about the way in which information is being processed in individual minds and proposed models of problem solving (Newell & Herbert, 1972). This approach also tries to understand the concepts like memory and decision making. Cognitive theory is therefore the most prominent theory of life span development.

These two theories don’t hold much similarity. The only possible points of similarity between them is that both intends to provide explanation on human behavior and both the theories are quite old and are now replaced by new approaches in modern psychology. One such recent approach is cognitive behaviorism which combines the best attributes of both cognitive and behavioral theories.

Having knowledge of psychological theories can be quite useful for an individual. It is because these theories are relevant for different life-stages and can be applied in them. Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development involves eight stages through which an individual pass through his life time. In each stage the individual will have to face with a challenge. Once he completes the challenge of a particular stage successfully, he would enter the next stage and confront with a new challenge (Erikson, 1963). If a person fails to accomplish the challenge in a particular stage, he will have to face certain problems in future. The challenges in the stages in Erikson’s theory and the corresponding age are listed below:

Hope – 0-1 years (the basic conflict is between Trust Vs Mistrust)

Will- 2-3 years (Autonomy Vs. Shame and doubt)

Purpose- 3-5 years (Initiative Vs Guilt)

Competence- 6-11 years (Industry Vs. Inferiority )

Fidelity- 12-19 years (Identity Vs Role confusion)

Love- 20-45 years (Intimacy Vs Isolation)

Care- 45-65 years (Generativity Vs Stagnation)

Wisdom- 65 years onwards (Ego integrity Vs Despair)

There exist several theories regarding the stages of development and how an individual moves from one stage to another. Many theories attempt to explain this transfer from one period to next. The three prominent theories among them are psychoanalytic, learning and cognitive (Boyd & Bee, 2006)

Behavioral disturbance is often considered as a part of abnormal psychology and most of the psychological theories have explanation for this. The main theories among them are :

Psychodynamic theory
Behavioral theory
Cognitive theory
Humanistic/existential views
Socio-cultural perspectives

Psychodynamic theory was proposed by Sigmund Freud. This theory rests on two main assumptions:

Psychic determinism which says that the mental life of an individual is lawful and every action has its own motives.

Unconscious motivation which explains that major portion of a person’s mental life exists and functions outside his awareness or knowledge. This mainly includes one’s wishes, desires and dreams.

The mental activities are always under the conflict between Id, Ego and Super Ego. This theory also views sex and aggression as the two major instinctual drives or factors which drives one’s instinct. Psychodynamic theory also explains about defense mechanisms which a person’s mind uses for dealing with unacceptable desires. But when the desires become much stronger to one’s defenses, then there arise abnormal behavior or behavioral disturbances in the individual.

Behavioral theory believes that behavioral disturbances in an individual is on the basis of his learning and environmental experiences. This theory is confined to three concepts i.e. classical conditioning (Pavlov), Operant conditioning (Skinner) and Modeling.

Cognitive theory advocates that abnormalities in an individual’s behavior are caused by his misconceptions and misinterpretations. These misconceptions will arouse negative feelings in his mind which later turns out to behavioral disturbances.

Humanistic views believe that abnormality in behavior arises when a person is forced to act according to his parents’ or society’s wishes and thus deviate from what he really wants. This can prevent him from attaining self-actualization. According to socio-cultural perspectives, an individual tends to show abnormal behavior when he is unable to support his family, friends or society. This situation will bring stress in his mind which alleviates as time goes on until he shows behavioral disturbances.


“Main theories of abnormal behavior” retrieved from (Accessed on 30-01-2011)

Boyd, D, & Bee, H. (2006), “Lifespan development” (4th ed.), Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.

Erikson, E.H. (1963), “Childhood and Society”, (2nd ed.), New York: Norton.

Kondrat, Alla (2009), “Behavioral and Cognitive Approach in Psychology”, retrieved from (Accessed on 29-01-2011)

Lerner, Richard. M (1997), “Concepts and Theories of Human Development”, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Mahwah, NJ, pp.216

Maultsby, Maxie and Mariusz, Wirga (1998), “Behavior Therapy”, In Encyclopedia of Mental Health, Howard University, College of Medicine: Academic Press

Newell, Allen and Herbert, Simon (1972), “Human Problem Solving”, NJ, Prentice Hall


Stress can be defined in many ways. According to Health and Safety Executive, UK stress is defined as “the adverse reaction people have to excessive pressures or other types of demand placed on them” (Palmer, 2003). Stress management is a critical factor in the current highly competitive world where every individual has to face with stress at frequent intervals. The theories of psychology can be applied in managing stress in individuals or groups. There are several theories of stress which explains about the factors behind it as well as on the ways to reduce it. Some common theories are Interruption theory, Transaction theory and Cognitive theory. Most psychologists support application of cognitive-behavioral theory for stress management in individuals. Cognitive-behavioral therapies give importance to the ability of individuals to bring changes in their life without understanding the reason behind the change. In this treatment certain modalities are made use of which includes bio-feedback, relaxation techniques, systematic desensitization, hypnosis and finally prayer (Richmond, 1997). These are commonly used by psychotherapists in treating individuals suffering from different kinds of stress. Stress-related disorders can be understood and analyzed with the help of certain theories which are classified to three: response theories, stimulus theories and interaction theories (Suchday & Larkin, 2008).

The recent scientific studies have pointed out several biological reasons behind mental disorders; still there exists a lack of clarity in understanding the exact reasons behind them. Mental illness is caused from structural abnormalities in the brain which in turn leads to abnormal behavior as per the medical perspective. The psychological approach to mental illness evolved during the eighteenth century when mental disorder was considered as a condition in which people think in irrational ways. Hence the psychological theories believe that mental illness in individuals is attributed to the sequence of maladaptive behaviors which are on the basis of irrational ways of thinking and understanding. The main area to which psychological theories gives attention is regarding the way when an individual becomes different and how the community reacts to or treats such people.

According to Darley (1981) mental illness is defined based on psychological perspective as “A pattern of behaviors which are bizarre and extreme result in a disturbance of others, self-distress, and an interference with daily functions”. Mental disorders when seen from psychological perspective also extend to the biological etiology of the illness to a certain limit. But the psychological approach will be different to the biological factors with regard to the level of attention received by the latter in the treatment models. Many of the psychological theories have contributed in explaining the mental disorders and abnormal behavior. A few of the theories concentrate upon the “feeling” issues related to abnormal behavior while some others focus on the behavioral aspects and the ways to alter the maladaptive patterns. Other theories tend to concentrate on the thinking pattern which is considered as a true attribute of mental dysfunction.

There are mainly three viewpoints to mental illness based on psychology. They are:




All the three perspectives give importance to three levels of illness. Psycho-functional view focuses on dysfunction as illness while psycho-medical approach focuses on symptoms. The third view, i.e., psycho-visual perspective stresses on visual blocks. In each of the three viewpoints there is distinct definition for health also. At the psycho-functional view, health is “functioning at or above the reference level”. Health is regarded as “being symptom free” in the psycho-medical point of view and “being able to freely picture alternate choices” according to the psycho-visual perspective (Paglierani, 2005). As per the psycho-functional and psycho-medical perspectives, health is defined as the ability to function or a condition free of symptoms. But according to psycho-visual view these two things are not enough to prove that the individual is completely cured. Apart from these three viewpoints there is a combination of psycho-functional and psycho-medical viewpoints which is termed as Cognitive Behavioral view.

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