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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2018

Eye on Psi Chi

Summer 2018 | Volume 22 | Issue 4

Developmental Psychology: A Microcosm of General Psychology

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, Western Oregon University

View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Welcome back, readers of Contemporary Psych, to your quarterly review of the various subfields, subdisciplines, and subareas of contemporary psychology. In the last two columns, we discussed areas of psychology that are relatively new and perhaps unfamiliar: positive psychology and evolutionary psychology. In the current column, I am going to tackle one of the classics, an established and well-known subfield of psychology. Namely, I am going to do my best to provide a comprehensive, but also brief and coherent, description of developmental psychology.

To describe developmental psychology in a single column is a daunting and difficult task, because this particular subfield is concerned with answering a wide variety of questions regarding psychological functioning across each stage of the human lifespan. In this way, developmental psychology is much like general psychology more broadly, in that it is a subfield of general psychology that further includes its own subfields (sub-subfields?) that address a diversity of different topics. However, despite this diversity, developmental psychologists are united in their interest in studying how and why humans change over the course of their lives. In what follows, I will briefly discuss the recent history of this field, describe the field as it exists right now, examine some of the primary areas of inquiry and application within developmental psychology, and identify relevant academic- and career-related opportunities within the field.

How They Got This Way: History of Developmental Psychology

This may surprise you: Childhood was not always recognized as a distinct developmental period. In fact, as late as a few centuries ago, children were simply considered to be miniature adults (albeit adults with heads that were quite large relative to their bodies). More broadly, in most Western cultures, no distinction was made between the different developmental periods, or stages, of the lifespan. In result, there was little recognition of the myriad ways in which individuals change with age, nor much interest in studying these changes.

The transition into the earnest investigation of development is marked, at least in the West, by the philosophical work of two great thinkers—John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Locke famously stated that a child’s mind is a “blank slate” that is written on or molded by experience, while Rousseau suggested that children are born inherently good, generous, and moral. Unbeknownst to either Locke or Rousseau, their ideas would later form the foundations of two of the most influential theoretical perspectives in developmental psychology, respectively environmentalism and nativism (see Santrock, 2016).

The study of development really took off in the 19th and early 20th centuries with the work of Charles Darwin, G. Stanley Hall, and Alfred Binet, among others (see Hogan, 2000). Darwin is notable in that, in addition to developing evolutionary theory, in his free time he also liked to closely observe and take extensive notes on his child’s behavior. (Although perhaps unsettling, this practice was not uncommon among famous early developmentalists.) He later published his notes, along with analysis, as a short paper that is one of the first well-known “baby biographies.” Hall founded child development as a distinct academic discipline, and among other significant achievements, was one of the first to effectively use questionnaire methodologies to examine “the content of children’s minds” (Hall, 1891). Binet, along with his colleague Theodore Simon, developed the first standardized test of mental abilities, which was used to assess the intellectual capabilities of children and is the basis for the modern intelligence test that we all know and love.

Developmental psychology in the mid-to-latter part of the 20th century was dominated by many of the most well-known developmentalists including Jean Piaget, John B. Watson, Arnold Gessell, Karen Horney, Albert Bandura, Erik Erikson, and John Bowlby. Each of these individuals, in addition to many others, have contributed substantially to the field of developmental psychology, and their work is rightfully credited as shaping the nature of this field in the 21st century. So, what does developmental psych look like now?

Where We Are: Contemporary Developmental Psychology

Contemporary developmental psychology is a scientific approach that aims to describe and explain human change and development throughout the lifespan. As indicated above, the field initially focused almost exclusively on child development, due to the fact that a great deal of development occurs during childhood. However, any modern developmental psychologists worth their salt recognize that development is a lifelong process. Accordingly, many developmentalists focus on areas outside of childhood including adolescence, adult development, and late-adulthood.

Very broadly, developmental psychology examines life-long, age-related change in three primary domains: (a) physical development, (b) cognitive development, and (c) socioemotional development. Developmental psychologists may focus on any one of these domains, but it is widely recognized that these domains interact dynamically with one another, producing both typical and idiosyncratic development across the lifespan. For example, physical changes associated with puberty may elicit increased attention toward one’s body (cognitive change) that in turn causes one to be more self-conscious when interacting with others (socioemotional change).

At this point, you are probably beginning to appreciate the breadth of the field of inquiry within developmental psychology. It is a truly massive area in psychology that focuses on a number of different, but in some way related, topics. For example, developmental psychologists may specialize in perceptual and motor development, language development, moral understanding, development of metacognition, identity formation, and personality development, among many other areas.

Developmental psychology also informs several applied fields including forensic psychology, clinical psychology (e.g., child psychopathology), and educational psychology, as well as complementing other basic research fields in psychology, such as social and cognitive psychology. Moreover, human development is a central concern for many professionals outside of psychology, such as anthropologists, medical professionals, and educators. Indeed, it is perhaps the centrality of development to the human experience that makes developmental psychology so important, varied, and applicable to a wide swath of human endeavors, scholarly or otherwise.

What Developmental Psychologists Do: Work and Career

As you can imagine, given the scope of the field, developmental psychologists may be engaged in any number of tasks in many different work environments. For example, one developmental psychologist may spend time at a research-oriented university conducting cutting-edge research on the development of theory of mind in 5 year-olds, while another may spend the days at a community-based center teaching activities of daily living to adolescents with developmental disabilities.

In general, developmental psychologists can be divided into two different types: (a) those who work in colleges, universities, and research institutes, focusing on the research or teaching of developmental psychology; and (b) those who work in applied domains like health care, assisted living, and education. The types of tasks developmental psychologists are engaged in thus depends on the type of job and work environment they find themselves in. Suffice it to say, however, that if you have interests in developmental psychology, there are many occupational opportunities available to suit those interests, both in the academy and out in the trenches.

Where to Go From Here: Education and Training

For the most part, developmental psychologists hold a PhD, and the most common academic pathway toward obtaining a career in developmental psychology is to first pursue an undergraduate degree (typically in psychology), then a master’s, and then the doctorate. And, as in other areas of psychology, although undergraduate training tends to focus on providing a broad background in all things psychology, most graduate students in developmental psychology find themselves in specialized training programs that focus primarily on development. Many of the more well-known and prestigious of these programs are located at large state universities, such as the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and Pennsylvania State University.

Although strictly speaking, the preceding is the normal educational route for a “developmental psychologist,” as indicated above, one does not need to be a developmental psychologist to work in areas related to human development. Because of this, the educational backgrounds of those working in these areas tends to be quite varied.

Has this short column whetted your appetite for study in developmental psychology? If you find yourself hungry for more information, I suggest checking out the following resources for a more detailed description of the field and how, if you so choose, to become a famous developmental psychologist (by all-too-closely observing your own children…).

Further Readings and Resources

American Psychological Association, Division 7: Developmental Psychology.

Crain, W. (2015). Theories of development: Concepts and applications, 6th ed. New York, NY: Pearson.

Hunt, M. (2007). The developmentalists. In The story of psychology, 2nd ed., (pp. 401–458). New York, NY: Anchor Books.

Society for Research in Child Development.


Hall, G. S. (1891). The contents of children’s minds on entering school. The Pedagogical Seminary, 1, 139–173.

Hogan, J. D. (2000). Developmental psychology: History of the field. In A. E. Kazdin (Ed.), Encyclopedia of psychology (Vol. 3, pp. 9–13). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Santrock, J. W. (2016). Lifespan development. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

Ethan A. McMahan, PhD, is an associate professor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Western Oregon University where he teaches courses in research methods, advanced research methods, and positive psychology. He is passionate about undergraduate education in psychology and has served Psi Chi members in several ways over the last few years, including as a faculty advisor, Psi Chi Western Region Steering Committee Member, Grants Chair, and most recently, as the Western Regional Vice-President of Psi Chi. His research interests focus on hedonic and eudaimonic approaches to well-being, folk conceptions of happiness, and the relationship between nature and human well-being. His recent work examines how exposure to immersive simulations of natural environments impact concurrent emotional state and, more broadly, how regular contact with natural environments may be one route by which individuals achieve optimal feeling and functioning. He has published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, the Journal of Happiness Studies, Personality and Individual Differences, and Ecopsychology, among other publications. He completed his undergraduate training at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs and holds a PhD in experimental psychology from the University of Wyoming.

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