The Thinkers Behind the Major Developmental Theories

Important Thinkers In Developmental Psychology

Freud established one famous developmental theory
Sigmund Freud at his desk, 1938. Imagno / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Psychologists and other theorists have proposed a number of different theories centered on how children develop. Some of these theories are known as grand theories and attempt to explain almost every aspect of how people change and grow over the course of childhood. In other instances, these theories focus on a more narrow aspect of development.

Some of the greatest minds in the history of psychology contributed a few of the best-known developmental theories.

Learn more about these influential individuals and the basics of their theories of human development.

Sigmund Freud's Psychosexual Developmental Theory

Psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud proposed one of the best-known grand theories of child development. According to Freud’s psychosexual theory, child development occurs in a series of stages focused on different pleasure areas of the body. During each stage, the child encounters conflicts that play a significant role in the course of development.

So what happens as children complete each stage? And what might result if a child does poorly during a particular point in development? Successfully completing each stage leads to the development of a healthy adult personality. Failing to resolve the conflicts of a particular stage can result in fixations that can then have an influence on adult behavior.

Erik Erikson's Psychosocial Developmental Theory

Freud’s famous work influenced a number of other psychoanalysts, including theorist Erik Erikson.

While Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development shared some similarities with Freud's, it is dramatically different in many ways. Rather than focusing on sexual interest as a driving force in development, Erikson believed that social interaction and experience played a decisive role.

His eight-stage theory of human development described this process from infancy through death.

During each stage, people are faced with a developmental conflict that impacts later functioning and further growth.

John B. Watson's Behavioral Developmental Theory

According to behaviorist John B. Watson, any behavior can be learned. "Give me a dozen healthy infants…and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select…regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors," he famously suggested in 1930.

Other theorists including Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner also contributed significantly to behaviorism, driving this school of thought to become a dominating force in psychology for many years.

Learn more about some critical concepts in behaviorism including classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Albert Bandura's Social Learning Approach to Development

Social learning theory is based on the work of psychologist Albert Bandura. Bandura believed that the conditioning and reinforcement process could not sufficiently explain all of human learning. For example, how can the conditioning process account for learned behaviors that have not been reinforced through classical conditioning or operant conditioning?

According to social learning theory, behaviors can also be learned through observation and modeling.

Jean Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory

Theorist Jean Piaget proposed one of the most influential theories of cognitive development. His cognitive theory seeks to describe and explain the development of thought processes and mental states. It also looks at how these thought processes influence the way we understand and interact with the world.

Piaget proposed an idea that seems obvious now, but helped revolutionize how we think about child development: Children think differently than adults.

Piaget then proposed a theory of cognitive development to account for the steps and sequence of children's intellectual development.

As you can see, there have been many different theories of child development proposed over the years. In many cases, psychologists draw on a wide variety of theories when trying to understand how children grow and change from birth through adolescence. 

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