What Do Developmental Psychologists Study?

Posted September 2019 by Clifton Stamp, B.S. Psychology; M.A. Rehabilitation Counseling, M.A. English; 10 updates since. Reading time: 6 min. Reading level: Grade 10+. Questions on developmental psychologists? Email Toni at: editor@online-psychology-degrees.org.

What does developmental psychology study? Developmental psychology is the study of the changes people undergo throughout their lives, across the spectrum of human growth. Rightly called lifespan psychology, developmental psychologists study all the ways in which people grow psychologically over time, from conception through old age. Areas that developmental psychologists study include all the changes that emerge as a function of aging including:

  • physical
  • social
  • intellectual
  • emotional
  • cognitive

A developmental psychologist studies these changes to identify problems people experience that are a function of particular challenges associated with aging. It is a research-based science with many practical applications. Applied developmental psychology is used in:

  • education
  • marketing
  • mass media
  • the entertainment industry
  • many private enterprises

Would you like to become a developmental psychologist? The job outlook is good (6% growth rate according to BLS) and employment opportunities exist in various work setting locations for developmental psychologists. A developmental psychologist will often earn an undergraduate degree, master’s degree, and doctorate degree. A developmental psychologist might work in:

  • mental health clinics
  • government agencies
  • health care facilities
  • assisted living homes
  • online therapy
  • colleges and universities

Developmental Psychology and Its Uses

What do developmental psychologists study? Research in developmental psychology has three goals around human development from birth to death:

  • describing
  • explaining
  • optimizing

Some developmental psychologists work on problems that arise in specific phases of life, like adolescence or old age. Other development psychologists work with people of all ages. Some of the issues that many  developmental psychologists focus on are primarily a function of a particular time in life, like language acquisition. Others can be life-long, like learning disabilities.

Some of the many issues that developmental psychologists work with include:

  • language acquisition
  • emotional development
  • cognitive development
  • personality development
  • psychosexual development
  • moral reasoning
  • learning disabilities
  • developmental disabilities
  • gender identity
  • physical growth
  • aging process
  • developmental issues in different life stages
  • mental illness

Developmental psychologists attempt to understand both the typical course of human development and variations from the norm. By doing so, it’s possible for developmental psychologists to identify and address problems early on, before they become incapacitating. Developmental issues can cause:

  • low self-esteem
  • impaired learning and poor school performance
  • difficulty adjusting to challenges
  • depression

Applied developmental psychology seeks to correct problems people face that are the result of the changes they undergo as a function of aging.

Developmental Psychology Theories

Research in developmental psychology is full of competing theories. Theories work to provide a general framework that’s supported by hypothesis testing. However, there’s more than one way to look at complex processes. The following are three of the most common categories of competing theories in lifespan development.

  • Nature and nurture. To what degree does our environment act on our genetic, biological inheritance?
  • Continuity and stages. Stage theories say there are major developments or challenges that we pass through that are discrete and measurable, e.g., Jean Piaget’s stage theory of cognitive development, or Erickson’s theory of personality.
  • Stability and change: What traits stay consistent and stable throughout the lifespan and which of our characteristics are more fluid? Intelligence and personality are two of the most stable aspects of a person, yet they too can be influenced heavily by the unique events in a person’s life.

Prominent Developmental Psychology Theories and Theorists

Developmental psychologists have been keen to examine the development of personality, emotional growth, cognitive and intellectual ability, and psychosocial growth. These areas, along with gender and sexual identity, are crucial for understanding how people establish their identity as human beings, and how identity can change over time. The following theories all address at least one of these critical areas are in part products of their eras. Newer research has made some aspects of early theories obsolete. For example, researchers now understand that the ability to think abstractly doesn’t finish developing at the end of adolescence, and instead continues throughout a person’s early 20s.

  • Freud’s Psychosexual Developmental Theory.  Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) established the idea that childhood experiences are profoundly important to adult life and that events in childhood resonated throughout life.  His stage theory of psychosexual development posited critical tasks in each stage that had to be resolved successfully, or significant issues would develop in adulthood. Freud viewed the development of personality as complete by age five.
  • Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory. Jean Piaget’s Cognitive Developmental Theory (1936) examines the way in which children develop cognitively and intellectually. Before Piaget, researchers viewed children as having the same thought processes as an adult, only less mature. Piaget’s work showed that children’s thought processes are radically different from those of adults. Piaget’s theory also demonstrates that children go through measurable, discrete stages as they progress through increasingly sophisticated, more abstract levels of thought.
  • Erikson’s Psychosocial Developmental Theory. Erik Erikson developed a theory with eight stages, each of which was characterized by a conflict between two opposing concepts, such as trust versus mistrust. From birth throughout the lifespan, people are faced with “identity crises” that must be resolved in a manner that prepares a person for further growth into a positive, healthy life, or stagnation will occur. Erikson believed personality continued to develop through a person’s life.
  • Bowlby’s Attachment Theory. John Bowlby’s and Mary Ainsworth’s attachment theory (1969) is based on the idea that the innate human need to form attachments has a tremendous impact in shaping all aspects of human development. Humans are social creatures, requiring interaction and support from others throughout the entire lifespan to survive and thrive. How people develop critical bonds intrigued Bowlby,  who came to theorize that attachment behavior is inbuilt and present immediately at birth. Infants form bonds based on who plays with them or interacts with them more consistently rather than with who feeds them. This contradicts behaviorists who theorized infants bond with their mother because she feeds them. Bowlby described four kids of attachment: secure attachment, anxious-ambivalent attachment, anxious-avoidant attachment, and disorganized attachment.
  • Bandura’s Social Learning Theory. Albert Bandura’s Social Learning Theory (1971) is in part an observational learning theory that states people can learn new behaviors simply by observing others’ behaviors and the consequences of those behaviors (vicarious reinforcement). This is the foundation for many educational practices. Bandura posits four requirements for learning: observation and retention, plus reproduction of the behavior and motivation.


Why is developmental psychology important? Developmental psychology is the field that primarily studies how humans grow and develop. Developmental psychology is a dynamic field. It grows as research continues to teach us more about how people interact with their environments and how those environments affect us. As one example, consider that in our world today, people are concerned with the influence that computers and the always-on digital lifestyle have over the emotional, cognitive and behavioral development of young people. Developmental psychologists are on the case, researching to figure out what kinds of advantages and challenges this plugged-in world is having on all of us, including the growth of youngsters. Developmental psychology is endlessly adaptable. It will continue to reveal the intricacies of human development in the years to come.

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