Key Issues in Human Development

There are many different theoretical approaches regarding human development. As we evaluate them in this course, recall that development focuses on how people change, and the approaches address the nature of change in different ways:

  • Are changes an active or passive process?
  • Is the change smooth or uneven (continuous versus discontinuous)?
  • Is this pattern of change the same for everyone, or are there different patterns of change (one course of development versus many courses)?
  • Are there prescribed periods in which change must occur (critical and sensitive periods)?
  • How do genetics and environment interact to influence development (nature versus nurture)?


Is Development Active or Passive?

How much does one play a role in their developmental path? Are we at the whim of our genetic inheritance or the environment that surrounds you, or are we able to decide and steer our development? Some theorists believe that humans play a much more active role in their development. Piaget, for instance, believed that children actively explore their world and construct new ways of thinking to explain the things they experience. Humanist theorists forward that people have self-determination. In contrast, many behaviorists view humans as being more passive in the developmental process, with outcomes being determined by their experiences. Evolutionary psychologists emphasize the role of heredity in determining development. As we explore various theories, ask yourself whether each approach considers development to be an active or passive process.

Is Development Continuous or Discontinuous?

Is human development best characterized as a slow, gradual process, or as one of more abrupt change? The answer to that question often depends on which developmental theorist you ask and which topic is being studied. Continuous development theories view development as a cumulative process, gradually improving on existing skills (see figure below). With this type of development, there is a gradual change. Consider, for example, a child’s physical growth: adding inches to their height year by year. In contrast, theorists who view development as discontinuous believe that development takes place in unique stages and that it occurs at specific times or ages. With this type of development, the change is more sudden, such as an infant’s ability to demonstrate awareness of object permanence (which is a cognitive skill that develops toward the end of infancy, according to Piaget’s cognitive theory—more on that theory in the next module).

Continuous and Discontinuous development are shown side by side using two separate pictures. The first picture is a triangle labeled “Continuous Development” which slopes upward from Infancy to Adulthood in a straight line. The second picture is 4 bars side by side labeled “Discontinuous Development” which get higher from Infancy to Adulthood. These bars resemble a staircase.

Figure 1.3.1. Visualizations of continuous and discontinuous development.

Is There One Course of Development or Many?

Is development essentially the same, or universal, for all children (i.e., there is one course of development) or does development follow a different course for each child, depending on the child’s specific genetics and environment (i.e., there are many courses of development)? Do people across the world share more similarities or more differences in their development? How much do culture and genetics influence a child’s behavior?

Stage theories hold that the sequence of development is universal. For example, in cross-cultural studies of language development, children from around the world reach language milestones in a similar sequence (Gleitman & Newport, 1995). Infants in all cultures coo before they babble. They begin babbling at about the same age and utter their first word around 12 months old. Yet we live in diverse contexts that have a unique effect on each of us. For example, researchers once believed that motor development followed one course for all children regardless of culture. However, childcare practices vary by culture, and different practices have been found to accelerate or inhibit the achievement of developmental milestones such as sitting, crawling, and walking (Karasik, Adolph, Tamis-LeMonda, & Bornstein, 2010).

For instance, let’s look at the Aché society in Paraguay. They spend a significant amount of time foraging in forests. While foraging, Aché mothers carry their young children, rarely putting them down to protect them from getting hurt in the forest. Consequently, their children walk much later: They walk around 23–25 months old, in comparison to infants in Western cultures who begin to walk around 12 months old. However, as Aché children become older, they are allowed more freedom to move about, and by about age 9, their motor skills surpass those of U.S. children of the same age: Aché children can climb trees up to 25 feet tall and use machetes to chop their way through the forest (Kaplan & Dove, 1987). As you can see, our development is influenced by multiple contexts, so the timing of basic motor functions may vary across cultures. However, the functions are present in all societies.

Figure 1.3.2. All children across the world love to play. Whether in (a) Florida or (b) South Africa, children enjoy exploring sand, sunshine, and the sea.

Are there Critical or Sensitive Periods of Development?

Various developmental milestones are universal in timing.  For example, most children begin learning and expressing language during their first year. However, what happens if a person misses that window of typical experience? What if the child were not exposed to language early in life, could they learn language in later years? Does the timing of experience influence development, and can it be corrected later?

Psychologists believe that there are time spans in which a person is biologically ready for certain developments, but successful progress is reliant on the person having essential experiences during that time. If these experiences fail to occur or occur after the time span ends, then the person will not develop normally or may not fully recover, even with later intervention.

Some aspects of development have critical periods; finite time spans in which specific experiences must occur for successful development. Once this period ends, later experiences would have no impact on this aspect of development. Failure to have the necessary experiences during the critical period will result in permanent impairments. For instance, a person that does not receive minimal nutrition during childhood would not reach their full height potential by adulthood. Even with excellent nutrition during adulthood, they would never grow taller because their critical period of growth has ended.

More often, developmental aspects are considered to have sensitive periods. Like critical periods, a sensitive period requires particular experiences during a specific time for development to occur. However, with sensitive periods, experiences after the period ends can support developmental gains later in life. It is not to say that post-period interventions will always be simple or successful. For example, someone that was not exposed to language in early childhood, with intervention and great effort, may be able to make some gains in late childhood, but may not fully recover all language-related skills.



Video 1.3.1. Sensitive vs Critical Periods of Learning explains the differences between the two

How Do Nature and Nurture Influence Development?

Are we who we are because of genetics, or are we who we are because of our environment? For instance, why do biological children sometimes act like their parents—is it because of genetics or because of early childhood environment and what the child has learned from their parents? What about children who are adopted—are they more like their biological families or more like their adoptive families? And how can siblings from the same family be so different?

This longstanding question is known in psychology as the nature versus nurture debate. For any particular aspect of development, those on the side of nature would argue that heredity plays the most important role in bringing about that feature. While those on the side of nurture would say that one’s environment is most significant in shaping the way we develop. However, most scholars agree that there is a constant interplay between the two forces. It is difficult to isolate the root of any single outcome as a result solely of nature or nurture.

We are all born with specific genetic traits inherited from our parents, such as eye color, height, and certain personality traits. Beyond our basic genotype, however, there is a deep interaction between our genes and our environment. Our unique experiences in our environment influence whether and how particular traits are expressed, and at the same time, our genes influence how we interact with our environment (Diamond, 2009; Lobo, 2008). There is a reciprocal interaction between nature and nurture as they both shape who we become, but the debate continues as to the relative contributions of each.



Video 1.3.2. Gene-Environment Interaction explains how nature and nurture interact to influence development.

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