What is Developmental Psychology?

Developmental psychology is a scientific approach that aims to explain growth, change, and consistency though the lifespan. Developmental psychology examines how thinking, feeling, and behavior change throughout a person’s life.

A significant proportion of theories within this discipline focus on development during childhood, as this is the period during an individual’s lifespan when the most change occurs.

Developmental psychologists study a wide range of theoretical areas, such as biological, social, emotion, and cognitive processes.

Empirical research in this area tends to be dominated by psychologists from Western cultures such as North American and Europe, although during the 1980s Japanese researchers began making a valid contribution to the field.

Key Terms

  • Maturation in psychology refers to the natural developmental process driven by genetics, leading to physical, behavioral, and psychological growth independent of learning or experience.
  • The idiographic approach focuses on understanding unique, individual differences in experiences or behaviors, often using qualitative methods.
  • Normative development in psychology refers to the typical sequence and timing of developmental milestones that most people experience within a population.


The three goals of developmental psychology are to describe, explain, and optimize development (Baltes, Reese, & Lipsitt, 1980).
To describe development it is necessary to focus both on typical patterns of change (normative development) and individual variations in patterns of change (i.e. idiographic development). Although there are typical pathways of development that most people will follow, no two persons are exactly alike.
Developmental psychologists must also seek to explain the changes they have observed about normative processes and individual differences. Although, it is often easier to describe development than to explain how it occurs.

Finally, developmental psychologists hope to optimize development, and apply their theories to help people in practical situations (e.g. help parents develop secure attachments with their children).

Continuity vs. Discontinuity in Human Development 

Think about how children become adults. Is there a predictable pattern they follow regarding thought and language and social development? Do children go through gradual changes or are they abrupt changes?


Continuity vs. Discontinuity


Normative development is typically viewed as a continual and cumulative process. The continuity view says that development is a smooth and gradual accumulation of abilities, with one stage flowing seamlessly into the next.

Children become more skillful in thinking, talking, or acting much the same way as they get taller.

It assumes that changes are incremental, with skills and knowledge building upon what was previously learned. The analogy often used to describe this perspective is viewing development as a slope or ramp, gradually inclining upwards.

The discontinuity view sees development as a more abrupt-a succession of changes that produce different behaviors in different age-specific life periods called stages. Biological changes provide the potential for these changes.

These stages are believed to be qualitatively different, each bringing a dramatic shift in abilities or behaviors.

Theorists like Jean Piaget and Erik Erikson support this perspective. They argue that children pass through distinct stages at certain ages, and the qualities of each stage are significantly different from those of other stages. This can be visualized as steps on a staircase.

We often hear people talking about children going through “stages” in life (i.e., “sensorimotor stage.”). These are called developmental stages-periods of life initiated by distinct transitions in physical or psychological functioning.

Psychologists of the discontinuity view believe that people go through the same stages, in the same order, but not necessarily at the same rate.

Stability vs. Change in Human Development

Stability implies personality traits present during infancy endure throughout the lifespan. It emphasizes the importance of early experiences on future development, suggesting that early childhood experiences play a significant role in determining adult personality traits and behaviors.

For example, a child who is cheerful and outgoing will likely grow into an adult with similar personality traits. Stability theorists believe that change is relatively difficult once initial personality traits have been established.

In contrast, change theorists argue that family interactions, school experiences, and acculturation modify personalities.

It implies that our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions are malleable and can be influenced by experiences and environments over time. This perspective suggests that it is equally likely for an introverted child to become an extroverted adult, depending on various factors such as life experiences, education, or trauma.

This capacity for change is called plasticity. For example, Rutter (1981) discovered that somber babies living in understaffed orphanages often become cheerful and affectionate when placed in socially stimulating adoptive homes.

Nature vs. Nurture

When trying to explain development, it is important to consider the relative contribution of both nature and nurture. Developmental psychology seeks
to answer two big questions about heredity and environment:

  1. How much weight does each contribute?
  2. How do nature and nurture interact?

Nature refers to the process of biological maturation, inheritance, and maturation. One of the reasons why the development of human beings is so similar is because our common specifies heredity (DNA) guides all of us through many of the same developmental changes at about the same points in our lives.

Nurture refers to the impact of the environment, which involves the process of learning through experiences.

There are two effective ways to study nature-nurture.

  1. Twin studies: Identical twins have the same genotype, and fraternal twins have an average of 50% of their genes in common.
  2. Adoption studies: Similarities with the biological family support nature, while similarities with the adoptive family support nurture.

Historical Origins

Developmental psychology as a discipline did not exist until after the industrial revolution when the need for an educated workforce led to the social construction of childhood as a distinct stage in a person’s life.

The notion of childhood originates in the Western world and this is why the early research derives from this location. Initially, developmental psychologists were interested in studying the mind of the child so that education and learning could be more effective.

Developmental changes during adulthood are an even more recent area of study. This is mainly due to advances in medical science, enabling people to live to old age.

Charles Darwin is credited with conducting the first systematic study of developmental psychology. In 1877 he published a short paper detailing the development of innate forms of communication-based on scientific observations of his infant son, Doddy.

However, the emergence of developmental psychology as a specific discipline can be traced back to 1882 when Wilhelm Preyer (a German physiologist) published a book entitled The Mind of the Child.

In the book, Preyer describes the development of his own daughter from birth to two and a half years. Importantly, Preyer used rigorous scientific procedures throughout studying the many abilities of his daughter.

In 1888 Preyer’s publication was translated into English, by which time developmental psychology as a discipline was fully established with a further 47 empirical studies from Europe, North America and Britain also published to facilitate the dissemination of knowledge in the field.

During the 1900s three key figures have dominated the field with their extensive theories of human development, namely Jean Piaget (1896-1980), Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) and John Bowlby (1907-1990). Indeed, much of the current research continues to be influenced by these three theorists.


Baltes, P. B., Reese, H., & Lipsett, L. (1980) Lifespan developmental psychology, Annual Review of Pyschology 31: 65 – 110.

Darwin, C. (1877). A Biographical Sketch of an Infant. Mind, 2, 285-294.

Preyer, W.T. (1882). Die Seele des Kindes: Beobachtungen über die geistige Entwicklung des Menschen in den ersten Lebensjahren .Grieben, Leipzig,

Preyer, W.T. (1888). The soul of the child: observations on the mental development of man in the first years of life.

Rutter, M. (1981). STRESS, COPING AND DEVELOPMENT: SOME ISSUES AND SOME QUESTIONS*. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 22(4), 323-356.

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Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.

Saul Mcleod, PhD

Educator, Researcher

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

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