The Lifespan Perspective

What you'll learn to do: explain the lifespan perspective

 Several people walking down a street shown from above As we have learned, human development refers to the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes and constancies in humans over time. There are various theories pertaining to each domain of development, and often theorists and researchers focus their attention on specific periods of development (with most traditionally focusing on infancy and childhood; some on adolescence). But isn't it possible that development during one period affects development in other periods and that humans can grow and change across adulthood too? In this section, we'll learn about development through the lifespan perspective, which emphasizes the multidimensional, interconnected, and ever-changing influences on development.

Learning outcomes

  • Describe Baltes' lifespan perspective with its key principles about development
  • Explain what is meant by development being lifelong, multidimensional, and multidirectional
  • Explain contextual influences on development


The Lifespan Perspective

Icon of a child, teenager, and adult. Figure 1. Baltes' lifespan perspective emphasizes that development is lifelong, multidimensional, multidirectional, plastic, contextual, and multidisciplinary. Think of ways your own development fits in with each of these concepts as you read about the terms in more detail.


Lifespan development involves the exploration of biological, cognitive, and psychosocial changes and constancies that occur throughout the entire course of life. It has been presented as a theoretical perspective, proposing several fundamental, theoretical, and methodological principles about the nature of human development. An attempt by researchers has been made to examine whether research on the nature of development suggests a specific metatheoretical worldview. Several beliefs, taken together, form the “family of perspectives” that contribute to this particular view.

German psychologist Paul Baltes, a leading expert on lifespan development and aging, developed one of the approaches to studying development called the lifespan perspective. This approach is based on several key principles:

  • Development occurs across one’s entire life, or is lifelong.
  • Development is multidimensional, meaning it involves the dynamic interaction of factors like physical, emotional, and psychosocial development
  • Development is multidirectional and results in gains and losses throughout life
  • Development is plastic, meaning that characteristics are malleable or changeable.
  • Development is influenced by contextual and socio-cultural influences.
  • Development is multidisciplinary.


Development is lifelong

Lifelong development means that development is not completed in infancy or childhood or at any specific age; it encompasses the entire lifespan, from conception to death. The study of development traditionally focused almost exclusively on the changes occurring from conception to adolescence and the gradual decline in old age; it was believed that the five or six decades after adolescence yielded little to no developmental change at all. The current view reflects the possibility that specific changes in development can occur later in life, without having been established at birth. The early events of one’s childhood can be transformed by later events in one’s life. This belief clearly emphasizes that all stages of the lifespan contribute to the regulation of the nature of human development.

Many diverse patterns of change, such as direction, timing, and order, can vary among individuals and affect the ways in which they develop. For example, the developmental timing of events can affect individuals in different ways because of their current level of maturity and understanding. As individuals move through life, they are faced with many challenges, opportunities, and situations that impact their development. Remembering that development is a lifelong process helps us gain a wider perspective on the meaning and impact of each event.

Development is multidimensional

By multidimensionality, Baltes is referring to the fact that a complex interplay of factors influence development across the lifespan, including biological, cognitive, and socioemotional changes. Baltes argues that a dynamic interaction of these factors is what influences an individual’s development.

For example, in adolescence, puberty consists of physiological and physical changes with changes in hormone levels, the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics, alterations in height and weight, and several other bodily changes. But these are not the only types of changes taking place; there are also cognitive changes, including the development of advanced cognitive faculties such as the ability to think abstractly. There are also emotional and social changes involving regulating emotions, interacting with peers, and possibly dating. The fact that the term puberty encompasses such a broad range of domains illustrates the multidimensionality component of development (think back to the physical, cognitive, and psychosocial domains of human development we discussed earlier in this module).

Development is multidirectional

Baltes states that the development of a particular domain does not occur in a strictly linear fashion but that development of certain traits can be characterized as having the capacity for both an increase and decrease in efficacy over the course of an individual’s life.

If we use the example of puberty again, we can see that certain domains may improve or decline in effectiveness during this time. For example, self-regulation is one domain of puberty which undergoes profound multidirectional changes during the adolescent period. During childhood, individuals have difficulty effectively regulating their actions and impulsive behaviors. Scholars have noted that this lack of effective regulation often results in children engaging in behaviors without fully considering the consequences of their actions. Over the course of puberty, neuronal changes modify this unregulated behavior by increasing the ability to regulate emotions and impulses. Inversely, the ability for adolescents to engage in spontaneous activity and creativity, both domains commonly associated with impulse behavior, decrease over the adolescent period in response to changes in cognition. Neuronal changes to the limbic system and prefrontal cortex of the brain, which begin in puberty lead to the development of self-regulation, and the ability to consider the consequences of one’s actions (though recent brain research reveals that this connection will continue to develop into early adulthood).

Extending on the premise of multidirectionality, Baltes also argued that development is influenced by the “joint expression of features of growth (gain) and decline (loss)”[3] This relation between developmental gains and losses occurs in a direction to selectively optimize particular capacities. This requires the sacrificing of other functions, a process known as selective optimization with compensation. According to the process of selective optimization, individuals prioritize particular functions above others, reducing the adaptive capacity of particulars for specialization and improved efficacy of other modalities.

The acquisition of effective self-regulation in adolescents illustrates this gain/loss concept. As adolescents gain the ability to effectively regulate their actions, they may be forced to sacrifice other features to selectively optimize their reactions. For example, individuals may sacrifice their capacity to be spontaneous or creative if they are constantly required to make thoughtful decisions and regulate their emotions. Adolescents may also be forced to sacrifice their fast reaction times toward processing stimuli in favor of being able to fully consider the consequences of their actions.

Applications of The LifeSpan Perspective

Baltes' ideas about development as a lifelong process is beneficial to society because it may help in the identification of qualities or problems that are distinctive in a particular age period. If these qualities or problems could be identified, specific programs could be established such as after-school interventions that enhance positive youth development (PYD).

Positive Youth Development holds the belief that all youths have the potential to become productive, contributing members of society. PYD emphasizes the strengths of youth, promoting their development physically, personally, socially, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. Interventions must be conducted with the needs and preferences of the participants kept in mind, however the individuals’ choice, values, and culture must always be considered.

Big Brothers/Big Sisters is a positive youth development program targeted in the community domain that demonstrates substantial behavioral outcomes for youth. This program sought to promote positive identity and competence by creating a strong bond with a healthy adult. These healthy adults, or mentors, committed a minimum of several hours, two to four times a month for a year, with a youth who was carefully assigned to them based on their background, preference, and geographic proximity. Youths in this program improved in “school attendance, parental relations, academic performance, and peer emotional support”[4] Substance use and problem behaviors were also reported as either prevented or reduced. Watch this video from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America to learn more about the power of mentoring.

Development is plastic

Plasticity denotes intrapersonal variability and focuses heavily on the potentials and limits of the nature of human development. The notion of plasticity emphasizes that there are many possible developmental outcomes and that the nature of human development is much more open and pluralistic than originally implied by traditional views; there is no single pathway that must be taken in an individual’s development across the lifespan. Plasticity is imperative to current research because the potential for intervention is derived from the notion of plasticity in development. Undesired development or behaviors could potentially be prevented or changed.

As an example, recently researchers have been analyzing how other senses compensate for the loss of vision in blind individuals. Without visual input, blind humans have demonstrated that tactile and auditory functions still fully develop and they can use tactile and auditory cues to perceive the world around them. One experiment designed by Röder and colleagues (1999) compared the auditory localization skills of people who are blind with people who are sighted by having participants locate sounds presented either centrally or peripherally (lateral) to them. Both congenitally blind adults and sighted adults could locate a sound presented in front of them with precision but people who are blind were clearly superior in locating sounds presented laterally. Currently, brain-imaging studies have revealed that the sensory cortices in the brain are reorganized after visual deprivation. These findings suggest that when vision is absent in development, the auditory cortices in the brain recruit areas that are normally devoted to vision, thus becoming further refined.

Link to Learning

Watch Seeing Behind the Visual Cortex, a video about research on blindsight conducted by Dr. Tony Ro to learn more about brain plasticity in blind individuals.

A significant aspect of the aging process is cognitive decline. The dimensions of cognitive decline are partially reversible, however, because the brain retains the lifelong capacity for plasticity and reorganization of cortical tissue. Mahncke and colleagues developed a brain plasticity-based training program that induced learning in mature adults experiencing age-related decline. This training program focused intensively on aural language reception accuracy and cognitively demanding exercises that have been proven to partially reverse the age-related losses in memory. It included highly rewarding novel tasks that required attention control and became progressively more difficult to perform. In comparison to the control group, who received no training and showed no significant change in memory function, the experimental training group displayed a marked enhancement in memory that was sustained at the 3-month follow-up period. These findings suggest that cognitive function, particularly memory, can be significantly improved in mature adults with age-related cognitive decline by using brain plasticity-based training methods.

Development is contextual

In Baltes' theory, the paradigm of contextualism refers to the idea that three systems of biological and environmental influences work together to influence development. Development occurs in context and varies from person to person, depending on factors such as a person's biology, family, school, church, profession, nationality, and ethnicity. Baltes identified three types of influences that operate throughout the life course: normative age-graded influences, normative history-graded influences, and nonnormative influences. Baltes wrote that these three influences operate throughout the life course, their effects accumulate with time, and, as a dynamic package, they are responsible for how lives develop.

Normative age-graded influences are those biological and environmental factors that have a strong correlation with chronological age, such as puberty or menopause, or age-based social practices such as beginning school or entering retirement. Normative history-graded influences are associated with a specific time period that defines the broader environmental and cultural context in which an individual develops. For example, development and identity are influenced by historical events of the people who experience them, such as the Great Depression, WWII, Vietnam, the Cold War, the War on Terror, or advances in technology.

This has been exemplified in numerous studies, including Nesselroade and Baltes’, showing that the level and direction of change in adolescent personality development was influenced as strongly by the socio-cultural settings at the time (in this case, the Vietnam War) as age-related factors. The study involved individuals of four different adolescent age groups who all showed significant personality development in the same direction (a tendency to occupy themselves with ethical, moral, and political issues rather than cognitive achievement). Similarly, Elder showed that the Great Depression was a setting that significantly affected the development of adolescents and their corresponding adult personalities, by showing a similar common personality development across age groups. Baltes’ theory also states that the historical socio-cultural setting had an effect on the development of an individual's intelligence. The areas of influence that Baltes thought most important to the development of intelligence were health, education, and work. The first two areas, health and education, significantly affect adolescent development because healthy children who are educated effectively will tend to develop a higher level of intelligence. The environmental factors, health and education, have been suggested by Neiss and Rowe to have as much effect on intelligence as inherited intelligence.

Nonnormative influences are unpredictable and not tied to a certain developmental time in a person's development or to a historical period. They are the unique experiences of an individual, whether biological or environmental, that shape the development process. These could include milestones like earning a master's degree or getting a certain job offer or other events like going through a divorce or coping with the death of a child.

The most important aspect of contextualism as a paradigm is that the three systems of influence work together to affect development. Concerning adolescent development, the age-graded influences would help to explain the similarities within a cohort, the history-graded influences would help to explain the differences between cohorts, and the nonnormative influences would explain the idiosyncrasies of each adolescent's individual development. When all influences are considered together, it provides a broader explanation of an adolescent’s development.

Other Contextual Influences on Development: Cohort, Socioeconomic Status, and Culture

What is meant by the word “context”? It means that we are influenced by when and where we live. Our actions, beliefs, and values are a response to the circumstances surrounding us. Sternberg describes contextual intelligence as the ability to understand what is called for in a situation (Sternberg, 1996). The key here is to understand that behaviors, motivations, emotions, and choices are all part of a bigger picture. Our concerns are such because of who we are socially, where we live, and when we live; they are part of a social climate and set of realities that surround us. Important social factors include cohort, social class, gender, race, ethnicity, and age. Let's begin by exploring two of these: cohort and social class. 

cohort is a group of people who are born at roughly the same time period in a particular society. Cohorts share histories and contexts for living. Members of a cohort have experienced the same historical events and cultural climates which have an impact on the values, priorities, and goals that may guide their lives.

Cohorts

Two (approximately ten-year old boys) collecting tires in 1942. Figure 2. Boys collecting old tires for rubber during WWII.


Consider a young boy’s concerns if he grew up in the United States during World War II—let's call him Henry. What Henry's family buys is limited by their small budget and by a governmental program set up to ration food and other materials that are in short supply because of the war. He is eager rather than resentful about being thrifty and sees his actions as meaningful contributions to the good of others.

As Henry grows up and has a family of his own, he is motivated by images of success tied to his past experience: he views a successful man as one who can provide for his family financially, who has a wife who stays at home and cares for the children, and children who are respectful but enjoy the luxury of days filled with school and play without having to consider the burdens of society’s struggles. He marries soon after completing high school, has four children, works hard to support his family and is able to do so during the prosperous postwar economics of the 1950s in America. But economic conditions change in the mid-1960s and through the 1970s. Henry's wife, Patricia, begins to work to help the family financially and to overcome her boredom with being a stay-at-home mother. The children are teenagers in a very different social climate: one of social unrest, liberation, and challenging the status quo. They are not sheltered from the concerns of society; they see television broadcasts in their own living room of the war in Vietnam and they fear the draft—they are part of a middle-class youth culture that is very visible and vocal. Henry's employment as an engineer eventually becomes difficult as a result of downsizing in the defense industry. His marriage of 25 years ends in divorce.

This is not a unique personal history, rather it is a story shared by many members of Henry's cohort. Historic contexts shape our life choices and motivations as well as our eventual assessments of success or failure during the course of our existence. Henry shares many normative age-graded influences with his peers, such as entering the workforce at the same time, or having kids around the same age, but also normative history-graded experiences such as living through the Vietnam War and the Cold War. Henry's unique life experiences such as having four kids, getting a divorce, or losing his job, are the non-normative influences that also affect his development.

watch it

This video describes the normative history-graded influences that shaped the development of seven generations over the past 125 years of United States history. Can you identify your generation? Does the description seem accurate?



Another context that influences our lives is our social standing, socioeconomic status, or social class. Socioeconomic status is a way to identify families and households based on their shared levels of education, income, and occupation. While there is certainly individual variation, members of a social class tend to share similar lifestyles, patterns of consumption, parenting styles, stressors, religious preferences, and other aspects of daily life.

HOW DOES SOCIOECONOMIC STATUS AFFECT language DEVELOPMENT?

The achievement gap refers to the persistent difference in grades, test scores, and graduation rates that exist among students of different ethnicities, races, and—in certain subjects—sexes (Winerman, 2011). Research suggests that these achievement gaps are strongly influenced by differences in socioeconomic factors that exist among the families of these children. While the researchers acknowledge that programs aimed at reducing such socioeconomic discrepancies would likely aid in equalizing the aptitude and performance of children from different backgrounds, they recognize that such large-scale interventions would be difficult to achieve. Therefore, it is recommended that programs aimed at fostering aptitude and achievement among disadvantaged children may be the best option for dealing with issues related to academic achievement gaps (Duncan & Magnuson, 2005).

Low-income children perform significantly more poorly than their middle- and high-income peers on a number of educational variables: They have significantly lower standardized test scores, graduation rates, and college entrance rates, and they have much higher school dropout rates. There have been attempts to correct the achievement gap through state and federal legislation, but what if the problems start before the children even enter school?

Psychologists Betty Hart and Todd Risley (2006) spent their careers looking at early language ability and progression of children in various income levels. In one longitudinal study, they found that although all the parents in the study engaged and interacted with their children, middle- and high-income parents interacted with their children differently than low-income parents. After analyzing 1,300 hours of parent-child interactions, the researchers found that middle- and high-income parents talk to their children significantly more, starting when the children are infants. By 3 years old, high-income children knew almost double the number of words known by their low-income counterparts, and they had heard an estimated total of 30 million more words than the low-income counterparts (Hart & Risley, 2003). And the gaps only become more pronounced. Before entering kindergarten, high-income children score 60% higher on achievement tests than their low-income peers (Lee & Burkam, 2002).

There are solutions to this problem. At the University of Chicago, experts are working with low-income families, visiting them at their homes, and encouraging them to speak more to their children on a daily and hourly basis. Other experts are designing preschools in which students from diverse economic backgrounds are placed in the same classroom. In this research, low-income children made significant gains in their language development, likely as a result of attending the specialized preschool (Schechter & Byeb, 2007). What other methods or interventions could be used to decrease the achievement gap? What types of activities could be implemented to help the children of your community or a neighboring community?

Culture is often referred to as a blueprint or guideline shared by a group of people that specifies how to live. It includes ideas about what is right and wrong, what to strive for, what to eat, how to speak, what is valued, as well as what kinds of emotions are called for in certain situations. Culture teaches us how to live in a society and allows us to advance because each new generation can benefit from the solutions found and passed down from previous generations.

Culture is learned from parents, schools, churches, media, friends, and others throughout a lifetime. The kinds of traditions and values that evolve in a particular culture serve to help members function in their own society and to value their own society. We tend to believe that our own culture’s practices and expectations are the right ones. This belief that our own culture is superior is called ethnocentrism and is a normal by-product of growing up in a culture. It becomes a roadblock, however, when it inhibits understanding of cultural practices from other societies. Cultural relativity is an appreciation for cultural differences and the understanding that cultural practices are best understood from the standpoint of that particular culture.

Culture is an extremely important context for human development and understanding development requires being able to identify which features of development are culturally based. This understanding is somewhat new and still being explored. So much of what developmental theorists have described in the past has been culturally bound and difficult to apply to various cultural contexts. For example, Erikson's theory that teenagers struggle with identity assumes that all teenagers live in a society in which they have many options and must make an individual choice about their future. In many parts of the world, one's identity is determined by family status or society's dictates. In other words, there is no choice to make.

Even the most biological events can be viewed in cultural contexts that are extremely varied. Consider two very different cultural responses to menstruation in young girls. In the United States, girls in public school often receive information on menstruation around 5th grade, get a kit containing feminine hygiene products, and receive some sort of education about sexual health. Contrast this with some developing countries where menstruation is not publicly addressed, or where girls on their period are forced to miss school due to limited access to feminine products or unjust attitudes about menstruation.

Development is Multidisciplinary

Any single discipline’s account of development across the lifespan would not be able to express all aspects of this theoretical framework. That is why it is suggested explicitly by lifespan researchers that a combination of disciplines is necessary to understand development. Psychologists, sociologists, neuroscientists, anthropologists, educators, economists, historians, medical researchers, and others may all be interested and involved in research related to the normative age-graded, normative history-graded, and nonnormative influences that help shape development. Many disciplines are able to contribute important concepts that integrate knowledge, which may ultimately result in the formation of a new and enriched understanding of development across the lifespan.

Think It Over

  • Consider your cohort. Can you identify it? Does it have a name and if so, what does the name imply? To what extent does your cohort shape your values, thoughts, and aspirations? (Some cohort labels popularized in the media for generations in the United States include Baby Boomers, Generation X, Millennials, and Generation Z.)
  • Think of other ways culture may have affected your development. How might cultural differences influence interactions between teachers and students, nurses and patients, or other relationships?


GLOSSARY



cohort:

a group of people who are born at roughly the same period in a particular society. Cohorts share histories and contexts for living

culture:

blueprint or guideline shared by a group of people that specifies how to live; passed down from generation to generation; learned from parents and others

lifespan perspective:

an approach to studying development which emphasizes that development is lifelong, multidimensional, multidirectional, plastic, contextual, and multidisciplinary

nonnormative influences:

unpredictable influences not tied to a certain developmental time, personally or historical period

normative age-graded influences:

biological and environmental factors that have a strong correlation with chronological age

normative history-graded influences:

influences associated with a specific time period that define the broader bio-cultural context in which an individual develops




  1. Baltes, "P. (1987). Theoretical propositions of life-span developmental psychology: On the dynamics between growth and decline. Developmental Psychology, 23(5), 611-626."
  2. Catalano, "R., Berglund, L., Ryan, J., Lonczak, H., & Hawkins, D. (2002). Positive youth development in the united states: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. Prevention & Treatment, 5(15), 27-28."
  3. Baltes, "P. (1987). Theoretical propositions of life-span developmental psychology: On the dynamics between growth and decline. Developmental Psychology, 23(5), 611-626."
  4. Catalano, "R., Berglund, L., Ryan, J., Lonczak, H., & Hawkins, D. (2002). Positive youth development in the united states: Research findings on evaluations of positive youth development programs. Prevention & Treatment, 5(15), 27-28."

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