The Study of Development


When you hear the word development, it may seem straightforward — it refers to improvements in people’s well-being. But the word also describes the ability of a system to provide the circumstances for that well-being. It’s that capacity that is analyzed when nations are rated as more developed than others.

The study of development (also known as lifespan development or human developmental science) is guided by assumptions that researchers have about how humans change and remain the same throughout their lives. These assumptions are called meta-theories and include maturational, behaviorist, Vygotsky, ethological, cognitive, and neurobiological perspectives.

Maturational meta-theories assume that people are born with innate qualities and that their personalities, emotions, and behavior are determined by their biological constitution. They also assume that each stage in the life cycle (crisis, adolescence, adulthood) is an inevitable progression toward maturity that cannot be reversed.

Cognitive and behavioral psychologists such as Vygotsky, Erikson, and information processing theorists have different assumptions about how people develop. Their models are based on a range of influences, including the sociocultural expectations of their societies and the beliefs about children’s mental growth that influence how they teach and nurture them. For example, Erikson’s assumption that adolescence is a time of searching for identity might work well in middle-class cultures, but not in some other cultures that view adolescence through the lens of rites of passage and offer fewer choices for young adults.