Posted: February 26th, 2023

PSYC525 Developmental Psychology

 

Introduction to Developmental Psychology 

Read Miller Chapter 1

THEORIES o f
DEVELOPMENTAL

PSYCHOLOGY

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S I X T H E D I T I O N

THEORIES o f
DEVELOPMENTAL

PSYCHOLOGY

Patricia H. Miller
San Francisco State University

New York

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CONTENTS

Preface xi

C H A P T E R 1

Introduction 1

What Is a Theory? 3

What Is a Developmental Theory? 7

Of What Value Is a Developmental Theory? 11
Organizing Information • Guiding Research

What Main Issues of Developmental Psychology
Do Theories Address? 14

What Is the Basic Nature of Humans? • Is Development Qualitative or
Quantitative? • How Do Nature and Nurture Contribute to Development? • What Is It
That Develops?

SUMMARY 23
CHRONOLOGY OF DEVELOPMENTAL THEORIES 23
ORGANIZATION OF THIS BOOK 23
SUGGESTED READINGS 24

C H A P T E R 2

Piaget’s Cognitive-Stage Theory and the Neo-Piagetians 25

Biographical Sketch 26

General Orientation to the Theory 29
Genetic Epistemology • Biological Approach • Structuralism • Stage
Approach • Methodology

Description of the Stages 36
Sensorimotor Period (Roughly Birth to 2 Years) • Preoperational Period
(Roughly 2 to 7 Years) • Concrete Operational Period (Roughly 7 to
11 Years) • Formal Operational Period (Roughly 11 to 15 Years) • An Overview

Memory 55

Mechanisms of Development 57
Cognitive Organization • Cognitive Adaptation • Cognitive Equilibration • Section
Overview

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vi c CONTENTS

Position on Developmental Issues 62
Human Nature • Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development • Nature Versus
Nurture • What Develops

Applications 65

Evaluation of the Theory 66
Strengths • Weaknesses

Piaget’s Own Modifications of His Theory 80

The Neo-Piagetians 82
Robbie Case • Kurt Fischer • Neo-Piagetian Themes

Contemporary Research 89
Infants’ Advanced Competencies • Domain-Specific Concepts • Mechanisms of
Development

SUMMARY 93
SUGGESTED READINGS 94

C H A P T E R 3

Freud’s and Erikson’s Psychoanalytic Theories 95

FREUD 96

Biographical Sketch 96

General Orientation to the Theory 99
Dynamic Approach • Structural Approach • Topographic Approach • Stage
Approach • Normal–Abnormal Continuum • Methodology

Description of the Stages 113
Oral Stage (Roughly Birth to 1 Year) • Anal Stage (Roughly 1 to 3 Years) • Phallic
Stage (Roughly 3 to 5 Years) • Period of Latency (Roughly 5 Years to the Beginning of
Puberty) • Genital Stage (Adolescence) • Case Study of “Little Hans”

Mechanisms of Development 120

Position on Developmental Issues 122
Human Nature • Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development • Nature Versus
Nurture • What Develops

Applications 123

Evaluation of the Theory 124
Strengths • Weaknesses

Contemporary Research 129

ERIKSON 132

Biographical Sketch 133

General Orientation to the Theory 133
Psychosocial Stages • Emphasis on Identity • Expansion of Psychoanalytic Methodology

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CONTENTS c vii

Description of the Stages 139
Stage 1: Basic Trust Versus Basic Mistrust (Roughly Birth to 1 Year) • Stage 2: Autonomy
Versus Shame and Doubt (Roughly 2 to 3 Years) • Stage 3: Initiative Versus Guilt (Roughly
4 to 5 Years) • Stage 4: Industry Versus Inferiority (Roughly 6 Years to Puberty) • Stage
5: Identity and Repudiation Versus Identity Diffusion (Adolescence) • Stage 6: Intimacy and
Solidarity Versus Isolation (Young Adulthood) • Stage 7: Generativity Versus Stagnation and
Self-Absorption (Middle Adulthood) • Stage 8: Integrity Versus Despair (Late Adulthood)

Mechanisms of Development 144

Position on Developmental Issues 145

Applications 146

Evaluation of the Theory 146
Strengths • Weaknesses

Contemporary Research 148

SUMMARY 150
SUGGESTED READINGS 152

C H A P T E R 4

Vygotsky and the Sociocultural Approach 153

Biographical Sketch 155

General Orientation to the Theory 158
Child-in-Activity-in-Cultural-Context as the Unit of Study • Zone of Proximal
Development • The Sociocultural Origins of Individual Mental Functioning: The
Intermental Constructs the Intramental • Tools Provided by a Culture Mediate
Intellectual Functioning • Methodology

Mechanisms of Development 176

Position on Developmental Issues 177
Human Nature • Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development • Nature Versus
Nurture • What Develops

Applications 179

Evaluation of the Theory 182
Strengths • Weaknesses

A Related Approach: Developing-Person-In-Context 188

Contemporary Research 192
Collaborative Problem Solving • Research Across Cultures • Social Change • Immigrant
Families • Development Through Narratives and Conversations • Concluding Comments
About Contemporary Vygotskian–Sociocultural Research

SUMMARY 207
SUGGESTED READINGS 209

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viii c CONTENTS

C H A P T E R 5

Biological Approaches: Ethology,
Developmental Neuroscience, Genetics 211

Ethology 212
History of the Theory • General Orientation to the Theory • Contributions to Human
Developmental Psychology • Mechanisms of Development • Position on Developmental
Issues • Applications • Evaluation of the Theory • Contemporary Research

Developmental Neuroscience 248
Brain Development • Theoretical Issues • Applications • Summary

Genetics 257
Models of Gene X Environment Interactions • Epigenetic Models • Theoretical
Issues • Applications • Summary

Integrated, Multilevel Biological Theoretical Perspectives 268

SUMMARY 271
SUGGESTED READINGS 274

C H A P T E R 6

Social Learning Theory 277

History of the Theory 279
Learning Theory • Social Learning Theory

General Orientation to the Theory 289
Observational Learning • Causal Model Includes Environment–Person–Behavior
System • Cognitive Contributions to Learning • Self-Efficacy and Agency

Examples of Developmental Research:
Moral Judgments and Gender Roles 300

Moral Judgments and Behavior • Gender-Role Development

Mechanisms of Development 303

Position on Developmental Issues 304
Human Nature • Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development • Nature Versus
Nurture • What Develops

Applications 306

Evaluation of the Theory 308
Strengths • Weaknesses

Contemporary Research 311
Cognitive Approaches to Learning • Imitation • Selective Social Learning from Others

SUMMARY 314
SUGGESTED READINGS 316

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CONTENTS c ix

C H A P T E R 7

Information-Processing Theory 317

History of the Theory 320

General Orientation to the Theory 322
Humans as Information-Processing Systems • Development as Self-Modification • Task
Analysis • Methodology

Major Developmental Approaches 330
Memory • Metamemory • Mathematical Understanding • Rules for Problem
Solving • Computational Modeling

Mechanisms of Development 353

Position on Developmental Issues 355
Human Nature • Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development • Nature Versus
Nurture • What Develops

Applications 357

Evaluation of the Theory 360
Strengths • Weaknesses

Contemporary Research 365
Executive Function • Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience • Embodied
Cognition • Bayesian Computational Models • Developmental Robotics

SUMMARY 374
SUGGESTED READINGS 375

C H A P T E R 8

Gibson’s Ecological Theory
of Perceptual Development 377

Biographical Sketch 378

General Orientation to the Theory 379
Ecological Approach: Affordances • Information Is Specified in Stimulation • Humans as
Active Perceivers • Methodology

What Infants Learn About 387
Communication • Interaction with Objects • Locomotion in the Spatial Layout

Mechanisms of Development 392

Position on Developmental Issues 393
Human Nature • Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development • Nature Versus
Nurture • What Develops

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x c CONTENTS

Applications 394

Evaluation of the Theory 394
Strengths • Weaknesses

Contemporary Research 397

SUMMARY 399
SUGGESTED READINGS 400

C H A P T E R 9

Theories Today: Themes and Perspectives 401

Generally Accepted Theoretical Principles 402

Overview of Theorizing Today 403

Themes Driving Theorizing and Research Today 403
1. How general are developmental changes?
2. How can complex, dynamic change be captured theoretically?
3. How can theories best depict long-term development?
4. How can theories best depict universal and diverse aspects of development?

Position on Developmental Issues 419

SUMMARY 420
SUGGESTED READINGS 420

C H A P T E R 1 0

Reflections 421

Developmental Issues Revisited 422
Human Nature • Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development • Nature Versus
Nurture • What Develops

Moving Toward Mechanisms of Development 426

Historical Progress of Developmental Theories 428

Critical Psychology: Are Theories of Development Gendered? 431

Conclusions 434

References 435

Name Index 467

Subject Index 477

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PREFACE

“What is your theory of psychological development?” As an undergradu-
ate, I faced that very essay question on my final exam in an introductory
child psychology class. Drawing on all the theories I had ever heard
of, I modestly generated a 6 (age) × 20 (developmental tasks) matrix
that covered all of development. My interest in theories was launched.
Perhaps if I had been given a multiple-choice test this book would not
have been written.

In all six editions of this book, I have tried to show the “big picture”
of psychological development. Sometimes students are frustrated by
fact-laden textbooks that do not provide frameworks in which to fit the
facts. It is often not clear, for example, why a Swiss philosopher would
be interested in children’s numerical judgments after a row of objects is
spread out or why it is noteworthy that infants cry when their mothers
leave the room. This book provides frameworks for understanding and
perceiving the significance of the research findings in developmental
psychology.

Theories of Developmental Psychology can be used as a primary or sup-
plementary text in undergraduate or graduate courses or as a resource
book for instructors. In addition, it can provide perspectives on chil-
dren’s behavior for those who interact with children in any capacity.
I hope that both developmental psychologists and readers from other
disciplines will find something of interest in these pages.

I have used a parallel structure in the various chapters in order to help
the reader compare the theories. Each chapter includes sections on four
central issues of development, mechanisms of development, applications
(e.g., to education or atypical development), strengths and weaknesses,
and contemporary research. The section on contemporary research in
each chapter shows how the theory is active today and how changes in
the field of developmental psychology have changed what it draws from
each theory. Where relevant, I provide biographies of major theorists, to
show the connection between a theorist’s culture, family background,
and interests, and that person’s theory. I have tried to convey what is
exciting about each of the theories. The theories included are those that
in my view are of most interest to developmental psychologists and pro-
fessionals in related disciplines. Many important theories were necessar-
ily excluded because of length restrictions. And some of the “theories”

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xii c PREFACE

included are not formal theories, but are perspectives that function as
theories by identifying what to study, what questions to ask, and how to
answer these questions.

Much has happened in the discipline of developmental psychology
since the first edition in 1983. Each revision reflects these changes. In
this sixth edition, I have continued to show how each theory has changed
in its emphasis, its data base, and its influence on developmental psychol-
ogy since the previous edition. A major change in this newest edition is a
greatly expanded chapter on biological approaches, growing out of what
originally was a chapter on ethology. This change reflects a major trend
in the field toward biological perspectives. Exciting recent research in
developmental neuroscience and genetics (Gene X Environment inter-
actions and epigenetics) has had a major impact on both developmental
psychology and psychology more generally. Evolutionary approaches,
which continue to capture developmentalists’ attention, are included
as well. These biological perspectives also appear briefly in the sections
on contemporary research in some of the other chapters. The biological
chapter now appears earlier in the book; this chapter and the Vygotsky/
culture chapter just before it together provide two major foundations of
development.

Chapter 9 also is reorganized. That chapter, formerly titled
“Contemporary Minitheories and Emerging Approaches,” is now titled
“Theories Today: Themes and Perspectives.” The chapter is now orga-
nized around current themes in developmental psychology and how
several theoretical approaches are addressing them. The chapter also
now serves as a description of the “state-of-the-art” in developmental
theorizing today.

The theories and empirical findings were updated throughout. Some
particularly notable changes are the following: Reflecting a changing
world, with its more diverse population, significant immigration, and
increased globalization, several chapters address topics such as immi-
grant families, ethnic identity, social change and cultural evolution after
modernization, and cultural differences in family processes. In the infor-
mation processing chapter, sections on connectionist models, Bayesian
models, statistical learning, and embodied cognition are expanded, to
reflect the considerable interest in these approaches today. Throughout,
when relevant, chapters include theoretical perspectives on atypical
development, such as autism spectrum disorders, psychopathology, bul-
lying, and altered stress regulation systems.

I want to thank a number of people who used the fifth edition and
generously agreed to make suggestions for the current edition. The new

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PREFACE c xiii

sections on genetics and neuroscience greatly benefitted from Luke
Hyde’s feedback on an earlier draft. I also want to thank Sarah Berger,
Thomas Finn, and Kimberly Morgan-Smith at Worth Publishers, who
expertly guided the sixth edition. Finally, I am grateful to John Flavell,
who guided my meanderings into theories when I was a graduate student
and continued to be a source of inspiration throughout his career.

Patricia H. Miller
2015

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THEORIES o f
DEVELOPMENTAL

PSYCHOLOGY

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Introduction

Never trust an experimental result until it has been confirmed by theory.
—Sir Arthur Eddington

Give us theories, theories, always theories.
—JAmES mArk BAldwin

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C H A P T E R 1

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2 c INTRODUCTION

W
e have theories of development because observers of human
behavior have been intrigued by what they saw children and
adults do. A 3- year- old predicts that a crayon box holds cray-
ons; then, after it is opened to reveal candles, he asserts that

he always believed that it held candles. A 5- year- old claims that spread-
ing out a row of buttons increases the number of buttons. A school- age
child uses a good strategy to successfully solve an addition problem, but
shortly thereafter, she uses a less reliable strategy on the same problem.
An adolescent selects an identity without seriously exploring other
possible identities. An adult reports a dream that seems to be a thinly
disguised attempt to deal with childhood anxieties.

Developmental theorists try to make sense out of observations such
as these and, by doing so, construct a story of the human journey from
infancy through childhood or adulthood. Some of the theories we will
explore are grand, encompassing theories, often associated with a par-
ticular person, for example, Piaget’s, Freud’s, Erikson’s, and Vygotsky’s
theories. Other theories are minitheories that often can be traced back
to a grand theory but are limited to a particular territory within develop-
ment. An example is the “theory theory,” which is connected historically
to Piaget’s theory but examines children’s concepts about a particular
domain, for example, the mind. Still other theories are families of
approaches under a general theory or framework, such as social learn-
ing theory, information processing, dynamic systems, and ethology and
other biological approaches, and are not identified with a single person.

Some developmental theories have been borrowed from areas outside
of development and applied to developmental psychology, such as evolu-
tionary theory, information processing, dynamic systems theory, and cul-
tural psychology. Typically, a few key developmentalists see the potential
of the theory for posing new questions about development or providing
a new explanation of development and then translate the theory into a
developmental framework. Thus, theory building in developmental psy-
chology is a very rich, dynamic, and exciting enterprise that has come
from many directions. The theories’ stories are varied, but all give us
insights into human behavior and change the way we look at the world.

This book attempts to convey not only the content of the theories but
also the excitement and passion that developmentalists have felt as they
constructed theories to solve the mysteries of development. The chap-
ters also show how theories have expanded our vision of the nature of
development. For example, Piaget’s idea that the mental operations of
adults have their origins in babies’ sensory- motor behaviors opened up a
whole host of new ways to think about cognitive development.

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What Is a Theory? c 3

To understand the contribution of each theory, we must first look at
the general nature of theories. In this Introduction, we ask the following
questions about theories:

1. What is a theory?
2. What is a developmental theory?
3. Of what value is a developmental theory?
4. What main issues of developmental psychology do theories address?

What Is a Theory?
This is a deceptively simple question. In fact, a philosopher of science
might “answer” our question by asking two more:

1. Are we asking what theories should be or what they typically are?
2. Are we asking about theories as they are stated formally or as they actually

operate in a scientific community?

The philosopher’s first question concerns the distinction between
ideal and real theories and expresses the sad fact of scientific life that
our theories fall short of their goal. Theories usually do not reach a
complete, formal state. An ideal, complete, formal scientific theory is a set
of interconnected statements— definitions, axioms, postulates, hypo-
thetical constructs, intervening variables, laws, and hypotheses. Some of
these statements, which are usually expressed in verbal or mathematical
form, are deduced logically from certain other statements. The function
of this set of interconnected statements is to describe unobservable
structures, mechanisms, or processes and to relate them to each other
and to observable events. Perhaps the best way to contrast these types of
statements is to show that they occupy different levels within a theory.
That is, they vary in their distance from observable behavior. The farther
a statement is from observable behavior, the less likely it is to be sup-
ported or refuted by empirical data.

At a point farthest from observable behavior are certain assump-
tions (axioms, postulates) that are accepted without being tested. (For
example, in Piaget’s cognitive developmental theory, an assumption is
that thinking is organized.) These assumptions may be so self- evident to
the theorists that they are not even aware of them. As we move to a less
general level, we find hypothetical constructs— concepts that posit rela-
tions among events, objects, properties, or variables. These constructs
(such as “mental scheme” and “mental reversibility” in Piaget’s theory)

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4 c INTRODUCTION

are unobservable themselves but refer to behavior that can be observed.
Coming even closer to behavior, theorists translate hypothetical con-
structs into testable hypotheses— tentative statements about relations
among events, objects, properties, or variables. (One Piagetian hypoth-
esis is that infants tend to repeat interesting actions, such as shaking a
rattle.) A hypothesis becomes a fact when it is sufficiently supported by
research. As facts accumulate, they are tied together by a law: a relatively
well- established general statement about the relationship among a set
of facts.

A theorist builds a theory by going back and forth between data
(repeatable empirical observations) and theory. New facts change the
theory, and changes in the theory generate new experiments and thus
new facts. The new facts again change the theory, and so the cyclical
process continues. Empirical observations can provide strong support
for a theory but can never completely prove that a theory is true because
future observations could provide disconfirming evidence. Some the-
ories do little more than summarize the facts (data). Particularly in
Skinnerian learning theory, one finds statements such as “If a response
is followed by reinforcement for several trials, the frequency of that
response increases.” Such theories that stay close to the data are easy to
test because they are easy to disconfirm. At the other extreme, Freud’s
“unconscious” or Piaget’s “equilibration” process is distantly related
to observable behavior. Because a large distance between theoretical
notions and data makes it more difficult to test the theory, several such
theories may be equally good at explaining the same set of data and thus
may be retained for years, regardless of their accuracy.

Traditionally, psychologists have judged theories by certain crite-
ria. A theory should be logically sound, that is, internally consistent,
with no statements that contradict each other. A theory should also be
empirically sound, that is, not contradicted by scientific observations.
Furthermore, it should be clear, testable, and parsimonious, relying on
as few constructs, propositions, and the like as possible. Finally, a theory
should cover a reasonably large area of a science and should integrate
previous research.

Psychology has had few formal theories in its history, and probably
no current theory of development falls into this category. However, the
above requirements give us a context for judging whether each theory
or model of development is headed in the right direction. We can ask
whether each theory could eventually reach the status of a formal,
testable theory. In their present form, developmental “theories” serve as
frameworks for examining changes in behavior over time. For example,

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What Is a Theory? c 5

Piaget’s theory directs our attention to the organization of thought
rather than to specific pieces of knowledge, to stagelike changes during
development rather than to a gradual accumulation of knowledge, and to
children’s active construction of knowledge rather than to their passive
processing of information.

Today, theorists often use the term model— an informal theory of lim-
ited scope. Models sometimes are presented visually, for example, in a
drawing of boxes and arrows to indicate the flow of information during
thinking. Models also can be like analogies, as when the mind is likened
to a computer.

The philosopher’s second question distinguishes between theories as
they are stated and how they actually operate in a scientific community.
A theory, in its tidy and polished form in a textbook, only faintly resem-
bles the way the theory guides the behavior of real people doing real
research. The traditional view of theory building as an orderly, objective,
logical process presents a picture of scientists in their “dress clothes.”
Although science sometimes does proceed in this way, more often it
proceeds in a much messier, more irrational fashion, with a dose of luck,
to produce a polished final product.

More specifically, in the conventional view of theory building, empir-
ical observations provide objective bits of information that we can use
to make more general statements or to test statements derived from a
theory. In reality, facts do not simply present themselves to eager scien-
tists. When people develop or adopt a particular theory, they take on a
whole set of beliefs concerning what questions about development are
worth asking, what methods for studying these questions are legitimate,
and what the nature of development is. A Freudian is not likely to study
how rats learn to press bars in tightly controlled experiments, and a
learning theorist is not likely to ask people to describe their dreams or
memories of childhood. There are unwritten rules of the game that are
very much a part of the theory as it is practiced. Scientists’ assumptions
lead them to see certain facts more easily than others. If theorists assume
that humans are basically rational, they are more likely to study thought
than emotions, more likely to become a Piaget than a Freud. In fact, it
can be difficult for theorists to see what they are not looking for. As an
illustration, radio signals from Jupiter had been heard, but ignored, for
many years because astronomers assumed that radio signals came only
from Earth. Then one night in 1955, two young American astronomers
heard these signals from Jupiter, but attributed them to a farmhand on
his way home after a date (Weintraub, 2005). For some reason, they
decided to look further. They then realized what the signals actually

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6 c INTRODUCTION

were, and recognized their significance— providing information about
magnetic fields of planets and rates of planetary rotation.

Scientists make decisions about how to divide up the “stream of
behavior” and how to describe it. A one- minute episode of a baby play-
ing could be described in hundreds of ways. There are different levels
of behavior, from heart rate to exploration of the room, and different
temporal units, from a fraction of a second to a behavioral unit spanning
perhaps the entire minute. Which facts or observations the psychologist
chooses from the numerous candidates tells us as much about the psy-
chologist or the psychologist’s theory as about the episode of behavior
itself. These constraints on what is observed are necessary, of course,
because one cannot record everything. Some philosophers and psychol-
ogists are social constructionists, who propose that science and its theories
are one particular view of reality and are always filtered through social–
cultural beliefs, values, language, and categories. A scientist’s social and
political beliefs can be especially biasing in a field such as psychology, in
which people are studying people. A psychologist holds a mirror rather
than a telescope.

Developmental psychologists do not escape their culture’s views.
Scarr (1985) argued that we change our scientific lenses as the culture
changes: “We pose questions to fit our place and time; we get answers
to fit our theoretical niches” (p. 204). She noted that in the 1950s and
1960s social scientists expected, and thus looked for, evidence that boys
in “broken homes” were affected negatively by the lack of a father. The
finding that these boys, when young, were low in aggression was taken as
evidence for poor sex- role development. Since the women’s movement,
the increasing involvement of fathers with their children, the emergence
of nontraditional families, and the increased racial and ethnic diversity
of families, it is no longer assumed that nontraditional family situations
have a negative effect on children. Moreover, with current less rigid
views of gender roles, low aggression in a boy may not be seen as a
deficit.

Feminist theories identify biases in science stemming from cultural
beliefs about gender and race, including the gender and race of the
researcher (that is, the experiences that come with being a particular
gender and race). For example, a developmental theorist could focus on
mastery, competition, and independence from others or on connections
and collaborations with others (Miller, 2000). These critiques from
social constructionism and feminist theories have alerted investigators
to their own assumptions and biases, which can affect both their theory
building and their research.

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What Is a Developmental Theory? c 7

Individual psychologists’ personality and motivations also influence
the particular direction their research takes, a point demonstrated by
learning theorist E. C. Tolman:

I started out . . . with considerable uneasiness. I felt that my so- called
system was outdated and that it was a waste of time to try to rehash it
and that it would be pretentious now to seek to make it fit any accepted
set of prescriptions laid down by the philosophy of science. I have to
confess, however, that as I have gone along I have become again more
and more involved in it, though I still realize its many weak points. The
system may well not stand up to any final canons of scientific procedure.
But I do not much care. I have liked to think about psychology in ways
that have proved congenial to me. Since all the sciences, and especially
psychology, are still immersed in such tremendous realms of the uncer-
tain and the unknown, the best that any individual scientist, especially
any psychologist, can do seems to be to follow his own gleam and his
own bent, however inadequate they may be. In fact I suppose that actually
this is what we all do. In the end, the only sure criterion is to have fun.
And I have had fun.

(1959, p. 152)

Still another example of the informal side of theories is that some
theorists draw heavily on imagery, such as diagrams or metaphors,
to communicate their theories. Connectionist models, discussed in a
later chapter, often include diagrams of several layers of circles and
arrows to depict brain networks and the strengthening of associations
among multiple units. New technology brings new metaphors, as
seen in the early images of the nervous system as a telephone switch-
board, the eye  as a camera, and an instinct as a hydraulic system,
then later images of cognitive development as an equilibration system
(Piaget), a computer (information processing), and a neural network
( connectionism).

What Is a Developmental Theory?
The above crash course in the philosophy of science suggests that devel-
opmental theories are somewhat informal frameworks at present and,
like all theories, have a dynamic, nonpublic role as well as a static, public
one. Our next question is: What makes these theories developmental?
Simply studying children does not make a theory a developmental the-
ory. For example, studying learning in 6- year- olds, or even children of
several ages, does not necessarily lead to conclusions about development.

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8 c INTRODUCTION

What is critical about a developmental theory is that it focuses on change
over time. Although developmental theories have nondevelopmental
theoretical concepts such as ego, mental representations, and neural
networks, they diverge from nondevelopmental theories by emphasizing
changes over time in these concepts. Moreover, developmental theories
link change over time to what came before and what comes next. That
is, a developmental theory attempts to explain by what process a phenom-
enon both emerges from prior development and leads to subsequent
development. For example, with increases in the number of representa-
tions that can be held in mind simultaneously and manipulated (devel-
opmental process), a new strategy of verbally rehearsing a list of items
to be remembered may emerge from the prior skill of simply naming
these items, and may later join with other strategies to make memory
even more efficient.

This concern with change presents developmental theories with three
tasks. These tasks are (1) to describe changes within one or several areas
of behavior, (2) to describe changes in the relations among several areas of
behavior, and (3) to explain the course of development that has been
described. Let us look more closely at each of these three tasks.

1
A developmental theory describes changes over time in one or several areas of
behavior or psychological activity, such as thought, language, social behav-
ior, or perception. For example, a theory might describe changes in

the rules of grammar underlying language in the first few years of life.
Although developmental theories tend to stress changes over months
or years, an adequate theory ultimately must describe changes over
seconds, minutes, and days. For example, Piaget’s concept of object per-
manence, the notion that objects exist even when they are out of sight,
may develop over many months during infancy, but a full description
would include many “minidevelopments” that occur during the child’s
moment- to- moment encounters with objects.

As noted earlier, even direct observation is guided somewhat by theo-
retical notions that distort the flow of behavior in some way. Observers
record certain behaviors and ignore others. They divide the stream of
behavior into units. They encode the behavior into words that add con-
notations. They allow inference to creep into their observations. The
following descriptions of the same behavior demonstrate that several
degrees of inference are possible:

a. The baby’s hand came closer and closer to the spinning top.

b. The baby reached for the spinning top.

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What Is a Developmental Theory? c 9

c. The baby wanted to pick up the spinning top.

d. The baby applied her grasping scheme to the spinning top. (A scheme,
according to Piaget, is an organized sequence of behavior that reflects
an infant’s knowledge in a particular area, such as grasping.)

Much of the early work in developmental psychology was focused
on description. In the 1930s, Arnold Gesell’s maturational theory of
development established norms of physical, cognitive, and motor devel-
opment through description. Although description is not sufficient for
an adequate theory of development, it certainly is necessary. Without a
database, we have an “edifice without a foundation” (White, 1969, p. 49).

2
A second task for a theory of development is to describe changes over time
in the relations among several areas of development such as thought, per-
sonality, and language. Thus, developmental theorists are “specialized

generalists” in that they have to be knowledgeable about many areas of
psychology but specialize in the developmental approach to studying
these content areas and their relations.

In the case of the object concept described above, a theory might
describe how the concept relates to children’s developing memory
system and their social relationship with one particular object, their
mother. A theory would outline the temporal relations among these
areas of development. For example, a theory might claim that a cer-
tain degree of memory capacity must be developed before the object
concept can emerge, that the mother is the first permanent object, and
that subsequent developments within the object concept are correlated
with changes in the memory system and children’s attachment to their
mother. Another example, from Vygotsky (see Chapter 4), concerns the
relations between thought and language. Specifically, thought and lan-
guage are relatively independent until they merge to produce symbolic
thought and children can think in words. Both examples describe the
organization within children at various points in time. The descriptions
refer to certain developmental sequences (first A, then B) and concur-
rences (A and B at the same time).

Of course, any attempt to divide behavior into parts is somewhat
arbitrary because there is an interrelated system, or the famous “whole
child.” Also, theories need to include the sociocultural context in any
description, as well as the child, because behaviors develop and occur
in particular sociocultural settings. Nevertheless, not everything about
a child and the environment can be studied at once. When developmen-
talists study one aspect of development, they try to do so in the context
of the whole child and the social and physical environment.

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10 c INTRODUCTION

3
Even if a theory provides a full description of development, it has not
explained why and how children change. Thus, a third task for a develop-
mental theory is to explain the course of development that the other two

tasks describe. In fact, the sequences and concurrences identified in the
first two tasks often suggest particular explanations. If skill A always
appears shortly before the development of skill B, a psychologist may
hypothesize that A contributes to the development of B. Skill A might
add an ability (e.g., improved memory) that makes the development of
skill B possible, skill A might be transformed into B, or skill A might be
replaced by B.

With respect to the third task, each developmental theory offers a set
of general principles or rules for change. For example, Freud proposed
that biologically based drives “move” children from one stage to another,
and that the degree of the child’s accompanying anxiety depends some-
what on the parents’ child- rearing practices. In addition, principles of
change hypothesize a set of processes for producing the change. These
processes have been as diverse as dynamic equilibration in Piaget’s the-
ory, physical maturation biological theories, and the strengthening of a
response by reinforcement in learning theory.

Earlier developmental events can influence later ones in complex
ways. Sometimes problematic earlier experiences set in motion a tra-
jectory of risk over many years, such that the initial effect increases and
spreads to other domains as children and adolescents face increasingly
complex developmental demands. This is called a developmental cascade.
An example is that the effects of a poor parent– child relationship in early
adolescence may escalate and expand into later relationships (Oudekerk,
Allen, Hessel, & Molloy, 2015). Specifically, parents’ attempts to control
their 13- year- olds through psychological coercion deprived the adoles-
cents of opportunities to practice negotiating autonomy and relatedness
within a relationship, and thus hindered their ability to express auton-
omy and relatedness with their friends. This poor relationship function-
ing with their friends then predicted poor romantic relationships at
age 18 and then at age 21. Parents’ initial undermining of their young
adolescents’ development of autonomy and relatedness in relationships
cascaded over time and relationships, such that their adolescents fell
increasingly behind their peers in their social development. Cascading
can work in a positive direction as well; earlier opportunities to practice
autonomy and relatedness skills may cascade into increasingly healthy
relationships later on.

When a theory explains why development proceeds in a certain
way, it at the same time explains why certain other possible courses

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Of What Value Is a Developmental Theory? c 11

of development did not occur. Why did A lead to B rather than X? The
significance of what does not happen is expressed by Sherlock Holmes:

“ . . . the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.”
“The dog did nothing in the nighttime.”
“That was the curious incident,” remarked Sherlock Holmes.

—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Developmentalists do not necessarily approach these tasks in the
above order. A theory of development usually weaves back and forth
among the three tasks. Progress in describing children’s language at
ages 1, 2, and 3 may stimulate progress in identifying causes of lan-
guage development (e.g., social contributions), which in turn may
direct attention to describing parent– child interaction during early
social development. A related point is that description and explana-
tion are not independent; a theory’s explanatory concepts influence
the choice of what is described and how it is described, and the type
of explanation a theory offers is somewhat constrained by how it
describes behavior. Finally, developmental theories are not equally
concerned with these three tasks. For example, Piaget was much more
successful at describing the development of thought than explaining
this development.

These three monumental tasks, even if incompletely met thus far,
provide us with goals by which to measure the success of theories of
development. A theory may successfully describe and explain one partic-
ular area of development, such as language development, but not other
areas. Or a theory may describe several areas but unsuccessfully explain
these changes.

Of What Value Is a Developmental Theory?
What does a developmental theory actually do for us when it describes
and explains development? A theory makes two contributions: (1) it
organizes and gives meaning to facts, and (2) it guides future research.
We examine each of these contributions in turn.

Organizing Information
The very success of developmental science has produced an enormous
body of information about children. Thus, it now is especially important
to have theories to give meaning to facts, provide a framework for facts,

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12 c INTRODUCTION

identify which facts are most important, and integrate existing facts.
Facts do not speak for themselves. As Jules Henri Poincaré (1908/1952)
said, “Science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an
accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a
house.” Just as stones need an architect or a blueprint to become a
house, so do facts need a theorist to give those facts structure and show
their relation to the overall design. One by- product is that by sum-
marizing and organizing information, we are saved from “information
overload.” It is easier (but perhaps more dangerous) for us to refer to
“defense mechanisms” than to state all the separate behaviors to which
they refer.

Just as the same stones can be used to make different houses, so can
a set of facts be given different meanings by different theories— by
organizing them differently, emphasizing different behaviors, and infer-
ring different hypothetical constructs. Consider the following example
(McCain & Segal, 1969): At one time, two theories explained the ten-
dency of a falling rock to increase its speed as it approaches the earth.
According to a popular Greek theory, rocks and earth like to be with
each other because they are made of the same elements. As the rock
gets closer to the earth, it travels faster because it becomes increas-
ingly excited. The same fact can also be explained by Newton’s theory
of universal gravitation. All particles attract each other with a force
directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely pro-
portional to the square of their distances. These two theories are based
on the same set of observations, but they assign different meanings to
these facts.

When we view development through the lenses of first one theory
and then another, we experience a gestalt- like shift. We see children as
seething with sexual energy or reflecting on the origins of the universe.
We see children as a bundle of learned responses or a highly organized
system. These theoretical shifts have been likened to shifts in the percep-
tion of ambiguous figures (Averill, 1976), such as the sudden perceptual
shift from a duck to a rabbit in Figure  1.1. The information has not
changed, but our organization of it has.

Guiding Research
In addition to organizing and giving meaning to facts, a theory serves
a second function. It is a heuristic device, a tool to guide observation
and to generate new information. A theory’s abstract statements predict

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Of What Value Is a Developmental Theory? c 13

certain empirical statements that then are tested. Theories sometimes
stimulate new observations. For example, ethology, an approach bor-
rowed from biology, stimulated developmental psychologists to search
for innate social behaviors contributing to the adaptation of the species
to the environment. A new theory may also make us reexamine familiar
behavior. Piaget certainly was not the first person to watch babies play,
but he suggested a new way of looking at this behavior: the actions them-
selves are creating thought, according to Piaget.

Theory’s dual role as a stimulator of and interpreter of data is nicely
illustrated in a 22-year longitudinal study of aggression (Eron, 1987).
Traditional learning theory, with its emphasis on drive reduction, guided
the selection of the original variables in 1960. In later years, as new
learning theories emerged, investigators interpreted the data first in
terms of Skinnerian operant learning (early 1970s), then social learning
( mid- 1970s), and finally cognitive theory ( mid- 1980s). Thus, in these
four phases of learning- theory development, investigators sought the
causes of aggression in frustration (drive reduction), reinforcement of
aggression (Skinner), aggressive models (social learning), and finally the
child’s attitudes toward and interpretation of potential instigators of
aggression (cognition).

F I G U R E   1 . 1
Similar to the shift in perspective from one theory to another, the lines in this drawing can be
perceptually organized to form a duck or a rabbit.
[Fliegende Blätter, 1845–1892.]

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14 c INTRODUCTION

What Main Issues of Developmental Psychology
Do Theories Address?
Although the theories to be covered differ in their content, methods of
investigation, and formal nature, all explicitly or implicitly take a posi-
tion on certain core issues of development:

1. What is the basic nature of humans?
2. Is development qualitative or quantitative?
3. How do nature and nurture contribute to development?
4. What is it that develops?

These issues, which serve as a way of summarizing and contrasting the
theories, reappear at the end of each chapter. First, however, some dis-
cussion of each issue is in order.

What Is the Basic Nature of Humans?
Theorists’ views of development are closely tied to their views of human
nature. Their views of human nature, in turn, are closely tied to their
worldviews— their notions about how the universe works. Philosophers of
science have identified several worldviews in the history of the Western
world (Pepper, 1942). Three of these can be found in theories of devel-
opmental psychology (Overton, 1984; Reese, 1991): the mechanistic,
the organismic, and the contextual. We examine each of these.

In the mechanistic view, the world is like a machine composed of parts
that operate in time and space. For example, the world could be likened
to a watch. Forces are applied to the parts and cause a chain reaction
that moves the machine from state to state. In principle, then, complete
prediction is possible because complete knowledge of the state and
forces at one point in time allows us to infer the next state. The mech-
anistic view has its roots in Newtonian physics. It is also related to the
empiricist philosophy of Locke (1632–1704) and Hume (1711–1776),
which pictured humans as inherently at rest— passive, and motivated by
environmental or bodily forces. Development, consequently, is caused
by antecedent forces and events acting on a passive, machinelike mind
composed of interlocking parts. One can almost see the wheels turning
in the child’s head!

In contrast, the organismic worldview is modeled on living systems,
such as plants or animals, rather than machines. This image derives from
Leibniz (1646–1716), who believed that substance is in “a continuous

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What Main Issues of Developmental Psychology Do Theories Address? c 15

transition from one state to another as it produces these states out of
itself in unceasing succession” (Cassirer, 1951, p. 29). Leibniz pictured
the world as composed of organized “wholes” that are inherently and
spontaneously active and self- regulating. This organization and self-
directed activity is necessary, or natural, given the nature of the organ-
ism. This view emphasizes the whole rather than its parts, the relations
among the parts, and how the whole gives meaning to its parts. In the
realm of psychology, for example, one can understand a child’s behavior
only by viewing it within a larger dynamic system that includes the con-
text as well as the child.

Rather than look for antecedent causes, as the mechanistic world view
has done, the organismic view considers inherent properties and goals. A
human, by nature, is an active, organized whole and is constantly chang-
ing, not randomly but in a particular direction. Development, then, is
inherent in humans. New skills emerge as humans mature and engage
with the world. Self- initiated behavior and thought lead to changes
in both the structure and the content of behavior and thought. White
describes an active organism:

Let us define an active organism as one that gives form to its experi-
ence, a passive organism as one that receives form from its experience.
Active organisms have purposes and they attend, reason, and selectively
perceive. All this enables the active organism to select, modify, or reject
environmental influences pressing upon it.

(1976, p. 100)

The organismic view is that children “construct” their knowledge by
actively formulating and testing hypotheses about categories of objects
and the causes of events. In contrast, the mechanistic view is that children
passively acquire (“soak up” like a sponge) a copy of reality. Organismic,
unlike mechanistic, theories often posit qualitative rather than gradual
change, and sometimes they are stage theories.

In the third worldview, contextualism, the main metaphor is not a
machine or a living system but a historical act or a tapestry. A behav-
ior has meaning (and can be “explained”) only in terms of its social–
historical context. The pragmatist philosophers such as William James
and George Herbert Mead provided the philosophical inspiration. As
Pepper described contextualism:

[It] takes for its root metaphor the textured event, with its richly quali-
tied strands fading into a past that dies and guiding the changing pattern
of a present duration into a future that dawns. The event through its tex-
ture extends sidewise in its present duration into neighboring contexts

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16 c INTRODUCTION

which are themselves textures extending into still other contexts. And
the texture of each event is internally analyzable into strands, which have
individual tensions and references into other textures.

(1934, p. 183)

This tapestry extends from the distant past to the distant future and
from the proximal to the distal. The horizontal temporal and vertical
spatial threads intermesh into a pattern of a human life.

One can study this tapestry of development by looking at ongoing
action– event units consisting of meaningful goal- directed activities.
As Reese explained it, “Writing is not an act; but writing something
with something on something in some situation at some time is an act”
(1991, pp. 191–192). Reese listed other components of the contextual
metaphor: the meaning of a behavior varies from context to context;
a math problem may involve feelings of competence in the school
environment but survival for a homeless child who is a street vendor.
Moreover, behavior has a purpose that reaches into the past (some prox-
imal “cause”) and into the future (some goal). Finally, like the organismic
view, the contextualist view is holistic. Not only is a unit greater than the
sum of its parts, but a unit- in- context is greater than the sum of a unit
and its context. To continue the above example, writing a sentence “is
an act but is also a part of the larger act that includes writing about the
act of writing the sentence, which in turn is part of the larger act that
includes writing an entire paper, which in turn is part of the larger act
that is the writer’s lifetime, which in turn is part of the larger act that
includes others’ lifetimes, etc.” (Reese, 1991, p. 194).

The contextualist belief that children’s patterns of development can
differ across cultures, subcultures, or historical times contrasts with
the mechanistic and organismic focus on universal laws of behavior
and development. The main mechanistic approach, learning theory
(Chapter 6), posits laws of learning, such as the influence of reinforce-
ment on behavior, that apply across time and place. A main organismic
theory, Piagetian theory (Chapter  2), proposes universal stages and
mechanisms of development. As will become clear in subsequent chap-
ters, these worldviews ask different questions about development and
use different methods to answer those questions.

In addition to these three metaphysical views of humans, the world,
and causality are more specific and limited views based on economic
and political ideologies. For example, Riegel (1972) related views of
childhood and of development to the capitalistic and mercantilistic
politicoeconomic systems in the seventeenth to nineteenth centu-
ries. The capitalistic system, largely Anglo- American, saw humans as

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What Main Issues of Developmental Psychology Do Theories Address? c 17

competitive, as struggling for success. Thomas Hobbes’s (1588–1679)
pronouncement of humans as selfish and competitive and of life as “nasty,
brutish, and short” expressed this notion. The roots continue through
Darwin, who stressed the survival of the fittest. In the economic arena,
the emphasis was on free trade, competition, and entrepreneurship.
The standard of success (as a result of struggle and competition) was the
white, middle- class adult male engaged in manufacturing or business.
By this standard, children, the elderly, the intellectually disabled, and
women were considered inferior. Normative descriptions of each age
were developed to detect “abnormal” development and chart children’s
progress toward the adult standard of success. Society saw children
as passive beings who must be molded (“socialized”) into appropriate
adult roles.

The mercantilistic ideology, in contrast, existed primarily in con-
tinental Europe in the seventeenth through the nineteenth centuries.
The economy was based on land ownership and state- controlled trad-
ing more than on manufacturing and free trade. Distinct social classes
enjoyed specified duties and privileges, and little competition between
classes occurred. Society emphasized cooperation more than competi-
tion, and tolerated differences between groups. The main philosophical
spokesman, Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778), saw the child as a
“noble savage,” basically good but ruined by the adult world. Children
were not to be judged by adult standards; children and adults were seen
as qualitatively different. From this point of view, the goal of educa-
tion was self- realization. Consequently, a child- oriented education was
developed by Maria Montessori, Eduard Spranger, and others.

In summary, each theory of developmental psychology has a view
of humans that reflects philosophical, economic, and political beliefs.
This view is often implicit, and sometimes theorists themselves are not
even aware of these assumptions. The view influences not only theory
construction but also decisions about which research problems are
meaningful, what method should be used, and how data should be inter-
preted. Thus, it sometimes is claimed that it is impossible to integrate or
reconcile theories or make crucial tests that support one or the other if
they have different worldviews.

Is Development Qualitative or Quantitative?
Closely related to these views of humans is the issue of the form of
developmental change: Is it qualitative or quantitative? The mechanistic
and capitalistic views emphasize quantitative change, the organismic and

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18 c INTRODUCTION

mercantilistic approaches emphasize qualitative change, and contextual-
ism permits both. Qualitative changes are changes in kind or type. An
example from nature is the following sequence: egg → caterpillar →
cocoon → butterfly (Spiker, 1966). New phenomena or characteristics
emerge that cannot be reduced to previous elements. Qualitative changes
typically involve changes in structure or organization. In contrast, quan-
titative changes are gradual changes in amount, frequency, or degree. In
some cases, the behavior becomes more efficient or consistent.

An example of the contrast between quantitative change and qualita-
tive change can be found in the development of memory. If a 4- year- old
can recall three objects and a 7- year- old can recall seven objects from a
set of objects seen several minutes earlier, we might infer a quantitative
difference in their mental functioning. The older child can remember
more. However, if the 7- year- old uses strategies such as sorting the
objects into categories of food, furniture, and toys, and rehearsing
them, whereas the 4- year- old does not, we would infer a qualitative
difference in their mental functioning: They process the information in
different ways.

At a more general level, the issue of qualitative versus quantita-
tive change becomes an issue of stage versus nonstage development.
Movement from one stage to the next is a qualitative change. When
there are similarities in a number of new abilities or behaviors during
a period of time, a theorist often infers that the child is in a particular
“stage.” For example, Piaget posited stages that differed in the structure
of thought from birth to adolescence. Stage theorists disagree about
the possibility of being in more than one stage at the same time in
different domains or of regressing to an earlier stage, and they argue
about what causes children to differ in how quickly they pass through
the stages.

Stagelike qualitative changes have been identified by scholars other
than developmental psychologists. Historians identify periods in history,
such as the “industrial age” or the “age of reason.” Shakespeare saw seven
ages of man from the “mewling and puking” infant to the old person
“sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

It is surprisingly difficult to tell when developmental change is quan-
titative versus qualitative. The problem is that change may look abrupt
and qualitative if long time intervals separate the times that behaviors are
sampled and quantitative if short time intervals are used. For example,
when infants’ motor skills are observed once per month, infants usually
appear to progress abruptly from not having a skill to having it (e.g.,
from standing to taking a step), but daily observation reveals a more

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What Main Issues of Developmental Psychology Do Theories Address? c 19

gradual quantitative change, with the new skill gradually strengthening
and becoming more stable (Adolph, Robinson, Young, & Gill- Alvarez,
2008).

Some behaviors show both qualitative and quantitative changes, per-
haps even alternating during development. For example, an increase in
mental capacity (quantitative change) may facilitate the development of
a sorting memory strategy (qualitative change). Subsequent increases in
the speed and accuracy of this sorting would involve quantitative change.

Qualitative and quantitative changes can be seen in various observed
developmental trajectories (Adolph et  al., 2008). As described above,
some trajectories are quantitative and linear, as when a child gradually
acquires more words with increasing age, and some are qualitative and
like stair steps, as when a child goes through stages. More interesting
are more complex trajectories, such as a period of slow quantitative
increase in vocabulary development followed by a somewhat sudden
vocabulary spurt that later levels off to a slower gradual increase, or a
U- shaped course of development in which acquiring a new rule, such as
adding “–ed” to form the past tense leads to errors, such as “goed,” but
eventually leads to a rule with exceptions (“went”). In this latter case,
there seems to be a temporary regression, in that performance seems to
get worse, then better. In short, depicting changes in quantitative and/
or qualitative development becomes more complex when the rate of
change and the positive or negative direction of change are considered
as well.

How Do Nature and Nurture Contribute to Development?

Breed is stronger than pasture.
—gEorgE Eliot

Theorists ask what causes development. How do knowledge and behav-
ior arise from a child’s genetic endowment and from experience? The
nature– nurture issue is known by several other labels, such as “heredity
versus environment,” “nativism versus empiricism,” “biology versus cul-
ture,” “maturation versus learning,” and “innate versus acquired.” This
controversy has raged not only within psychology but also within phi-
losophy. The controversy began in classical Greece when philosophers
asked whether ideas are innate or acquired through experience. Later,
Descartes (1596–1650) believed that certain ideas are innate, while the
British empiricist Locke (1632–1704) argued that a newborn’s mind is
a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which experience writes.

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20 c INTRODUCTION

Within psychology, the question has changed over time. The origi-
nal question was “Which (heredity or environment) causes a behavior
or how much of each is needed for a given behavior?” This question was
replaced by “How much of the variation in a behavior across people is due
to hereditary differences and how much to environmental differences?”
and “How (in what manner) do nature and nurture interact to produce
development?” Recently, the questions have become “Which genes pre-
dispose to which kinds of behavior?” “What are the environmental triggers
for the expression of these genes and how do these triggers have their
effect on genes?” and “Can environmental modifications of gene expres-
sion be passed on to the next generation?” This is an interesting illustra-
tion of how progress in a field sometimes involves learning how to ask
the right question.

Today it is clear that a complex interaction of innate and environ-
mental factors accounts for both the development of a trait or behavior
in an individual and the variations in a trait or behavior among individ-
uals. Nature and nurture are inextricably intertwined from concep-
tion throughout the lifespan. Hebb (1980) remarked that behavior is
determined 100 percent by heredity and 100 percent by environment.
Genes (specifically, particular sequences of DNA) are never expressed
directly in behavior. There is a long chain of events, involving genes,
physiological processes, and the prenatal and postnatal environment. The
intertwining of nature and nurture can be complex and subtle as when
genes predispose children to seek particular kinds of environments. For
example, an innately active, exuberant child and a passive, quiet, reflec-
tive child select different types of play settings and playmates. Thus, they
are exposed to different types of experiences. As another example, genes
and the environment can be correlated, as when shy parents might both
pass on a tendency toward shyness genetically and provide an environ-
ment that encourages shyness.

Although all the theories in this volume acknowledge the importance
of both nature and nurture, they vary in which they emphasize. Figure 1.2
shows where the theories align along the nature– nurture continuum in
terms of their focus. Those theories in the middle give approximately equal
attention to both types of influence. The theories also disagree about the
process by which either environmental or innate factors have their influ-
ence. For example, the environment can “stamp in” associations, provide
models to be imitated, supply information to be assimilated, strengthen
neural networks, or provide a supportive social system (a helpful parent).
Finally, theories differ in how much importance they place on the timing

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What Main Issues of Developmental Psychology Do Theories Address? c 21

of a particular experience. Are there “critical periods” in which the child
is especially sensitive to a particular experience? Is early experience more
influential than later experience?

The nature– nurture issue is at the center of two of the most exciting
recent research topics in psychology: genetics and neuroscience (see
Chapter  5). In genetics, for example, gene X environment interactions
show that a given genetic makeup can result in different behavioral
outcomes in different rearing environments, and a given environment
can have different effects on people with different genetic makeups. As
illustrated in one study (Brody, Beach, Philibert, Chen, & Murry, 2009),
parents’ behaviors can affect whether a gene known to be linked to certain
behavioral problems is actually expressed in their children. In a sample of
rural African- American 11- year- olds, some had a genetic makeup known
to produce abnormal levels of serotonin for transmitting neural impulses
in the brain and some did not. Children genetically at risk show twice
as much high- risk behavior (e.g., drug use, sexual behavior) as those not
genetically at risk. This indicates the importance of genetic influence.
However, the at- risk preadolescents whose families participated in an
intervention aimed at strengthening families by teaching parenting skills
(e.g., vigilance, emotional support) and improving parent– child com-
munication gained some protection from this genetic predisposition; the
adolescents showed fewer high- risk behaviors over the two- year period
and in fact at age 14 looked very similar to the group not at genetic risk.
Thus, this intervention moderated gene expression, and it was the combi-
nation of genetic and environmental risk factors that predicted the course
of development. Biology is not destiny: Adolescents with the same genetic
makeup showed different behaviors, depending on their environment (i.e.,
whether they had the family intervention).

• Freud

• Erikson
• Piaget
• Information-Processing
• Gibson • Social Learning

• Vygotsky and the
Sociocultural Approach

• Biological Approaches:
Ethology, Evolution,
Neuroscience, Genetics

NATURE & NURTURE
NURTURE

NATURE

F I G U R E   1 . 2
Locations of the theories along the nature– nurture continuum in terms of their focus.

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22 c INTRODUCTION

The second current boom area addressing nature– nurture, cognitive
neuroscience, shows the two- way influence between brain and behavior:
The physical maturation of the brain changes cognition and behavior,
but cognition and behavior also affect the organization of the brain. The
influence of brain maturation on cognition and behavior is more obvious,
as, for example, maturation of the cortex improves children’s ability to
inhibit their impulsive behaviors and to recall information. Causality in
the other direction is less obvious. A striking example is that infants are
born with the ability to tell apart all the critical phonemic differences
(e.g., /p/ vs. /b/ in pat vs. bat) of all languages. However, over the
first year of life as they typically only hear one or two languages, brain
pathways for the phonemic differences of other languages are pruned
away and infants lose the ability to discriminate these differences (Kuhl,
2010). In this way, experience changes the brain.

What Is It That Develops?
Each theorist makes a claim concerning the “essence” of development, or
at least the proper unit of analysis. Throughout this book, we encounter
various phenomena, such as cognitive structures, psychological struc-
tures (id, ego, superego), cultural tools, neural networks, overt behav-
iors, strategies of information processing, and perceptual exploration.
What theorists focus on depends on where their theoretical assumptions
and methods of study place them along several dimensions:

1. Their level of analysis (from cells to societies)
2. Whether they focus on structure (organization of behavior, thought, and

personality) or process (dynamic, functioning aspects of the system)
3. What content they emphasize (for example, personality or brain changes)
4. Whether they emphasize overt behavior or covert thought and personality

traits
5. Their focus on universal development versus diversity and individual dif-

ferences
6. What methodology they use to study development

These five dimensions have a chicken- and- egg relationship: Which
came first— ethologists’ decision to study complex behavior acquired
by species in their struggle to adapt to the environment or their choice
of a methodology, namely, observations in natural settings? This inter-
relationship among the dimensions will become more obvious as we
examine each theory.

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Organization of This Book c 23

SUMMARY
The traditional view of an “ideal” scientific theory is that it should be a
hypothetico- deductive system and include a set of logically intercon-
nected statements. It formally describes psychological structures and
processes and relates them to each other and to observable events. Most
psychological “theories,” however, have failed to reach this level of for-
mality. A theory has not only a public, formal, static nature but also a
private, informal, dynamic nature. Moreover, a theory guides the behav-
ior of psychologists doing research. It helps them formulate questions,
choose what to study, and decide how to study a problem.

We need developmental theories. They help us describe and explain
developmental changes by organizing and giving meaning to facts and by
guiding further research. Developmental theories have taken a stand on
four issues that are of special importance to the study of development:

1. What is the basic nature of humans?
2. Is development qualitative or quantitative?
3. How do nature and nurture contribute to development?
4. What is it that develops?

We now have a framework for viewing each of the theories in turn.

CHRONOLOGY OF DEVELOPMENTAL THEORIES
A chronology of the major developmental theories provides a useful
framework for subsequent chapters. Freud’s psychoanalytic theory
emerged in the early 1900s. In the mid- 1900s arose Erikson’s psychoso-
cial theory, Piaget’s cognitive theory, Vygotsky’s cultural theory, learning
theory, and social learning theory. The 1960s and 1970s saw the rise
of neo- Piagetian theory, ethology, information processing approaches,
and Gibson’s theory. Biological approaches other than ethology became
especially dominant around the turn of the 21st century. Each chapter
will show how each theory continues to have explicit or implicit impact
on developmental research today.

ORGANIZATION OF THIS BOOK
The following nine chapters describe the major theories of development
plus several other theories or approaches stimulated by them. The focus
is on infancy, childhood, and adolescence, though later development

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24 c INTRODUCTION

receives some attention. Piaget’s theory is presented first because many
of the current issues in developmental psychology were raised by his
theory and several theories arose in reaction to his theory. Next comes
the other big theory in the history of developmental psychology: psycho-
analytic. The subsequent two chapters address the contributions of the
social– cultural environment (Vygotsky’s theory and other sociocultural
approaches) and biology (ethology and other biological approaches).
The remaining chapters present theories focused on particular topics
of development: social learning theory, information processing theory,
and Gibson’s perceptual learning theory. Then, Chapter 9 describes the
contemporary theoretical scene and main theoretical trends. The final
chapter looks both backward and forward regarding developmental the-
ories. Each chapter follows roughly the same organization in order to
make comparisons among the theories easier. At the end of each chapter,
theories are evaluated in terms of their strengths and weaknesses accord-
ing to the current state of developmental psychology. That is, we ask
what each theory can contribute to today’s developmental researchers,
professionals who work with children, and parents.

SUGGESTED READINGS
Shute, R. H., & Slee, P. T. (2015). Child development: Theories and critical

perspectives (2nd  ed.). This book examines the philosophical foun-
dations of developmental theories, the notion of development, the
intellectual history of the field, and issues of development.

Adolph, K. E., Robinson, S. R., Young, J. W., & Gill- Alvarez, F. (2008).
What is the shape of developmental change? Psychological Review,
115, 527–543. This article describes various possible developmental
trajectories.

02_MIL_7898_ch1_001_024.indd 24 1/9/16 12:37 AM

Piaget’s Cognitive- Stage Theory
and the Neo- Piagetians

[At 7 months, 28 days] Jacqueline tries to grasp a celluloid duck on top of her
quilt. She almost catches it, shakes herself, and the duck slides down beside her. It
falls very close to her hand but behind a fold in the sheet. Jacqueline’s eyes have
followed the movement, she has even followed it with her outstretched hand. But
as soon as the duck has disappeared— nothing more! It does not occur to her to
search behind the fold of the sheet, which would be very easy to do (she twists it
mechanically without searching at all).

—Piaget, 1937 (1954, p. 36)

Hub (age 6): Is the moon always round? —No. —What’s it like? —Sometimes
a crescent, it is very worn out. —Why? —Because it has done a lot of lighting.
—How does it come round again? —Because it is made again. —How?
—In the sky.

—Piaget, 1926 (1929, p. 281)

Se
rg

ey
N

iv
en

s/
Sh

ut
te

rs
to

ck

C H A P T E R 2

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26 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

I
ntriguing glimpses of children’s behavior and thought, such as those
above, fired Piaget’s imagination. In these unremarkable daily events,
Piaget saw a remarkable process of cognitive development. In Piaget’s
view, moment- to- moment specific encounters with objects or people

lead to general ways of understanding the world. This understanding
changes during development as thinking progresses through various
stages from birth to maturity. Moreover, children themselves actively
construct this knowledge.

Piaget has been the most important figure in developmental psy-
chology. His influence spread not only throughout the disciplines of
psychology but also into areas such as education and philosophy. In fact,
Time magazine named Piaget one of the greatest minds of the 20th
century (Papert, 1999). Piaget’s theory raised issues about development
that the other theories must address. It is appropriate, then, to begin
our look at theories with the cognitive- structural theory of Jean Piaget.

This chapter can only hint at the complexity of Piaget’s theory. We
first delve into Piaget’s life in some detail in order to understand his the-
ory better and to illustrate the close relationship between the personal
history of theorists and the nature of their theory. After this biography
comes a general orientation to the theory, then a description of  the
stages and other developmental changes, followed by a discussion of
the mechanisms of development. The next sections relate the theory to
the critical issues of development and address applications of the theory.
Then, an evaluation of Piaget’s theory is followed by a description of his
modifications of his theory late in life, an overview of the work of neo-
Piagetians, and a discussion of contemporary research inspired by Piaget.

Biographical Sketch
Most of the material in this biographical sketch comes from Piaget’s
autobiography (1952a). Jean Piaget was born in 1896 in Neuchâtel,
Switzerland. Piaget described his father, a historian devoted to medi-
eval literature, as “a man of a painstaking and critical mind, who dis-
likes hastily improvised generalizations, and is not afraid of starting a
fight when he finds historic truth twisted to fit respectable traditions”
(Piaget, 1952a, p. 237). Piaget remembered his mother as intelligent,
energetic, and kind, but with a neurotic temperament that drove him
to both imitate his father and escape to what Piaget called a “private
and nonfictitious world,” a world of serious work. Piaget acknowledged
that the turbulent family situation aroused his interest in psychoana-
lytic  theory.

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Biographical Sketch c 27

It would be easier to list what did not interest the boy Piaget than
what did. A sampling of his interests includes mechanics, seashells, birds,
and fossils. One of his early writings was a pamphlet (written in pencil
because he was not yet allowed to write in ink) describing an “autovap,”
an intriguing union of a wagon and a locomotive. Piaget’s first publica-
tion was a one- page article about a partly albino sparrow he had observed
in a park. This achievement came at age 10—long before he had heard
of “publish or perish.” Piaget’s interest in the exhibits in the local natural
history museum led to an invitation to assist the director with his mollusk
(shellfish) collections. Piaget’s publications on mollusks attracted notice
among natural historians. He was offered, sight unseen, the curatorship
of mollusks at a natural history museum in Geneva. He had to decline the
offer, however, because he had not yet finished secondary school!

Piaget did not escape the typical social and philosophical crises of ado-
lescence. Conflicts between his religious and scientific teachings stim-
ulated him to read hungrily through Bergson, Kant, Spencer, Comte,
Durkheim, and William James, among others. This philosophical turmoil
is expressed in his philosophical novel published in 1917. That this novel
did not become a bestseller can be surmised from passages such as this
one: “Now there can be no awareness of these qualities, hence these quali-
ties cannot exist, if there are no relationships among them, if they are not,
consequently, blended into a total quality which contains them while
keeping them distinct” (1952a, p.  243). Piaget observed that “no one
spoke of it except one or two indignant philosophers” (1952a, p. 243).

Piaget obtained his doctoral degree with a thesis on mollusks at the
University of Neuchâtel in 1918 at age 21. Despite his 20 published
papers, he was not eager to devote his life to observing mollusks. After
visiting psychological laboratories in Zurich and exploring psychoanalytic
theory briefly, Piaget spent two years at the Sorbonne studying psychology
and philosophy. By luck (for the field of developmental psychology), Piaget
met Theodore Simon, a pioneer in the development of intelligence tests,
who asked him to standardize Alfred Binet’s reasoning tests on Parisian
children. Piaget began the work with little enthusiasm. However, his inter-
est was aroused when he began asking children to explain their answers.
He became fascinated with the thought processes underlying their
answers, especially the incorrect answers. In these “conversations,” Piaget
used psychiatric interviewing techniques he had acquired at the Sorbonne
while working with mental patients. Without Simon’s knowledge, Piaget
continued this research for two years. Piaget sums up this experience:

At last I had found my field of research. . . . My aim of discovering a sort
of embryology of intelligence fit in with my biological training; from the

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28 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

start of my theoretical thinking I was certain that the problem of the
relation between the organism and environment extended also into
the realm of knowledge, appearing here as the problem of the relation
between the acting or thinking subject and the objects of his experience.
Now I had the chance of studying this problem in terms of psychogenetic
development.

(1952a, p. 245)

This research in Binet’s laboratory led to three published arti-
cles, and to an offer in 1921 to become director of studies at the
Institut J. J. Rousseau in Geneva. Piaget planned to spend only five years
studying child psychology (a plan that, happily, went awry). The freedom
and research facilities of this position resulted in five books: The Language
and Thought of the Child (1923), Judgment and Reasoning in the Child
(1924), The Child’s Conception of the World (1926), The Child’s Conception
of Physical Causality (1927), and The Moral Judgment of the Child (1932).
To his surprise, the books were read and discussed widely. He became
known as a child psychologist, even though he had no university degree
in psychology, and his fame grew rapidly in Europe.

In the following few years, Piaget continued his research at the insti-
tute, taught philosophy at the University of Neuchâtel, learned about
Gestalt psychology, observed his own babies, and even performed some
research on mollusks in his free time. During the 1940s and 1950s, he
occupied several important academic and administrative positions at the
University of Geneva, as well as international posts, such as president
of the Swiss Commission of UNESCO. There were productive collab-
orations with Alina Szeminska, Bärbel Inhelder, and Marcel Lambercier
on the manipulation of objects, the development of perception, and
the notions of number, physical quantity, and space. Albert Einstein’s
suggestion that Piaget study children’s concepts of time, velocity, and
movement generated two provocative books on this topic. Piaget  also
studied many topics outside of children’s thinking: education, the his-
tory of thought and logic, and his old passion, epistemology, or theory
of knowledge.

In 1969, the American Psychological Association gave Piaget the
Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award “for his revolutionary per-
spective on the nature of human knowledge and biological intelligence”
(Evans, 1973, p. 143). He was the first European to receive this award.
Piaget pursued the riddle of children’s thinking until his death in 1980,
at age 84. Even in his final years, books and articles continued to emerge
from behind the piles of papers and books in seeming disarray in his

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General Orientation to the Theory c 29

office. His flowing white hair, pipe, beret, and bicycle were a familiar
sight in Geneva. We have the following description of Piaget at age 70:
“He moves deliberately, but his blue eyes sparkle with youth, good
humor and zest. Benevolent enough, but not heavy enough, to look like
Santa Claus, he reminds one faintly of the pictures of Franz Liszt that
have come down to us” (Tuddenham, 1966, p. 208).

Piaget was amazingly productive. He wrote more than 50 books and
500 papers, averaging about one and a quarter books per year from his
first volume until his death (Brainerd, 1996). Piaget attributed his pro-
ductivity, in part, to his helpful colleagues but also gave us the following
interesting glimpse into his personality:

And then, too, I owe it to a particular bent of my character. Fundamentally
I am a worrier whom only work can relieve. It is true I am sociable and
like to teach or to take part in meetings of all kinds, but I feel a compel-
ling need for solitude and contact with nature. After mornings spent with
others, I begin each afternoon with a walk during which I quietly collect
my thoughts and coordinate them, after which I return to the desk at my
home in the country.

(1952a, p. 255)

General Orientation to the Theory
Like a short guided tour in an unfamiliar city, the following attempts to
provide an overview of Piaget’s theory before exploring the nooks and
crannies— and perhaps becoming lost. We examine five salient charac-
teristics of the theory: genetic epistemology, the biological approach,
structuralism, the stage approach, and Piaget’s methodology. These
characteristics relate to Piaget’s interests and goals, described earlier.
Although this is a chapter on Piaget’s theory, Piaget acknowledged the
contributions of his co- workers, a main one being Bärbel Inhelder.

Genetic Epistemology

Perhaps the most incomprehensible thing about the world is that it is comprehensible.
—albert einstein

Piaget might well have agreed with Einstein, for he had a lifelong fascina-
tion with how humans comprehend the world. The branch of philosophy
concerned with the study of knowledge is called epistemology. As Piaget
viewed it, epistemology is “the problem of the relation between the

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30 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

acting or thinking subject and the objects of his experience” (1952a,
p. 245). Piaget tackled the same questions that have engaged philoso-
phers for centuries: How do we come to know something? Is objective
knowledge, unbiased by the nature of the knower, even possible? Are
there certain innate ideas, or must all knowledge be acquired? All of
Piaget’s writings can be seen as attempts to answer these questions in
different content areas, for example, mathematics, moral reasoning, and
language. As we saw in the biographical sketch of Piaget, his philosophi-
cal quest led him through various schools of philosophy, biology, history,
mathematics, and psychology. His search finally stopped at develop-
mental psychology, which was not even an organized field of study at
the time.

Piaget’s journey to developmental psychology brings us to the
“genetic” part of the term genetic epistemology. In this context, the word
genetic refers not to what is innate, the more common meaning of the
term today, but to “development” or “emergence.” By studying devel-
opmental changes in the process of knowing and in the organization
of knowledge, Piaget felt that he could find answers to the traditional
questions of epistemology. His concern with the classical issues in epis-
temology explains his interest in what philosophers traditionally have
considered the basic categories of knowledge: time, space, causality,
and quantity. These concepts are obvious to an adult but, according to
Piaget, are not obvious to children. Piaget wondered how and when
children understand that no two objects can occupy the same place, that
objects exist even when out of sight, and that two contiguous events can
have a causal relationship. It may be as difficult for young children to
understand these concepts as it is for adults to understand “black holes”
in space or the theory of relativity.

Piaget can be called an experimental epistemologist. Unlike most
epistemologists, who use logical arguments to support their views,
Piaget rejected this armchair approach and formulated testable hypoth-
eses. His epistemology was a marriage of philosophy and the scientific
method, of logic and fact. For example, he examined the question of
how humans acquire concepts of time, space, and causality by tracing the
development of these concepts.

Piaget’s simple but revolutionary solution to the problem of episte-
mology is that knowledge is an action or event rather than a state. It is a
relationship between the active knower and an object. A child knows or
understands a ball or a rattle by manipulating it— physically or mentally.
In this way, people “construct” knowledge. They actively select and inter-
pret information in the environment, thus contributing to the form that

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General Orientation to the Theory c 31

knowledge takes. They do not passively soak up information to build a
storehouse of knowledge.

Children’s knowledge of the world changes as their cognitive sys-
tem develops. As the knower changes, so does the known. A concrete
example is the knowledge of relationships in space. Infants construct a
practical, perceptual– motor knowledge of near and far, up and down.
Older children construct a more abstract “cognitive map” of the relations
among objects in their environment. Infants “know” space by crawling in
it and reaching for objects, whereas older children know space by manip-
ulating mental symbols in particular ways. Note that in both cases there
is a constant interaction between the knower and the external world.

One implication of Piaget’s theory of knowledge is that knowledge is
biased, until perhaps the end of the final stage. Experience is always fil-
tered through the child’s current ways of understanding. A child’s mind
is not a camera that takes faithful pictures of reality. However, as the
mind develops, it becomes more in tune with reality.

Biological Approach
Beginning with his boyhood interest in shells and birds, Piaget’s thinking
was firmly rooted in biology. His distinction is that he saw more in mol-
lusks than did most biologists. In the humble mollusk, he saw general
principles of how living organisms adapt to the world. Mollusks both
adjust themselves to the environment and actively assimilate it in ways
allowed by their biological structure. Piaget felt that these principles also
apply to human thought: Intelligence is adaptation to the environment.
Just as organisms adapt physically to the environment, so does thought
adapt to the environment at a psychological level. Piaget hypothesized
that the modes of psychological functioning involved in this adaptation
are universal, that is, used by all humans worldwide.

Borrowing another concept from biology, Piaget proposed that cogni-
tive growth is much like embryological growth: an organized structure
becomes more and more differentiated, and complex, over time. In fact,
Piaget (1970) sometimes referred to cognitive development as “mental
embryology.”

Adaptation, organization, and structure, as well as such other biolog-
ical concepts as equilibration, assimilation, and accommodation, are dis-
cussed later in the chapter, when we turn our attention to processes of
development. At this point, however, it should be emphasized that these
biological concepts serve as analogies for the way intelligence works.
Piaget did not reduce intelligence to the study of neurons and genes.

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32 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

Structuralism
Because children’s thinking seemed systematic to Piaget, he turned to
structuralism. This helped Piaget express how thought is organized— how
the parts relate to the whole. He proposed that a small set of mental
operations (mental actions) forms a structure that underlies much of
our thinking, even though this thinking may seem very different when
we think about different topics. He theorized that the nature of men-
tal structures changes as they develop. An infant’s cognitive structures
are labeled “schemes” (sometimes translated “schemas” or “schemata”).
A scheme is an organized pattern of behavior; it reflects a particular way
of interacting with the environment. For Piaget, a scheme is whatever
is repeatable and generalizable in an action. The sucking scheme, then,
is a mental structure that describes the systematic way that children
put various objects into their mouths and suck them. As the scheme
becomes more differentiated, children classify objects into “suckables”
and “nonsuckables,” with various subcategories such as hard suckables,
soft suckables, good- tasting suckables, and hairy suckables (daddy’s leg).

In contrast, the cognitive structures of older children, from roughly
age 7 on, are organized abstract mental operations similar to logicom-
athematical systems. The structuralist framework can be seen in the way
these schemes and operations organize themselves into a system that can
be applied to various content. For example, addition, subtraction, mul-
tiplication, and division are operations that are coordinated in a concept
of number that underlies much mathematical understanding. (We return
to the notion of cognitive structures later.)

Two points should be emphasized. First, children actively construct
these structures. Second, Piaget emphasized the feeling of necessity that
accompanies the acquisition of a cognitive structure. For example, 2 plus
2 has to equal 4; one cannot imagine otherwise.

Stage Approach

Milestones, phases, and ages
render general gauges
While periods, levels, and stages
require pages and pages.

—Leland van den Daele (1969, p. 303)

Perhaps the boldest and most controversial of Piaget’s claims is that
cognitive development proceeds through a series of stages. For Piaget, a
stage is a period of time during which the child’s thinking and behavior

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General Orientation to the Theory c 33

in a variety of situations tend to reflect a particular type of underlying
mental structure. Piaget’s emphasis on stages is not surprising, consider-
ing his years of careful observing and classifying, and studying evolution
while a student of zoology. The stages can be thought of as sequential lev-
els of adapting. Just as various species have different ways of adapting to
the environment, so do various cognitive levels provide different ways of
adapting to the environment. Because stage theories abound in develop-
mental psychology, it will be helpful to characterize Piaget’s particular
brand of stage theory. There are five salient characteristics.

1 A stage is a structured whole in a state of equilibrium. Piaget the struc-
turalist saw a stage as an integrated whole that organizes the parts.
The schemes or operations of each stage are interconnected to form

an organized whole. Each stage has a different structure, which allows
a different type of interaction between the child and the environment,
and consequently provides fundamentally different views of the world.
The essence of Piaget’s stage approach is that movement through the
stages involves structural changes that are qualitative (changes in type
or kind) rather than quantitative (change in degree, amount, speed, or
efficiency). For example, there is a qualitative change when the child
moves from structures based on actions in infancy to structures based on
mental representation in the preschool years. At the end of each major
period of development, the cognitive structures are in a state of balance,
or equilibrium. (More on the equilibration process appears later in this
chapter.)

2 Each stage derives from the previous stage, incorporates and transforms that
stage, and prepares for the next stage. The previous stage paves the way
for the new stage by being reworked to form the new stage. Thus,

once children achieve a new stage, they no longer have the previous stage
available. Although previous skills remain, their position or role in the
organization changes. For example, elementary school children can still
roll or hit a ball (a skill acquired during infancy), but they now embed
this skill in a number of other skills. Furthermore, a more advanced level
of thought controls the old skills of rolling and hitting in order to win
the game. Note that regression to an earlier stage is impossible because
the previous stage is no longer present. In contrast, Freud’s theory of
stages holds that a person overwhelmed with anxiety may regress to an
earlier stage.

3 The stages follow an invariant sequence. Since each stage is derived from
the preceding stage, the stages must proceed in a particular order.
No stage can be skipped.

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34 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

4 Stages are universal. Because Piaget was interested in how humans as
a species adapt psychologically to their environment, he focused on
the structures and concepts acquired by humans everywhere— in

the African jungle, the American suburb, or the Swiss mountainside. Of
course, people with a low IQ may not progress through all the stages or
may progress through them more slowly. And people in general vary in
how fast they proceed through the stages. However, the crucial claim is
that the same stages in the same order are found universally.

5 Each stage includes a coming- into- being and a being. There is an initial
period of preparation and a final period of achievement in each
stage. Unstable, loosely organized structures mark the initial period

of transition from the previous stage. Change both within a stage and
between stages is somewhat gradual. The description of each stage later
in this chapter refers to the final, stable, generalized, tightly organized
structure of each stage.

Methodology
One message from the Introduction is that the scientist, the theory, and
the methods for gathering data both facilitate and constrain one another.
The three develop together in particular directions. Piaget the sparrow
watcher and mollusk collector used his observation and classification
skills when watching infants master the objects around them and when
observing toddlers struggle to express their thoughts in spontaneous
speech. Piaget as the Sorbonne student interviewing mental patients
soon became known as the man who asked children questions about
dreams, the origin of the universe, and quantity. Piaget’s early work
with preschool and school children typically involved the clinical method,
which involves a chainlike verbal interaction between the experimenter
and the child. Experimenters begin by posing a problem or asking a
question, but subsequent questions are guided by the answer the child
gave to the previous question. Through this interchange, experimenters
try to understand the line of reasoning underlying a child’s answers.
A  talented interviewer avoids biasing the child’s answers by refraining
from too much suggestion.

The following exchange between Piaget and a 5- year- old illustrates
the clinical method:

Where does the dream come from? —I think you sleep so well that you
dream. —Does it come from us or from outside? —From outside. —What

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General Orientation to the Theory c 35

do we dream with? —I don’t know. —With the hands? . . . With nothing?
—Yes, with nothing. —When you are in bed and you dream, where is the
dream? —In my bed, under the blanket. I don’t really know. If it was in my
stomach(!) the bones would be in the way and I shouldn’t see it. —Is the dream
there when you sleep? —Yes, it is in my bed beside me . . . . Is the dream
in your head? —It is I that am in the dream: it isn’t in my head(!). When you
dream, you don’t know you are in the bed. You know you are walking. You are in
the dream. You are in bed, but you don’t know you are. . . . Where do dreams
come from? —I don’t know. They happen. —Where? —In the room and
then afterward they come up to the children. They come by themselves. —You
see the dream when you are in the room, but if I were in the room, too,
should I see it? —No, grownups (les Messieurs) don’t ever dream. . . . When
the dream is in the room, is it near you? —Yes, there! (pointing to 30 cms.
in front of his eyes).

(1926/1929, pp. 97–98)

In Piaget’s later work, such interviews often were combined with the
manipulation of objects by the experimenter or child. This was espe-
cially likely when Piaget studied numerical and physical concepts or
perceptual development. For example, Piaget might spread out a row of
objects and ask whether the number had changed.

Infants, of course, cannot fruitfully be questioned about their
thoughts. Piaget and his psychologist wife, Valentine, kept a baby diary of
observations of their own infants as the infants went about their normal
activities. At times, Piaget became a participant– observer by invent-
ing little experiments on the spot, such as hiding a toy and observing
whether the infant searched for it.

From these verbal protocols and behavioral observations, Piaget
inferred general structures of thought. Because these varied, concrete
behaviors were seen through the eyes of Piaget the philosopher and
theoretical biologist, the descriptions often were accompanied by long,
abstract, theoretical passages. His writings often had a high proportion
of theoretical interpretation to actual observation.

One of the challenges to someone encountering Piaget’s theory for
the first time is to relate the many elusive, abstract features of the theory
to the abundant specific behaviors found in each stage. Perhaps the best
way to grasp the relationship between the abstract and the concrete is
to swing back and forth between the two. Following this strategy, we
now swing from the preceding abstract orientation to a description of
specific stagelike changes and then swing back to abstract features found
in mechanisms of change.

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36 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

Description of the Stages
In the Introduction to this book, it was proposed that a developmental
theory should both describe and explain development. The present sec-
tion describes the prototypic Piagetian child making her way through
the stages of cognitive development. The subsequent section tackles the
questions of how and why this particular course of development occurs.

To understand each stage, we need to know not only where it came
from but also where it is going. Each stage holds both the fruits of the
past and the seeds of the future. Here, then, is an overview of the stages,
followed by a more detailed account. The ages listed with each stage
are approximate because children vary somewhat in the ages at which
they proceed through the stages. Note that although Piaget referred to
“stages” of development, he called them “periods,” for example, the “sen-
sorimotor period.” He labeled the steps within each period as “stages.”

1. Sensorimotor period (roughly birth to 2 years). Infants understand the world
in terms of their overt, physical actions on the world. They move from
simple reflexes through several steps to an organized set of schemes (orga-
nized sensorimotor behaviors). In babies’ play, we see their minds.

2. Preoperational period (roughly 2 to 7 years). No longer do children simply
make perceptual and motor adjustments to objects and events. They can
now use symbols (mental images, words, gestures) to represent these
objects and events. They use these symbols in an increasingly organized and
logical fashion.

3. Concrete operational period (roughly 7 to 11 years). Children acquire certain
logical structures that allow them to perform various mental operations,
which are internalized actions that can be reversed.

4. Formal operational period (roughly 11 to 15 years). Mental operations are no
longer limited to concrete objects; they can be applied to purely verbal or
logical statements, to the possible as well as the real, to the future as well
as the present.

Sensorimotor Period (Roughly Birth to 2 Years)
In Piaget’s view, a human starts life with a set of reflexes, a particular
physical makeup unique to the human species, and inherited ways of
interacting with the environment. These inherited ways of interacting
reflect the tendency of thought to be organized and adapted to the
environment. The thinking of even Einstein had these humble begin-
nings. Although newborns know almost nothing about the world, they

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Description of the Stages c 37

have the potential to know almost everything. Indeed, one of Piaget’s
books on infancy is aptly titled The Origins of Intelligence in Children
(1936). We now trace infants’ active construction of a model of the
world by means of the sensory (perceptual) and motor (physical move-
ment) systems. Infants progress through six stages to construct a senso-
rimotor system of thought.

Stage 1: Modification of Reflexes (Roughly Birth to 1 Month) c A
newborn is a bundle of reflexes, or “ wired- in” responses that are trig-
gered by particular stimuli. Touch a newborn’s lips and she sucks, prick
her foot and her knee flexes, place a finger in her hand and she grasps
it. As these reflexes are activated a number of times, they very gradually
are modified. An infant adjusts them slightly to meet the requirements
of slightly different circumstances. For example, an infant’s mouth must
search out the nipple from different angles on different occasions. In
addition, the way the mouth and tongue fit around a hard, plastic rattle
differs from the way they fit around a finger.

As an expanding number and type of objects serve as “grist” for the
sucking reflex, the category of “suckables” grows to include objects rang-
ing from nipples to blankets to bars of the crib. However, at the same
time that infants are generalizing their sucking behavior to many objects,
they are also increasing their discrimination between objects. Hungry
infants never confuse a finger with a nipple. In a sense, they “recognize”
objects.

Behaviors such as sucking, grasping, and looking do not remain
reflexes; babies come to produce them spontaneously. In fact, they
sometimes suck when there is nothing to suck. Piaget claimed that there
is an innate tendency for humans to exercise their skills. Babies suck
because they can suck. Sucking strengthens the sucking skill and leads to
further sucking.

In short, in stage 1, babies modify their reflexes and begin to trans-
form them into the “schemes” mentioned earlier. These schemes—
organized patterns of behavior— continue to strengthen, generalize, and
differentiate throughout the sensorimotor period. Infants are beginning
to construct primitive concepts about objects to suck, grasp, look at, hit,
listen to, and feel.

Stage 2: Primary Circular Reactions (Roughly 1 to 4  Months) c
The behaviors in stage 1 can be called schemes only in a very limited
sense because there is so little modification of reflexes. In stage 2, there
is widespread and rapid development of schemes because primary circular

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38 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

reactions can now occur. A circular reaction is a behavior that is repeated
over and over again and thus becomes circular. By chance, a baby discov-
ers an interesting result from some behavior and then attempts to recap-
ture this result. As the behavior and its results are successfully repeated,
it can be said that a “habit” is formed. These circular reactions are called
“primary” because they involve response consequences that are centered
on or around the infant’s body rather than other objects. Examples
include thumb sucking, visually exploring objects, and listening to one’s
own vocalizations.

Piaget observed primary circular reactions in his own infants.
Consider the following example (the three numbers refer to the child’s
age in years, months, and days):

From 0;2(3) Laurent evidences a circular reaction which will become
more definite and will constitute the beginning of systematic grasping;
he scratches and tries to grasp, lets go, scratches and grasps again, etc. On
0;2(3) and 0;2(6) this can only be observed during the feeding. Laurent
gently scratches his mother’s bare shoulder. But beginning 0;2(7) the
behavior becomes marked in the cradle itself. Laurent scratches the sheet
which is folded over the blankets, then grasps it and holds it a moment,
then lets it go, scratches it again and recommences without interruption.
At 0;2(11) this play lasts a quarter of an hour at a time, several times
during the day. At 0;2(12) he scratches and grasps my fist which I placed
against the back of his right hand. He even succeeds in discriminating
my bent finger and grasping it separately, holding it a few moments. At
0;2(14) and 0;2(16) I note how definitely the spontaneous grasping of
the sheet reveals the characteristics of circular reaction— groping at first,
then regular rhythmical activity (scratching, grasping, holding and letting
go), and finally progressive loss of interest.

(1936/1952b, pp. 91–92)

These circular reactions become deliberate and seem to be accompa-
nied by feelings of pleasure. Piaget describes a baby who “played with
his voice, not only through interest in the sound, but for ‘functional
pleasure,’ laughing at his own power” (1945/1951, p. 91).

Stage 3: Secondary Circular Reactions (Roughly 4 to 8 Months) c
Infants are never content with the status quo; they continue to push
themselves and expand their world. This expansion is especially striking
in the movement from primary to secondary circular reactions. Whereas
primary circular reactions are centered around an infant’s body, sec-
ondary circular reactions are oriented to the external world. By chance,
an infant does something that leads to an interesting effect in the

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Description of the Stages c 39

environment: he shakes a rattle, which produces a noise; he slaps a ball,
which causes it to roll. In the previous stage, the shaking or slapping
itself was of interest; now the environmental consequences are.

When the secondary circular reactions generalize, Piaget calls them
“procedures for making interesting sights last.” If kicking their legs vigor-
ously leads to a jiggling mobile a number of times, infants may make this
kicking procedure a part of their repertoire. On future occasions when
an interesting movement occurs, they may kick in an attempt to sustain
or re- create this movement. Sometimes these procedures produce the
desired result; sometimes they do not. On one occasion, after watching,
in fascination, his father drum on a tin box, 7- month- old Laurent first
stared at it, then shook his arm, raised himself, struck his covers, and
shook his head in an attempt to capture the box— all to no avail.

One of Piaget’s novel observations in this stage is “motor recognition,”
in which infants show they recognize an object by producing the merest
outline of the secondary circular reaction that the object normally would
produce. For example, when Piaget’s infant daughter, Lucienne, saw a
doll that she often had swung in the past, she simply opened and closed
her hands or shook her legs; this was a reduced, effortless version of the
original behavior.

Stage 4: Coordination of Secondary Schemes (Roughly 8 to
12  Months) c During stages 2 and 3, infants could do some simple
coordinating of their schemes, for example seeing and grasping. This
coordination of the schemes of looking, grasping, sucking, hearing, and
so forth will continue throughout the sensorimotor period. In this way,
the cognitive structures become increasingly integrated and organized.
In stage 4, infants now can combine their schemes in complex ways. They
learn to differentiate an instrumental (or means) behavior (scheme) and
a goal behavior (another scheme). Infants know what they want and can
put together schemes to achieve that goal. In contrast, in stage 3, infants’
discovery of interesting results was fortuitous; only afterward did they try
to achieve the outcome again. A special feature of this means– end behav-
ior is that it is applied to new situations. The schemes are now mobile
cognitive tools, freed from their original contexts. Babies use them at
will to achieve a variety of goals.

Babies begin to look like planful and intentional creatures. Piaget
related various occasions on which he placed his hand in front of a
desirable matchbox. Whereas in stage 3 Laurent simply applied (unsuc-
cessfully) his familiar grasping scheme toward the matchbox, in stage
4 he hit his father’s hand (means) and grasped the box (end). Laurent

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40 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

had deliberately removed a barrier in order to achieve a goal. Infants
also learn to use people as means; an infant may place his mother’s
hand on the television remote control in order to see the dark screen
come alive.

One outcome of the differentiation between means and ends is the
anticipation of events:

At 0;9(16) . . . she likes the grape juice in a glass, but not the soup in
a bowl. She watches her mother’s activity. When the spoon comes out
of the glass she opens her mouth wide, whereas when the spoon comes
from the bowl, her mouth remains closed. Her mother tries to lead her
to make a mistake by taking a spoon from the bowl and passing it by the
glass before offering it to Jacqueline. But she is not fooled.

(Piaget, 1936/1952b, p. 249)

Stage 5: Tertiary Circular Reactions (Roughly 12 to 18 Months) c
In this stage, infant scientists are at work. Their environment is their lab-
oratory. They perform miniature experiments in which they deliberately
vary an action in order to see how this variation affects the outcome, as
do scientists. They exploit each object’s potential. They seem to be ask-
ing, “Is there anything new about this object?” Again, Laurent thought-
fully provides us with a nice example:

At 0;10(11) Laurent is lying on his back but nevertheless resumes his
experiments of the day before. He grasps in succession a celluloid swan,
a box, etc., stretches out his arm and lets them fall. He distinctly varies
the positions of the fall. Sometimes he stretches out his arm vertically,
sometimes he holds it obliquely, in front of or behind his eyes, etc. When
the object falls in a new position (for example on his pillow), he lets it
fall two or three times more on the same place, as though to study the
spatial relation; then he modifies the situation. At a certain moment the
swan falls near his mouth: now, he does not suck it (even though this
object habitually serves this purpose), but drops it three times more
while merely making the gesture of opening his mouth.

(Piaget, 1936/1952b, p. 269)

Through deliberate trial- and- error exploration, infants extend the
means– end behavior of the previous stage to develop new means. They
no longer simply coordinate old schemes. In fact, Piaget often character-
ized stage 5 as “the discovery of new means through active experimenta-
tion.” Examples of new means might include pulling a blanket to obtain
an object resting on the blanket or positioning a long, thin object in such
a way that it can be slipped through the bars of a crib.

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Description of the Stages c 41

Stage 6: Invention of New Means Through Mental Combinations
(Roughly 18 to 24 Months) c Stage 6 both closes the curtain on the
sensorimotor period and raises it on the preoperational period. The
achievements of one period always make it possible for the child to begin
the next period. Before stage 6, children have displayed their thinking to
the world. Now, thinking begins to go underground. External physical
exploration gives way to internal mental exploration. This is possible
because children now can use mental symbols to represent objects and
events.

Lucienne shows us how this mental representation leads to a new way
of solving problems:

At 1;6(23) for the first time Lucienne plays with a doll carriage whose
handle comes to the height of her face. She rolls it over the carpet by
pushing it. When she comes against a wall, she pulls, walking backward.
But as this position is not convenient for her, she pauses and without
hesitation, goes to the other side to push the carriage again. She therefore
found the procedure in one attempt, apparently through analogy to other
situations but without training, apprenticeship, or chance.

(Piaget, 1936/1952b, p. 338)

Earlier, Lucienne would have had to solve the problem through trial and
error. Now she can solve the problem by “thinking” in symbols.

The emergence of a mental symbol can be seen in one of the most
stunning of Piaget’s observations. Piaget was playing a game with
Lucienne at age 1 year, 4 months, in which he hid from her a watch chain
inside an empty sliding matchbox. Lucienne first attained the chain by
applying old schemes— turning the box upside down so that the con-
tents spill out through the opening or, with a smaller opening, sliding
her fingers into the slot to grasp the chain. Then Piaget surreptitiously
slid the box to reduce the size of the opening and Lucienne discovered
that it was too small to permit her fingers to reach the chain. Next came
the behavior of interest:

She looks at the slit with great attention; then, several times in succes-
sion, she opens and shuts her mouth, at first slightly, then wider and
wider! Apparently Lucienne understands the existence of a cavity subja-
cent to the slit and wishes to enlarge that cavity. The attempt at represen-
tation which she thus furnishes is expressed plastically, that is to say, due
to inability to think out the situation in words or clear visual images she
uses a simple motor indication as “signifier” or symbol.

(Piaget, 1936/1952b, p. 338)

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42 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

When faced with this problem that past methods did not solve,
Lucienne thought through the problem, partly by moving her mouth
to represent the opening of the box and partly by thinking. She was in
transition from action to a true use of mental symbols. These reduced
motoric imitations become the mental representations of the next stage.

One achievement of this stage is that an event that has been repre-
sented can be evoked at a later time. This absent event is reproduced in
part, as seen in the following observation:

At 1;4(3) J. had a visit from a little boy of 1;6, whom she used to see from
time to time, and who, in the course of the afternoon got into a terrible
temper. He screamed as he tried to get out of a play- pen and pushed it
backwards, stamping his feet. J. stood watching him in amazement, never
having witnessed such a scene before. The next day, she herself screamed
in her play- pen and tried to move it, stamping her foot lightly several
times in succession. The imitation of the whole scene was most striking.
Had it been immediate, it would naturally not have involved representa-
tion, but coming as it did after an interval of more than twelve hours, it
must have involved some representative or pre- representative element.

(Piaget, 1945/1951, p. 63)

Overview of the Sensorimotor Period c The sensorimotor period has
been presented in some detail because it provides a concrete illustration
of the following general characteristics of all four periods:

1 A child actively learns about properties of objects and relations among
them. In the sensorimotor period, children achieve this knowledge
through overt actions, thus, a “logic of action.”

2 Cognitive structures gradually become more tightly organized. Children
coordinate schemes and apply them as solutions to new situations.

3 Behavior gradually becomes more intentional. Children differentiate
between means and ends, invent new means, and apply them to new
ends in new situations.

4 The self is gradually differentiated from the environment. Children dis-
cover the boundaries of their own body and see themselves as one
object in a world of objects.

Concept of Object Permanence c Perhaps the most important con-
cept acquired during the sensorimotor period is the notion of object

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Description of the Stages c 43

permanence: an object continues to exist even when one cannot see, hear,
or feel it. This knowledge is necessary for a notion of a stable, predict-
able world. According to Piaget, the concept develops as follows: During
the first few months of life, if an object disappears, infants do not search
for it (stages 1 and 2). Their behavior follows the rule “out of sight, out
of mind.” Later, they search if the object is only partially hidden or if they
were doing something with the object when it disappeared (stage  3).
However, they give up easily if the object does not reappear quickly.
They still think of the object as an extension of their actions on it. Still
later, as schemes are coordinated, children have the skills needed to look
for hidden objects (stage 4). However, they persist in searching in the
place where they searched previously. Thus, when Piaget hid a toy parrot
twice under a mattress to his daughter’s left and then hid it to her right
(as she watched), she immediately searched to the left— in the original
hiding place. Piaget’s interpretation of this so- called A- not- B error was
that she defined an object partly in terms of its position— a “ parrot-
under- the- mattress.”

The next advance is that children can appropriately search for an
object even if there are several displacements, but only if they are visible
(stage 5). There is a problem with invisible displacements, as when
Piaget put a coin in his hand and moved it under a cushion, then under
a coverlet, and then out again. However, in the final stage, Jacqueline
continued to search for the coin because she now knew that it had to be
somewhere (stage 6). She could represent the object mentally, so was
not dependent on seeing, or otherwise acting on, the object. At last she
understood that objects, including herself, are things that exist in and of
themselves.

In variations on a (sensorimotor) theme by Piaget, his Construction of
Reality in the Child (1937/1954) traces babies’ development of concepts
of time, space, and causality. This should come as no surprise, given
Piaget’s interest in these classical philosophical problems of epistemol-
ogy. The concepts of time, space, and causality are closely linked to the
object concept because objects exist, move, and affect other objects in a
spatiotemporal field.

Preoperational Period (Roughly 2 to 7 Years)
Ending the first period and beginning the next is like climbing a moun-
tain only to discover that it is merely a foothill to Mt. Everest. The
achievements of the sensorimotor period, although monumental, are
also preparation for what is to come. In a sense, children start all over

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44 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

again. What they have achieved in the realm of actions on the world is
redeveloped, now in the realm of mental representations. They recon-
struct notions about objects, relations, causality, space, and time in a new
medium (mental representation) and a more highly organized structure.
The sensorimotor actions become representational, in preparation for
the move to mental actions in the next stage.

Mental Representations c As we noted earlier, the emergence of
mental representations in stage 6 of the sensorimotor period is a devel-
opmental breakthrough that provides a bridge to the preoperational
period. Using mental representations to stand for objects or events is
part of a broader skill of using one thing to stand for another. A 4- year-
old may use the word “airplane,” a swooping hand, a mental picture of
an airplane, or a toy airplane to stand for a real airplane.

There are two types of representations: symbols and signs. Symbols
bear some similarity to the objects or events they stand for and have
lingering traces of their origins in imitation. Symbols often appear in
symbolic play, as when Jacqueline pretended that a cloth was a pillow and
feigned sleep, laughing hard all the while. In contrast, signs are arbitrarily
related to certain events or objects. There is no relationship between the
word “table” and the four- legged thing at which we sit, except that our
language has assigned a relation between them. This notion that words
or other signs are arbitrarily assigned to objects is not easy for a child
to grasp. Young children think that an object’s name is as intrinsic to
the object as are its color and form. When asked why spaghetti is called
spaghetti, a young child may say that it looks like spaghetti and feels like
spaghetti and tastes like spaghetti, so we call it spaghetti!

Representational thought has obvious advantages over sensorimotor
thought. It is faster and more mobile. It can deal with the past, present,
and future in one grand sweep and can recombine its parts to create ideas
that refer to nothing in reality (for example, monsters that go bump in
the night). In contrast, Piaget described sensorimotor intelligence as a
motion picture with the action slowed down so that “all the pictures are
seen in succession but without fusion, and so without the continuous
vision necessary for understanding the whole” (1947/1950, p. 121).

It should be noted that Piaget did not hold the common view that
the source of representational thought is the ability to use words. He
believed that the opposite is true: The development of representational
thought makes it possible to use words as well as other signifiers. Thus,
thought is prior to the emergence of language and broader than language.
Language is primarily a mode for expressing thought. Although thinking

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Description of the Stages c 45

is not dependent on language, language can aid cognitive development.
Language can direct children’s attention to new objects or relationships
in the environment, introduce conflicting points of view, and impart
abstract information that is not easily acquired directly. Language is one
of many tools in our cognitive “toolkit” (Wertsch, 1991).

Characteristics of the Period c Although thinking through symbols
and signs is a tremendous advance over sensorimotor thought, such
thinking is limited in a number of ways. As the term preoperational sug-
gests, children in this period have not yet acquired reversible mental
operations, such as adding and subtracting, which characterize the think-
ing of the next period, called concrete operations. In many ways, this
period is a time of preparation for the next stage rather than a stage in
its own right, and Piaget himself typically described preoperational chil-
dren in terms of what they cannot do, rather than what they can do. The
main characteristics of preoperational thought are egocentrism, rigidity
of thought, semilogical reasoning, and limited social cognition.

1 Egocentrism. Egocentrism does not refer to selfishness or arrogance.
Rather, the term refers to (a) the incomplete differentiation of the
self and the world, including other people, and (b) the tendency to

perceive, understand, and interpret the world in terms of the self. One
implication is that children have trouble taking another person’s percep-
tual or conceptual perspective and in fact have no sense of a “point of
view.” For example, preoperational children do not realize that a person
viewing a display from a position different from their own sees the dis-
play differently. Similarly, a child holding a book upright points to a pic-
ture and asks, “What is this?” He is unaware that his mother, who is facing
him, can see only the back of the book. Egocentrism makes it difficult
to take the role of another person. This can be seen in a card game when
a 5- year- old giggles when she draws a good card. She does not perceive
the need for a “poker face” as a card- playing strategy.

Because children cannot easily take another person’s role, they make
little effort to tailor their speech to meet the needs of the listener. A boy
may tell his mother that at a birthday party “he hit her with it,” without
bothering to explain to what “he,” “her,” and “it” refer. He may omit
essential events, so his mother cannot understand how “he cried” and
“he blew out the candles” are related. Egocentric speech is particularly
rampant in children’s play groups. Children who seem to be engaged in
a conversation actually may be engaged in a collective monologue. Each
child’s remarks are unrelated to anyone else’s. For example, one child’s

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46 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

statement, “I think I saw Superman in a phone booth yesterday,” might be
followed by “This sweater makes me itch” from another child.

After the preoperational period, egocentrism continues to decline.
However, it never disappears completely, even in adulthood, as when a
lecturer pitches his remarks too high or too low for his audience.

2 Rigidity of thought. Piaget characterized preoperational thought as
frozen. One example is centration, the tendency to attend to or think
about one salient feature of an object or event and ignore other

features. If two identical containers have equal amounts of water and
the contents of one container are poured into a taller, thinner container,
children center on the heights of the liquids, while ignoring their widths.
Consequently, they erroneously conclude that there is now more liquid
because the water level is higher. Centration and egocentrism are similar
in that they both reflect an inability to deal with several aspects of a situ-
ation at the same time; thus they both cause a biased view of the world.

Children also show inflexible thinking in their tendency to focus on
states and ignore the transformations linking the states. In the above
example of liquid quantity, a child thinks about the “before” and “after”
states but ignores the process of pouring. Relatedly, preoperational chil-
dren lack mental reversibility, and thus are unable to return the poured liq-
uid to its original container mentally. Finally, children focus on appearance
rather than reality. If a stick looks like it bends when it is plunged into
water, young children assume this perception is true.

Toward the end of the preoperational period, we begin to see “the great
thaw,” as children’s thinking becomes less frozen, more fluid. Showing
that there are some positive achievements of the preoperational period,
several new cognitive skills pave the way for the mental operations of the
concrete operational period. One emerging concept is a function— the
notion that there is a relation between factors, as expressed in the equa-
tion y = f(x). For example, the more one pulls a curtain cord, the farther
a curtain opens. However, children cannot yet work out the precise and
quantitative nature of the relationship. Another new concept is identity,
the notion that an object can change its appearance without changing its
basic nature, or identity. Putting on a Halloween mask does not change
a person into a witch, contrary to the belief of younger children.

3 Semilogical reasoning. Piaget’s interviews with children about their
beliefs concerning the world revealed their preoperational reason-
ing, such as egocentrism and rigid thinking. The conversations also

uncovered some fascinating causal reasoning, which could be considered

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Description of the Stages c 47

semilogical. The following protocol illustrates several facets of semilog-
ical reasoning in a 6- year- old child:

How did the sun begin? —It was when life began. —Has there always been
a sun? —No. —How did it begin? —Because it knew that life had begun.
—What is it made of? —Of fire. —But how? —Because there was fire up
there. —Where did the fire come from? —From the sky. —How was the
fire made in the sky? —It was lighted with a match. —Where did it come
from, this match? —God threw it away. . . . How did the moon begin?
—Because we began to be alive. —What did that do? —It made the moon get
bigger. —Is the moon alive? —No . . . Yes. —Why? —Because we are alive.

(Piaget, 1926/1929, pp. 258–259)

The child tries to explain the mysterious natural events of everyday
life in terms of something familiar— human behavior. The sun and moon,
like people, are alive, are created by a humanlike action (a god lighting a
match), and are tied to human activities (the moon began because people
began to exist). Similarly, a preoperational child may assert that snow is
made for children to play in and clouds move because they are pulled
when people walk.

Thoughts are often linked together in a loose way rather than in a
logical relationship. For example, one afternoon when Lucienne had no
nap, she reasoned that it could not be afternoon because she had not had
her nap. Young children reason from the particular to the particular.

4 Limited social cognition. Piaget believed that his theory applied to
social objects and events as well as physical ones. We saw this paral-
lel between the physical and the social realms in deficits in role tak-

ing and communication resulting from egocentrism, confusions between
natural events and human events, and ideas about the identity of persons
when physical appearances are changed. In addition, Piaget specifically
examined social thought in his work on moral judgments. Preoperational
children judge the wrongness of an act according to external outcomes,
such as how much damage was done and whether the act was punished.
They ignore internal variables, such as the person’s intentions. Thus, a
boy who breaks five cups while trying to help his mother set the table is
considered naughtier than a boy who breaks only one cup while trying
to steal cookies from the cabinet.

In one study of children’s social understanding, Piaget (1965/1995)
asked 200 children about their concepts of national identity and foreign-
ness. Five- year- old Evelyne, a Swiss, said, “I like Italy. It’s more beautiful
than Switzerland . . . I was there this time during the holidays. They have
very good cakes, not like in Switzerland where there are things inside that

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48 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

make you cry” (p. 254). And 7- year- old Herbert, when asked whether
people differ from one country to another, said, “Yes, well, Americans
are stupid. If I ask them where the rue du Mont- Blanc is, well, they can’t
tell me” (p. 258). Their social conceptions are limited because they often
are based on one or two concrete personal experiences.

Concrete Operational Period (Roughly 7 to 11 Years)
Despite the considerable accomplishments in the preoperational period,
in many ways the period mainly prepares children for the pinnacle of
cognitive development: the mental operation. An operation is an internal-
ized mental action that is part of an organized structure. With the ability
to use operations, the child’s representations are no longer isolated,
rigid, or simply juxtaposed, as in the preoperational period. They are
brought to life.

We can most easily see operations at work in Piaget’s famous conser-
vation task, which we described earlier with respect to liquid quantity.
First, the child sees two identical containers equally filled with water and
judges them to contain the same amount of water. As the child watches,
one container is poured into a container with different dimensions or
into several small containers. A “nonconserver” claims that the amount
has changed, usually because the water level has changed. Typically,
since the water rises higher in a taller, thinner container, the child con-
cludes that the amount has increased. In contrast, a “conserver” believes
that the amount has not changed. She realizes that quantity remains the
same despite changes in appearance. Piaget usually required that the
child give a logical explanation for this judgment before he considered
the child to be a true conserver, for example, “You didn’t add any water
or take any away.”

Both nonconservers and conservers have a basis for their answers. In
fact, if a tester happens to test the same child twice— once when the
child is a nonconserver and later when a conserver— she may face the
child’s scorn on both occasions. The child on both occasions is likely
to think that the tester is dumb to ask the question when the “correct”
answer is so obvious.

Conservation is an important concept because it gives stability to the
physical world. In addition, Piaget assigned a great deal of importance
to the conservation task because he thought it reveals the presence or
absence of mental operations. Thus, it is a diagnostic tool that probes
the cognitive structures. Piaget asserted that children cannot conserve
unless they have certain mental operations, especially reversibility. The

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Description of the Stages c 49

negation aspect of reversibility is expressed by children who say, “If you
pour it back where it was, they will have the same amount.” The com-
pensation aspect of reversibility is seen in the explanation, “This one’s
taller but this one’s fatter.”

Operations also can be seen at work in the common mathematical
operations of multiplying, dividing, ordering (greater than, less than),
and substituting (one thing equals another thing). Each operation is
related to and obtains its meaning from the entire structure of which it
is a part. Thus, addition is coordinated with subtraction, multiplication,
and division to form a system of mental actions.

Piaget’s interest in logic and mathematics appears in his attempt to
describe these systems of concrete operations in terms of logicomathe-
matical structures. Logic and algebra involve purely formal, nonpsycho-
logical abstract systems. However, Piaget felt that cognitive structures
approximate these logicomathematical structures and that it would be
fruitful to look for various types of thinking suggested by the latter.

For example, in the concrete operational period there are nine
groupings— logical structures that describe certain logical operations
and relationships among these operations. Let us look at Piaget’s group-
ing I. This grouping describes the primary addition of classes and is the
simplest grouping. For example, modes of transportation form a classi-
fication hierarchy, in which modes of transportation (C) at the top of the
hierarchy have two subheadings: ground vehicles (B) and other classes
of vehicles (B’). B, in turn, contains cars (A) and other ground vehicles
(A’). The system’s elements (A, A’, B, B’, C) can be manipulated accord-
ing to certain rules based on the grouping’s properties, for example,
composition (A + A’ + B) or general identity (A + 0 = A).These prop-
erties, stated in formal, nonpsychological terms, serve as a model for
the properties of thought that underlie the concept of class inclusion.

Class inclusion is the concept that subcategories are part of a broader
category. The experimenter shows the child 20 wooden beads, 17 of
them brown and 3 white. He asks whether a child could make a longer
necklace with the brown beads or the wooden beads. Preoperational
children claim that there are more brown beads than wooden beads.
They can deal only with the parts (brown or white beads) or the whole
(wooden beads), but not both of them simultaneously. They do not
understand that the parts and the whole are reversible. In contrast, con-
crete operational children have the underlying operations (that look like
the grouping rules) necessary to derive the correct answer.

Piaget applied his logicomathematical model of concrete operations
to a wide variety of physical and social situations. For example, various

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50 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

properties are conserved in addition to liquid quantity, described earlier.
The number of objects in a set remains the same when they are spread
out; the total length of a stick remains the same if it is pushed ahead of
another stick; and the weight of clay remains the same if the clay is bro-
ken into pieces.

Operations apply not only to classes, as in class inclusion, or to prop-
erties such as amount, as in conservation, but also to relations. If concrete
operational children know that John is taller than Bill and that Bill is
taller than Henry, they can infer that John has to be taller than Henry. In
addition, they can order a row of dolls according to height and give the
dolls sticks ordered according to length. Operations also are applied to
temporal– spatial representations. For example, preoperational children draw
liquid in a container in such a way that it remains parallel to the base or a
side (as in Figure 2.1).Their perceptions are influenced by the immediate
surroundings. In contrast, concrete operational children correctly keep
the liquid parallel to the larger context, the surface of the earth.

Turning to the social realm, we see that children are overcoming
many of the limitations in their reasoning about the social world. They
are less egocentric but sometimes still have difficulties with role taking
and communication. They can take intentions into account in their moral
judgments. They also are increasingly aware of the subtle social relation-
ships in the family, peer group, and larger society. In addition, children
are beginning to sort out their various social identities. Piaget found
that young children tended to draw two circles side by side to represent

F I G U R E   2 . 1
A typical error on the water- level problem during the preoperational period.

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Description of the Stages c 51

Geneva and Switzerland. Nine- year- old Pierre correctly drew the for-
mer as a smaller circle inside the latter but still was struggling to apply
his class- inclusion concept to social understanding:

What is your nationality? —I am Swiss. —How come? —Because I live
in Switzerland. —Are you also Genevan? —No, that’s not possible. . . . I’m
already Swiss, I can’t also be Genevan.

Two other 8- year- olds also do not quite have it right:

Do you know any foreigners? —Yes . . . those who live far away. —For
example, if you travel to France, could you also become a foreigner
in certain situations? —No, I’m Swiss. —A Frenchman, could he be a
foreigner? —Oh! Yes, a Frenchman is a foreigner. —And in France is a
Frenchman a foreigner? —Oh yes. —What is a Frenchman in Switzerland?
—French, but also a little Swiss if he’s here.

(Piaget, 1965/1995, pp. 252, 263, 265)

This list of acquisitions could continue to the end of this book, but the
examples we have considered are representative. Two points about con-
crete operational acquisitions should be kept in mind. First, they do not
develop at the same time. In fact, some concepts, such as conservation
of weight, often do not appear until near the end of the period. Second,
each cognitive acquisition develops over a period of time. At first, it is
transitional in nature and is demonstrated only part of the time. It grad-
ually strengthens, stabilizes, and generalizes to a variety of situations.

In summary of Piaget’s stages to this point, children move from an
understanding of the world based on action schemes, to one based on
representations, to one based on internalized, organized operations.
Thought now is decentered rather than centered, dynamic rather than
static, and reversible rather than irreversible. For the first time, the lawful
nature of the world seems to be reflected in a logical system of thought.
Thought is in tune, in equilibrium, with the environment. However, the
concrete operations are still “concrete.” They can be applied only to con-
crete objects— present or mentally represented. They deal with what
“is” rather than what “could be.” The final step is to apply the operations
to purely verbal or logical statements and to the possible as well as the
actual. This story unfolds as we turn to formal operations.

Formal Operational Period (Roughly 11 to 15 Years)
During the concrete operational period, mental operations are applied
to objects and events. Children classify them, order them, and reverse
them. During formal operations, adolescents carry concrete operations

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52 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

one step further. They can take the results of concrete operations and
generate hypotheses about their logical relations. Thus, we now have
operations on operations; children can think logically and abstractly
about events, even hypothetical ones.

More specifically, formal operational thought resembles scientific
thinking. Adolescents formulate a hypothesis about a present or potential
event and test this hypothesis against reality. If necessary, they can gen-
erate all possible outcomes at the beginning. Piaget typically presented a
problem from physics or chemistry and observed how adolescents went
about solving it. The problem- solving process, rather than the correct
answer, is of interest.

A prototypic task is the pendulum problem. An adolescent observes
an object hanging from a string and attempts to discover what deter-
mines how fast the object swings. She is shown how to vary the length
of the string, the height from which the pendulum is released, the
force of the push on the pendulum, and the weight of the object. One
or several of these variables might control the speed of the swing.
Concrete operational children experiment with the variables and may
even arrive at the correct answer (the length of the string), but their
approach is haphazard; they have no overall plan. They do not vary one
factor while holding the other factors constant in order to systemati-
cally isolate the critical factor. For example, they may compare a long,
light pendulum with a short, heavy one and conclude that both factors
are important. In contrast, formal operational adolescents imagine all
possible determinants of the rate of swinging before they begin, sys-
tematically vary the factors one by one, observe the results correctly,
keep track of the results, and draw the appropriate conclusions. By
testing predictions from each hypothesis, they demonstrate hypothetico-
deductive thought. More generally, as Flavell expressed it, “Reality is
thus conceived as a special subset within the totality of things which
the data would admit as hypotheses; it is seen as the ‘is’ portion of a
‘might be’ totality, the portion it is the subject’s job to discover” (1963,
pp. 204–205).

Piaget posed several other problems:

1. Determine which mixture of five colorless liquids produces a yellow color.
2. Discover which variables (for example, weight, length, types of material)

cause a rod suspended over water to bend down far enough to touch the
water.

3. Discover and state the law governing the relationship between the angle at
which a billiard ball hits the table wall and the angle of its rebound.

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Description of the Stages c 53

4. Solve a geometric proof.
5. Discover proportional relationships (for example, 16 is to 4 as 4 is to 1).
6. Evaluate syllogisms, such as “All children hate spinach; girls are children;

therefore, girls hate spinach.”

It should be noted that direct instruction in scientific thought is not
necessary for the development of formal operations. Rather, years of
common, unremarkable experiences contribute to this achievement. As
Einstein remarked: “The whole of science is nothing more than a refine-
ment of everyday thinking.”

As in the concrete operational period, Piaget applied logicomath-
ematical models to the child’s thought. He identified a system of 16
underlying mental operations he thought necessary for solving the vari-
ous problems he presented. One operation, for example, is conjunction,
which refers to the co- occurrence of x and y. In the problem of what
causes rods to bend, a conjunction outcome would be great length, great
bending.

In addition to these operations, Piaget’s logical model included a
system of rules for manipulating the logical relations identified by these
operations. For example, in a weight- balance problem, an imbalance
can be negated by subtracting the extra weight from the heavier side or
adding more weight to the lighter side.

The ability to consider abstract ideas, the future, and various possi-
bilities is evident in adolescents’ social world. They dream about their
futures and imagine themselves in various occupational and social roles.
They may experiment with some of these roles just as they experiment
with hypotheses about physical events. They are concerned with the
world of ideas. With their friends, they debate various moral and polit-
ical issues, such as whether wars can ever be moral, whether abortions
should be legal, whether there are basic inalienable human rights, and
what an ideal community would be like. They can consider these issues
from different perspectives and see how the issues are related to a larger
set of social relationships. However, there is still a lingering egocentrism.
Adolescents are impressed with the power of thought and naively under-
estimate the practical problems involved in achieving an ideal future for
themselves or for society. They feel that the sheer force of their logic
will move mountains. Piaget noted that this starry- eyed egocentrism is
squelched when adolescents undertake their first real job!

One further difference between concrete operational thought and
formal operational thought has implications for both social and physical
development. Adolescents can reflect on their own thinking (and that

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54 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

of others). For example, they can think about propositions, which are
thoughts. Or, in the social realm, we find the following line of thought:
“He’s thinking that I’m thinking that he’s thinking about her.”

By achieving formal operations, adolescents complete their cognitive
structures. The various concrete operational logical systems have been
combined to create a single, tightly organized system of thought— a uni-
fied whole. Thought is logical, abstract, and flexible. Thinking continues
to develop throughout adulthood as formal operations are applied to
more and more content areas and situations. Egocentrism continues to
decline as people broaden their experiences in the world of work and
social relationships. However, Piaget thought that these changes after age
15 entail a change not in the structure of thought but only in its content
and stability.

An Overview
Now that we have reached the height of Piaget’s theory, it would be good
to look back over our climb. Perhaps the best way to highlight the differ-
ences between periods is to see how a typical child in each period would
understand several aspects of reality. First, what is an “object” for a child
in each stage? During the sensorimotor period, an object that at first is
simply a stimulus for feeding a reflex becomes something on which one
can act. Then an object becomes an independently existing entity that is
separate from one’s actions and can be mentally represented. For a pre-
operational child, an object can represent another object, can undergo
physical changes while maintaining its identity (if not its amount), and
can be joined with other objects to form a category of objects. During
the period of concrete operations, various operations manipulate the
representation of an object; for example, any changes in the object can
be reversed, and the object can be fit into a hierarchy of categories.
Finally, formal operations involve higher- order operations that allow
further mental manipulations of the representation of the object. All the
object’s possibilities can be examined scientifically.

Another way of slicing the periods vertically is to consider how a child
in each period would attack a specific problem. Consider what would
happen if we gave children in each stage a tub of water and a number
of small objects of various densities, sizes, weights, shapes, and colors.
Infants would immediately splash, throw the objects, push the objects to
the bottom of the tub, and probably attempt to eat the objects. Toward
the end of the sensorimotor period, children might drop the objects

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Memory c 55

from various heights and note that the bigger, heavier objects make
bigger splashes than do the smaller, lighter objects. They might also
notice that some objects sink while others do not. Preoperational chil-
dren might imagine that the objects are boats or fish. They would notice
that some objects float while others sink, but they would be content to
change their reasons from case to case. They might claim that one object
floats because it is little, another because it is dry, another because it is
a boat, and so on. Concrete operational children are bothered by incon-
sistencies that did not bother them in the previous stage, such as the
fact that some small objects sink while other small objects float. They
make comparisons between objects, but they are neither systematic nor
exhaustive. For example, they do not hold size constant while varying
weights. However, they do develop several categories of “sinkability,” for
example, always floats (lightweight), always sinks (heavy), and sinks or
floats depending on the materials (small objects, lids). Formal opera-
tional adolescents have both a plan and the necessary operations to solve
the problem. They systematically vary the factors to determine their
influence and use the results to test their hypotheses. They know that
density is the proportion of weight to volume and that the relative den-
sity of the object to the water is the critical factor. Adolescents are able
to form a proportion made up of two other proportions: the density for
the objects and for the water. These are operations on operations. This
general law allows them to predict whether any particular object will
sink or float.

Memory
Some of Piaget’s most dramatic claims stem from his work on mem-
ory. Consider the following typical experiment by Piaget and Inhelder
(1969): They showed children an array of 10 sticks of various sizes that
were ordered according to size. A week later they asked the children to
draw from memory the array of sticks they had seen. Developmental
differences emerged. In general, 3- and 4- year- olds drew a few sticks
having the same length. The 5- and 6- year- olds tended to draw some tall
and some short sticks. Most 7- year- olds could draw the original array
correctly. Piaget and Inhelder concluded that the children had processed
and interpreted the original array in terms of their present understand-
ing of ordered relations. Only when this understanding is fully achieved
can the child accurately remember the array. Thus, memory reflects and

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56 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

depends on the entire cognitive structure. Memory is active understand-
ing rather than a static, passive state— a camera.

Although this is an interesting set of results, the children’s behav-
ior six months later when they returned was even more surprising.
Although the children were not shown the sticks again, this time 75 per-
cent of the children drew arrays that were more advanced cognitively
than those they had produced six months earlier. For example, a child
who originally lined up three tall sticks of the same height and three
short sticks of the same height later made a row of three tall sticks,
three medium- size sticks, and three short sticks. Piaget’s interpretation
was that such improvements are due to development in their cognitive
structures during those six months. Current cognitive structures are
applied to the memory process. Note that improvement in memory
over time is the opposite of what one would expect from most theories
of memory or from common sense: a memory trace fades over time.
Unfortunately, other researchers have not always replicated Piaget’s
results. There is more support for the age differences in memory than
there is for improved memory of the materials after further cognitive
development (see Liben & Bowman, 2014, for a review and critique).
Still, Piaget’s claim that our knowledge influences, and thus biases, what
we know is central to much current research and theorizing on memory
development (see Chapter 7).

Piaget offered the following memory from his second year of life to
show that memory can be unreliable:

I was sitting in my pram, which my nurse was pushing in the Champs
Elysées, when a man tried to kidnap me. I was held in by the strap fas-
tened around me while my nurse bravely tried to stand between me and
the thief. She received various scratches, and I can still see vaguely those
on her face.

(1945/1951, p. 188)

When Piaget was 15, his parents received a letter from the nurse
shortly after she had joined a religious order. She said she wanted to
return the watch that had been given to her as a reward for protecting
little Jean from the kidnapper. The truth was that she had made up the
story that Piaget so vividly “remembered.” Piaget believed that he had
created a visual memory from the story his parents had told him as
a child.

In addition to studying memory performance, Piaget examined chil-
dren’s concepts of memory. This topic was rediscovered by develop-
mental psychologists 50 years later and labeled “metamemory,” which

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Mechanisms of Development c 57

is described in Chapter  7. A sample of Piaget’s work is the following
interview with an 8- year- old innatist:

Memory is something in the head which makes us think.—What do you think
this memory is like? —It is a little square of skin, rather oval, and inside there
are stories (les histoires).—What are they like? —They are written on the
flesh. —What with? —Pencil. —Who wrote them? —God, before I was
born, he put them there.

(1926/1929, p. 52)

Mechanisms of Development
Piaget recognized that it was important not only to describe cognitive
stages but also to explain how and why children develop through those
stages. In other words, by what processes does a child’s thinking prog-
ress? How do new forms of thinking emerge? What facilitates or con-
strains the transition from step to step? Emphasizing the grand stages,
which span several years each, can make us forget that thought actually
develops in the moment- to- moment, everyday encounters between
children and their physical and social environments. Stagelike changes
ultimately are due to millions of these minidevelopments.

In Piaget’s theory, these small steps are driven by certain functional
invariants. The functional invariants are thinking processes— organization,
adaptation, and equilibration— that operate throughout development.
Piaget drew on these processes from biology that define the relation-
ship between the organism and the environment. Our thinking, like the
circulatory system and the digestive system, has innate tendencies to be
organized and adapted to the environment. With apologies to Descartes,
it could be said that “I am, therefore I think.”

Cognitive Organization
Cognitive organization, described in the earlier section on structural-
ism, is the tendency for thought to consist of systems whose parts are
integrated to form a whole. These systems, in turn, are coordinated;
there are interrelationships among cognitive activities. The mind is not
a grab bag of facts. Rather, it is a coherent view of the world. This view
becomes more and more coherent and interrelated as children develop.
For example, a young infant has separate structures for sucking objects
and for grasping them. Only later are these two structures organized
into a higher- order structure that allows coordinated reaching for an
object and bringing it to the mouth.

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58 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

Development through the stages involves changes in the nature of
cognitive organization as the structures of thought change from stage
to stage. As development proceeds, thought may be organized into
schemes, functions, concrete operations, or formal operations. Thus, an
infant’s sucking on a toy and Einstein’s insights into relativity both reflect
cognitive organization. In principle, one could trace a line of develop-
ment from the former to the latter.

Cognitive Adaptation
The other basic functional invariant, cognitive adaptation, pertains to a fit
between the mind and the environment: Intelligent behavior is behavior
that is appropriate to the demands of the environment. Adaptation and
organization are closely related:

Organization is inseparable from adaptation: They are two complemen-
tary processes of a single mechanism, the first being the internal aspect
of the cycle of which adaptation constitutes the external aspect. . . . The
“accord of thought with things” and the “accord of thought with itself
” express this dual functional invariant of adaptation and organization.
These two aspects of thought are indissociable: It is by adapting to things
that thought organizes itself and it is by organizing itself that it struc-
tures things.

(1936/1952b, pp. 7–8)

Adaptation involves two complementary processes: assimilation and
accommodation. Assimilation is the process of fitting reality into one’s
current cognitive organization. In every cognitive encounter with
objects or events, there is a degree of “bending” or distorting of expe-
rience as people attempt to incorporate, understand, or interpret this
experience. In other words, people apply what they know in order to
understand objects and events. To quote Anaïs Nin, “We don’t see things
as they are, we see them as we are.”

Accommodation is the other side of the coin. This term refers to adjust-
ments in cognitive organization that result when reality does not fit our
expectations. Every object has special characteristics that eventually
must be taken into account. In a sense, accommodation occurs because
of failed assimilation, when the current structure cannot understand a
particular object or event. The resulting reorganization of thought leads
to a more satisfactory assimilation of the experience. Then that object
or event is never again experienced in quite the same way. As Oliver
Wendell Holmes commented, “Man’s mind stretched to a new idea
never goes back to its original dimensions.”

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Mechanisms of Development c 59

Assimilation and accommodation are closely intertwined in every
cognitive activity from birth to death. Attempts to assimilate reality
necessarily involve slight changes in the cognitive structures as these
adjust to the new elements. In true Piagetian style, both a biological
example and a psychological example are needed. In the biological
realm, food is assimilated into the body as it is changed into a form the
body can use. As Piaget expressed it, “A rabbit that eats a cabbage doesn’t
become a cabbage; it’s a cabbage that becomes rabbit— that’s assimila-
tion” (quoted in Bringuier, 1980, p. 42). The digestive system accom-
modates to food by adjusting the mouth opening, chewing, secreting
digestive juices, contracting the muscles of the stomach, and so on. Thus,
the digestive system both changes and is changed by an environmental
event, the presentation of food.

In the psychological realm, consider an infant who has happened onto
a sheet of newspaper for the first time. In an attempt to make sense
of this new experience, she runs through her repertoire of actions on
objects. She applies her current cognitive structures (schemes). She
grasps the paper, hits it, sucks it, turns it over, shakes it, and puts it
over her head, in her attempts to fit this new object into something she
already knows (assimilation). However, a newspaper has certain charac-
teristics foreign to her existing schemes. She is forced to stretch or reor-
ganize (accommodate) these schemes in small ways: Her ideas about the
way things sound when they are shaken must be altered to include the
rustle of a newspaper. The light weight and the new feel and sight make
further demands on her mind. Some properties (for example, ripping
the paper) may be quite foreign and startling.

These varying degrees of discrepancy between current schemes
and the experience at hand raise the issue of what the limitations are
to accommodation. Piaget’s answer is that only moderately discrepant
events or characteristics can be accommodated to; great leaps are not
possible. If reality is too different from the person’s current level of
understanding, she cannot bridge the gap. Thus, development necessarily
proceeds in small steps.

To illustrate this gradual, continual development through accommoda-
tion, consider what would happen if children of various ages were given
a horseshoe- shaped metal magnet for the first time. Six- month- olds
might accommodate to the unfamiliar metallic taste, the peculiar (horse-
shoe) shape, and the sound of the magnet being dropped. However, they
cannot accommodate to its magnetic properties. Three- year- olds, if
given an assortment of objects, might accommodate to the fact that some
of the objects cling to the magnet and might entertain explanations such

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60 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

as “stickiness” and “wanting to stay together.” Nine- year- old children
might construct the concept that only metal objects are pulled to the
magnet and might notice the conditions in which this occurs— through
glass, water, and certain distances. Only adolescents could accommo-
date by formulating an abstract theory of magnetism and simultaneously
consider all of the variables involved, such as the size and shape of the
magnet and the distance from the object. Thus, accommodation always
occurs in small steps and is relative to the present cognitive level.

In summary, assimilation and accommodation are present in every act
and stimulate cognitive development. Attempts to apply one’s current
intellectual structures typically are only partially successful because most
encounters with the environment are new in some way. As a result of
this failure to “understand” the object or event, minor cognitive adjust-
ments or accommodations are made. These push children to a slightly
more advanced cognitive level, one step closer to reality. However, this
new level of understanding makes them aware of other discrepancies
in experience, and again assimilation presents new elements and again
accommodation occurs. Each accommodation makes new accommo-
dations possible in the future. This spiral continues in our moment- to-
moment encounters with the environment throughout our lives.

Cognitive Equilibration
Organization and adaptation imply a third functional invariant, equilibra-
tion. Both mollusks and human cognition are self- regulating equilibration
systems. In Piaget’s view, every organism strives toward equilibrium with
the environment and equilibrium within itself (among elements of the
cognitive system). When assimilation and accommodation are in bal-
anced coordination so neither one is dominant, equilibrium is achieved.
This balance is achieved through the development of organized struc-
tures that provide ways of interacting with the world. A change in either
the organism or the environment leads to a state of disequilibrium,
which must be corrected. It should be clear from other parts of Piagetian
theory that equilibrium is dynamic rather than static. There is constant
activity, but there is a balance, a pattern, to this activity.

For example, in the liquid- conservation task, children are in disequi-
librium if they switch back and forth between saying that the tall thin
one has more because the liquid is higher or the short fat one has more
because the liquid is wider. Acquiring the mental operation, compensa-
tion, allows them to integrate information about the two dimensions.
One dimension compensating for the other eliminates the contradiction
and re- establishes equilibrium.

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Mechanisms of Development c 61

Equilibration, while one of the most important concepts in the
theory, is probably also the most difficult and evasive. Part of the diffi-
culty may lie in the fact that equilibration can refer to several spans of
time, ranging from a fraction of a second to a number of years. In each
case, there is a period of equilibrium, followed by a state of disequilib-
rium, followed by equilibration, which leads again to equilibrium at a
higher cognitive level.

Piaget seems to have at least three spans of time in mind when he
applies the notion of equilibrium:

1. A moment- to- moment equilibration process occurs as assimilation and
accommodation operate in children’s daily activities, even the most mun-
dane. Temporary disequilibrium occurs when children encounter new
properties of objects that do not fit into their present cognitive structures.
Once the assimilation– accommodation process occurs and discrepancies
are resolved, equilibrium is again achieved.

2. Equilibration refers to moving toward the final level of achievement with-
in each period or stage. A child enters a new period in a state of relative
disequilibrium because the old cognitive organization has broken down
but the new one is still incomplete and unstable. By the end of this new
period, a child has achieved equilibrium with respect to the period’s new
structures. For example, at the end of the sensorimotor period, a  child
is in equilibrium with the environment in terms of action schemes.
Equilibrium is re- achieved in each period at a higher and higher level of
abstraction.

3. The entire course of cognitive development can be seen as a process of
equilibration as the child proceeds through increasingly “better” forms
of equilibrium. The most complete equilibrium is achieved when formal
operations bring fully reversible and abstract thought. The earlier states of
equilibrium, because they are incomplete, inevitably break down at some
point. In a sense, each period or stage eventually self- destructs.

For Piaget, equilibration is the grand process that integrates and regu-
lates all of the elements of development— physical maturation, expe-
rience with the physical environment, and the influence of the social
environment. These forces together propel children through the stages.

Section Overview
Perhaps the best way to summarize this section on mechanisms of devel-
opment is to relate it to the earlier sections of this chapter. Knowledge
of the world develops through a series of discrete states of equilib-
rium (stages) between the organism and the environment. This is the

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62 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

essence of Piaget’s genetic epistemology. Mental structures, in equi-
librium, are constructed as children interact with physical objects and
people in an organized way. Here we see Piaget’s structuralism. In the
innate tendencies toward organization and adaptation (assimilation and
accommodation), we see Piaget the biologist explain how minds adapt to
the environment. Finally, the particular stages are an inevitable outcome,
given the nature of the human organism (its physical structures and cog-
nitive functions) and the nature of the environment.

Position on Developmental Issues
This book’s Introduction identified four basic developmental issues
on which each theorist takes a stand. Using these issues, we can view
Piaget’s theory from a new perspective. The issues also provide a means
for comparing the diverse theories covered in this volume.

Human Nature
Piaget’s worldview clearly was organismic rather than mechanistic or
contextual. He posited an inherently active organism. Children tire-
lessly explore, hypothesize, test, and evaluate; they do this either overtly
(particularly in the sensorimotor period) or covertly (as in the manip-
ulation of symbols, concrete operations, and formal operations). No
external motivation is necessary. Children are intrinsically motivated;
schemes are used simply because they exist. Once activated, they tend
to be repeated. In other words, “To be is to do.” The Piagetian child is a
self- regulating, organized whole striving to maintain equilibrium both
internally and with the environment by correcting cognitive imbalances.
These tendencies toward inherent activity and self- regulation cause
continual change. The organismic worldview also can be seen in the fact
that the parts can be understood only in terms of the whole. Any one
behavior, scheme, or operation is influenced by and derives its meaning
from the whole structure. The same behavior (for example, swinging a
pendulum) has a different meaning for a 2- year- old and a 12- year- old.

Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development
Although Piaget saw both qualitative and quantitative changes, he
emphasized qualitative changes in structures from stage to stage. Just as
the colored plastic fragments rearrange themselves when a kaleidoscope
is turned, so does the organization of thought change to form new

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Posit ion on Developmental Issues c 63

patterns as the child develops. Quantitative changes occur as schemes,
operations, or other cognitive skills become stronger, more easily acti-
vated, more efficient, and more consistent. Other quantitative develop-
ments are the increased number of schemes in the child’s repertoire or
the number of “facts” known. A child who can name the capitals of all
the states has more information at hand than the child who can name
only five capitals. Of course, it should be kept in mind that these facts
are always assimilated into structures that undergo qualitative changes.

Qualitative and quantitative changes build on each other during
development. A qualitative change in structure makes possible certain
quantitative changes. For example, once class inclusion is understood,
children can quickly learn about the classifications and relationships in
many different content areas, such as animals, people, trees, shapes,
and colors. Quantitative increases in amount of information, in turn,
may pave the way for further qualitative change as new information
challenges the present structures. For example, talking with peers
and adults rapidly expands children’s knowledge and challenges their
present understanding. This new information can stimulate subsequent
qualitative change as the system attempts to resolve the contradictions
in children’s knowledge.

Whether we see quantitative or qualitative change in Piaget’s theory
depends, in part, on the unit of time we select. If we look at changes
over minutes, days, and weeks, we are struck by the gradual nature
of development. If we look at changes over months and years, we are
struck by the qualitative changes from stage to stage or period to period.
For example, from age 4 to 5, children may become more consistent
in their grouping of objects according to shape; this is a quantitative
change. However, the change from age 5 to 7, when they can sort objects
into hierarchies of classes— for example, animals, mammals, brown
mammals, and so forth— is qualitative.

Nature Versus Nurture
Piaget was an interactionist through and through. Cognitive develop-
ment is a by- product of the intertwined influences of innate and expe-
riential factors. Innate factors include physical structures (for example,
the structure and positioning of the particular species’ eyes), reflexes,
physical maturation, and the invariant functions (organization and adap-
tation). Given these innate factors and the nature of the physical and
social world, development inevitably proceeds in the way it does. It
could not be otherwise.

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64 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

Piaget proposed the following four- factor “formula” for development:

Development = Physical maturation + Experience with the physical
environment + Social experience + Equilibration

1 The first factor, physical maturation— of the brain, the muscular sys-
tem, and the like— creates new possibilities for the cognitive system
and requires certain adjustments of that system. For example, when

physical maturation permits walking, new vistas open up for toddlers. As
children actively exploit this new skill, they are forced to assimilate and,
whenever possible, accommodate to new experiences.

2 Regarding experience with the physical environment, Piaget empha-
sized logicomathematical experience. This term refers to reflecting on
one’s own actions on objects rather than on the objects themselves.

To illustrate, Piaget referred to a friend’s recollection from childhood:

He was seated on the ground in his garden and he was counting pebbles.
Now to count these pebbles he put them in a row and he counted them
one, two, three up to 10. Then he finished counting them and started to
count them in the other direction. He began by the end and once again
found he had 10. He found this marvelous. . . . So he put them in a circle
and counted them that way and found 10 once again.

(1964a, p. 12)

The child reflected on the results of repeatedly counting and arrang-
ing the pebbles and concluded that number is constant despite physical
rearrangements. He discovered something (number) that is not intrinsic
to the objects.

3 Social experience includes the cultural or educational environment.
For example, other people transmit knowledge, either directly, in
conversations, or through books, television, and so on. In this way,

children can benefit from the experience of others. Of course, a child
must be cognitively advanced enough to assimilate the information if it is
to be of value. Social experience can also impede learning; not all adult
products provide good models to learn from, as seen in a sign that defies
class- inclusion logic: “Please do not feed birds or animals.”

These three factors are universal. Given the similarities among
cultures in children’s physical maturation, the physical world, and,
in some ways, the social environment, it is not surprising that the
four major periods proceed in the same order in all cultures studied.
However, given cultural differences, one would expect that, within a
stage, some concepts might develop earlier in some cultures than others.

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Applications c 65

For example, in Mexico, children aged 6 to 9 who grow up in pottery-
making families are more likely to be conservers of substance than those
who grow up in families engaged in other activities ( Price- Williams,
Gordon, & Ramirez, 1969). This finding suggests that experience with
clay promotes the development of this concept (often assessed with clay
as the medium). In addition, Piaget recalled that his daughter Jacqueline,
born in the winter, was often bundled up in a carriage, so had less
opportunity than children born in warmer weather to develop eye– hand
coordination.

4 The fourth factor, equilibration, ties together and controls the inter-
action of innate and experiential factors. Maturation, experience
with the physical environment, and the influence of the social envi-

ronment constantly cause momentary disequilibrium. In this way, they
force the cognitive system to change, to adjust. Through re- establishing
equilibrium, the cognitive system reaches a higher level.

What Develops
For Piaget, the essence of cognitive development was structural change,
in the schemes and logicomathematical structures. Structural change
gives meaning to, and influences change in, the content of thought. Thus,
Piaget emphasized change on a molar level as children construct a model
of reality, which leads to change at more molecular levels.

The question of what develops is tied to Piaget’s methodology. He
relied on observations, interviews (the clinical method), and assessment
situations in which the experimenter participates. In this way, he kept
the organization of the thought processes as intact as possible; too much
experimental interference or control would distort the child’s normal
line of reasoning.

Applications
Educators have applied Piaget’s theory to instruction. One example is
his notion of “readiness”—that children can profit from instruction only
if they are cognitively ready to assimilate the new information to their
present cognitive structures or accommodate their structures to the
experience. Instruction in calculus would not be successful with most
5- year- olds. Related to this, teachers should teach concepts in a particu-
lar sequence of developmental steps, as they naturally would be learned.

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66 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

Another important notion is that learning is most likely to occur when
children actively participate and, for children who have not yet reached
formal operations, when teachers present problems in a concrete rather
than abstract way. Importantly, for true understanding, children must
learn the concepts underlying mathematical and scientific knowledge
rather than just memorize facts. A 2- year- old who can count to 10 may
not actually understand numbers. Piaget would be critical of “teaching
to the test.” He criticized typical educational assessments for focusing on
correct answers rather than on children’s thought processes for reaching
the answers. In short, a teacher mainly provides guidance and resources
so that children can teach themselves.

The neo- Piagetians, to be described later in this chapter, would add
a focus on teacher support for the child’s fragile new concepts, for
example, encouragement, modeling, hints, or collaboration. They also
would encourage teachers to make sure that problems to be solved are
presented in a way that does not overload the child’s cognitive capacity.
Finally, since different children may follow different developmental
pathways to acquiring a concept, it is important for teachers to be aware
of these individual differences in ways of learning.

Evaluation of the Theory
When Piaget’s first writings on children appeared, he was appalled that
people evaluated them as though they were final statements on cognitive
development rather than the tentative positions he intended them to be.
In fact, he continued to modify his theory even into his eighties. After
this section on strengths and weaknesses, we will look at some of the
modifications that attempt to address some of the weaknesses.

Strengths
We focus on four strengths of Piaget’s theory: its recognition of the cen-
tral role of cognition in development, its discovery of surprising features
of young children’s thinking, its wide scope, and its ecological validity.

Recognition of the Central Role of Cognition c Cognition now is
such a central part of the study of development that it is hard to imag-
ine that this was not always the case. If a developmental psychologist
were somehow plucked out of the 1950s and set down today, he would
be  bewildered by the talk around him. He would hear psychologists
discussing children’s “theories,” strategies, cognitive structures, plans,

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Evaluation of the Theory c 67

and representations, instead of stimulus generalization, mean length of
utterance, mental age, conditioning, and discrimination learning. To a
great extent, Piaget is responsible for this change. He altered the course
of psychology by asking new questions that made developmentalists
wonder why they had ever asked the old questions in the first place.
Once psychologists looked at development through Piaget’s eyes, they
never again saw children in quite the same way.

Both the state of academic psychology and the history of developmen-
tal psychology in the United States created a state of readiness for the
assimilation of Piaget. Academic psychology had pushed behaviorism in
general and learning theory in particular to their limits and found them
wanting. Even when learning theory was modified by such notions as
verbal mediation, social reinforcement, modeling, intrinsic reinforce-
ment, and attention, it did not completely satisfy psychologists. There
was dissatisfaction with the explanation of language development in
terms of imitation, practice, and reinforcement. At the same time, alter-
native cognitive approaches were emerging, such as Noam Chomsky’s
transformational grammar and computer scientists’ work on informa-
tion processing.

Within developmental psychology, until the 1950s researchers could
be found less often in departments of psychology than in “child insti-
tutes” or departments of home economics, pediatrics, public health,
education, clinical psychology, and nursing. Developmental psychol-
ogists were concerned with poor nutrition, physical and intellectual
disabilities, learning disabilities, and emotional disorders. Because of
this physical and ideological separation from psychology departments,
many developmental psychologists did not become immersed in the
behaviorist– experimental zeitgeist of academic psychology of the times
and kept one foot in the laboratory and one foot in real- life settings. In
addition, developmental psychologists at that time were primarily inter-
ested in collecting normative data— descriptions of the behaviors that
could be expected at each age. For all these reasons, there was room for
Piaget’s naturalistic, descriptive approach. The field of developmental
psychology was ready for Piaget.

A newcomer to developmental psychology might wonder why Piaget
had produced almost a lifetime of work before American academics
became interested in him. Certainly the state of academic psychology at
that time, described above, provides part of the answer. A further rea-
son is the language barrier. Until the 1960s, much of Piaget’s work had
not been translated into English. An additional language problem is that
Piaget’s writings are difficult to understand in any language. Fortunately,

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68 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

several developmental psychologists in the United States served as lit-
eral and psychological translators of Piaget’s work in the late 1950s and
early 1960s. In particular, John Flavell’s timely book, The Developmental
Psychology of Jean Piaget (1963), made Piaget understandable to English-
speaking psychologists.

The rest, as they say, is history. Psychology witnessed a flurry of
Piagetian replication studies, attempts to fit Piaget into the existing field
of developmental psychology, and efforts to train children to acquire
various Piagetian concepts, especially conservation. Researchers con-
ducted laboratory studies of variables such as the nature of task mate-
rials and instructions, the scoring criteria, and the socioeconomic level
of the children. Piagetian- influenced research peaked in the late 1970s
through the early 1980s when approximately one- third of the articles
in major developmental journals cited Piaget (Iaccino & Hogan, 1994).
Piaget’s theory spread into areas such as social development, clinical psy-
chology, and education. This was the “Piagetian stage” of developmental
psychology.

The purpose of this historical side trip is to show the impact of a
theory that recognized the central role of cognition in development.
Piaget searched for the modes of thinking underlying the overt behavior
studied by behaviorists and by child psychologists constructing norms
of development. This focus on cognition provided a new perspective
and inspiration for a generation of developmental psychologists. As
Lourenco and Machado observed, “Paraphrasing Einstein on Euclid, if
Piaget failed to kindle your youthful enthusiasm then you were not born
to be a developmental psychologist” (1996, p. 157)

Discovery of Surprising Features of Children’s Thinking c Piaget’s
main legacy may be his rich description of what it is we develop. The
thousands of observations by Piaget himself plus the thousands of studies
inspired by him constitute a remarkable body of information. Regardless
of the final judgment on his theoretical claims and the exact ages at
which each concept is acquired, his detailed, sensitive, and astute obser-
vations remain with us.

Piaget revealed new developmental phenomena, many of which
strike people as surprising, or counter to common sense. Especially
notable are the following: Young infants often act as though they do not
think that objects are permanent. Preschoolers believe that rearranging
objects can change their number and assert that the wrongness of an act
depends on how much damage resulted. More generally, most concepts
not only take longer to develop than we might think but also go through

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Evaluation of the Theory c 69

a number of interesting steps along the way. A further surprise is that
children think about such a wide variety of things. Children’s thinking
ranges from pondering the origin of the universe to solving the prob-
lem of how to open doors without dropping what they are holding,
from penetrating the nature of society’s moral system to determining
the speed of the swing of a pendulum. In a discipline that has few real
“discoveries” to rival the discovery of a new planet or the structure of
DNA, Piaget’s surprises about cognitive development are refreshing and
his observations remarkable, especially considering that they came from
seemingly mundane, everyday behavior.

Wide Scope c Piaget’s theory is ambitious, drawing its net over behav-
ior ranging from playing with pebbles to causal reasoning, from the
sucking reflex to formal operational structures. The theory attempts
to describe and explain both cognitive stages and transitions between
those stages. Piaget not only tackled cognitive development but also
its implications for other areas of development, such as social and
emotional development and learning. He also contributed to other
disciplines, such as epistemology, philosophy of science, and education.
In Piaget we catch a glimpse of how a complete theory of development
might look.

The theory’s wide scope obviously increases its attractiveness. At the
same time, it increases its vulnerability, as will be seen in the section on
weaknesses. The theory may try to do too much.

Ecological Validity c Every psychologist has an intuitive list of what a
good theory should do. Many lists would include the requirement that
the theory tell us about the real world of children. Although even the
most basic research in laboratories has some relevance for day- to- day
behavior, some approaches have a closer relationship than others to
common, everyday behaviors. Piaget’s theory seems to rate well in this
respect. The focus is on children’s adaptation to the world they encoun-
ter every day. Infants try to grasp a rattle just out of reach, replace a
pacifier, and figure out where a ball has rolled. Preschoolers divide their
cookies with friends, try to express their ideas to others, and chastise
those who break the rules of games. Schoolchildren struggle with math
problems, try to make sense of social rules, and find their way around
their neighborhood or city.

The ecological validity of the theory is more striking for infancy than
for the later stages of development. When studying children beyond
infancy, Piaget tended to interrupt the flow of behavior with questions

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70 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

or even pose problems from the beginning. The reason is that infants’
thinking is expressed in their overt actions, whereas older children’s
thinking is more covert and must be prodded.

Weaknesses
Although Piaget’s theory broke much new ground, it has been heav-
ily criticized as well. The theory provides an easy target because of its
methodology, wide scope, and ties to biology and philosophy. We exam-
ine the following weaknesses: inadequate support for the stage notion,
inadequate account of mechanisms of development, need for a theory of
performance, slighting of social and emotional aspects of development,
underestimation of abilities, and methodological and stylistic barriers.
Lourenco and Machado (1996) can be consulted for a Piagetian defense
against some of the criticisms described below as well as other criticisms.

Inadequate Support for the Stage Notion c The strongest attacks on
Piaget’s theory concerned his notion of stages, the heart of the theory.
Are there, in fact, broad stretches during development that have charac-
teristics that apply to all the psychological events during that period? Or
does the notion of stages simply confuse and mislead by oversimplifying
development and claiming more coherence among concepts than there
actually is? It is not clear whether Piaget actually thought that the logical
structure of each stage should lead to similarity in thought over a variety
of content areas, or whether his logical models were just idealized depic-
tions of each stage. Stages based on logical models might work best as
a heuristic that suggests what to look for and provides a framework for
interpreting behavior. Perhaps the problem of interpreting what Piaget
meant is that “Piaget used too much logic for psychologists and too
much psychology for logicians” (Lourenco & Machado, 1996, p. 156).

The evidence does not support a strong structural version of stages,
in the sense of concurrent changes across all content areas. However,
Piaget himself acknowledged that a structure may apply only to a par-
ticular content area and may have to be constructed anew in various
domains during a stage. He referred to horizontal décalages that occur
when a general concept emerges earlier on some tasks than others. For
example, in the case of conservation, the conservation of substance
typically develops a year or two before conservation of weight. He
also probably would not have been surprised by child prodigies whose
cognitive achievements in one particular area, such as math, are much
more advanced than they are in other areas of thinking. Thus, a weaker

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Evaluation of the Theory c 71

structural version of stages may still be viable; some unevenness across
domains would even be expected. However, inconsistency over trials in
applying even a single concept, such as number conservation, poses a
problem even for this weaker version. For instance, Siegler (1995) found
that slightly over half of his 5- year- olds classified as nonconservers had
generated a correct answer and satisfactory explanation on at least one
pretest problem. Thus, variability is as common as consistency, which
contrasts with Piaget’s emphasis on variability mainly during transition
from one period to another. One kind of inconsistency, described later,
is when children demonstrate a concept with simpler task demands
earlier than with more complex ones. Another form of inconsistency is
that “formal operational” adults who can test hypotheses like a scientist
in some situations often are poor at doing so regarding matters about
which they have intuitive, often erroneous, theories (Kuhn, 1989). They
even ignore or distort data that contradict their beliefs. Given these
inconsistencies, is the mind less a coherent cognitive system than a “col-
lection of different and unrelated mindlets” (Flavell, 1992) devoted to
different contents?

Even if one accepts a weaker stage notion, the problem remains
that Piaget did not provide a satisfactory account of what determines
whether a structure will be applied to a particular content area. When
should we expect generalization, and when should we not? The neo-
Piagetians, described later, helped fill this gap.

It is difficult to decide whether the notion of stages is wrong or sim-
ply incomplete. Are the logicomathematical structures a philosopher’s
dream, or, as described at present, are they simply too vague, general, and
distant from behavior? Looft and Svoboda voiced some of these doubts:

While reading Piaget’s most recent writings one sometimes acquires an
eerie, cold feeling that something very strange is going on in this man’s
work. In his early writings we read about delightful children playing on
the banks of Lake Geneva, expressing their surprise and exhilaration as
they make new discoveries about their little worlds. Today we are pre-
sented with some sort of cybernetic automata, regulating themselves and
pushing themselves to ever higher levels of differentiation and complex-
ity. In short, it would seem that as Piaget’s theory has evolved over the
past five decades to higher and higher levels of abstraction, people have
somehow dropped out and have been replaced by sterile logicomathe-
matical structures.

(1971, p. 15)

Later researchers suggested modifications of Piaget’s notion of
stages, while still retaining his emphasis (e.g., Flavell, 1971b, 1982).

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72 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

For example, stagelike, qualitative changes appear to be causally linked
to more gradual, quantitative sorts of developmental changes, such as an
increasing attentional capacity or an increasing stability and generality of
concepts. Also, because the development of cognitive items of a partic-
ular stage is an extended process, these items may not become tightly
organized and interrelated until the very end of that stage. In fact, chil-
dren may not even achieve the “full functional maturity” of a stage until
after that stage has officially ended. Finally, concepts or structures that
characterize a stage often are only roughly synchronous in their devel-
opment. For example, two concepts might begin their development at
the same time but complete it at different times. Or they might begin
and end their development at different times but have a considerable
temporal overlap.

Even though the stages may be less coherent units than Piaget thought,
they still are useful ways to organize a large number of diverse behaviors.
They are convenient points of reference for accounting for the order-
liness of thought. As Flavell and Wohlwill concluded, “To paraphrase
Voltaire’s dictum concerning the deity: if there were no such structures
in the mind of the child, we should have to invent them, to account for
the degree of consistency and orderliness that we do find in his cognitive
development” (1969, p. 94).

As suggested earlier, the most reasonable way to use Piaget’s notion
of stages may be to look for stagelike changes limited to a particular
content area. Each domain may develop somewhat independently of
the others, and thus we would have domain- specific knowledge. This
possibility was explored by the neo- Piagetians and by information-
processing knowledge- based approaches (see Chapter 7). In the latter
view, a child shifts from novice to expert status after experience in a
particular domain such as chess, soccer, or dinosaurs. Domain- specific
knowledge also is posited by core knowledge approaches (Chapter 9),
certain evolutionary approaches (Chapter 5), and the “theory theory” (of
mind, biology, physics) approaches (Chapter 9).

Inadequate Account of Mechanisms of Development c We need
clarification not only of the criteria for stages but also of mechanisms
that drive development both within a stage and from stage to stage. How
do children acquire new concepts and ways of thinking? Although Piaget
considered explanations of change quite important, he more successfully
described than explained development. Functional invariants, such as
assimilation and accommodation, provide at best a general framework
with which to examine cognitive change. There are no specific, precise

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Evaluation of the Theory c 73

statements as to how sensorimotor thought becomes preoperational
thought or how preoperational thought becomes concrete operational
thought. Furthermore, although the equilibration process is an intui-
tively appealing idea, it is not clear how children’s awareness of a contra-
diction would lead them to the solution that resolves the contradiction
(Bryant, 1986). Simply knowing that something is wrong does not iden-
tify the cause of the problem. Moreover, young children do not seem to
be very good at detecting logical inconsistencies that might cause cog-
nitive conflict. Not until age 6 do children see a problem with the claim
that a man is both tall and very short (Ruffman, 1999).

One way to identify mechanisms of change is to supply certain expe-
riences and see whether they cause cognitive change. The logic is that
the experimental conditions that stimulate a new concept might also
operate in this way in children’s daily lives. Hundreds of training stud-
ies looked at conditions such as creating cognitive conflict, teaching
underlying operations such as reversibility or compensation, redirecting
attention to the relevant feature, such as number, or ensuring memory of
relevant information. Even Piagetians, especially Inhelder, studied how
training studies stimulate learning (Inhelder, Sinclair, & Bovet, 1974).
Unfortunately, training studies only minimally illuminated mechanisms
of development. First of all, even if we find that training based on one
of Piaget’s mechanisms of development (for example, cognitive conflict)
causes the child to acquire the concept, there is no guarantee that chil-
dren progress by this mechanism in real life. Second, when a training
study does succeed, that success may be based on mechanisms other than
those the investigators thought they were providing. Gelman’s (1969)
training redirected the child’s attention from irrelevant dimensions (for
example, length of a row of objects) to the relevant dimension (number).
However, this procedure’s success could have stemmed from cognitive
conflict created when the child’s initial answer did not consistently lead
to reinforcement (Beilin, 1971). Third, there is not a specific account of
why a particular training experience stimulates change in some children
but not others. In general, the older children are, the more likely they
are to acquire the concept as a result of training, presumably because
they are closer to acquiring the concept naturally. However, more
refined predictions are more difficult because it is not clear how to assess
children’s degree of readiness.

Training studies, especially in the United States and England, also
were used to try to disprove Piaget’s theory by showing that a concept
of one stage could be taught to children in an earlier stage, for example
teaching conservation to nonconservers. However, Piaget was dubious

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74 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

about the value of trying to intensively teach concepts to children and
cautioned that “each time one prematurely teaches a child something he
could have discovered for himself, that child is kept from inventing it and
consequently from understanding it completely” (1983, p. 113).

Need for a Theory of Performance c Piaget created an elaborate
system of cognitive structures that represent children’s knowledge
about the world. He also provided a rich description of behavior. There
is, however, a missing link: a detailed account of exactly how the struc-
tures are translated into specific problem- solving strategies “on line” in
a particular context. Such a theory of performance would explain how
children’s knowledge is expressed in their behavior at any particular
time, with particular materials, in a particular context. To illustrate, in
a conservation task, a child must be able to understand the task instruc-
tions, attend to number and ignore other attributes such as color and
the salient length dimension, be able to count, and have the working
memory capacity to remember the equivalence of the rows, the type of
transformation, the questions asked (Miller, 1978). Variables that influ-
ence these processes might include, for example, the salience of each
attribute (shape, color) in the materials, familiarity of the materials, the
amount of information to remember, and the complexity of instructions
about the task. These factors may account, in part, for the extended,
gradual, uneven development of concepts. For example, it may be that
the early, fragile form of a concept can be used only if there are not large
demands on the child’s memory, attentional capacity, and verbal ability.
The neo- Piagetians (e.g., Fischer, Case), described later in this chapter,
have examined performance factors.

Piaget recognized the importance of these cognitive activities, and
in his later years, he and his colleagues studied aspects of performance
such as strategies for gathering relevant information (Inhelder & Piaget,
1980; Piaget, 1981/1987). Piaget thought that it was more important
to describe development and to identify general cognitive structures
first. In contrast, certain other theoretical approaches discussed later
in this book, particularly information processing, Gibson’s perceptual
learning, and learning theory, focus on performance. Such theories may
eventually provide the missing link between structures and behavior in
Piaget’s theory.

Slighting of Social and Emotional Aspects of Development c Piaget
thought that social and emotional influences on cognitive development
were very important. Social experience was one of the variables in his

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Evaluation of the Theory c 75

developmental equation, described earlier. Interacting with other people
provides new information to be assimilated. Conversations with parents
may be especially important for learning about things that cannot be
seen, such as religion (e.g., heaven, God’s special powers) and certain
scientific concepts, such as the round shape of the earth or the brain
basis of thinking (Harris & Koenig, 2006). Recent research shows that
children are selective about whose information they trust (Koenig &
Sabbagh, 2013). They are more likely to accept new information from
people who have been correct in the past, have no apparent ulterior
motive, and are similar to themselves.

Another way that social influences are important is that a concept
may be expressed earlier in a social context, as when Piaget’s daughter
Jacqueline showed a more advanced object concept when she played
peek- a- boo skillfully with her mother at 8 1/2 months than when tested
on nonhuman objects (Piaget, 1937/1954). Regarding affect, Piaget
thought that it was very intertwined with intelligence: “Feelings express
the interest and value given to actions of which intelligence provides the
structure” (1945/1951, pp.  205–206). In a sense, emotions provide
the energy behind cognition. For example, feelings influence children’s
choice of what to apply their structures to; a child with a passion for
airplanes is likely to learn a great deal about them.

For Piaget, the social realm was important not only as an influence on
cognition but also as the content of cognition, for example, the concepts
of morality and of national identity described earlier. More generally, he
thought that cognitive structures are applied to social, as well as nonso-
cial, content.

Despite the importance that Piaget assigned to the social and emo-
tional realms, he paid relatively little attention to them, or to sociohis-
torical influences, in his work. It has been said that Piaget’s epistemic
subject has no social class, sex, nationality, culture, or personality— and
also has no fun (Murray, 1983, p. 231).

Fortunately, other researchers have filled in the gaps or corrected
Piaget’s account of social cognition. Kohlberg (1969) adopted Piaget’s
stage approach to moral judgments and expanded and modified the
model considerably. Social cognitive researchers have addressed chil-
dren’s concepts of self, other people, minds, and social interaction (e.g.,
Banaji & Gelman, 2013). Some work has examined peer interactions,
thought by Piaget to be important for creating cognitive conflict that
could cause cognitive progress. For example, interactions between non-
conservers and conservers prior to deciding on a mutually agreed- upon
answer tend to be tilted toward the conserver. These interactions often

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76 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

are very brief— in one study (Russell, 1982) an average of 40 seconds,
consisting of little more than the conserver saying, “Same size, OK? . . .
Ready!” Finally, the cultural and person- in- context approaches discussed
later in this volume greatly expand our knowledge of sociocultural influ-
ences on cognitive development.

Underestimation of Abilities c Piaget likely underestimated chil-
dren’s cognitive abilities at each age. The “miracle baby” (Gopnik, 1994,
p.  133) experiments suggest that babies know a lot more than Piaget
thought. For example, Piaget’s requiring infants to search for a hidden
object before being credited with the concept of object permanence
may have underestimated their competence. Baillargeon (1987) found
that 4- month- old infants, who should be too young to understand object
permanence, looked a long time (i.e., were surprised) when a screen
falling away from them seemed to pass through a box (now out of view)
they had seen there earlier. Other examples appear later in this chapter
in the “Contemporary Research” section. This “baby assault on Piaget”
(Rochat, 2012, p. 71) questioned Piaget’s belief that infants have to con-
struct the foundations of a coherent world over the first two years of life.

Similarly, with preschoolers, work on children’s “theory of mind”
(see Chapter 9) suggests that by age 4 or 5 children know more about
another person’s perspective than Piaget thought. They know, for
example, that another child would think that a crayon box holds crayons
rather than candles, even though they themselves know it holds can-
dles. Also, with young children, the verbal nature of much of Piaget’s
testing raises the possibility of underestimating children’s knowledge if
they do not understand the language used during testing, for example,
the meaning of “same number” and “amount.” Or children may not be
able to express in words their ideas about quantity, the origin of the
universe, the nature of dreams, and so forth. For instance, children may
have the concept of conservation but not be able to give an adequate
reason for their answer— one of Piaget’s criteria for conservation. Or
the standard Piagetian procedures may actually be tapping into children’s
understanding of conversation. An adult asking children about quantity
twice (before and after the transformation) may cause children to think
that they should change their answer (Siegal, 1991). Children may think
that when an authority figure asks a question a second time, this usu-
ally means that the first answer was not satisfactory. In all these ways,
Piagetian procedures may underestimate children’s knowledge.

This concern about tasks’ verbal requirements led to a number of inter-
esting attempts to devise nonverbal, or at least less verbal, procedures.

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Evaluation of the Theory c 77

Psychologists cleverly devised ways of using expressions of surprise
(Gelman, 1972), heart rate changes (Bower, 1974), and choice of
(more) candy to take home (S.  A.  Miller, 1976) to assess for certain
concepts. For example, if an experimenter surreptitiously removes a
toy mouse, 3- year- olds are surprised by this changed number of mice
(Gelman, 1972), indicating some understanding of number. Some of the
studies employing nonverbal assessments found better performance than
did Piaget, but others did not.

Underestimation also can come from complex procedures. One way
to simplify the task is to use simpler materials. For example, young chil-
dren show greater knowledge about counting when there are only a few
objects than when there are many (Gelman & Gallistel, 1978).

What should we conclude from these many demonstrations that
Piagetian concepts appear to emerge earlier than Piaget thought if
motor, verbal, and information- processing demands are reduced or
eliminated? One possible conclusion is that Piaget did in fact underesti-
mate children’s competencies. Some psychologists see this as damaging
evidence against Piaget’s theory. For example, unearthing the early com-
petencies in infancy has led some developmentalists to argue for innate
predispositions that permit the early, rapid acquisition of core knowl-
edge about language, mental states, and objects and their behaviors (e.g.,
Spelke, Bernier, & Skerry, 2013). However, recall that Piaget’s main
claims concerned the sequence in which concepts are acquired rather
than the particular ages, which he thought would vary. Thus, showing
that an ability emerged earlier than Piaget claimed is not necessarily
damaging to his theory.

A more intriguing conclusion about these earlier competencies is that
they may be less advanced versions of, and precursors of, the later, more
advanced concepts described by Piaget. For example, young infants’
apparent understanding of object permanence actually may reflect a
competency that is more perceptual than conceptual (e.g., Bremner,
Slater, & Johnson, 2014). And preschoolers’ successful performance
on modifications of concrete operational tasks actually may reflect only
preoperational concepts, such as the function, described earlier, rather
than concrete operational concepts (Lourenco & Machado, 1996). That
is, the simplified task provides so much perceptual support that the con-
ditions theoretically necessary for concrete operational reasoning are
not present.

The differences in the methodology of Genevan Piagetians com-
pared to researchers in other countries reflect different goals of assess-
ment. Piaget especially wanted to avoid “false positive errors,” namely,

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78 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

concluding that children have the concept when in fact they do not.
Thus, he sometimes even considered it desirable to have complex mate-
rials, a misleading visual array, and heavy verbal demands so that only
children who see the concept as logically necessary will prevail. In con-
trast, the other camp is more concerned about “false negative errors,”
concluding that children do not have the concept when in fact they do.

In any case, research on early competencies has been quite fruitful,
for it has revealed positive acquisitions during the infancy and preschool
years that complement Piaget’s emphasis on the deficiencies of young
children. For example, it turns out that preschoolers know a great
deal about number (e.g., Nunes & Bryant, 2015). Gelman and Gallistel
(1978) found a sequence of simple principles of counting, such as the
principle that numerals must always be used in the same order. That is,
children who say “1, 2, 6, 9” follow this counting principle correctly
if they always use these numerals in this order for counting. These
early principles supplement Piaget’s account of the full- blown concept
of number acquired several years later. Techniques that simplify the
Piagetian tests are more sensitive to earlier forms of concepts than are
Piaget’s procedures.

It is interesting, however, that in addition to finding Piagetian under-
estimations, researchers also have found overestimations. For example,
as discussed earlier, adolescents and even adults often fail to use formal
operational reasoning. In fact, Piaget (1972) later concluded that the
stage continued until age 20 or so.

Methodological and Stylistic Barriers c Piaget’s critics attack his
methodology not only with respect to issues of underestimation and
overestimation but also because much of it does not meet the conven-
tions of developmental science. In his infancy research, Piaget observed
his own three children. Unfortunately, he did not have 40 or 50 children
of his own to give us a more respectable sample size. The small number
of research participants, the possible biases in interpreting the behav-
ior of one’s own children, the absence of measures of reliability from
two independent observers, and the lack of control over the children’s
immediate environment, possible only in a laboratory, did not endear
Piaget to American experimental psychologists. However, subsequent
studies by others, with more participants and better- controlled testing
situations, generally have replicated the sequences of development,
though not always the exact ages at which the changes occur.

In his work with older children, Piaget often tested large samples
of children (for example, 2,159 for Early Growth of Logic in the Child

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Evaluation of the Theory c 79

(1964b)!). He usually employed the clinical method. Although this
method has certain advantages, such as flexibility in tailoring questions
to the particular answers given by each child, it also has a number of
disadvantages. Two main disadvantages are the danger that examiners
may be too leading in their questions or not leading enough and that
different children often are asked slightly different questions. Uniform
instructions, materials, and measures of response are the backbone of
testing in experimental psychology. We are asked to make the leap of
faith that Piaget was in fact a sensitive and accurate observer. Piaget
himself seemed aware of these problems:

It is so hard not to talk too much when questioning a child, especially for
a pedagogue! It is so hard not to be suggestive! And above all, it is so hard
to find the middle course between systematization due to preconceived
ideas and incoherence due to the absence of any directing hypothesis!

(1926/1929, p. 9)

Piaget’s reporting of his experiments also is frustrating to contempo-
rary psychologists. He typically did not report the number of children,
their race or socioeconomic level, and details of the testing procedure.
Sometimes it is even difficult to tell whether Piaget was referring to
hypothetical children or children he had actually tested. He was not
impressed with tightly controlled laboratory experiments and statis-
tical analysis. In his words, “acute observation, especially when made
by [a good observer] . . . , surpasses all statistics” (1936/1952b, p. 72).
Instead of presenting statistical summaries of the findings, Piaget provides
sample protocols, which he interpreted at great length. The reader has
no idea whether these protocols are representative of all children tested.

What are we to make of these characteristics of Piaget’s methodology
and writing? Flavell (1963) concluded that Piaget mainly wanted to sat-
isfy his own curiosity, not the requirements of the scientific community.
Thus, he played by his own rules when doing research and wrote almost
as though he were talking to himself. After all, epistemology, not devel-
opmental psychology, was his passion.

Although Piaget’s methodology and reporting are annoying to anyone
trying to understand and evaluate his theory, they may be somewhat
responsible for Piaget’s success. His qualitative methods captured the
richness of children’s thinking, which sometimes is lost when quantita-
tive methods are used. If Piaget had used standardized procedures from
the beginning, solidly confirming each finding, he might have missed
some fascinating facets of cognitive development and not have pro-
gressed as far as he did.

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80 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

Piaget’s Own Modifications of His Theory
Piaget considered himself one of the primary revisionists of “Piaget’s
theory.” Translations of his later works led to some modifications of the
“classic Piaget” (see Müller, Carpendale, & Smith, 2010). Although some
of this more recent work was presented throughout this chapter, several
theoretical changes should be highlighted, particularly regarding devel-
opmental change, equilibration, and the logicomathematical model.

In his later years, Piaget (1975/1985) put much less emphasis on
stages. In fact, Vuyk concluded that Piaget “now considers development
a spiral and though one may call a stage ‘a detour of the spiral,’ this
indicates that periods of equilibrium are relatively unimportant” (1981,
p. 192). Piaget began to view development as less steplike, with longer
transition periods between stages. He also increased his attention to
mechanisms of cognitive change, especially the equilibration process.
He further worked out the equilibration processes. In particular, he
emphasized mental actions that compensate for the ways the envi-
ronment does not fit into current cognitive structures and reflective
abstraction. In reflective abstraction, children construct new knowledge by
taking their knowledge to a higher level and reorganizing it at that level.
Piaget gave the example that young children can know how to get from
home to school in a practical way, using cues to guide them from one
point to another. In reflective abstraction, this knowledge is projected
onto a representational level— an overall cognitive map of the spatial
relations between home and school (Montangero & Maurice- Naville,
1997, p. 58).

Piaget  also worked out a new way of describing developmental
change, both within a stage and over all the stages: intra-, inter-, and trans-
changes. Knowledge about properties of objects (intra) leads to knowl-
edge about relations between object properties or actions (inter) and
then to a structure that organizes these relations (trans). For example,
a child moves from “A car can be ridden in,” to “Cars and buses can be
ridden in” and thus go together, to “Cars and buses and other vehicles are
modes of transportation within a hierarchical logical system.”

Piaget expanded on the role of “possibilities” (the way things might
be) and “procedures” (strategies) in the process of development. This
contrasts with his earlier emphasis on logical necessity. A new cogni-
tive structure generates new possibilities, which takes children beyond
current reality and permits them to try out new procedures on objects.
As an example of the increasing awareness of possibilities during
development, Piaget (1954/1981) showed children a box with only one

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Piaget’s Own Modifications of His Theory c 81

side visible under a cloth. At age 5 or 6, children would accept only a
single possibility for the color of the hidden side of the box— the same
color as the visible side. Thus, a sense of necessity occurs in young chil-
dren because they can imagine only a single possibility. By age 7 to 10,
children recognized multiple, though limited, possibilities: the hidden
side might be “green, violet, blue, white, yellow . . . that’s all” (Piaget,
1954/1981, p. 44). At age 11 to 12, children realize that the number
of possibilities is essentially unlimited. This development is interesting
because the concept of unlimited possibilities cannot be observed in the
environment. It must be constructed internally.

Piaget further explored the contradiction aspect of equilibration
(1974/1980). He presented a row of seven disks, each of which was
slightly, but imperceptibly, larger than the one before it. Because the last
and largest disk was unattached, it could be moved to, and compared
with, each of the six disks attached to the board. Thus, the contradiction
facing the child was that any two adjacent disks appeared to be equal in
size but the disk at the end of the series was obviously larger than the
first disk. Three stages of understanding contradiction emerged. In the
first stage, young children were unaware of the contradiction. Next,
children had some awareness of the contradiction, but their attempted
solutions were not satisfactory. For example, a child might categorize
the disks as small ones and large ones, thereby accounting for some of
the perceived equivalences between adjacent disks (both are “small”)
and also explaining the difference in size of the first (“small”) and last
(“large”) disk. Finally, by age 11 or 12, children resolved the contra-
diction and re- established equilibrium by creating a new structure—
quantified seriation of size.

Piaget’s most radical changes were in his logicomathematical model
of thinking, though his death prevented him from completing the proj-
ect (Beilin & Fireman, 2000, p. 239). He considered that logic could
come from the meanings of objects, developed from infants’ actions.
Specifically, infants learn that one action on an object is related to other
actions; the meaning of actions comes from “what they lead to.” That
is, one action implies another action, in a sort of “logic of meaning in
actions,” a “ psycho- logic” on objects. For example, infants who push
an object away from themselves may infer that the object also can be
pulled back. Another example is that “if I release the car down the
ramp it will crash into the house at the bottom.” This action- based logic
later leads to a logic of operations, such as when the pushing– pulling
relation leads to the reversal of a mental action. Remarkably, Piaget
perceived in infants’ coordinations of their actions (a logic of meaning)

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82 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

a sensorimotor counterpart to the 16 binary combinations of formal
operations thought.

In category theory, Piaget’s previous emphasis on action in the form
of mental transformations was supplemented with “correspondences”
between two static states (Piaget, 1979). Comparisons of static states
are central, as when a preoperational child sees the similarity between
a currently perceived object and a previously encountered one, and
thereby assimilates the current one. The current object or event is recog-
nized, categorized, or characterized; it therefore “corresponds” (is seen
as similar) to other objects or events. Or a child may perceive that each
of five dolls of increasing size maps onto five dresses of increasing size
(Davidson, 1988). Detecting correspondences can lead a child to notice
a transformation. For example, when a picture corresponds to the same
picture hung upside down, a mental rotation links the two states and
underlies their correspondence.

Piaget’s final contributions have had little influence on developmental
psychology. The reasons may be (a) doubts about the whole enterprise of
logical models and stage theories and (b) the emergence of other attrac-
tive theories of cognitive development, discussed in later chapters, that
have offered new perspectives and tasks.

The Neo- Piagetians
Many of the problems and limitations raised about Piaget’s theory have
been addressed by a group of developmental psychologists labeled “ neo-
Piagetian.” They are Piagetian in their belief in structural change and in
children’s active construction of some sort of stages. In particular, they
believe that lower- level concepts are integrated to form more complex
higher- level concepts. However, they are “neo” in their inclusion of
information- processing constructs (see Chapter 7) such as skills, limited
memory capacity, and domain- specific concepts. Domain- specific con-
cepts or cognitive structures are those that pertain only to a particular
area or areas, such as role taking or number. Thus, a careful analysis of
particular tasks is necessary. In contrast, Piaget emphasized the domain-
general application of cognitive structures. Neo- Piagetians also are “neo”
in that they draw on the social- contextual idea (see Chapter 4) of social
supports for emerging cognitive skills and on dynamic systems theory
(see Chapter 9). We examine the theories of Robbie Case (e.g., Case,
1998; Morra, Gobbo, Marini, & Sheese, 2008) and Kurt Fischer (e.g.,
Mascolo & Fischer, 2015), two main neo- Piagetians (see Morra et al.,
2008, for other neo- Piagetian theories).

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Robbie Case
Case, like Piaget, addressed cognitive changes from one level to the next.
Case, however, attributed much of such change to increased working mem-
ory capacity or, in his words, executive processing space: “the maximum num-
ber of independent schemes a child can activate at any one time” (1985,
p. 289). This processing space determines how many things a child can think
about at the same time and use for further processing. For Case, children’s
thinking develops due to their increased efficiency of using their working
memory capacity, rather than to Piaget’s equilibration process. Capacity
can increase in two ways. First, practice with a skill, such as counting,
makes it less effortful and more efficient, thus freeing previously needed
capacity. A given amount of capacity goes much further if many elements
can be processed, rather than a few. This increase in available capacity can
be used for additional cognitive activities, for example, both counting and
remembering. The faster children can count objects, the better they are at
remembering the number of objects in sets in a counting span test (Case,
1985). Second, brain maturation increases the amount of information
children can handle. Increased myelination (insulation of neurons) and per-
haps increased neural connections between the frontal and posterior lobes
increase the efficiency and integration of cognitive functioning. Spurts in
neurological maturation are correlated with cognitive spurts (Case, 1985).

Case differed from Piaget in his view of how children’s mental struc-
tures should be modeled. Case remarked that “it seemed that Piaget’s
theory was better equipped for representing the structure in the mind
of logicians than the structure in the minds of young children” (1992,
p. 6). Rather than draw on symbolic logic, Case used constructs from
the information- processing framework, particularly (a) children’s rich
networks of concepts and their relations and (b) executive control struc-
tures, which help children deal with specific problem- solving situations.
He viewed children as problem solvers, with these control structures as
their tools. Using these control structures, children can set goals, acti-
vate procedures (sequences of schemes) in novel ways for reaching these
goals, and evaluate the results of these procedures. Children also can
restructure successful procedures so that they later can produce them
intentionally, and practice and integrate successful procedures until they
are consolidated. For example, with respect to counting, children set a
goal (determining the number of objects), generate counting procedures
for attaining it, evaluate their success, “mark” the successful sequence,
and integrate the successful counting procedures.

When children experiment during attempts to solve problems, they
explore objects, observe and imitate other people, and interact with

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84 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

others as together they solve a problem. For example, children might learn
about counting by using their own verbal labels as they touch each object
during problem solving, counting different types of objects during explor-
ing, observing others count, and trying to count a large set with the help
of an adult. If children have the necessary processing capacity, they can
take advantage of these experiences to construct more advanced executive
control structures (for example, procedures for determining quantity).

Case addressed the debate about general versus domain- specific cog-
nitive structures by proposing a small set of central conceptual structures
at an intermediate level of generality. They are less general than Piaget’s
stage structures but more general than a single task. Each central con-
ceptual structure is a representational system of a domain of knowledge
such as number, space, or social interaction that should permit a child
to apply that knowledge to all tasks in that domain. Thus, children look
stagelike, showing similar thinking, across tasks calling for the same
central conceptual structure. In contrast, children do not look stagelike,
showing different types or levels of thinking, across tasks requiring dif-
ferent central conceptual structures.

Central conceptual structures interpret specific tasks in the domain
and assemble problem- solving procedures for these tasks (the executive
control structures mentioned earlier), a process that can cause cognitive
change at this specific level. These specific level changes, along with
increased capacity, in turn stimulate changes in the central conceptual
structure for that domain. In this way, they bootstrap each other during
development.

Case thought that, on a given task, children develop in a qualitative
stagelike way, as they learn to use one dimension or component, then
two, and then integrate them. For example, when told to tell a story
about a little child and an old horse, young children relate a social situa-
tion with no mention of motives, whereas slightly older children create a
story around the intentions of the central character. Later, children create
a chain of two or more event sequences in which the first sequence does
not lead to goal satisfaction, while the second sequence does. Finally, at
the integrated level, children coordinate multiple attempts at satisfaction
into an overall, complex, organized plot. As another example, the repre-
sentations of spatial relations in Chinese children’s drawings show a sim-
ilar sequence (see Figure 2.2): (a) no real concern with spatial relations,
(b) placement of objects into a single spatial dimension, (c) depiction of
both foreground and background, and (c) creation of a coherent, unified
picture.

Case’s theory is an interesting attempt to integrate a structural model
and a processing model of development. He showed how limits in

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The Neo- Piagetians c 85

processing capacity and social experience limit logical reasoning and con-
strain what the child can learn at any developmental level. By the same
token, an increase in capacity creates a new opportunity for the further
development of logical thinking. He examined a variety of skills, such as
spatial representation, social cognition, eating with utensils in infancy,
using vocalizations for social purposes, manipulating other people’s
feelings, storytelling, understanding emotions, and judging intelligence
in others.

Kurt Fischer
Fischer agrees with Case in many ways. Fischer’s particular contribution
is that he addresses one of the main challenges to Piaget’s stage theory—
the observed variability in children’s behavior, when Piaget would

F I G U R E   2 . 2
Typical pictures drawn by children aged 4(a), 6(b), 8(c), and 10(d) in Nanjing, China, when
told to “draw a picture of a mother and a father holding hands in a park. A baby is in front of
them and a tree is very far away behind them.”
[Reproduced with permission from “The role of central conceptual structures in the development of children’s
thought,” by Robbie Case and Yukari Okamoto, in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child
Development, 1996, 61(1–2), Serial No. 246, p. 139. © 1996 by the Society for Research in Child Development
with permission from Wiley Publishers.]

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86 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

predict stagelike consistency. In Fischer’s view, “Variations in develop-
mental level are routine and pervasive and they need to be explained,
not ignored” (Fischer & Hencke, 1996, p.  209). Fischer’s dynamic
structuralism posits that children’s thinking can be variable, but also struc-
tured and predictable. Thus, Fischer, like Case, keeps Piaget’s notion of
cognitive structures but argues that they are not static; whether children
express them or not depends on the support in a particular social setting.

Children gradually construct their thinking and learning skills as they
use them in activities in various contexts. A skill, defined as “the capacity
to act in an organized way in a specific context” (Fischer & Bidell, 2006),
includes abilities such as storytelling, counting, forming relationships
with others, and reading. A child may show variability in the use of a skill
across contexts, as when a child may be able to add numbers at school
when watching a teacher’s actions but not when doing homework alone
at home. Fischer called a child’s variability in performance a developmen-
tal range. At one end of the range, with contextual supports such as social
prompts or physical cues, children operate at their maximal, optimal level.
At the other end, in a setting devoid of meaning, value, or support, or
under conditions of fatigue, emotional stress, or distraction, children are
unlikely to express their skill. Children can even operate beyond their
optimal level with adult social scaffolding, in which an adult more fully
participates in the child’s activity by providing instruction or carrying
out part of the action (see also Vygotsky’s “zone of proximal develop-
ment,” Chapter 4). In short, children’s level of thinking has to do with
the fit between children and their environment, not the children alone.

A child also may show variability across skills, such that the child’s
thinking seems to be at different cognitive levels in different domains.
Children are most likely to be advanced in a skill, such as counting, if
they are raised in an environment with support for developing and using
this skill, such as when parents play counting games with their children.
Such children may be less advanced with respect to other skills, such
as reading, generally considered to be in the same stage, if they have
had little support or training for those skills. Thus, children are not “in”
one stage or another. Rather, they will show various levels of cognitive
functioning across various domains, depending on the opportunities for
developing a particular skill in their social environments. On the other
hand, thinking can appear stagelike and domain general if there is sup-
port in many domains.

Fischer uses the term dynamic skills because children are constantly
having to adjust their skills to changing conditions and people and even
to reorganize their skills. They use “not only their brains but also their

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The Neo- Piagetians c 87

bodies, the objects and people around them, and the roles, norms,
and values of their culture” (Fischer & Bidell, 1998, p. 545). Through
studying children’s actions in context, Fischer tries to map the “dynamic
structures” of human behavior. He draws on dynamic- systems theory
(see Chapter 9) to capture the orderly patterns of development within
children’s variable behavior.

Still another aspect of variability in Fischer’s model is that a child may
follow several different developmental routes for different skills, and
different children may follow different pathways to one particular skill.
He contrasts his view with traditional metaphors of development, such
as a ladder, in which all children begin at one point and move from one
formal structure to the next to a final point. He offers an alternative
metaphor— a “developmental web”: “Unlike the steps in a ladder, the
strands in a web are not fixed in a determined order but are the joint
product of the web builder’s constructive activity and the supportive con-
text in which it is built (like branches, leaves, or the corner of a wall,
for a spider web)” (Fischer & Bidell, 2006, p. 319). Thus, like a spider
who must shift the direction and form of a web when a nonsupportive
leaf breaks off, young children who develop their storytelling skills in a
particular direction but find that their parents ignore this emergent skill
may turn to their peers for listeners. Because adults and peers provide
different sorts of feedback and support for this emerging skill, the chil-
dren develop this skill along a different developmental pathway, perhaps
toward more violent action and less coherence in the stories. In other
words, different children encounter different settings that impact skills
differently. Another example is that abused children are not simply
socially unskilled but have developed alternative cognitive and social
pathways to cope with their abuse. Thus Fischer provides a way to think
about individual differences not only in how advanced children are
along a normative pathway but also in terms of how children’s pathways
can differ.

Like Piaget and Case, Fischer believes that children develop through
a sequence of tiers. Fischer proposes four tiers of increasing complexity
from birth through early adulthood— reflexes, sensorimotor actions,
representations, and abstractions (Mascolo & Fischer, 2015). Moving
from one tier to the next involves cognitive reorganization, much as in
Piaget’s theory, and spurts in performance. Within each of the four tiers,
children go through the same sequence of four levels: single sets, then
mappings (coordination) between sets, then a system of mappings, then
a system of systems. This system of systems then becomes the first level
(single set) of the next tier. For example, in the sensorimotor actions

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88 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

tier, a single action, such as an infant reaching, is followed by a two-
action connection in which an infant reaches for a ball in order to look at
it. Next come connections between two- action systems, such as moving
a rattle in various ways in order to look at different parts of it. Finally,
a system of action systems (level 4) becomes level 1 (a single representa-
tion) of the next tier— the tier of representations. This new tier permits
a coordination of two or more action systems from the sensorimotor
tier, as when a toddler pretends that a doll is walking. This cycle of levels
is then repeated: single representations, then two connected represen-
tations, systems of representations, then, systems of representational
systems (level 4 of the representational tier).

As another example, single representations of doctor and patient
become mapped into each other in the doctor– patient roles; during play,
the doctor doll gives medicine to the patient doll after she complains of
a stomachache. Later, children coordinate two mappings and perhaps
show a person in two roles simultaneously (e.g., doctor and father).
Finally, the various roles of two or more people are integrated into a
system of representations, which also is a single abstraction for the next
tier, and so on.

A child might appear to advance in a stagelike way when simultane-
ous changes in several domains, such as spatial understanding, object
permanence, and pretend play, merge to cause a developmental spurt.
A period of rapid brain maturation also could cause rapid changes across
many domains. At other times, development across domains occurs at
different times, and thus thinking does not seem stagelike.

Note that these tiers become increasingly abstract and bear a marked
similarity to Piaget’s stages. Fischer’s contribution regarding stages is to
show the same sequence of substages across all four tiers, and in diverse
content areas such as gender- role development, reading, emotional
development, adolescents’ relationships, and planning.

Neo- Piagetian Themes
In summary, neo- Piagetians enrich and specify Piaget’s theory, rather
than contradict it. Their main contributions are to draw on information-
processing and dynamic systems theories to (1) propose a promising set
of processes, such as social support and increases in working memory,
that account for developmental change and intrachild and interchild
variability, and (2) clarify and refine the notion of stages, for example,
by attempting to differentiate domain- general and domain- specific

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Contemporary Research c 89

achievements. As Flavell observed, “Cognitive development might
appear to be more general- stagelike than many of us believed, if only we
knew how and where to look” (1982, p. 1).

Contemporary Research
In a broad sense, much of the current research on cognitive development
is Piagetian. Although many psychologists claim that the influence of
Piagetian theory has waned greatly, this decline may be more apparent
than real. Even though there are few explicitly Piagetian studies, partic-
ularly with Piagetian tasks such as conservation and class inclusion, many
Piagetian concepts, from object permanence to scientific reasoning, are
still studied. Moreover, so many of Piaget’s assumptions about the nature
of cognitive development are assimilated into the thinking of researchers
that Piaget’s ongoing influence often is not recognized. As Flavell notes,
“I think we are in more danger of underappreciating Piaget than of over-
appreciating him, for much the same reason that fish are said to underap-
preciate the virtues of water” (1996, p. 202). Examples of this pervasive
but invisible Piagentian presence are the following: It is taken for granted
that children actively construct knowledge rather than simply absorb
information; to a great extent children teach themselves. Researchers
routinely search for an organized conceptual minisystem underlying
several different behaviors in a particular domain, for example, the orga-
nized theorylike understanding underlying children’s grasp of the nature
of mind— theory of mind (see Chapter 9). They also regularly look at
the sequence in which concepts in a particular domain are acquired, for
example, studies of the order in which children acquire various theory-
of- mind concepts in various cultures (Shahaeian, Peterson, Slaughter, &
Wellman, 2011). Researchers look for the processes by which a new
concept arises from a previous one, and try to identify when a child is
ready to learn. Developmentalists also continue to be informed by the
“wrong” or “cute” notions that preschool children have about the world
that are a symptom of a complex, probing intellectual system trying to
make sense of the world. Finally, researchers continue to try to teach
new concepts before they are acquired naturally, in part to test the limits
of, or constraints on, the ability to learn.

These Piagetian influences particularly play out in three topics today:
infants’ advanced competencies, children’s domain- specific concepts,
and mechanisms of development. These topics address three current
areas of contention: How early are various concepts acquired? To what

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90 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

extent is knowledge organized by domains versus applied to multiple
domains? How can we account for new knowledge? These lines of
research began in earlier challenges to Piaget’s theory (especially the
stage notion), described previously in this chapter, thus setting in motion
major themes in developmental research today.

Infants’ Advanced Competencies
New methods not available to Piaget, particularly measuring infants’
longer looking time at events that violate their expectations, continue
to detect seemingly remarkable knowledge in infants that Piaget thought
developed much later. Young infants appear to imitate others, detect
their intentions, understand physical qualities of objects such as perma-
nence and containment, and categorize objects (including people). One
striking example is that infants seem to understand adults’ intentions,
even if they do not see adults achieve their goal, as when 7- month-
olds reach for an object that they saw an adult reach for unsuccessfully
(Hamlin, Hallinan, & Woodward, 2008). In contrast, they do not imitate
an action with an ambiguous goal, even if the adult successfully attained
the goal. That is, they can analyze the goals of even uncompleted actions
and imitate only those behaviors that are goal directed, regardless of
whether they are successful. Another example is that 6- month- old
infants’ looking shows that they can discriminate between small sets of
numbers, such as 1 versus 2, 2 versus 4, and 4 versus 8, indicating some
sense of number (Starr, Libertus, & Brannon, 2013). Infants also appear
to form concepts of categories such as shapes and animals (Sloutsky,
2015). For example, infants are familiarized with exemplars from a cat-
egory, such as dogs, and then presented with a new category member
and a noncategory object. Given infants’ preference for novelty, their
looking at the noncategory object is taken as evidence that infants have
constructed a category of dogs. Finally, infants seem to have some moral
sense— a tendency to see certain actions and people as good or bad.
They can infer intentions from the behaviors of puppets or animated
shapes that help or hinder someone’s behaviors toward a goal (Hamlin,
2013). For example, infants watched a puppet unsuccessfully attempt to
climb a hill, and either a “helper” aided the climber by bumping him up
or a “hinderer” bumped the climber back down the hill. Even 5- month-
olds seemingly detected the positive motive of the “helper” and pre-
ferred (i.e., they reached for) the helper rather than the hinderer. Infants
also seem to approve of retribution against those with these antisocial

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Contemporary Research c 91

mental states. For instance, when they had to take a treat away from
someone, they took it from the bad individual (Hamlin, Wynn, Bloom, &
Mahajan, 2011).

The debate continues over whether these seemingly precocious
concepts are simply earlier, more perceptual, versions of concepts that
Piaget thought emerged later (e.g., Bremner et  al., 2014) or are the
same concepts, but detected earlier due to more sensitive assessments.
Early detection of a perceptual discrepancy may lead to a later concep-
tual understanding.

Domain- Specific Concepts
Having turned away from grand stage approaches, researchers continue
to study the development of an organized understanding specific to a
particular domain, in domains examined by Piaget, particularly number,
moral reasoning, space, biology, physics, and people. They also research
other topics mapped out by Piaget, such as scientific reasoning, symbols,
social understanding, and reasoning (e.g., Liben & Müller, 2015). Much
of this contemporary work falls within the theory theory approach (see
Chapter  9), which examines children’s organized “foundational” con-
cepts about physics, psychology, and biology that are important to learn
quickly early in life, in order to adapt and thrive. Knowing that objects
fall down rather than up, distinguishing between animate and inanimate
objects, and understanding others’ intentions and beliefs are examples.
These organized, coherent systems of knowledge about a domain obvi-
ously retain important elements from Piaget’s theory.

Mechanisms of Development
Cognitive developmentalists today continue Piaget’s quest for the mech-
anisms that move cognitive development along. Of particular interest are
increases in working memory, speed of processing, a growing knowledge
base in particular domains, inhibitory control of thinking, and brain
maturation (Keating, 2012). Although Piaget considered maturation
an important contributor in his formula for development described
earlier, only recently has it been possible to examine brain maturation
(see Chapter  5). Developmental cognitive neuroscience, particularly
neuroimaging methods such as fMRI, is documenting the role of brain
functioning in children’s cognitive development (see Johnson & de
Haan, 2015, for an overview). For example, maturation of the cerebral

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92 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

cortex correlates with cognitive milestones during development (Sowell
et al., 2004).

One powerful mechanism of cognitive development due to the matu-
ration of the frontal cortex is the inhibition of dominant but less mature
responses. On Piaget’s A- not- B task described earlier, infants’ tendency
to look under the first hiding place rather than the final one may indi-
cate not a lack of understanding of object permanence, but rather their
inability to inhibit their highly practiced tendency to search the first hid-
ing place (Diamond, 1985). Moreover, studies of brain activity related
to inhibition show that children have to be able to inhibit their length-
equals- number strategy before they can give a conservation answer
on a conservation- of- number task (Linzarini, Houdé, & Borst, 2015).
Interestingly, adults also show a pattern of brain activity suggesting that
they have to inhibit a childlike nonconserver tendency that competes
with their logic- based concept of conservation. Thus, mechanisms of
development operate not only by leading children to new concepts but
also by helping them leave behind old ways of thinking.

Piaget’s constructivist approach to explaining development is cap-
tured in the neuroconstructivism approach ( Karmiloff- Smith, 2012). The
process of development is key to understanding adult brains. The brain
is constantly changing and reorganizing due to two- way interactions
among genes, brain, cognition, behavior, and environment during devel-
opment. Small initial differences in the focus of various brain regions,
when combined with experience during development, result in special-
ized regions. Moreover, neurodevelopmental disorders are due to small
initial differences between typically and atypically developing children in
brain functioning or environments that, over the course of development,
cascade into much larger differences in brain functioning, cognition, and
behavior.

Other research on the process of change from one cognitive level to
another has tried to identify conditions in which children are most likely
to advance cognitively from new experiences or direct instruction. An
example is children who give the wrong answer on a conservation task
but show their correct implicit understanding in their hand gestures
(Church & Goldin- Meadow, 1986). Some widen the space between
their hands, indicating their awareness of the increased width of the con-
tainer of liquid even though their answer is based on how high the liquid
rises. These children progressed more after conservation training than
did nonconservers whose hands agreed with their words by indicating
liquid height. Such work on discordant representations provides a new
perspective on cognitive readiness to learn from experience and thus
advance cognitively.

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Summary c 93

SUMMARY
Piaget’s theory posits universal, invariant stages in how children acquire
knowledge about the world (genetic epistemology). In the first two years
of life, children construct sensorimotor schemes based on physical action
upon the world. The schemes become more intentional and integrated
during that time. During the preoperational period, approximately age
2 to 7, children exploit their newly acquired symbolic ability. Despite
the limitations of egocentrism, rigid thought, and limited role- taking
and communication abilities, children combine symbols into semilog-
ical reasoning. During the concrete operational period, roughly age 7
to 11, children acquire logicomathematical structures. Now thought is
operational and consequently more flexible and abstract. Actions are still
the main source of knowledge, but the actions now are mental. Finally,
during the formal operational period, age 11 to 15, these operations are
no longer limited to concrete objects. Operations can be performed on
operations, verbal propositions, and hypothetical conditions.

These stagelike changes involve changes in the structure of thought.
Thought becomes increasingly organized, always building on the struc-
ture of the previous stage. Evidence for these structural changes comes
from observations of infants and from interviews or problem- solving
tasks with older children.

Movement through the stages is caused by four factors: physical
maturation, experience with physical objects, social experience, and
equilibration. Experience brings cognitive progress through assimilation
and accommodation. These functional invariants help children adapt to
the environment by strengthening and stretching their current under-
standing of the world.

Piaget viewed children as active and self- regulating organisms who
change by means of interacting innate and environmental factors. He
emphasized qualitative change but identified certain quantitative changes
as well. The essence of cognitive development is structural change. Piaget
drew on the equilibration model and the logicomathematical model to
describe these changes. His theory has contributed many educational
concepts, for example, “readiness to learn” and the “active learner.”

The theory’s main strengths are its recognition of the central role
of cognition in development, discovery of surprising features of young
children’s thinking, wide scope, and ecological validity. The main
weaknesses include its inadequate support for the stage notion, inad-
equate account of mechanisms of development, need for a theory of
performance, slighting of social and emotional aspects of development,
underestimation of abilities, and methodological and stylistic barriers.

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94 c PIAGET’S COGNITIVE- STAGE THEORY AND THE NEO- PIAGETIANS

Some of these problems have been addressed by the neo- Piagetians,
particularly Case and Fischer, who include the contributions of working-
memory capacity and cultural support to the variability and consistency
of children’s thinking. In addition, Piaget himself continued to modify his
theory in his later years, particularly with respect to the nature of logic
and the mechanisms of development.

Today, researchers continue to examine the key issues of cognitive devel-
opment identified by Piaget and by those who challenged and expanded
his theory. Particularly active areas include infants’ advanced competen-
cies, domain- specific concepts, and mechanisms of development.

What should be our final judgment on Piaget’s theory? This flawed but
amazingly productive theory gives us a framework for viewing the rich-
ness and complexity of cognitive development. Even when it has failed,
for example, by providing no adequate explanation for conservation
despite hundreds of studies, the theory has led to interesting discoveries
about development. Examples include surprisingly sophisticated infant
knowledge and rudimentary numerical skills in preschoolers that may
lead to conservation. Furthermore, the theory has raised issues that all
theories of development must address. In short, we must pay attention
to this “giant in the nursery” (Elkind, 1968).

SUGGESTED READINGS
Much interesting material about Piaget can be found on the website of
the Jean Piaget Society: http://piaget.org/

Numerous books and articles have been written about Piaget and
research that his work stimulated. The following are a good start:

Martí, E. & Rodríguez, C. (Eds.). (2012). After Piaget. New Brunswick,
NJ: Transaction Publishers.

Müller,  U., Carpendale,  J.  I.  M., & Smith,  L. (Eds.). (2010). The
Cambridge companion to Piaget. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Lourenco, O., & Machado, A. (1996). In defense of Piaget’s theory: A
reply to 10 common criticisms. Psychological Review, 103, 143–164.

The following books by Piaget are two of his more readable and clearly
written publications:

Piaget, J. (1967). Six psychological studies. New York: Random House.

Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1969). The psychology of the child. New York:
Basic Books.

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HOME

Freud’s and Erikson’s
Psychoanalytic Theories

I dreamt that it was night and that I was lying in my bed . . . . Suddenly the win-
dow opened of its own accord, and I was terrified to see that some white wolves
were sitting on the big walnut tree in front of the window. There were six or seven
of them. The wolves were quite white, and looked more like foxes or sheep- dogs, for
they had big tails like foxes and they had their ears pricked like dogs when they
pay attention to something. In great terror, evidently of being eaten up by the
wolves, I screamed and woke up.

—“The Wolf Man” QuoTed in freud, 1918 (1955e, p. 29)

The most significant sex difference was the tendency of boys to erect structures,
buildings, towers, or streets . . . The girls tended to use the play table as the interior
of a house with simple, little, or no use of blocks . . . . Simple enclosures with low
walls and without ornaments were the largest item among the configurations built
by girls. However, these enclosures often had an elaborate gate . . . A blocking of
the entrance or a thickening of the walls could on further study be shown to reflect
acute anxiety over the feminine role.

—erikson, 1963, pp. 102–105

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C H A P T E R 3

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96 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

P
sychoanalytic theory has great historical significance for develop-
mental psychology. To meet the source of the theory, we move
from Geneva to Vienna, where Freud spent most of his life. We
also move our focus from cognitive development to personal-

ity development. The development of the theory followed a tortuous
course, full of dazzling insights, diverging ideas, and clashing person-
alities. Although many figures are responsible for the psychoanalytic
movement, we must limit our attention to the main ones who influenced
developmental psychology— Sigmund Freud, who began the movement,
and Erik Erikson, who subsequently constructed a life- span view of
development. Both proposed that personality development proceeds
through a series of stages. In each stage, the child copes with certain
conflicts stimulated, to a great extent, by biological changes during
development. Freud’s theory, although developed prior to Piaget’s the-
ory, is presented here after the Piagetian chapter because Freud’s stage
theory can be more easily understood after the fuller discussion of issues
about stages in the Piagetian and neo- Piagetian tradition. This chapter
proceeds in the following order for both the Freud and Erikson sections:
biography, general orientation, description of stages of development,
mechanisms of change, the theory’s stand on critical issues, applications,
contemporary research, and evaluation.

FREUD

Biographical Sketch
Much of the material in this section comes from Ernest Jones’s three-
volume biography (1953, 1955, 1957) of Freud. Sigmund Freud
(1856–1939), an Austrian neurologist, was the father of psychoanalytic
theory. He was the eldest of eight children born to a wool merchant
and his wife. Freud believed that he was a favored child and that great
things were expected of him. As he expressed it, “A man who has been
the indisputable favorite of his mother keeps for life the feeling of a
conqueror, that confidence of success that often induces real success”
(quoted in Jones, 1961, p. 6). He had a voracious appetite for books on
history and philosophy, as did Piaget. He and a friend taught themselves
Spanish so that they could read Don Quixote in the original. In secondary
school, he read an essay by Goethe on nature that awakened an interest

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Biographical Sketch ▶ 97

in science. He entered medical school with the goal of becoming a
researcher. It is interesting, given the eventual focus of his theory, that
his first major research project was on the structure of the testes in eels.

The goal of becoming a research scientist had to be set aside when his
poor economic situation and barriers against advancement for a Jew in
academia forced him to enter private practice, where he used his neuro-
logical training to treat “nervous disorders.” At the time, this branch of
medicine was at a very primitive level, and its practitioners could give
little help to the mentally ill. Doctors typically prescribed hydrother-
apy (various types of baths) and electrotherapy (mild electric currents
passed through the body).

Freud was fascinated with hysteria, a disorder characterized by such
symptoms as paralysis, numbness, squinting, and tremors. His contact
with the French neurologist, Jean Charcot, and the Viennese physician,
Josef Breuer, aroused his interest in a possible new treatment, hypnosis.
Charcot could produce symptoms of hysteria in people by means of
hypnotic suggestion, which suggested that the malady had a psycho-
logical basis. As Freud began to use hypnosis with his patients, he was
impressed that they could recall important incidents and feelings while
under hypnosis that were otherwise inaccessible. This was the puzzling
observation that Freud developed his theory to explain: How and why
do we hide parts of our past from ourselves? Despite the general belief
among neurologists that hypnotism was fraudulent and dangerous,
Freud enthusiastically experimented with this technique: “There was
something positively seductive in working with hypnotism. For the first
time there was a sense of having overcome one’s helplessness; and it
was highly flattering to enjoy the reputation of being a miracle- worker”
(1925/1959, p. 17).

Freud also was influenced by Breuer’s discovery that symptoms of
hysteria could be alleviated simply by having his patients talk about
(and “relive”) their emotion- laden experiences from early life. With a
sense of excitement, Freud experimented with what Breuer called the
“talking cure.” In a letter to his friend Wilhelm Fliess in 1895, Freud
described how psychology possessed him: “A man like myself cannot
live without a hobbyhorse, without a dominating passion: in fact, with-
out a tyrant, to use Schiller’s expression, and that is what it has become.
For in its service I know no moderation. It is psychology” (quoted in
Jones, 1961, p. 226).

Freud’s study of his patients’ dreams and childhood memories led to
his first major publication, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900/1953a).
Although this book was ignored by medical and scientific circles, as well

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98 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

as by the general public, Freud was not discouraged. He produced a suc-
cession of fascinating books in the following years and eventually began
to attract a small following, including Carl Jung and Alfred Adler. The
new psychoanalytic movement strengthened, even while the European
medical establishment spurned it. A turning point came in 1909, when
the eminent American psychologist  G.  Stanley Hall invited Freud to
speak in the United States. As Freud described it, “In Europe I felt as
though I were despised; but over there I found myself received by the
foremost men as an equal” (1925/1959, p. 52). Interestingly, he was not
enamored of American culture, and told his biographer “America is a
mistake; a gigantic mistake, it is true, but none the less a mistake” (Jones,
1955, p. 60). He appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1924 and
began to achieve international recognition. Psychoanalysis began to
influence not only psychiatry and the social sciences but also fields such
as literature, art, ethics, and education. “Subconscious” and “ego” became
household words. A popular song cautioned, “Don’t tell me what you
dream’d last night/For I’ve been reading Freud!” (Burnham, 1979,
p. 129). Of course, much of the reaction was far from positive; many
people were shocked at the claim that children have a sexual nature. The
attacks on psychoanalytic theory continued throughout Freud’s lifetime.

Freud’s theory evolved over the years. In fact, he made some basic
changes in his views when he was in his seventies. By the end of his
life, his psychoanalytic writings filled 23 volumes. When the Nazis took
over Austria in 1937, he was forced to flee to England, where he died
in 1939.

Freud’s notion that behavior and development are directed by pow-
erful unconscious drives shook 20 th- century thought. Concepts such as
infantile sexuality, the anal personality, and the teeming desires of the
unconscious jarred a Victorian society that covered piano legs to hide
their nakedness. Freud’s view of the human potential for destructive
behavior could not be so easily dismissed after two world wars and
the political crimes of the times. It was a theory whose time had come.

Regardless of one’s judgment about the scientific merit of the theory,
it is, without doubt, the most widely influential psychological theory in
history. Its impression on society may equal that of Marx and Darwin.
The theory’s influence reached into nearly every area of 20 th- century
thought. Freud described unconscious motivation in the areas of anthro-
pology (Totem and Taboo, 1913/1955c), art (“The Moses of Michelangelo,”
1914/1955d), religion (The Future of an Illusion, 1927/1961c), literature
(“Dostoevsky and Parricide,” 1928/1961d), sociology (Civilization
and Its Discontents, 1930/1961e), and history (Why War? 1933/1964b).

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 99

The  general public became familiar with many of his ideas. Slips of the
tongue became more embarrassing than before, and people began to
take their dreams seriously. The belief that weaning and toilet training
should not be sudden and harsh is often attributed to Freud’s ideas.

Freud’s work on emotional and nonrational aspects of personality
significantly influenced psychology and psychiatry, especially in child
and adult therapies. Various followers further developed his theory
and, in some cases, broke away from Freud. Some of the best- known
neo- Freudians were Carl Jung, Otto Rank, Alfred Adler, Karen Horney,
Harry Stack Sullivan, Erik Erikson, Melanie Klein, Anna Freud, Heinz
Hartmann, and David Rapaport. Their work led to the various branches
of psychoanalysis found today. Over the years, psychoanalytic theories
increasingly emphasized rational, reality- oriented thought and close
social relationships.

Freud’s stage theory deeply influenced developmental psychology
in the 1940s and 1950s. Most prominent were Erikson’s stage theory
of psychosocial development; direct observations of children by Anna
Freud, Ernst Kris, Sybill Escalona, and Rent Spitz; John Whiting and
Irvin Child’s cross- cultural work; and John Bowlby’s early studies on
infant social attachment (see Chapter  5). Psychoanalytic theory also
touched the early work of social learning theorists (see Chapter 6).

Today, Freud’s theory remains a vital force within child clinical
psychology, child psychiatry, and counseling psychology. However,
developmental experimental psychology has ignored Freud’s theory for
decades, in part because his theory is not based on scientific evidence.
In the major journals of contemporary developmental research, one
rarely finds “tests” of the theory or references to psychoanalytic work.
However, as with Piaget, some of his ideas, such as the special impact
of early social experiences and identification with parents, are so much
a part of developmental psychology that his contributions are no longer
recognized as being specifically his.

General Orientation to the Theory
Accounts of Freud’s theory are somewhat contradictory, because various
sources give differing accounts and because Freud revised his ideas over
the years. Fortunately, despite changes in the details of the system, there
is constancy in the general approach. Six general characteristics emerge:
a dynamic approach, a structural approach, a topographic approach,
a developmental stage approach, a normal– abnormal continuum, and

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100 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

psychoanalytic methods. We look at each of these characteristics and,
when useful for clarifying the theory, compare them with those of
Piaget’s theory.

Dynamic Approach
Freud noted powerful drives in his patients, which led him to see per-
sonality as dynamic. He described his theory as “a sort of economics of
nervous energy” (quoted in Jones, 1953, p. 345). This nervous energy is
variously termed psychic energy, drive energy, libido, and tension. Analogous
to energy in physics, psychic energy builds up and can be distributed,
tied to certain mental images, transformed, and discharged. Psychic
energy is a general energy source that can be likened to an electricity
supply, which can be used to toast bread, shave, bake, and so forth (Hall,
1954, p.  84). Thus, psychic energy can be used to write a book, jog,
watch television, and make a bookcase.

In the same way that physical energy is transformed but not
destroyed, psychological energy is transformed into anxiety; displaced
into a physical structure that causes a symptom, such as paralysis; or
transformed into a thought, such as an obsession. The pleasure principle
states that whenever possible, energy is discharged without delay. The
organism strives toward the immediate, direct reduction of tension,
which reduces pain and produces pleasure. Hunger leads to eating; the
need to suck leads to sucking one’s thumb. In the reality principle, small
amounts of energy are discharged, but only in an indirect route, and
after a delay. The mental apparatus scans reality and evaluates various
possible courses of action before allowing energy to be discharged. For
example, an angry child may tell his friend he is angry with him rather
than hit him and risk punishment.

Where does this psychological energy come from? The human body
has certain instincts (biological drives) that make demands on the mind.
Freud posited two basic instincts— Eros (sex, self- preservation, love, life
forces, striving toward unity) and the destructive instinct (aggression,
undoing connections, the death instinct, hatred). Freud assigned the
term libido to the available energy of Eros. There is no analogous term
for the energy of a destructive instinct. His interest in the destructive
instinct came late in life and is attributed to his horror at the atrocities
of World War I and the anti- Semitic feelings of his times.

Instincts involve excitation in some region of the body, particularly
the oral, anal, and genital areas for the sex drive. The change in the site
of excitation underlies the movement from stage to stage, as we shall see

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 101

later. This internal excitation stimulates the mind and creates a “need.”
In the close interplay between mind and body, psychic energy is derived
from biological energy. The aim of the sex drive, or of any instinct, is to
remove this bodily need, discharge tension, and experience pleasure.
This ultimate goal is achieved through such subordinate goals as finding
and investing energy in sexual objects, either a real person or object or
a representation of a person or object. Libido becomes attached to or,
in Freud’s terminology, cathected to an object. Infants cathect to their
mother and other objects that satisfy their needs.

Drives can be satisfied either fully or in a partial and roundabout way.
Freud believed that da Vinci’s interest in painting Madonnas was a way
of partially satisfying his desire for his mother, from whom he had been
separated early in life. One object can substitute for another object, as
when an adult’s oral needs are satisfied by playing a trumpet. In some
cases, a culturally or morally “higher” goal object is substituted for the
truly desired object. This is labeled sublimation. An angry person might
sublimate his desire to attack other people by painting violent scenes.
Another common type of object substitution is compensation, in which
people make up for their failure in one area by applying themselves in
another area. A 5-foot, 6-inch basketball player may eventually become
a sports announcer.

Structural Approach
The previous section creates the image of a human hydraulic system with
powerful forces surging through the body and the mind. The other part
of the story is the psychological structures through which these forces
flow. These structures mediate between the drives and behavior. There is,
then, an architecture of the mind. Mental processes take place within the
structures, between the structures, and by means of the structures. There
are three major structures: the id, ego, and superego. Roughly speaking,
the id is the seat of biologically based drives, the ego is the mechanism
for adapting to reality, and the superego is analogous to the conscience.
We examine each “province of the mind” (Freud, 1933/1964a, p. 72) in
turn and then portray their overall organization.

Id ▶ As the novelist Peter De Vries humorously expressed it in Forever
Panting, “‘Id’ isn’t just another big word.” The id is the seat of innate
desires and is the main source of psychic energy. It is the “dark, inac-
cessible part of our personality . . . a chaos, a cauldron full of seeth-
ing excitations” (Freud, 1933/1964a, p.  73). The id wants immediate

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102 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

satisfaction, in accordance with the pleasure principle described earlier.
The energy of the id is invested either in action on an object that would
satisfy an instinct or in images of an object that would give partial satis-
faction. For example, infants may satisfy their oral- hunger drive directly
by sucking a nipple and receiving milk or partially and indirectly by
imagining a bottle of milk. This hallucinatory wish fulfillment is called
primary- process thought.

In contrast to young infants, older infants, children, and adults have
an ego and a superego in addition to an id. The id, however, continues to
operate throughout life, especially in our nighttime dreams, daydreams,
imagination, and impulsive, selfish, and pleasure- loving behavior. The id
has been called the “spoiled child of the personality” (Hall, 1954, p. 27).

Much of Freud’s knowledge about the id came from his study of
dreams. The desires of the id appear in dreams in either an obvious or a
disguised fashion. One does not need psychoanalytic training to interpret
a hungry person’s dream about a chocolate cake. However, some urges
are so threatening that they must be rendered less obvious. According to
Freud, clothes and uniforms sometimes represent nakedness; water can
stand for birth; a journey can mean death.

Ego ▶ In the beginning, there is id. The id, armed with primary- process
thought (hallucinatory wish fulfillment), makes its demands. However,
babies soon discover that thinking something does not make it so. The
image of the mother and milk and the memory of warmth do not quiet
the pangs of hunger. They learn that there is a difference between images
and reality, between the self and the outer world.

The id’s inability to always produce the desired object leads to the
development of the ego. The ego, the mind’s avenue to the real world,
is developed because it is needed for physical and psychological sur-
vival. It aids in survival because it possesses secondary- process thought.
Secondary- process thought is rational and includes intellectual activities
such as perception, logical thought, problem solving, and memory. It is
more organized, integrated, and logical than primary- process thought,
in which contradictions abound. Most of the intellectual abilities studied
by Piaget would fall into Freud’s ego domain. The ego is the executive
who must make the tough, high- level decisions. It evaluates the present
situation, recalls relevant decisions and events in the past, weighs var-
ious factors in the present and future, and predicts the consequences
of various actions. The ego’s decisions are aided by feelings of anxiety,
which signal that certain actions would be threatening. Above all, the
ego’s decision making involves the delay of energy discharge, the reality

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 103

principle mentioned earlier. Freud described the thinking of the ego as
“an experimental action carried out with small amounts of energy, in the
same way as a general shifts small figures about on a map before setting
his large bodies of troops in motion” (1933/1964a, p. 89).

The small quantities of energy at the disposal of the ego come from the
id. As the ego acquires more and more energy and gains experience using
secondary- process thought during development, it becomes stronger
and more differentiated. Of course, the ego, with its secondary- process
thought, does not replace the primary- process thought of the id. Rather,
it simply adds another level to thought. Gratification can be achieved
either by finding appropriate real objects in the environment after a delay
or by hallucinating and dreaming. Throughout life, we use a mixture of
primary- and secondary- process thought. However, as development pro-
ceeds, the secondary- process aspects of thought become more dominant.

The ego serves “three tyrannical masters”: id, superego, and external
world (Freud, 1933/1964a, p. 77). Freud described the ego’s position
in an analogy:

The ego’s relation to the id might be compared with that of a rider to
his horse. The horse supplies the locomotive energy, while the rider has
the privilege of deciding on the goal and of guiding the powerful animal’s
movement. But only too often there arises between the ego and the id
the not precisely ideal situation of the rider being obliged to guide the
horse along the path by which it itself wants to go.

(1933/1964a, p. 77)

The ego mediates between the id and the external world: “Thus the ego
is fighting on two fronts: it has to defend its existence against an external
world which threatens it with annihilation as well as against an internal
world that makes excessive demands” (Freud, 1940/1964c, p. 200).

These constant threats and dangers from the id and the environment
arouse anxiety. When possible, the ego tackles the problem in a realistic
way, using its problem- solving skills. However, when the anxiety is so
strong that it threatens to engulf the ego, defense mechanisms come into
play. They control and thereby alleviate anxiety by distorting reality in
some way. Although defense mechanisms allow only partial satisfaction
of the drives, for the organism in a state of tension, some satisfaction is
better than none. Freud and his daughter, Anna Freud, identified several
defense mechanisms.

For example, repression involves preventing a threatening thought from
reaching consciousness. The principle seems to be “What we don’t know
can’t hurt us” (Hall, 1954, p. 85). If anxiety- arousing thoughts cannot

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104 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

surface, we do not experience anxiety. For example, to avoid anxiety,
we forget to pay a bill that would put a severe strain on the budget.
Freud thought there was massive repression of memories of childhood
sexuality once children reach grade- school age. Only with great diffi-
culty could Freud help his adult patients recover early painful memories.
Freud’s ideas about repression developed from his observations in ther-
apy. When a patient reported her thoughts during “free association,” she
would often stop abruptly and claim that her mind had suddenly gone
blank, just at the moment when important memories of the past seemed
about to emerge. As Nietzsche remarked, “One’s own self is well hidden
from oneself: of all mines of treasure one’s own is the last to be dug up.”

If people depend too heavily on this defense mechanism, they may
develop a repressed personality: withdrawn, inaccessible, nonspontaneous,
and rigid. Also, there can be some loss of contact with reality as they make
serious and frequent mistakes in remembering, speaking, and perceiving
or develop symptoms of hysteria. For example, hysterical deafness may
prevent a person from hearing something she does not want to hear.

Two other defense mechanisms are reaction formation (acting the oppo-
site of the way one feels) and regression (returning to an earlier form
of behavior). For example, a young child who feels angry and insecure
when parents switch most of their attention to a newborn sibling may
shower the newborn with extravagant affection (reaction formation) or
start crawling or sucking her thumb again (regression).

In the defense mechanism fixation, one component of personality
development comes to a halt. A portion of the libido remains tied to an
earlier period of development and does not allow the child to proceed
fully to the next stage. Fixation can occur when the present mode of
satisfaction, for example, sucking a breast or bottle, is so gratifying that
the child does not want to give it up, even under pressures to become
weaned. Fixation can also occur when the next step appears to be too
frightening or demanding or unsatisfying. The initiation of toilet training,
if too harsh, may cause a toddler to remain partially in the oral stage
rather than progress through the anal stage. Fixation is tied to regression
in that a person is more likely to regress in the face of a barrier if there
has been fixation at an earlier point in development.

Defense mechanisms are a necessary evil. We need them to deal
with high anxiety but at the cost of “wasting” our energy when it could
be put to better use in ego development, for example, for creative
thought or the development of problem- solving skills. Furthermore, if
too much energy is tied up in the defense mechanisms, personality may
not develop normally because the person distorts reality and deceives

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 105

himself. This situation makes subsequent adjustments to reality even
more difficult.

Superego ▶ The superego is the last to develop. It arises when children
resolve their Oedipus complex and develop identification with their
parents. That story is told in the section on stages.

The superego is composed of two parts: the conscience and the ego
ideal. In general, the conscience is negative, and the ego ideal is positive.
The conscience is composed of the parents’ prohibitions, their “Thou shalt
nots.” Just as the parent has punished the child for his transgressions, so
does the conscience punish the person with feelings of guilt, the “acci-
dental” cutting of one’s finger, or intentionally self- destructive behavior.
Curiously, the superego often becomes even more severe than the par-
ents were. The ego ideal refers to standards of conduct toward which the
child strives. Just as the child has been rewarded for certain behavior by
the parents, she is rewarded by the ego ideal with feelings of self- esteem
and pride. These are echoes of early years when a parent said “Good
girl!” to the young child.

The superego opposes both the id and the ego. It rewards, punishes,
and makes demands. The superego watches over not only behavior but
also the thoughts of the ego, and even considers thinking as bad as doing.
The superego is society’s way of achieving order. Unrestrained sexual
and aggressive behavior would destroy the always tenuous social struc-
ture. Freud noted that if the ego represents the “power of the present”
and the id represents the “organic past,” then the superego represents the
“cultural past” (1940/1964c, p. 206).

Structural Relationships ▶ We have dissected the personality into
id, ego, and superego. However, personality is an organized whole—
a unique constellation of forces and structures. Freud sketched out
the relationship among the mental “areas,” as seen in Figure  3.1. He
cautioned that we should not regard the id, ego, and superego as sharply

F I G U R E   3 . 1
In Freud’s sketch of the structure and topogra-
phy of the mind, which also depicts the process
of repression, the label “pcpt.-cs.” refers to
the perceptual- conscious, usually called the
conscious.
[“Diagram on p. 98”, from New Introductory Lectures on
Psycho-Analysis, by Sigmund Freud, translated and edited
by James Strachey. Copyright © 1965, 1964 by James
Strachey. Used by permission of W.W. Norton & Company,
Inc. and Random House Ltd.]

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106 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

defined areas and certainly not as locations in the brain. Rather, they are
“areas of color melting into one another as they are presented by modern
artists” (Freud, 1933/1964a, p. 79). The superego, for example, blends
into the id and, in fact, is intimately related to the id. This close rela-
tionship is most clearly seen in the Oedipus complex, discussed later, in
which strong urges in the id necessitate the development of the super-
ego and are subsequently controlled by the superego. Or in another
instance, the id and superego may join forces in attacking supposedly
“immoral” persons as in witch burning or the cruelty of the Inquisition
(Hall, 1954, p. 48).

These structures contain a closed- energy system, in which a certain
amount of energy is distributed to the three parts. A gain in energy in
one part strengthens that part but at the same time weakens the other
parts. Under ordinary circumstances, the three systems work together
as a team in relative harmony rather than war against each other.

The ego is central in this structural relationship. It is brought into all
conflicts between the id and the superego because each is trying to use
the ego to meet its own needs. The ego must both obey and control the
id, superego, and external reality. It survives by compromising. If the id
says “yes” and the superego says “no,” then the ego says “wait” (Hall,
1954, p. 47). Freud summed up this relationship as follows:

Thus the ego, driven by the id, confined by the super- ego, repulsed by
reality, struggles to master its economic task of bringing about harmony
among the forces and influences working in and upon it; and we can
understand how it is that so often we cannot suppress a cry: “Life is
not easy!”

(1933/1964a, p. 78)

Yet Freud remained optimistic about human reason:

The voice of the intellect is a soft one, but it does not rest till it has gained
a hearing. Finally, after a countless succession of rebuffs, it succeeds. This
is one of the few points on which one may be optimistic about the future
of mankind, but it is in itself a point of no small importance.

(1927/1961c, p. 53)

Topographic Approach

Everyone is a moon and has a dark side which he never shows to anybody.
—Mark TWain

Freud’s observations that his patients seemed to have “areas” of their
mind that were inaccessible to them led him to develop a geography

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 107

(or topography) of the mind, which is depicted in Figure 3.1. The map of
the mind displays three regions: the unconscious, preconscious, and con-
scious. The unconscious is largely unknown territory; the preconscious
and, especially, the conscious have familiar terrains.

1 The unconscious consists primarily of thoughts and feelings that are
repressed and therefore unknown. This material is incapable of
breaking into consciousness without certain changes or interven-

tions, such as an increase in the drive, a weakening of ego defenses, or
the guidance of a therapist.

2 The preconscious is capable of becoming conscious because it is not
actively barred from consciousness. It is a great deal closer to the
conscious than is the unconscious. Preconscious thought becomes

conscious by forming mental images or linking up with language.

3 The conscious (or perceptual conscious) is synonymous with what
a person is aware of at the moment. It is a “highly fugitive state”
(Freud, 1940/1964c, p. 159) because thoughts can rapidly slip back

and forth between the preconscious and the conscious. Since energy is
required for a thought to enter into consciousness, only a few thoughts
can be conscious at any one time.

Freud used a metaphor to describe the relationship between the
unconscious and the preconscious and conscious:

Let us therefore compare the system of the unconscious to a large
entrance hall, in which the mental impulses jostle one another like sepa-
rate individuals. Adjoining this entrance hall there is a second, narrower,
room— a kind of drawing- room— in which consciousness, too, resides.
But on the threshold between these two rooms a watchman performs his
function: he examines the different mental impulses, acts as a censor, and
will not admit them into the drawing- room if they displease him.

(1917/1963b, p. 295)

Returning to Freud’s sketch, we see how the id, ego, and superego
(structures) are related to the unconscious, preconscious, and conscious
(topography). All the id resides in the unconscious. The unconscious id
is a large area, and in fact Freud corrected his drawing by noting that
the space taken up by the unconscious id should have been much greater
than that of the ego or the preconscious. If the mind is like an iceberg,
then the conscious is only the exposed tip of the iceberg; most of the ice-
berg (the unconscious) remains hidden. Both the ego and the superego

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108 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

span the three layers. For example, the ego is unaware of the action of
its defense mechanisms.

Developmental changes occur in the relative size of the unconscious,
preconscious, and conscious. An infant’s mind is almost completely
unconscious. With increasing age, the preconscious and conscious
occupy more and more of the mental territory. Even among adults,
however, the unconscious is the largest area.

Although Freud described the unconscious, preconscious, and con-
scious as though they were separate entities, he constantly noted that no
such separation exists. Rather, he was simply abstracting three aspects of
mental functioning. Reading obituaries in the newspaper can be traced
to both unconscious (fear of death) and conscious (keeping track of
elderly friends) motivations.

Freud placed great importance on the role of the unconscious: “For the
property of being conscious or not is in the last resort our one beacon-
light in the darkness of depth- psychology” (1923/1961a, p.  18). The
notion that there is a vast unconscious that controls behavior emerged
from Freud’s early psychoanalytic sessions with his patients. Patients had
sexual fantasies or impulses of which they were unaware but which led
to certain inexplicable behavior. For example, a patient with a healthy
visual system was unable to see because seeing was too painful; seeing
activated painful memories in the unconscious. Additional evidence for
the existence of an unconscious came from posthypnotic suggestion, in
which patients perform some action that was suggested to them while
under hypnosis, or from slips of the tongue, accidents that were not
really accidental, selective forgetting (as when someone forgets a dental
appointment), and dreams.

Stage Approach
Freud made two bold claims about human development. One is that the
first few years of life are the most important years for the formation of
personality. The other claim is that this development involves psycho-
sexual stages.

The notion that early experience is crucial seems obvious and non-
controversial to the modern student of development. This idea, however,
had not really been taken seriously until Freud systematically developed
it. According to Freud, a behavior can be understood only if one knows
how it developed in the person’s early history. Both normal behavior and
abnormal behavior have their roots in the early years, when the basic
structure of the personality is laid down. The early interactions between

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 109

children’s drives and their social environment set the pattern for later
learning, social adjustment, and coping with anxiety.

It is interesting that a therapist who studied and treated adults would
develop a theory of child development. Early in his work, Freud discov-
ered that attempts to trace the cause of a disturbed personality usually
led to traumatic, unresolved sexual experiences of childhood. The distant
past was very much alive in his patients’ current lives in dreams, anxiety
from repressed childhood desires, and defense mechanisms acquired in
childhood. From information revealed in sessions with patients, Freud
was able to reconstruct the sequence of stages of childhood.

Freud, like Piaget, focused on stages. We look at the general nature
of the five stages here and leave a fuller description for later. Each
stage is defined in terms of the part of the body around which drives
are centered. The eye of the storm shifts from the oral to the anal to
the phallic area during the first five years. Then a period of latency in
middle childhood is followed by the genital stage of adolescence. Each
stage presents new needs that must be handled by the mental struc-
tures. The way in which these needs are met (or not met) determines
not only how drive satisfaction is achieved but also how children relate
to other people and how they feel about themselves. Children develop
characteristic attitudes, defenses, and fantasies. Unresolved conflicts
in any stage may haunt people throughout their lifetimes. This is one’s
personality.

Because the movement from stage to stage is biologically determined,
it occurs whether or not there is unfinished business in the stage that is
ending. This notion of stage development is very different from Piaget’s,
in which one stage must be essentially completed before the next stage
may begin. The two theories, however, coincide in their claim that the
stages follow an invariant order. For Freud, the invariant order comes
almost entirely from physical maturation. For Piaget, it comes not only
from physical maturation but also from physical and social experiences
and innate ways of functioning mentally.

The two theories differ in the relationship between the stages. In
Freud’s theory, each stage is characterized by one dominant trait (for
example, anal concerns) but does not form a tightly knit, structured
whole, as does a stage in Piaget’s theory. Freud’s stages form layers,
with each stage only loosely integrated into the next, in contrast to the
reorganization of previous knowledge in each of Piaget’s stages. Also in
contrast to Piaget’s stages, one stage does not contain the germ of the
next. The oral stage does not become the anal stage in the way that con-
crete operations become (are transformed into) formal operations.

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Although a stage builds upon and is dominant over the previous stage,
it does not completely replace that stage, according to Freud. No stage
is ever given up entirely. Freud offered a simile of an army that advances
into new territory but leaves forces en route to send on supplies or
provide a place to retreat to if difficulties arise. In the same way, a child
can escape unbearably tense experiences by regressing to earlier behav-
ior, such as sucking the thumb or hallucinating the desired object. Also,
earlier modes of satisfaction may be retained, as when thumb sucking
persists throughout the preschool years. Or, anal concerns may still be
present, but they are suppressed, sublimated, and displaced until they
bear little resemblance to their earlier form (for example, giving gifts
in adulthood). There is a partial integration in the last stage, the genital,
when the component instincts (oral, anal, and phallic) merge to form
adult genital sexuality.

Normal– Abnormal Continuum
Psychologists often understand behavior through comparisons— of
cultures, of humans with other primates, and of atypical with typical
development. Just as today psychologists might draw on research with
children with autism to better understand typical development, Freud
drew on his interactions with people with malfunctioning personalities
to develop a theory of normal development. For example, patients suf-
fering from delusions of being observed by unknown persons who dis-
trusted them and expected them to transgress and be punished clarified
the workings of the conscience in what he considered normal people.
The only difference was that the internal was projected to the external
in “abnormal” cases. Freud explained the value of studying abnormal
behavior:

Pathology, by making things larger and coarser, can draw our attention
to normal conditions which would otherwise have escaped us. Where
it points to a breach or a rent, there may normally be an articulation
present. If we throw a crystal to the floor, it breaks; but not into hap-
hazard pieces. It comes apart along its lines of cleavage into fragments
whose boundaries, though they were invisible, were predetermined by
the crystal’s structure. Mental patients are split and broken structures
of this same kind. . . . They have turned away from external reality, but
for that very reason they know more about internal, psychical reality
and can reveal a number of things to us that would otherwise be inac-
cessible to us.

(1933/1964a, pp. 58–59)

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 111

Freud argued not only that atypical personalities heighten our under-
standing of typical development but also that there is no sharp cleavage
between the abnormal and the normal. Abnormal and normal person-
alities obey the same principles and merely occupy different positions
along a continuum ranging from the very disturbed to the very healthy.
In an abnormal personality, psychological processes simply are exagger-
ated or distorted. A person with depression is only more depressed than
most people. A sadistic killer has a strong, uncontrolled aggressive drive.
An amnesiac must repress all of a painful past. Yet every normal person-
ality has traces of depression, aggression, and unaccountable forgetting,
as described in the appropriately titled The Psychopathology of Everyday Life
(Freud, 1901/1960). When reality becomes too painful or impulses of
the id intensify, the ego’s frantic attempts to keep in touch with reality
or fortify the barriers against the id or superego ultimately fail. Neurotic
symptoms or even a psychosis results. In Freud’s words, “The threatened
ego throws itself into the arms of the unconscious instinctual forces in a
desperate revolt” (1933/1964a, p. 16).

Methodology
It might seem odd that Freud did not study children directly as he built
a theory of development. His rationale for studying only adults was that
our childhoods remain with us always, in that our adult personalities
are residues of our childhoods. In addition, his patients happened to be
adults rather than children. For these reasons, he devoted his efforts
to developing methods for eliciting information about childhood from
adults. Freud also conducted a self- analysis, beginning in 1897 and con-
tinuing throughout his life. He reserved the last half hour of each day for
this purpose. This increased his confidence, if not that of the scientific
community, in his theory of personality.

Freud’s methods of free association and dream analysis at first shocked
the psychiatric profession and the public but eventually won the accep-
tance of many therapists. The method of free association requires that
patients verbally report their ongoing stream of thought. The patient
would relax, usually on the famous couch, in a quiet room, while Freud
sat near the patient’s head but out of sight. He instructed his patients
to report every thought, regardless of how trivial it seemed, omitting
or censoring nothing. This relaxed, accepting state promoted the ego’s
relaxation of control over unconscious thoughts. Repressed thoughts
might then emerge, though often in disguise. Occasionally, if the patient
fell silent, Freud would ask a question or even “lay on hands”—put his

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112 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

hand on the patient’s forehead— and tell the patient that new memories
would come.

The theoretical rationale for the free- association technique is as
follows: Freud believed that every psychological event has a meaning.
That is, a thought or feeling is caused; it does not occur randomly. If
one thought typically leads to another, there is a reason for it— they are
connected in some way. If a patient talked about her deceased father
and then abruptly changed the subject to a planned trip, Freud inferred
that she was troubled by her father’s death. (Freud thought that a jour-
ney is often a symbol for death.) In this way, he abstracted common
themes underlying seemingly unrelated thoughts or behaviors. More
generally, he tried to describe the organization of the patient’s mind.
The central concepts of Freud’s theory arose from the free- association
sessions.

A second method is dream analysis. If all thoughts are causally related
and significant, then psychologists cannot ignore dreams. During dreams,
the usual psychological controls are “sleeping” and thus allow disturbing
unconscious thoughts to be expressed and wishes to be fulfilled. These
thoughts, however, are often disguised until they are unmasked during
psychoanalysis. For example, kings and queens might represent parents,
little animals or vermin might stand for siblings, and snakes and trunks
might represent sex organs (Freud, 1916/1963a, pp. 153–157).

In summary, Freud’s methodology was to listen to troubled adults
talk. He did not perform controlled experiments and, unlike Piaget, did
not observe children’s behaviors. Instead, he studied individual adults in
depth, sometimes spending hundreds of hours with a single patient. As
if putting together a jigsaw puzzle, he put together pieces of information
from patients’ free associations, dreams, expressions of emotion, use of
defense mechanisms, slips of the tongue, and so on:

He that has eyes to see and ears to hear may convince himself that no
mortal can keep a secret. If his lips are silent, he chatters with his finger
tips; betrayal oozes out of him at every pore. And thus the task of making
conscious the most hidden recesses of the mind is one which it is quite
possible to accomplish.

(Freud, 1905/1953b, pp. 77–78)

Freud organized this information into a coherent picture in his case
studies. Several long case studies were published and became well
known. For example, the “Rat Man” (1909/1955b) had the obsession
that his father and girlfriend would be punished with hungry rats fas-
tened to their buttocks. The “Wolf Man” (1918/1955e) reacted to

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Description of the Stages ▶ 113

viewing the “primal scene” (sexual intercourse between his parents) by
dreaming about wolves (see the dream report at the beginning of this
chapter).

Description of the Stages
Oral Stage (Roughly Birth to 1 Year)
During infancy, the mouth rules. Oral experiences introduce a baby to
both the pleasure and the pain of the world. Pleasure flows from the
satisfaction of the oral drives. Sucking, chewing, eating, and biting give
sexual gratification by relieving uncomfortable sexual excitations. The
oral activities cause pleasant sensual feelings in the lips, tongue, and
membranes of the mouth. These pleasant feelings need not be linked
with the satisfaction of hunger because the oral activities themselves are
satisfying. The outcome of all of this, in Freudian terminology, is that
libidinal energy is cathected (invested) in the oral erogenous zone. The
salient social and nonsocial experiences in the oral stage center around
oral concerns.

In addition to experiencing oral pleasure, an infant feels pain from
frustration and anxiety. Sexual tensions are pleasant if they are satisfied
but painful if they are not and continue to intensify. A preferred object,
such as a nipple, may not be present at the moment an infant wants
it. She must wait, a situation that she finds frustrating and anxiety arous-
ing. She may lapse into hallucinatory wish fulfillment as she imagines
the desired nipple. Or she may suck her fingers, a blanket, or a soft toy.
Still, satisfaction is not complete. Other frustrations come when parents
demand that the nighttime feeding be given up, that certain objects not
be chewed because they are unsanitary or unsafe, and, especially, that the
breast or bottle be given up for the cup. The cultural demands of one’s
society are expressed through the parents. Parents teach the infant how
to satisfy her drives in ways that are acceptable to the society. Conflict is
inevitable. In small ways, the infant discovers that life has its frustrations
as well as its pleasures, its “downs” as well as its “ups.” She develops ways
of coping with these frustrations that will form the basis for her later
personality.

As babies seek gratification and valiantly struggle to overcome barri-
ers to this satisfaction, there is an important psychological principle at
work: Infants are in developmental trouble if they obtain either too little
or too much oral gratification. The side effects of too little gratification
are frequent anxiety, continual seeking of oral gratification in later years,

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114 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

and pessimism. Too much gratification may make it difficult for children
to shift their cathexes to new objects, as demanded by a new stage. In
this case, fixation can occur. Furthermore, relatively minor anxiety in a
later stage may cause regression to highly cathected objects of the oral
stage. For example, the initiation of toilet training during the anal stage
may cause a child to return quickly to thumb sucking. The goal, then,
is to achieve an optimal level of oral gratification so that one need not
carry unfulfilled needs into later stages or feel unwilling to move on to
a new stage.

Each of several oral “modes of functioning” during infancy forms a
prototype (model, plan, or blueprint) for adult personality: (1) taking
in, (2) holding on, (3) biting, (4) spitting out, and (5) closing (Hall,
1954, p. 104). Infants learn characteristic oral reactions in each of these
types of situations, which lead to certain attitudes, behaviors, and life
goals in adulthood:

1. The infant who found pleasure from taking in food becomes an adult who
voraciously “takes in,” or acquires, knowledge or power and who incorpo-
rates or identifies with significant other people.

2. Trying to hold on to the nipple when it is removed may lead to determi-
nation and stubbornness.

3. Biting is the prototype for destructiveness, “biting” sarcasm, cynicism, and
dominance.

4. Spitting out becomes rejection.
5. Closing the mouth firmly leads to rejection, negativism, or introversion.

Note that these adult behaviors range from the literally oral, as in
smoking, nail biting, and eating, to the metaphorically oral, as in being
gullible (swallowing anything) and obstinate (holding on). These modes
of functioning also show that humans are both positive and negative
about others. Just as an infant both sucks and bites a nipple, a person may
both love and hate another person.

All these characteristics are found in every personality to some degree.
However, some people have a personality structure that is dominated by
one or several of these prototypes from the oral modes. In particular,
certain traits may dominate because of extremely pleasant or unpleasant
experiences in infancy. For example, an infant with unaffectionate par-
ents may become an adult who seeks to “take in” love symbolically by
acquiring power or vast amounts of money.

Perhaps the most momentous event of the oral stage is the formation
of attachment to the mother (though fathers’ contributions are also

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Description of the Stages ▶ 115

addressed today, e.g., Parke, 2013). Freud proclaimed that the mother’s
importance is “unique, without parallel, established unalterably for a
whole lifetime as the first and strongest love- object and as the prototype
of all later love- relations” (1940/1964c, p. 188). Because typically it is
the mother who satisfies needs such as food, sucking, and warmth, she
becomes the primary love object in an infant’s life. An infant invests a
great deal of libidinal energy in her. Emphasizing the importance of an
emotional attachment to the mother is one of Freud’s main legacies to
the field of developmental psychology, and it inspired Spitz’s (1945)
work on disturbed mother– infant relationships. After observing that
many infants left in foundling homes became depressed and that some
even died, Spitz concluded that the lack of mothering contributes to
psychological and health problems. Subsequently, Bowlby’s (1958) sem-
inal work on attachment (see Chapter 5) led to research by many other
investigators in recent years.

Although it may seem counterintuitive, attachment seems to lead
to an infant’s healthy sense of separateness from his mother. Winnicott
(1971) stressed that this gradual differentiation is necessary for a clear
sense of self and for normal interpersonal relations later. Before this
differentiation, an infant– mother matrix gives little sense of separa-
tion of the self and the world. What Winnicott called “ good- enough
mothering” involves a synchrony, or match, between an infant’s needs
and spontaneous behaviors and the caretaker’s activities. Consequently,
the infant feels omnipotent because he can magically obtain his every
desire. However, babies inevitably encounter delays in gratification,
interact with various “ not- me” objects, and discover their own resources
for interacting with the world, thereby developing their ego. This
process of individuation can be threatening, and in severe cases, child
psychosis results from a faulty individuation process (Mahler, Pine, &
Bergman, 1975). Object loss, particularly the real or perceived loss of
the mother, is one of the most significant events that can occur in early
life. Fortunately, the “holding environment” with the mother, as well as
“security blankets” or other cuddly, comforting objects, provide a secure
base and ease the separation process.

Mothers also design “play dialogues,” which involve a mutual reg-
ulation of the interaction between themselves and their infants. A
mother uses her infant’s gaze and state of arousal as cues for the timing
and intensity of her facial expressions and talking (Stern, 1974, 1985,
1995). Thus, the ideal mother tries to avoid both stimulus overload and
boredom. The important outcome is that in the context of a social rela-
tionship, children use feedback regarding their effect on the mother to

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116 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

construct their self- concept. In other words, babies express and define
their true selves by being with their mother and seeing the effects of
their spontaneous actions toward her.

Thus, attachment is a vital process for development because it serves
as a building block for later social relationships. Furthermore, it facil-
itates a mother’s attempts to socialize her child by using her attention
to reward desirable behavior. However, in Freud’s somewhat pessimistic
theory, all silver linings are covered by clouds. Thus, attachment has
its dangers. If the attachment is too strong, infants may become overly
dependent on their mother or anxious about her possible rejection of
them. Then, later in life, they may develop a generally passive personal-
ity, depending on others to do things for them and even do their thinking
for them.

Anal Stage (Roughly 1 to 3 Years)
By the end of the oral stage, infants have developed the rough outlines
of a personality. This personality consists of attitudes toward themselves
and other people, mechanisms for achieving gratification within the
demands of reality, and interests in certain activities and objects. As
maturation moves infants to the anal stage, the concerns move from the
oral area to the anal area. The new needs of this stage set in motion new
conflicts between children and the world. The way in which children
resolve these new conflicts further differentiates and crystallizes the
rudimentary personality structure. The expression of oral needs does
not stop, of course. Children simply face a new set of needs and demands
that require their immediate attention.

The physiological need to defecate creates tension, which is relieved
by defecation. This anal stimulation and subsequent reduction of tension
produces pleasure. As in the oral stage, the erogenous zone brings frus-
tration and anxiety as well as pleasure. Society, as represented by the
parents, demands toilet training, and thus self- control. Consequently,
the desire for immediate gratification is frustrated. In a small but
momentous way, children enter into conflict with authoritarian adult
society. Children all over the world face and resolve this conflict in some
way. Obviously, many variables affect how much conflict a child feels and
how she adapts to the demands placed on her. These variables include the
age at which toilet training is begun, how strict or relaxed the training
is, and the mother’s attitude toward defecation, control, and cleanliness.

If toilet training is particularly harsh or premature or overempha-
sized by the parents, defecation can become a source of great anxiety
for children. This anxiety can generalize to other situations in which an

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Description of the Stages ▶ 117

external authority makes demands or children must control their own
impulses. Some children react to strict toilet training by defecating at
inappropriate times or places, such as the supermarket. The child may
become a messy, dirty, and irresponsible adult or, at the other extreme, a
compulsively neat, orderly, and obstinate adult. These potential negative
outcomes in the anal stage certainly are not comforting to the prospec-
tive parent!

As in the oral stage, the goal is to allow enough, but not too much,
gratification and to develop enough, but not too much, self- control.
If this goal is adequately achieved, a child will have developed a more
mature ego because it has been sharpened by its confrontation with real-
ity. A child who survives the anal period relatively unscathed is ready to
tackle the third stage, the phallic stage, when it arrives.

Phallic Stage (Roughly 3 to 5 Years)
The child’s solution to problems of the oral and anal stages sets a pattern
for solving later problems of adjustment. This development is continued
in the phallic stage, so named because the possession of the phallus in
boys and its absence in girls is a major concern of children, according to
Freud. In this stage, pleasures and problems center on the genital area.
The problem of this stage is that the sexual urge is directed toward the
parent of the other sex. In boys, this situation is the well- known Oedipus
complex. (In Greek mythology, Oedipus killed his father and married his
mother.)

Freud emphasized the development of boys more than girls in the
phallic stage because he believed that the conflict is more intense for
boys. A young boy has sexual desires for his mother and does not want to
share her with his father. At the same time, the boy fears that the father,
in retaliation, will castrate him. As a way out of this highly anxious sit-
uation, the boy represses both his desire for his mother and his hostility
toward his father.

The most important outcome of the Oedipus complex is that a boy
comes to identify with his father. That is, he develops a strong emotional
bond with the father, strives to be like him, and “internalizes” him— his
beliefs, values, interests, and attitudes. Identification is very important
because it serves as a basis for much of socialization. In particular, the
development of the superego and behavior considered appropriate to
one’s sex are by- products of this identification. The superego increases
the child’s self- control and adherence to the parents’ morality.

Identification is a reasonable solution to the demands of the ego and
id in this stage. The ego is partially satisfied because anxiety is reduced.

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The id is partially satisfied because a boy can “have” the mother vicari-
ously through the father. Again, as children try to cope with both their
drives and the prohibitions of society, they achieve a compromise solu-
tion that advances their psychological maturity.

Freud argued that, in comparison with boys, girls face a similar, but
much less intense, conflict during the phallic stage. He proposed that
a girl desires her father and experiences penis envy as she realizes that
the father has a prized object that she does not have. In Freud’s words,
“She makes her judgment and her decision in a flash. She has seen it
and knows that she is without it and wants to have it” (1925/1961b,
p. 252). The girl begins to feel that she has been castrated and blames her
mother for this loss because she “sent her into the world so insufficiently
equipped” (p. 254).

As in the case of boys, society does not allow the full expression of the
sexual desire for the parent. However, because castration is not possible,
girls feel less threat from the mother than boys do from the father. Freud
thought that since there is less anxiety and consequently less repression,
girls have a weaker identification with the mother than boys do with the
father. Freud then concluded that girls have a weaker conscience than
do boys, a claim that is not supported by research. Freud’s views on the
Oedipus complex and penis envy are perhaps the most controversial
aspect of his theory and have been rejected by many.

In actuality, there is always identification with both parents. Both
sexes retain a strong cathexis for the mother because she is the most
important object in the two previous psychosexual stages.

In psychoanalytic sessions, Freud found powerful and lasting influ-
ences from the phallic stage. For example, women often had disturbing
sexual fantasies about their fathers that had never been resolved. More
generally, lasting attitudes toward the opposite sex and toward people in
authority could be traced to this stage.

With the achievement of identification and the waning of the phallic
stage, children’s basic personality is set, and conflicts are resolved in
characteristic ways. Personality changes, but it does so primarily by fur-
ther differentiation of the basic structure.

Period of Latency (Roughly 5 Years to the
Beginning of Puberty)
After the Sturm und Drang of the first three stages, there is a period of rel-
ative calm, when sexual drives are repressed and no new area of bodily
excitement emerges. Children conveniently “forget” the sexual urges

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Description of the Stages ▶ 119

and fantasies of their earlier years. They turn their thoughts to school
activities and play, primarily with children of the same sex. This is a time
for acquiring cognitive skills and assimilating cultural values as children
expand their world to include teachers, neighbors, peers, club leaders,
and coaches. Sexual energy continues to flow, but it is channeled into
social concerns and into defenses against sexuality. Thus, the ego and
superego continue to develop.

Genital Stage (Adolescence)
The sexual impulses, which were repressed during the latency stage,
reappear in full force as a result of the physiological changes of puberty.
These sexual impulses are fused with the earlier ones but are now
channeled into adult sexuality. Love becomes more altruistic, with less
concern for self- pleasure than in earlier stages. The choice of a partner is
influenced by attitudes and social patterns developed in the early years.
For example, a woman may choose a “father figure.”

Although some internal conflict is inevitable throughout life, a rela-
tively stable state is achieved by most people by the end of the genital
stage. Typically, an individual achieves a fairly strong ego structure that
makes coping with the reality of the adult world possible. One import-
ant achievement is a balance between love and work.

Case Study of “Little Hans”
The above outline of the psychosexual stages cannot capture the vivid,
powerful conflicts that operate in an individual child’s life. Thus, we turn
to one of Freud’s most famous case studies, the “Analysis of a Phobia in
a Five- Year- Old Boy” (1909/1955a) or, as it is more commonly known,
“Little Hans.” This case study was unique because it was Freud’s only
analysis of a child and because Freud conducted the analysis by mail in a
series of letters with the boy’s physician- father, who made the observa-
tions. The study was a central force in the formation of one of Freud’s
most important developmental concepts: identification.

When Hans was 5 years old, anxiety attacks, a phobia, and a fantasy
appeared. His phobia, the fear that a horse would bite him or fall down,
was so strong that he would not leave his house. He was especially afraid
of horses that pulled heavy loads in carts or vans or were white with
a black muzzle and wore blinders. In Hans’s fantasy, during the night
“there was a big giraffe in the room and a crumpled one; and the big one
called out because I took the crumpled one away from it. Then it stopped

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120 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

calling out; and then I sat down on top of the crumpled one” (quoted in
1909/1955a, p. 37).

After sifting through the evidence, Freud identified three themes: an
Oedipus conflict, sibling rivalry, and fear of punishment for masturba-
tion. Thus, in the phobia, the horse represented Hans’s father, who had
a mustache (a black muzzle around the horse’s mouth) and eyeglasses
(blinders) and was, as Hans remarked, “so white” (like the white horse).
Hans feared that the horse would bite (castrate) him because of his sexual
longing for his mother and his masturbating. Anxiety about masturbation
may have been prompted by his mother’s threat that if his masturbation
continued, she would send him to the doctor to cut off his “widdler.”
The fear that a horse might fall down was interpreted as a fear that his
father might die or go away, as he sometimes wished when he wanted
his mother alone. Significantly, Hans had remarked, “Daddy, don’t trot
away from me” (p. 45). The giraffe fantasy might be interpreted as a wish
for possessing the mother, as Hans imagined he sat on the smaller giraffe
(mother), which he had taken from the larger giraffe (father). Note the
phallic symbol in the giraffe’s long neck.

Hans’s feelings of loss of attention and love after the birth of his sister
were expressed in the fear that a cart might be upset and spill its con-
tents (his mother might give birth again). In the fantasy, Hans destroyed
his younger sister when he sat on her (the small giraffe).

Hans eventually identified with his father, thereby resolving his con-
flicts and recovering from his fear of horses. He continued to develop a
healthy personality and later became an opera producer. More recently,
interesting material uncovered about the Little Hans case stimulated
several fascinating papers (King, Neubauer, Abrams, & Dowling, 2007).

Mechanisms of Development
Both Freud and Piaget have a “trouble” theory of development.
Development proceeds because of disturbances to the system (disequi-
librium). Development is hard work, because children must continually
try to re- establish a state of relative calm. For Freud, emotion- laden
thoughts rather than objective information about the physical world
cause the disequilibrium. He was more concerned with psychologi-
cal pain than logical inconsistency, with energy in repose than mental
actions in balance. Freud’s equilibration system is less open (less respon-
sive to external information) than Piaget’s. Piaget spoke of continual
assimilation and accommodation as new experiences are encountered.

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Mechanisms of Development ▶ 121

In Freud’s system, there is more resistance to change. The system is also
closed in that there is a certain amount of energy that can be changed in
form but never in amount.

Freud identified several sources of conflict or psychological disruption
that stimulate development— physical maturation, external frustrations,
internal conflicts, personal inadequacies, and anxiety (Hall, 1954, p. 72):

1. Maturation involves changes in the nervous system, motor development,
hormonal changes, drives, and so on. Each change brings new possibilities
and new problems. As we saw earlier, the drives are particularly important.
These maturational forces both propel children into activity as they try to
satisfy the drives and move them from stage to stage as the bodily site of
pleasure changes.

2. External frustrations come from people or events that do not allow the
immediate expression of needs. They cause a painful buildup of tension and
force children to delay and detour their discharge of energy.

3. Internal conflicts arise from the battle among the id, ego, and superego or,
more specifically, between drives and forces of repression.

4. Personal inadequacies are certain skills, knowledge, expertise, or experience
that the person needs but lacks. For example, a child may want to join a
peer group but be too shy to enter the group or too clumsy at the game
they are playing.

5. Finally, anxiety is an unpleasant feeling that occurs when the child antici-
pates physical or psychological pain. The fear of losing a valued love object
is a common example.

All these elements cause an unpleasant state of tension, which the child
attempts to rectify in accordance with the pleasure principle and the real-
ity principle. These disturbances, however, merely initiate change. Other
mechanisms actually accomplish change. The ego has the primary respon-
sibility for guiding the course of change. Its perceptual and cognitive sys-
tems gather relevant information about the current situation, recall useful
information from past experiences, and use whatever defense mecha-
nisms are most appropriate. The ego develops methods for keeping dis-
tressing sexual thoughts from becoming conscious and placates the id and
superego. The ego, then, mediates change from moment to moment. The
accumulation of these small changes adds up to long- term change. Over
time, the ego gathers strength, and personality crystallizes and becomes
further differentiated into complex attitudes, interests, and behaviors.

Several developmental acquisitions also serve as mechanisms of fur-
ther development. The most notable are attachment and identification.

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122 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

As mentioned earlier, both lead to other important acquisitions,
such as gendered behaviors and moral development in the case of
identification.

Position on Developmental Issues
Human Nature
Hall and Lindzey summarize Freud’s view of the person as

a full- bodied individual living partly in a world of reality and partly in a
world of make- believe, beset by conflicts and inner contradictions, yet
capable of rational thought and action, moved by forces of which he has
little knowledge and by aspirations which are beyond his reach, by turn
confused and clearheaded, frustrated and satisfied, hopeful and despair-
ing, selfish and altruistic; in short, a complex human being.

(1957, p. 72)

This description of the conflicted, contradictory nature of humans
stands in sharp contrast to Piaget’s rational human, calmly searching for
epistemological truth in a predictable world. Freud was concerned with
emotions, particularly their role in forcing the development of personal-
ity and thought as children strive to cope with these emotions. By nature,
people have strong passions that color their perceptions throughout life.

Freud’s theory has elements of both the mechanistic and organismic
worldviews. It is mechanistic in its likening of psychological energy to a
hydraulic system. It is organismic in its view of the mind as a structured
whole consisting of id, ego, and superego in a dynamic balance that
changes developmentally. However, for Freud, a psychological being is a
loosely organized whole rather than the tightly knit, integrated, equili-
brated whole of strongly organismic Piagetian theory.

Although human beings are passive in that drives force them into
action, they are active, and therefore organismic, in their attempts to
cope with these drives and maintain a state of equilibrium. The ego,
in its executive role, actively organizes incoming information from the
self (for example, anxiety about some impending event) and the social
environment, and directs the behavior chosen. Still, for Freud, children
act because drives force them to act, whereas for Piaget, children act
because they are inherently active and self- regulated.

Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development
As in Piaget’s theory, the stagelike changes proposed by Freud imply
that development involves qualitative change. There is a change in which
aspect of the sexual drive is dominant: the oral, anal, phallic, or genital.

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Applications ▶ 123

There is also qualitative change in the psychological organization as
new acquisitions, such as defense mechanisms and the superego, appear.
Still, there is some quantitative change, as the developing child exhib-
its a gradual strengthening of the ego, superego, and various defense
mechanisms.

Nature Versus Nurture
It typically is claimed that Freud has a biologically based theory of
development. Although he emphasizes maturation and the biologically
based drives, he also sees experience as quite important: “The constitu-
tional factor must await experiences before it can make itself felt; the
accidental factor must have a constitutional basis in order to come into
operation” (Freud, 1905/1953b, p. 239). Although drives derive from
a person’s biological nature, their expression is always modified by the
social milieu. The people or objects available and the behaviors allowed
by parents or other authorities direct the satisfaction of the drives. The
demands of civilization are as real as the demands of the body. Within
the category of nurture, Freud saw the experiences of the first five years
of life as especially important, particularly relationships with parents,
mainly mothers.

What Develops
The essence of development is the emergence of structures— the id,
ego, and superego— that channel, repress, and transform sexual energy.
These structures and their dynamic processes are both affective (emo-
tional) and cognitive. Although Freud typically is not considered a
cognitive psychologist, in many ways he was. Thought— whether uncon-
scious, preconscious, or conscious and whether primary or secondary
process in nature— always accompanies feeling.

Applications
This chapter provides many examples of applications of Freud’s theory
to clinical practice. These applications continue today with adults and
children, and include even parent– infant psychotherapy (Dugmore,
2014). The Little Hans case study shows how one might analyze a single
child in depth. Freud’s message for parents is to be sensitive to the con-
flicts among id, ego, and superego in their child and to provide support
for the resolution of these conflicts. A secure attachment between parent
and child is particularly important, as is the later relationship during
children’s identification with their parents.

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Freud’s claim that people can repress painful memories for years
has arisen again in recent clinical and legal issues about adults’ recall,
decades later, of childhood sexual abuse. Freud at first believed his
patients’ accounts of these events but later concluded that it was unlikely
that there were so many Viennese parents who had sexually abused their
children. He then viewed these memories as fantasies or perceptions dis-
torted by sexual desire, but he still thought that, true or false, they were
important because they affect the course of personality development.
This issue about his patients has never been resolved, and psychologists
today continue to debate the accuracy of recovered memories of early
abuse (see Chapter 7).

Evaluation of the Theory
Although rejection of certain aspects of Freud’s theory is reasonable,
experimental psychologists’ overall rejection of the theory may have
deprived the field of a valuable perspective on development. Despite
the paucity of research today that is explicitly Freudian, this approach
can provide some insights into current issues in developmental psychol-
ogy. Thus, the following section on strengths focuses on two that are
of potential contemporary relevance, namely, the theory’s discovery of
central developmental phenomena and its focus on nonlogical thought.

Strengths

Discovery of Central Developmental Phenomena ▶ Although
Freud’s influence is rarely acknowledged explicitly in current develop-
mental research, many core concepts were introduced or significantly
developed by him: developmental stages, psychological structures,
unconscious motivation, and the importance of early experience. In
addition, the theory stimulated research in the areas of moral devel-
opment, sex typing, identification, parent– child relations, attach-
ment, aggression, and self- regulation. These remain active areas of
research today.

Focus on Nonlogical Thought ▶ Psychoanalytic theory’s focus on
emotions and nonlogical thought could enrich contemporary cognitive
approaches, which focus on rational problem solving: how thought
becomes increasingly organized, efficient, abstract, and objective. This

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Evaluation of the Theory ▶ 125

type of thought characterizes that of an adult scientist, the goal of
cognitive development in Piaget’s view. This viewpoint emerged clearly
in Piaget’s emphasis on logical operations and on concepts of the phys-
ical world. The information- processing approach, described in a later
chapter, also pictured a developing child as an organism that relentlessly
searches for truth in an increasingly efficient and rational way. Although
this view characterizes part of cognitive development, it does not tell
the whole story. Humans probably are not as rational as these theories
propose. As Wason and Johnson- Laird express it, “At best, we can all
think like logicians; at worst, logicians all think like us” (1972, p. 245).

Irrational thought processes are as important as the more frequently
studied rational ones; in fact, the former may occur more frequently
than the latter. Thus, Freud’s theory poses two challenges for devel-
opmentalists. One challenge is to study how emotions affect thinking
in children. Do children reason differently when angry or frustrated
than when calm? A second challenge is to examine whether the men-
tal processes underlying primary- and secondary- process thought and
the defense mechanisms differ from the mental processes described
by Piaget and the information- processing psychologists. For example,
how is Piaget’s notion of mental reversibility related to Freud’s notion
of reaction formation, in which a negative attitude toward a person or
an object is transformed into a positive attitude? Are conflicting feelings
and logically contradictory ideas resolved in the same way? What are the
mental processes underlying self- deception? What cognitive acquisitions
are necessary for understanding displaced aggression (taking one’s anger
out on an innocent person)?

Psychoanalytic theory also suggests that the content of children’s
thought is more wide ranging than recent research would indicate.
Freud would point out that children do not think only about quantity,
spatial relationships, justice, objects, and causality. They also try to
understand, and mentally adjust to, the violence on television or in their
home, love, bullying, their parents’ physical and emotional relationship,
their own sexual or aggressive feelings, the tendency of adults to say one
thing and do the opposite, frustration when their needs are not met, and
failure in social interactions. Adding this content to the logical, rational,
linear thinking studied by Piagetian and information- processing theorists
(see Chapter 7) would give a more balanced view of children’s thinking.

This suggested new direction for research on cognitive development
is particularly promising because it is compatible with current interest
in social cognition, especially children’s theory of mind (understanding of

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126 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

people’s mental states). Such research seldom addresses the problematic
or troublesome content of thought just described. A child’s theory of
mind would influence his understanding of the psychological defenses
used by others as well as himself, desires, the nature of dreams, and the
distinction between fantasy and reality.

Weaknesses
Freud made it difficult for anyone to criticize his theory: “No one has a
right to join in a discussion of psycho- analysis who has not had particu-
lar experiences which can only be obtained by being analyzed oneself ”
(1933/1964a, p. 69). Nevertheless, we now critically look at two weak-
nesses of the theory: uncertain testability of central claims concerning
development and overemphasis on childhood sexuality.

Uncertain Testability of Central Claims Concerning Development ▶
The scientific community requires that theories be based on empirical
observations that can be replicated by other scientists. Freud’s method-
ology makes this type of data gathering nearly impossible. His methods
of free association and dream analysis pose three major difficulties:

1. According to Freud, these methods require that the experimenter be
trained in psychoanalysis. Because such training is a long, expensive pro-
cess, few people would be qualified to test the theory. Furthermore, those
who are psychoanalytically trained tend to be “believers.” An involved,
possibly biased participant– observer, who selectively records the patient’s
responses, is a dubious source of objective data for testing the theory.

2. Freud’s methods lend themselves to experimenter error. Freud made notes
about the psychoanalytic sessions after they occurred, often hours later. It
is ironic that someone who demonstrated the distortions of memory in
his patients should be so oblivious to that possibility in himself. There is a
danger that he selectively remembered only that which fit into his theory.
Another source of experimenter error is the possibility that the patient’s
line of thought is influenced by the nature of the therapist’s questions or
even the timing of his grunts and silences.

3. Adults’ recollections of childhood and recent dreams are unlikely to be
completely accurate. Introspection has a poor reputation in psychology. It
is not easy to report objectively even one’s current mental state or recent
dream states; mental states from 50 years earlier pose even more difficul-
ties. Freud himself knew that these verbal reports were not reliable, but
he felt that the patient’s experience of the earlier events, whether accurate

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Evaluation of the Theory ▶ 127

or distorted, is what was most relevant to therapy. Still, the fact that ther-
apists usually cannot know whether the reports are accurate limits their
assessment of the patient’s perception of reality.

The problem of definition also poses a challenge to experimental
psychologists. There are many vague, imprecise, poorly defined terms
because Freud used analogies to communicate the meaning of the terms.
Also, many of Freud’s notions have an uncertain relationship to observ-
able behavior, in part because of the considerable distance between the
two. A therapist takes verbal reports, nonverbal behavior (for example,
facial expressions, crying, and physical accidents), dreams, and forget-
ting and interprets them in terms of distant theoretical concepts, such as
defense mechanisms, drives, and unconscious motivation. For example,
Freud made a large jump from a patient’s dream about an oven to the
interpretation that this image represents the uterus.

One way to state the problem with Freud’s methods is that in Freud’s
system, a psychological attribute can refer to several different behaviors.
An “anal personality” can be expressed in either a compulsively neat or
an overly messy person. Or a patient’s problem can be diagnosed as an
Oedipus complex if he either talks constantly about his mother or never
mentions her (due to repression). Conversely, a particular behavior can
stem from several different psychological attributes, as when an inability
to eat can stem from hysteria (perhaps caused by a fear of seeming to be
pregnant) or paranoia (perhaps a fear of being poisoned). It is unclear
how one would “test” these notions.

There have been numerous attempts to test Freud’s theory either
clinically, often with hypnosis or projective tests in which the subject
must interpret inkblots or pictures, or experimentally (e.g., Fisher &
Greenberg, 1996). However, the procedures may not adequately test the
theory. For example, exposing a boy briefly to an aggressive, hostile male
adult and subsequently observing how much the boy imitates the male’s
behavior is not a fair test of the notion that the Oedipus complex leads to
identification with the aggressor. The long- term, emotionally powerful
experiences of real life cannot be translated easily into brief, simplistic,
experimental episodes. In short, psychologists are in a bind:They cannot
adequately test the most crucial theoretical notions outside the psycho-
analytic session, but the psychoanalytic session does not lend itself to
experimental procedures.

Even if the theory cannot be tested scientifically, it can serve as a
springboard for more limited, testable hypotheses. For example, in
the 1950s, learning theorists took Freudian notions such as sex typing,

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128 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

dependency, identification, and defense mechanisms and studied their
development within a learning framework (see Chapter 6). Also, hypno-
sis has been used to test hypotheses concerning the unconscious. Reyher
(1967) provides an example. Hypnotized college students were told a
story designed to arouse unconscious Oedipal feelings. They were told
they would not remember anything about the story after awakening but
would have strong sexual feelings when certain words were mentioned
after they awakened. As predicted, the critical words, but not neutral
words, aroused sweating, trembling, and guilt, indicating unconscious
conflicts.

Freud’s notion of the scientific approach differed from that of the sci-
entific community. He looked for converging evidence for a particular
interpretation. If dream reports, memories from childhood, physical
symptoms, slips of the tongue, and accidents all suggested that the
patient had not resolved her feelings of sibling rivalry in childhood, then
Freud believed he had proved his case. He integrated facts from several
sources to form a consistent picture. He felt that his interpretations
were further bolstered if several patients illustrated the same relation-
ship between variables. For example, patients with paralysis of a limb
(hysteria) often reported unresolved sexual conflicts from childhood.
The lack of experimental rigor was not of great concern to Freud. His
goal, after all, was to provide clinical insights that would help him for-
mulate a theory that would improve therapy.

Overemphasis on Childhood Sexuality ▶ Freud’s emphasis on sex-
uality brings to mind the greeting card that begins, “ SEX— Now that I
have your attention . . .” Not surprisingly, claims about childhood sex-
uality both captured the attention of psychologists and the public and
alienated many. Freud’s answer to those who saw little evidence that
sexuality pervades childhood was that his critics were repressing their
own strong sexual memories from childhood!

For most developmental psychologists, claims about infantile sexu-
ality in normal children strain the theory’s credibility. The bulk of the
developmental research of the last 50 years portrays infants and chil-
dren as curious, self- motivated, social creatures who seek stimulation
and relationships, rather than driven, anxiety- ridden beings who seek
the reduction of tension. Research on infants’ surprisingly sophisticated
concepts, described in Chapter 2, shows that even a young infant is much
more than id.

Freud’s theory demonstrates the mutual constraints among culture,
method, data, and theory (see Chapter  1). His data on the sexual

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Contemporary Research ▶ 129

fantasies of neurotic middle- and upper- class adults during the sexually
repressive Victorian era may have little generality to children developing
today. Furthermore, the specific claims about sexuality may reflect the
biases of a male- oriented society. Years ago, Horney (1967) suggested
that one could find as much evidence for womb envy in boys, due to their
inability to have children, as for penis envy in girls. Still, it is possible
to reject Freud’s primary focus on sexual content without rejecting the
entire theory. Also, it is possible to recast some of Freud’s claims about
childhood sexuality in fruitful ways. For example, an influential critique
of Freud’s analysis of girls’ development has focused on gender differ-
ences in the development of relationships. Chodorow (1978) proposed
that infant boys and girls become attached to their mother but later fol-
low different developmental pathways. Boys are encouraged to separate
themselves from their mother and establish autonomy, whereas girls are
encouraged to develop further their close relationship with their mother.
Consequently, the self- concept of girls, but not boys, may be based on a
sense of relatedness that directs girls toward interpersonal relationships.
Given increased flexibility in gender roles in recent decades, this gender
difference may be much weaker now.

Contemporary Research
The most active current Freudian- inspired topic in developmental
psychology is early relationships, reflecting Freud’s emphasis on early
social experience, emotional relationships with parents, and infants’
construction of representations about significant others. A main shift in
psychoanalytic theory after Freud’s death was object relations theories
and related approaches, particularly relational theories. Object relations
refers to “enduring patterns of interpersonal functioning in intimate
relationships and the cognitive and emotional processes that mediate
those patterns” (Westen, Gabbard, & Ortigo, 2008, p. 67).

In developmental psychology, infants’ mental representation of the
parent– infant relationship is depicted, from Bowlby’s study of infants’
attachments (see Chapter  5), as internal working models (for a recent
review, see Sherman, Rice, & Cassidy, 2015). An infant constructs inter-
nal working models— a mental representation of a significant adult,
of herself, and of their interactions— as she becomes attached to her
caregivers (mothers usually are studied). This representation includes
certain assumptions and expectations about whether the parent will be
responsive to her needs and whether the infant herself is worthy of love.

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This internal working model is a cognitive framework that serves as a
template for the development of later relationships, especially peer and
romantic relationships. The model generates expectations about these
relationships and affects the person’s interpretation of others’ behav-
iors. Mental models also affect one’s self concept, as well as behaviors
directed toward others, for example, how the person reacts to the per-
ceived threat of rejection. These ways of relating to others then confirm
and thus perpetuate children’s expectations about self and others. That
is, people make decisions that are consistent with working models,
which in turn solidify these models. In this way, disturbed relationships
can lead to disturbed working models and thus to psychopathology, as
when expectations of rejection and abuse from others may lead to with-
drawal and depression.

Working models also spill over later into parents’ relationships with
their children. For example, pregnant women’s reports of the security
or insecurity of their childhood attachment to their mother are related
to the types of attachment relations they then form with their own
infants (Steele, Steele, & Fonagy, 1996). For instance, some mothers
respond more sensitively to their infants than do others. A mother’s
mode of communication then biases her child’s development of working
models (Bretherton & Munholland, 1999), and the cycle continues. In
this way, secure or insecure relationships are transmitted from one gen-
eration to the next. Clearly, the infant and preschool years are a critical
time for the development of working models that are the foundation for
social relationships throughout the lifetime. This work is consistent with
Freud’s claim that stable personality patterns begin to develop during
early childhood and continue into adulthood. Of course these patterns
can change somewhat during adulthood, due to social experiences.

Recent theoretical work that attempts to bring together contempo-
rary attachment theory and psychoanalytic approaches emphasizes the
importance of the mother’s and infant’s awareness of each other’s men-
tal states, especially intentionality, in developing a secure and trusting
relationship (Fonagy & Campbell, 2015). Children need to experience
their mothers as accurately reflecting their emotional state. When a
mother who is sensitive to the child’s mental states mirrors the child’s
anxiety, this experience helps the child represent, organize, and under-
stand his experience and his emotion. In contrast, a mother’s inappro-
priate, confusing reactions to the infant’s behavior may, over time, lead
to child psychopathology. More generally, it is essential to develop an
information- processing system capable of representing experience and
controlling one’s cognition, and thus regulating the self.

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Contemporary Research ▶ 131

Neuroimaging research has explicitly tied evidence of infants’
implicit, unconscious processing of emotions in the right brain hemi-
sphere to psychoanalytic theory (Schore, 2014). Healthy mother– infant
attachment, developed through well- regulated emotional interactions,
appears to facilitate the development of infants’ processing of emotional
information in the mother’s voice, face, and touch. This developed cir-
cuitry in turn supports further social interaction and infants’ emotional
self- regulation, including coping with stressors. Insecure attachments
may make babies vulnerable to psychopathology. According to this
“neuropsychoanalysis,” the attachment relationship is a major organizer
of brain development; it promotes the development and maintenance
of neural networks in the right hemisphere. More generally, one of the
hottest areas of current developmental research is on developmental
social (or affective) cognitive neuroscience (see Chapter 5). Topics such
as the processing of emotional information and the often unconscious
role of emotions in cognitive processing now can be examined in terms
of neural pathways.

Another active area of research examines, more generally, the effects
of early social experience on later outcomes, especially psychopatho-
logical ones, a central concept in Freud’s theory. Recent research on the
effects of early social and emotional experiences on later development
has profited from methodological and statistical breakthroughs that
have generated powerful predictive models (e.g., Fraley, Roisman, &
Haltigan, 2013). Applying these models to longitudinal data provides
more precise predictions from early to later development. These tech-
niques identify direct pathways, as when early disordered parent– child
relations directly predict later psychopathology, and indirect pathways
as when this relation is mediated by another factor. The main current
challenge is to identify these mediators, and thus the developmental
mechanisms by which early experience is somehow carried forward to
later childhood or adulthood. Chapter 5 will address possible biological
mechanisms by which early chronic stress or trauma is translated into
negative physiological changes and even changes in gene expression,
resulting in poor health or psychological outcomes. That is, children
carry this early experience throughout childhood through their bodies.
Alternatively, early cognitive change may mediate the later outcomes.
Early trauma can cause children to expect uncertainty and danger, thus
heightening their attention to potential threats. For example, early mal-
treatment may cause biased attention to angry faces and resulting intense
negative affect, which in turn may contribute to aggression problems
(Shackman & Pollak, 2014).

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132 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

Still another main Freudian- inspired area of contemporary research is
renewed interest in the distinction between conscious and unconscious
processes. It appears that consciousness plays a much smaller role than
cognitive psychologists have believed. Much of the brain’s work occurs
at the unconscious level (Morsella, Godwin, Jantz, Krieger, & Gazzaley,
in press). Consciousness is “just a bit player” (Kluger, 2015) that might,
for example, initiate a motor behavior after all the hard unconscious pro-
cessing work is done. Another example is implicit memory, which refers
to memory without awareness. For instance, people remember how to
ride a bicycle or play the piano without consciously thinking about it or
verbalizing it. Recently, connectionist models of thinking in cognitive
science (see Chapter 7) posit that we construct concepts as we detect,
without our awareness, regularities in objects and events, such as extract-
ing what is common across many dogs to form the concept of “dog.”

ERIKSON
Powerful theories spawn “neo’s”: neo- Piagetians, neo- Freudians, neo-
behaviorists, and so on. Freud’s theory, despite its limitations, inspired
a diverse group of brilliant and creative theoreticians, researchers, and
therapists. They stretched, patched, and rearranged Freud’s vision in two
main ways that had consequences for developmental psychology.

First, several neo- Freudians, especially Hartmann (1958), stressed the
development of conflict- free ego functions, such as perception, memory,
and logical thought. Whereas Freud’s ego defends and inhibits, the neo-
Freudian’s ego integrates and organizes personality. The emphasis on the
ego’s cognitive processes as a way of adapting to reality can be found in
works by Rapaport (1960), Gill (1959), and Klein (1970). Furthermore,
White (1963) identified such ego satisfactions as exploration and com-
petence at performing tasks well. These satisfactions are independent of
satisfactions of the id. It is clear that psychoanalytic theory can address
normal, as much as abnormal, behavior. (See Palombo, Bendicsen, &
Koch, 2009, for an account of psychoanalytic approaches since Freud.)

Second, many neo- Freudians moved away from Freud’s emphasis
on biology and emotional disorders, and considered the vast influence
of society on normal development, including the importance of social
relationships. The trends toward ego and social– cultural influences came
to developmental psychology largely through the work of Erik Erikson,
and we now look at his contributions.

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 133

Biographical Sketch
Erik Erikson was born in 1902 in Germany. His wanderlust and desire
to be an artist drew him away from formal schooling. After several years
of drifting, studying art, and painting children’s portraits, Erikson was
hired to teach art and other subjects to children of Americans who had
come to Vienna for Freudian training. This accidental entry into the vig-
orous Freudian circle led to his studying at the Vienna Psychoanalytic
Institute. His own psychoanalysis, part of the usual training program,
was conducted by Anna Freud. Erikson also learned from Freud himself
and other gifted analysts.

The threat of fascism brought Erikson to the United States in 1933.
Despite his lack of a college degree, he became Boston’s first child ana-
lyst and obtained a position at the Harvard Medical School. Later he held
positions at several eminent institutions, including Yale, Berkeley, and
the Menninger Foundation. During the McCarthy era, Erikson’s (1951)
concern that California’s loyalty oath was a danger to personal and aca-
demic freedom precipitated his move back to the East Coast and to the
Austen Riggs Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, to Harvard, and to
several other eastern universities. He died in 1994 at age 91.

These diverse settings, from clinician’s chair to professor’s podium,
fueled an energy that spread Erikson’s interests over a remarkable
area. He studied combat crises in troubled American soldiers in World
War  II,  child- rearing practices among the Sioux in South Dakota and
the Yurok along the Pacific Coast, and the play of disturbed and typi-
cally developing children. He also studied the conversations of troubled
adolescents suffering identity crises and social behavior in India. These
observations molded his ideas, which he expressed in many publications,
including the well- known Childhood and Society (1963) and Identity: Youth
and Crisis (1968). He was concerned about the rapid social changes in
America and wrote about issues such as the generation gap, racial ten-
sions, juvenile delinquency, changing gender roles, and the dangers of
nuclear war. He was a gifted author whose writings have been described
as “Freud in sonnet form” (Hopkins, 1995, p. 796). It is clear that psy-
choanalysis had moved far from a doctor’s couch in Vienna.

General Orientation to the Theory
Erikson accepted the basic notions of Freudian theory: psychological
structures, the unconscious and conscious, drives, psychosexual stages,
the normal– abnormal continuum, and psychoanalytic methodology.

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134 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

However, he expanded Freud’s theory by constructing a set of eight
psychosocial stages covering the life span, by studying the development
of identity, and by developing methods that reach beyond the structured
psychoanalytic setting used with adults. A look at these three contribu-
tions serves as an orientation to the theory. He has been described as
“a moralist, artist, and intellectual trying to deal with a culture that has
begun to lose its power as an instrument for fulfilling the potential and
the aspirations of those who live within it” (Bruner, 1987, p. 8).

Psychosocial Stages
Erikson’s work in various cultures convinced him of the need to add
a life- span psychosocial dimension to Freud’s theory of psychosexual
development. In Table 3.1, columns A to D describe several aspects of
Erikson’s theory, and column E names the Freudian psychosexual stage
corresponding to each of Erikson’s psychosocial stages. The difference
between psychosexual and psychosocial components can be seen in
Erikson’s (1959, p. 115) contrast of a toddler’s oral pleasure when mak-
ing speech sounds (psychosexual component) with the role of speech
communication in shaping his relationship with his parents and signifi-
cant others (psychosocial component).

In the psychosocial view, physical maturation has personal and social
repercussions. Maturation brings a new skill that opens up new possibili-
ties for a child but also increases society’s demands on him, for example,
pressure to talk instead of cry when he wants something. There is a “fit”
between children and their culture. Societies have evolved agreed- upon
ways of meeting children’s new needs in each step of their maturation.
These include parental care, schools, social organizations, occupations, a
set of values, and so on. Erikson spoke of a “cogwheeling” of life cycles,
as when adults’ needs to become caretakers coincide with children’s
needs for caretaking. In other words, each child is a life cycle in a “com-
munity of life cycles” (Erikson, 1959, p. 121). A child is surrounded by
others who are also passing through various stages. While the culture,
over many generations, has adapted itself to the needs of children, each
child in turn adapts himself to the culture, as when a new kindergartner
adjusts to a bewildering new set of experiences called “school.”

Psychosocial development is culturally embedded in two ways. First,
although children in all cultures go through the same sequence of stages,
each culture has its own idiosyncratic way of directing and enhancing
a child’s behavior at each age. For example, Erikson observed that the
Sioux allowed nursing for several years in the spirit of overall generosity

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 135

that pervaded the Sioux value system. They also thumped the teething
male babies on the head for biting the mother’s nipples in the belief that
their crying rage would turn them into good hunters, and they trained
their girls to be bashful and afraid of men in preparation for serving their
hunter- husbands. Second, cultures change over time. Institutions that
meet the needs of one generation may prove inadequate for the next.
Industrialization, urbanization, immigration, the Depression, and the
civil rights movement brought changes in what children needed to be
taught in order to develop a healthy personality at their time in history.

Psychosocial development proceeds according to the epigenetic prin-
ciple, a term derived from epi, which means “upon,” and genesis, which
means “emergence.” This principle is borrowed from fetal development:

Somewhat generalized, this principle states that anything that grows has
a ground plan, and that out of this ground plan the parts arise, each part
having its time of special ascendancy, until all parts have arisen to form
a functioning whole. At birth the baby leaves the chemical exchange of
the womb for the social exchange system of his society, where his grad-
ually increasing capacities meet the opportunities and limitations of his
culture.

(Erikson, 1968, p. 92)

Like the fetus, the personality becomes increasingly differentiated and
hierarchically organized as it unfolds in, and is shaped by, a particular
environment. As summarized in Table 3.1, this unfolding involves several
dimensions. There is movement through a set of psychosocial “crises”
or issues as the child matures, and there is an expansion of his radius of
significant relations. Other dimensions include the translation into the
child’s terms of certain elements of social order or structure and the
progression through a set of psychosocial modalities or ways of “being”
and interacting in society. Put succinctly, the child has inborn laws of
development “which create a succession of potentialities for significant
interaction with those who tend him” (Erikson, 1968, p. 52).

We now look at the general nature of the eight stages and leave a
specific description of each stage for a later section. Maturation and
society’s expectations together create eight crises, or issues, that a child
must resolve. Each issue is most evident at a particular stage in the life
cycle but appears in some form throughout development. For example,
autonomy is the dominant concern of the second year of life, but it is
prepared for in the first year and elaborated on in later stages.

Erikson described each crisis in terms of a dimension with both pos-
itive and negative outcomes possible, for example, autonomy versus

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136 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 137

shame and doubt. Ideally, a child develops a favorable ratio, in which
the positive aspect dominates the negative. For instance, a person needs
to know when to trust and when to mistrust but generally should have
a trusting attitude toward life. If the childhood crises are not handled
satisfactorily, a person continues to fight his early battles later in life.
Many adults are still struggling to develop a sense of identity. Erikson
optimistically claimed that it is never too late to resolve any of the crises.

With respect to the integration of successive stages, Erikson’s theory
lies between that of Piaget, with his tight integration, and that of Freud,
with his loose integration. Each stage builds on the previous stages and
influences the form of later stages. As Erikson expressed it, “Each stage
adds something specific to all later ones, and makes a new ensemble out
of all the earlier ones” (quoted in Evans, 1967, p. 41).

Emphasis on Identity

Today you are you! That is truer than true! There is no one alive who is you- er
than you!”

— dr. seuss, Happy Birthday to You!

In contrast to Freud’s concern with how people defend themselves from
unpleasant tension, Erikson takes a more positive approach. He holds
that a main theme of life is the quest for identity. This term refers to
“a conscious sense of individual identity . . . an unconscious striving for
a continuity of personal character . . . a criterion for the silent doings
of ego synthesis . . . a maintenance of an inner solidarity with a group’s
ideals and identity” (Erikson, 1959, p. 102). Stated differently, identity
is the understanding and acceptance of both the self and one’s society.
Throughout life, we ask “Who am I?” and form a different answer in each
stage. If all goes well, at the end of each stage, a child’s sense of identity
is reconfirmed on a new level. Although the development of identity
reaches a crisis during adolescence, Erikson notes that it begins when a
baby “first recognizes his mother and first feels recognized by her, when
her voice tells him he is somebody with a name and he’s good” (quoted
in Evans, 1967, p. 35).Thus, identity is transformed from one stage to
the next, and early forms of identity influence later forms. This process
is similar to the reworking of a concept (such as causality) in each suc-
cessive stage in Piaget’s theory.

Erikson, the wandering youth and the American immigrant, had felt
marginalized in society. As a part of two cultures, he lived with the need
to establish an identity: “As an immigrant . . . I faced one of those very

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138 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

important redefinitions that a man has to make who has lost his land-
scape and his language, and with it all the ‘references’ on which his first
sensory and sensual impressions, and thus also some of his conceptual
images, were based” (quoted in Evans, 1967, p. 41). His conversations
with Huey P. Newton (Erikson, 1973) demonstrated that he was partic-
ularly sensitive to the problems that minority groups have when trying
to form an identity. He began using the term “identity crisis” to describe
the loss of identity he observed in World War II soldiers. He saw a sim-
ilar problem among troubled adolescents “who war on their society”
(Erikson, 1968, p. 17). Eventually, Erikson realized that the problem of
identity appears, though usually on a smaller scale, in all lives. He also
recognized that identity is a central problem of modern times: “If the
relation of father and son dominated the last century, then this one is
concerned with the self- made man asking himself what he is making of
himself ” (quoted in Evans, 1967, p. 41).

Expansion of Psychoanalytic Methodology
Erikson contributed to three methods for studying development:
direct observation of children, cross- cultural comparisons, and psy-
chobiography. His early experiences with children and his contact with
Anna Freud, who was developing child observations and play therapy,
immersed him in the world of both normal and disturbed children from
the beginning of his career. In moving from the clinician’s couch to the
playroom, he asserted that “we must study man in action and not just
man reflecting on reality” (quoted in Evans, 1967, p. 91).

Erikson’s writings are sprinkled with contrasts between cultures.
He was fascinated with how the solutions to the challenges of universal
stages vary from culture to culture. His forays into cultural anthropology
pointed out the limitations of classic Freudian theory, which was based
almost completely on psychologically troubled patients in turn- of- the-
century Vienna.

Some of Erikson’s most interesting writing is found in his “psychobi-
ographies.” These are analyses of the psychosocial development of well-
known people, which show how a single person can represent the central
preoccupation of a society at a particular time. Erikson believed that
Hitler’s rise illustrates the meshing of an individual’s particular needs for
identity and a nation’s need for a more positive identity (Erikson, 1963).
In Young Man Luther (1958), Erikson described a troubled youth who
defied his strict father who wished him to study law, rebelled against the
authority of the church, and followed a belief that gave him an honest sense

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Description of the Stages ▶ 139

of identity. Other historical “patients” include Maxim Gorky (1963) and
George Bernard Shaw (1968). His biography Gandhi’s Truth (1969) won a
Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in philosophy and religion.

Description of the Stages
Erikson divided the entire life cycle into “the eight ages of man.” Each of
the eight ages has a critical issue, a lifelong ego concern that reaches a
climax. (Table 3.1 provides an overview of each stage.)

Stage 1: Basic Trust Versus Basic Mistrust (Roughly
Birth to 1 Year)
In Table 3.1, we see that the critical issue is trust, and the main task of
infancy is to acquire a favorable ratio of trust to mistrust. If the balance
is weighted toward trust, a child has a better chance of weathering the
later crises than if it is weighted toward mistrust. Erikson defined basic
trust as “an essential trustfulness of others as well as a fundamental sense
of one’s own trustworthiness” (1968, p. 96) and the sense that “there is
some correspondence between your needs and your world” (quoted in
Evans, 1967, p. 15).

Infants with an attitude of trust can predict that their mother will feed
them when they are hungry and comfort them when they are frightened
or in pain. They will tolerate having their mother out of sight because
they are confident she will return. The mother, then, is all important,
as in Freud’s theory. Babies also develop trust in themselves from the
feeling that others accept them and from increased familiarity with their
bodily urges. This faith in themselves and their small world corresponds
to religious faith in the “cosmic order” of the universe (column C). From
the mother’s side of the interaction, there must also be trust— trust
in herself as a parent and in the meaningfulness of her caretaking role.
Erikson (1950) referred to a remark from Benjamin Spock: “To be a
good parent you have to believe in the species— somehow.”

Some mistrust is necessary at all ages in order to detect impending
danger or discomfort and to discriminate between honest and dishonest
persons. However, if mistrust wins out over trust, the child, or later
the adult, may be frustrated, withdrawn, suspicious, and lacking in self-
confidence.

The specifically oral experiences— sucking, biting, teething, and
weaning— are prototypes for the psychosocial modality of getting and

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140 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

giving (Table 3.1, column D). Babies “take in,” or “incorporate,” stimu-
lation through all the senses, much as a Piagetian child “assimilates.” By
taking from the mother and the world, babies are laying the foundation
for their later role as a giver to others.

Stage 2: Autonomy Versus Shame and Doubt (Roughly 2 to
3 Years)
Further neurological and muscular development permit walking,
talking, and the potential for anal control. As children become more
independent physically and psychologically, there are new possibilities
for personality development. At the same time, however, there are new
vulnerabilities, namely, anxiety over separation from parents, fear that
anal control may not always be possible, and loss of self- esteem when
failure does come.

A clash of wills is inevitable. Erikson referred to the “sinister forces
which are leashed and unleashed, especially in the guerrilla warfare of
unequal wills; for the child is often unequal to his own violent drives,
and parent and child unequal to each other” (1959, p. 66). Ideally, par-
ents create a supportive atmosphere in which children can develop a
sense of self- control without a loss of self- esteem.

While the positive component of this stage is autonomy, the neg-
ative components are shame and doubt: “Shame supposes that one is
completely exposed and conscious of being looked at— in a word, self-
conscious . . . ‘with one’s pants down.’ Shame is early expressed in an
impulse to bury one’s face, or to sink, right then and there, into the
ground” (Erikson, 1959, pp. 68–69). Doubt has to do with the unknown
“behind” that the child cannot see yet must try to control. Shame and
doubt about one’s self- control and independence come if basic trust was
insufficiently developed or was lost, if bowel training is too early or too
harsh, or if the child’s will is “broken” by an overcontrolling parent.

The culture, expressed through the parents, shapes and gives meaning
to the toddler’s new competencies. For example, cultures vary in how
much they pressure toward early anal control. Erikson pointed to the
machine age’s ideal of a “mechanically trained, faultlessly functioning,
and always clean, punctual, and deodorized body” (1959, p.  67). This
attitude contrasts to the lack of concern with such matters in the Sioux
culture, where children simply imitate older children in order to achieve
bowel control by the time they begin school.

The psychosocial modality is holding on versus letting go, the counter-
part to retention and elimination. This ambivalence pervades the child’s

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Description of the Stages ▶ 141

behavior and attitude. For example, toddlers often zealously hoard toys
or other objects and anxiously guard them in their hiding place but then
casually throw them out the window of a moving car or give them to a
friend. One morning a mother is late to work because her 2- year- old
adamantly insists on buttoning every single shirt button himself, while the
next morning the young Dr. Jekyll– Mr. Hyde screams with rage because
his mother has not helped him get dressed. Failure to coordinate the
opposing tendencies to hold on and let go can lead to the “anal personality”
described by Freud— overcontrolled, compulsive, messy, stingy, or rigid.

In this second stage, children encounter rules such as when they can
have bowel movements or which areas of the house they are allowed to
explore. These rules are an early hint of the “law and order” society they
will face (column C of Table 3.1). The issue here, according to Erikson,
is “whether we remain the masters of the rules by which we want to
make things more manageable (not more complicated) or whether the
rules master the ruler” (1959, pp. 72–73). In a well- functioning society,
the sense of autonomy encouraged in children is maintained throughout
their lives by that society’s economic and political structures.

Stage 3: Initiative Versus Guilt (Roughly 4 to 5 Years)
“Being firmly convinced that he is a person, the child must now find out
what kind of a person he is going to be. And here he hitches his wagon
to nothing less than a star: he wants to be like his parents, who to him
appear very powerful and very beautiful, although quite unreasonably
dangerous” (Erikson, 1959, p. 74). The theme of this stage is children’s
identification with their parents, who are perceived as big, powerful,
and intrusive. Erikson accepted the basic outline of Freud’s account of
how children achieve identification through the Oedipus complex, but
he emphasized the social components more than the sexual. As we saw
in Freud’s theory, identification brings with it a conscience and a set of
interests, attitudes, and sex- typed behaviors.

The basic psychosocial modality is “making,” namely, intrusion, taking
the initiative, forming and carrying out goals, and competing. We might
conclude, with T. S. Eliot in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” that
the stage- 3 child dares to disturb the universe. The child intrudes “into
other bodies by physical attack . . . into other people’s ears and minds
by aggressive talking . . . into space by vigorous locomotion . . . into the
unknown by consuming curiosity” (Erikson, 1959, p. 76). This initiative
is supported by advances in mobility, physical dexterity, language, cog-
nition, and creative imagination.

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142 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

Children settle somewhere along a dimension ranging from successful
initiative to overwhelming guilt due to an overly severe conscience that
punishes sexual fantasies and immoral thoughts or behavior. In addition
to guilt, another danger is that children may forever feel that they must
always be doing something, always competing, always “making,” in order
to have any worth as a person. For this stage the related elements of
social order are “ideal prototypes” (column C)—social roles such as
police officer, teacher, astronaut, president, and “hero.”

Stage 4: Industry Versus Inferiority (Roughly
6 Years to Puberty)
The “industrial age” begins. Children now want to enter the larger world
of knowledge and work. Their theme is “I am what I learn” (Erikson,
1959, p.  82). The great event is entry into school, where they are
exposed to the technology of their society, such as multiplication tables,
maps, and microscopes. Learning, however, occurs not only in school
but also on the street, in friends’ houses, and at home.

Successful experiences give children a sense of industry, a feeling of
competence and mastery, while failure brings a sense of inadequacy and
inferiority, a feeling that one is a good- for- nothing. Children strive to
make things well and complete what they have begun. The years spent
establishing basic trust, autonomy, and initiative were preparation for
this energetic entry into our technological society. Erikson noted that
this stage differs from the first three in that “it does not consist of a swing
from a violent inner upheaval to a new mastery” (1959, p. 88). It is a
calmer period, a time of psychosexual latency.

Stage 5: Identity and Repudiation Versus Identity Diffusion
(Adolescence)
Erikson quoted a saying that hangs in a cowboy bar in the West: “I ain’t
what I ought to be, I ain’t what I’m going to be, but I ain’t what I was”
(1959, p. 93). In an earlier section, we saw that the quest for identity is
the undercurrent running through all the stages. The trust, autonomy,
initiative, and industry of earlier stages contribute to a child’s identity.
In the fifth stage, however, this concern reaches a climax. Rapid phys-
iological changes produce a “new” body with unfamiliar sexual urges.
These changes, along with social pressure to make rational and edu-
cational decisions, force adolescents to consider a variety of roles. The
basic task for them is to integrate the various identifications they bring
from childhood into a more complete identity. Erikson emphasized that

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Description of the Stages ▶ 143

this whole (the identity) is greater than the sum of its parts (previous
identifications). This reassembled identity is appropriate for the new
needs, skills, and goals of adolescence. If adolescents cannot integrate
their identifications, roles, or selves, they face “identity diffusion.” The
personality is fragmented, lacking a core. Erikson quoted Biff in Arthur
Miller’s Death of a Salesman: “I just can’t take hold, Mom, I can’t take hold
of some kind of a life” (1959, p. 91). The problem may be exacerbated by
one’s minority- group status, uncertainty about one’s sexual orientation,
an overly strong identification with a parent, or too many occupational
roles from which to choose.

The psychosocial modality of this stage is to be oneself or not to be
oneself. Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy voices this alienation and
role confusion (Erikson, 1968). Youths seek their true selves through
peer groups, clubs, religion, political movements, and so on. These
groups provide opportunities to try out new roles much in the way
someone might try on jackets in a store until finding one that fits. The
ideology of society, this stage’s counterpart in the social order, guides
this role playing by conveying which roles are valued by society.

Stage 6: Intimacy and Solidarity Versus Isolation (Young
Adulthood)
Only if a reasonably well- integrated identity emerges from stage 5 can
psychological intimacy with other people (or even oneself) be possible.
If a youth fears that she may lose herself in someone else, she is unable to
fuse her identity with someone else. Although young people usually form
important romantic relationships during this time, their friendships and
even their access to their own intimate feelings and thoughts also mark
this stage. These relationships, by enhancing one’s own identity, further
the growth of personality. One aspect of intimacy is the feeling of soli-
darity of “us” and the defense against “them,” the threatening “forces and
people whose essence seems dangerous to one’s own” (Erikson, 1959,
pp. 96–97). If a youth’s attempts at intimacy fail, she retreats into isola-
tion. In this case, social relationships are stereotyped, cold, and empty.

Stage 7: Generativity Versus Stagnation and Self- Absorption
(Middle Adulthood)
Generativity refers to “the interest in establishing and guiding the next
generation” (Erikson, 1959, p.  97) through child rearing or creative
or productive endeavors. Simply bearing children does not, of course,
ensure that a parent will develop a sense of generativity. Faith in the

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144 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

future, a belief in the species, and the ability to care about others seem
to be prerequisites for development in this stage. Instead of having chil-
dren, one may work to create a better world for the children of others.
Stage 7, then, provides the mechanism for the continuity of society
from generation to generation. A lack of generativity is expressed in
stagnation, self- absorption ( self- indulgence), boredom, and lack of psy-
chological growth.

Stage 8: Integrity Versus Despair (Late Adulthood)
In this final stage, people must live with what they have built over their
lifetime. Ideally, they will have achieved integrity. Integrity involves the
acceptance of the limitations of life, a sense of being a part of a larger his-
tory that includes previous generations, a sense of owning the wisdom of
the ages, and a final integration of all the previous stages. The antithesis
of integrity is despair— regret for what one has done or not done with
one’s life, fear of approaching death, and disgust with oneself.

Mechanisms of Development
The epigenetic principle describes the forces that underlie movement
through the stages. Physical maturation writes the general timetable for
development. Within these limits, one’s culture pushes, slows down,
nurtures, and destroys. In Erikson’s view, society exerts its influence
on the developing organism at many levels, ranging all the way from its
abstract ideology to a parent’s caress. Other Eriksonian mechanisms of
development come from Freud: drives, frustrations from external and
internal forces, attachment, and identification. However, Erikson made
little use of Freud’s tension- reduction equilibration process. Instead, he
viewed development as the resolution of conflict from opposing forces.
A child integrates holding on and letting go, initiative and guilt, the bio-
logical and psychological, and so on.

Erikson (1977) also elaborated on a more specific mechanism of devel-
opment: play. Play is used in a broad sense to mean the use of imagina-
tion to try out ways of mastering and adapting to the world, to express
emotions, to re- create past situations or imagine future situations, and
to develop new models of existence. Problems that cannot be solved in
reality can be solved through doll play, dramatics, sports, art, block play,
“playing house,” and so on. Play, however, is not limited to children. Play

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Posit ion on Developmental Issues ▶ 145

includes Einstein visualizing a model of time and space, an adolescent
fantasizing about entering various occupations, or a man rehearsing what
he will say to his boss the next day. Play is often ritualized and becomes
a somewhat formal, enduring, culturally agreed- upon way of interacting
with others. For example, an adolescent who is “messing around” with
his friends is acquiring culturally approved patterns for interacting with
other people. Another example is that the child care rituals of infancy
pass on “proper” ways of recognizing and greeting other people. Rituals
are mechanisms of development because they bring humans in every
stage into the cultural mainstream and provide ready- made solutions to
the problems of everyday life.

Position on Developmental Issues
Erikson’s position on the four issues is close to Freud’s but differs in
emphasis. Erikson, like Piaget, had a more optimistic view of human
nature. Children and adults not only seek to avoid pain but also actively
seek to develop a positive sense of identity. The existential human is in
a process of “becoming” throughout life. This development is primarily
qualitative because changes are stagelike, but it is also somewhat quan-
titative in that one’s identity becomes stronger and one’s convictions
solidify.

Unlike Freud’s theory, Erikson’s has elements of the contextualist
worldview. He saw a changing child in a changing world and a system of
culturally constructed contexts devoted to the socialization of children
into that culture. The nature of these settings contributes to, and affects
the resolution of, the crisis of each stage.

Like Freud, Erikson believed that nature determines the sequence
of the stages and sets limits within which nurture operates. Heredity
ensures that certain crises arise, but the environment determines how
they are resolved. Erikson, however, more than Freud, emphasized the
role of culture in nurturing and shaping development. Not only the
person’s past and present but also society’s past and present influence
the developing person. In addition, Erikson rejected Freud’s claim
that development is essentially complete after the first five years of
life. Development is a lifelong process; sometimes childhood conflicts
are not resolved satisfactorily until adulthood. Finally, for Erikson, the
essence of development is the formation of an identity that gives coher-
ence to one’s personality.

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146 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

Applications
As mentioned earlier, Erikson applied his theory to problems such
as adolescent identity crises, conflict between generations, post- war
adjustment of soldiers, race relations, and child rearing. Today, counsel-
ors continue to draw on his work on adolescence in particular to help
young people form a coherent identity and successfully make personal
and occupational decisions. Adults can facilitate their children’s develop-
ment by helping them achieve a balance between each end of the contin-
uum in each stage, such as between trust and healthy mistrust.

Evaluation of the Theory
Because Erikson’s theory is an extension of psychoanalytic theory, much
of the earlier evaluation of Freud’s theory is relevant here. Instead of
reiterating those comments, the present section focuses on the unique
strengths and weaknesses of Erikson’s theory.

Strengths

Expansion of Psychoanalytic Theory ▶ By widening the empirical
base of psychoanalytic theory, Erikson increased its credibility and appli-
cation. He added the psychosocial to the psychosexual, the cultural to
the biological, the ego identity to the ego defenses, the normal to the
abnormal, the cross- cultural to the culture- specific, child observations
to adults’ reconstructions from childhood, and adult development to
child development. The theory is remarkable in its power to integrate a
wide variety of situations. Erikson’s version of development seems well
grounded in the everyday lives of the majority of people as they struggle
to find coherence and meaning in their lives. He “looks for the hopeful
and active part of the person and for how human experience and human
potential are organized in the communal environment, within a radius
of significant social encounters” (Schlein, 1987, p. xxv). This broadened
psychoanalytic framework has been a valuable heuristic for counseling
and therapy. Erikson’s emphasis on culture and life- span development
was especially important for developmental psychology, and contrib-
uted to today’s life- span approach. However, his work stimulated little
research on the specific claims of his theory, such as the ordering of the
stages or, at a more concrete level, sex differences in children’s play.

Broad Perspective ▶ Erikson’s relevance for contemporary views of
development lies in the broad perspective he gives to children’s behavior.

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Evaluation of the Theory ▶ 147

He has been described as “perhaps one of the last great synthesizers in
the behavioral sciences” (Hopkins, 1995, p. 796). A specific behavior of
a specific child is influenced by his past history, the present situation,
and the past and present history of his own culture and even the world
society. All levels of society, from international relations to the nation’s
political structure to the interaction within the family, influence behav-
ior. Erikson’s writings conjure up the image of a system of interlocking
forces uniting the child and the universe, the distant past and the distant
future. Although many developmentalists agree with this position, with
few exceptions (see Vygotskian and sociocultural theories in Chapter 4)
they do not seriously examine these social and historical variables.
Instead, the behavior of children is typically studied in isolation.

Weaknesses

Lack of Systematicity ▶ Erikson’s theory is a loose connection of
observations, empirical generalizations, and abstract theoretical claims.
Consequently, it is difficult to state his claims in a way that can be
tested or relate his empirical findings to the more abstract levels of the
theory. As with Freud, much of the problem lies in the methodologi-
cal inadequacies, particularly the lack of controlled experimentation.
In Erikson’s case, the observations are laden with interpretations that
are difficult to evaluate. For example, in Erikson’s observation at the
beginning of this chapter, do boys build towers because of their phallic,
intrusive orientation, as Erikson claimed, or simply because they like to
knock tall things down? His psychobiographies are fascinating but are
necessarily speculative. A related problem is that the terms he selects
can be confusing. For example, “generativity” and “integrity” do not
have their usual meanings.

Lack of Specific Mechanisms of Development ▶ It became clear
in the earlier section on mechanisms of development that Erikson did
not explain in any detail how a child moves from stage to stage or even
how he resolves the crisis within a stage. He states what influences the
movement (for example, physical maturation, parents, cultural beliefs,
the extent to which earlier crises were resolved) but not specifically how
the movement comes about. By what mechanisms does an infant learn
when to trust and when to mistrust? Why does the resolution of the
initiative– guilt polarity lead to the industry– inferiority conflict rather
than to some other conflict? The validity of many of Erikson’s notions,
such as the conflict- resolution model, rests on the ability to describe in
detail the mechanisms of development.

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148 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

Contemporary Research
Unlike Piaget and Freud, Erikson emphasized development over the
entire life span, a thriving area of research today. Some contemporary
research continues to examine Eriksonian issues, such as generativity
and adult development. For example, adults who feel they have a pur-
pose in life live longer than their counterparts (Hill & Turiano, 2014).
As the number of elderly adults has increased, researchers have become
increasingly interested in this final phase of life. And as more and more
people attend college and delay marriage, parenthood, and entry into
full- time employment in industrialized societies, researchers have iden-
tified a new phase in the life span between adolescence and young adult-
hood, called emerging adulthood (Arnett, 2015a).

During this developmental phase, from the late teens through the
mid- 20s, many young people are adults in terms of age but are not yet
adults in terms of achieving financial independence, living independently
from parents, and establishing a family. Although college undergraduates
have been convenient sources of research participants for years and data
on them is the basis of most of our knowledge about many areas of psy-
chology, this now also is seen as an age group undergoing development.
They are continuing to explore their identities in work and relationships
and to develop a philosophy of life. Emerging adulthood is marked
by identity exploration, instability, focus on self, feeling in between
childhood and adulthood, and a focus on possibilities (Arnett, 2015a).
Despite the instability and uncertainty they face, emerging adults are
skilled at living with contradictory emotions. For the most part, they
are confident though cautious, and optimistic though aware of the uncer-
tainty of success.

Consistent with Erikson’s focus on culture, researchers have stud-
ied cultural variation in emerging adulthood. For example, in Europe,
identity development is focused on freedom and leisure, whereas Asian
countries tend to focus on values of family obligation (Arnett, 2015b).
The stage of emerging adulthood primarily is found in economically
developed countries, does not yet exist in developing countries, and is a
recent phenomenon in some countries. For example, in Japan few young
women could, until recent years, go against convention and stay single
for a long period of time and thus have a time of emerging adulthood
(Rosenberger, 2007). In the United States, emerging adulthood is expe-
rienced differently by youths in various racial and ethnic populations
(Syed & Mitchell, 2013). For instance, those of Latin American or Asian
(especially East Asian) backgrounds often feel torn during emerging

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Contemporary Research ▶ 149

adulthood between their sense of duty to enter the roles that their fami-
lies desire for them and their wish to explore other identities and careers
(Fuligni, 2007).

A main active area of current research is identity development
during adolescence and early adulthood (e.g., McLean & Syed, 2015).
For example, Marcia (Kroger & Marcia, 2013; Marcia, 1967, 2007)
has expanded two of Erikson’s notions, crisis and commitment: “Crisis
refers to times during adolescence when the individual seems to be
actively involved in choosing among alternative occupations and beliefs.
Commitment refers to the degree of personal investment the individ-
ual expresses in an occupation or belief ” (1967, p. 119). The presence
or absence of crisis or commitment defines four identity statuses. An
identity- diffused person, because she has experienced neither an identity
crisis nor a commitment, is easily influenced by others and may change
her beliefs often. A foreclosure person has made commitments without
experiencing an identity crisis. She unquestioningly accepts beliefs, atti-
tudes, and an occupation based on the views of others. An example is
entering a career that her parents want for her. A moratorium person is in
a state of identity crisis and is not yet able to make commitments. Thus,
she is still searching. Finally, an identity- achieved person has successfully
passed through an identity crisis and has made a set of personal commit-
ments. Young people tend to make progress through the four statuses,
but many still are not identity achieved by young adulthood (Kroger,
Martinussen, & Marcia, 2010). Much of the research examines the dif-
fering backgrounds and characteristics of adolescents and adults in the
four identity statuses. For example, achieving identity is associated with
having a secure attachment style and having achieved intimacy (Arseth,
Kroger, Martinussen, & Marcia, 2009).

Contemporary research on identity, a key Eriksonian concept,
explores diverse developmental pathways to achieving identity as a func-
tion of gender, race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, and nationality,
and their intersections. Achieving an integrated identity is particularly
challenging for those who hold minority status in these categories.
Immigrant youth, in particular, may face not only the usual identity
developmental task of adolescence and early adulthood, but also, like
Erikson himself, the challenges of adjusting to a new culture.

Common challenges to this adjustment include economic difficulties
and ethnic and racial stratification. Some studies find that retaining the
cultural values of one’s culture of origin is a buffer against the strains of
identity development in immigrant youth. That is, developing an ethnic
identity and not completely assimilating into dominant U.S. culture can

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150 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

protect against negative outcomes. For example, the development of
ethnic and racial identity is associated with positive psychosocial, aca-
demic, and health risk outcomes among African- American adolescents
( Rivas- Drake et  al., 2014). Moreover, retaining the value of family
obligation— respecting, supporting, and caring for one’s family— is asso-
ciated with healthy psychological development in Mexican- American
adolescents (Telzer, Tsai, Gonzales, & Fuligni, 2015). Finally, the fact
that first- generation Asian- Americans endorse model minority pride
more strongly than second- generation Asian- Americans shows that the
generational status of immigrants influences how they cope with social
marginality (Mahalingam, 2006).

SUMMARY
Two of Freud’s ideas formed the backbone of developmental psychol-
ogy. First, he proposed that the first few years of life are critical because
one’s basic personality is formed during that time. Second, he believed
that personality is developed as a child copes with an invariant sequence
of conflicts. Each conflict involves a different domain: oral, anal, phallic,
and adult genital. The way that children satisfy the drives in each stage
forms the basis of their personality. Although Freud’s psychosexual focus
has little influence today in academic psychology, the notion of stages has
greatly influenced research and therapy with children. Also, his account
of attachment has stimulated current research on internal working
models and their long- term effects on development.

Using an energy model from physics, Freud described a system of
psychological energy that is distributed, transformed, and discharged
within a psychological structure. This structure consists of the id,
ego, and superego in a delicate balance. The ego considers its available
defenses, its perceptions of reality, the demands of the id for drive
reduction, and the prohibitions of the superego before deciding on a
course of action. Most of the “mind” is unconscious because knowledge
of the thoughts and wishes hidden in the id, ego, and superego would
cause unbearable anxiety.

Most of Freud’s evidence came from his patients’ free associations
concerning their childhood, dreams, and present concerns. Freud
believed that the workings of abnormal minds clarify the nature of nor-
mal personality because there is a continuum of behaviors ranging from
the abnormal to the normal.

Freud viewed humans as driven by instincts but actively trying to
cope with various internal and external conflicts. He stressed qualitative,

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stagelike changes in development but also included quantitative change.
Although he emphasized biological influences, especially drives, he also
recognized the role of experience, particularly social experience in the
first five years of life. The essence of development is the emergence
of psychological structures that mediate all experience and behavior.
Freud’s theory introduced new psychological phenomena to Western
culture and has the potential to broaden future research on cognitive
development by including emotion- laden thoughts and defense mech-
anisms. However, the theory has methodological inadequacies, and its
claims may not be testable. In addition, its focus on infantile sexuality has
limited its acceptance in academic psychology. Contemporary research
on attachment, effects of early experience on later outcomes, and
unconscious mental processes indicates that many of the developmental
issues raised by Freud are still relevant.

What is Freud’s heritage for developmental psychology? He began
by asking why his patients suffered and ended by giving us a new per-
spective on human development. Hall and Lindzey noted that whereas
Freud may not have been the most rigorous scientist or theorist, “he was
a patient, meticulous, penetrating observer and a tenacious, disciplined,
courageous, original thinker” (1957, p. 72).

Erikson’s psychosocial theory of development modified Freudian
theory in two important ways. First, Erikson identified important social
influences on development throughout the life span. His research in
various cultures and social settings within a culture suggests that every
society tries to deal with the biologically based changes occurring during
development. Ideally, there is a fit between a child’s needs and the soci-
ety’s needs at each point in development. In each of eight stages, there is
a psychosocial crisis in which there are two possible extreme outcomes:
(1) trust versus mistrust, (2) autonomy versus shame and doubt, (3)
initiative versus guilt, (4) industry versus inferiority, (5) identity and
repudiation versus identity diffusion, (6) intimacy and solidarity versus
isolation, (7) generativity versus stagnation and self- absorption, and (8)
integrity versus despair. Eriksonian- inspired research on identity con-
tinues today.

Erikson’s second major contribution to psychoanalytic theory is his
notion that life is a quest for identity. Thus, he focused on ego processes.
The work on both social and ego processes greatly expanded psychoana-
lytic theory and provided a broad perspective on development. However,
the theory is rather unsystematic and lacks specific mechanisms of devel-
opment. Erikson’s influence can be seen in contemporary research on
emergent adulthood and the diversity of identity development.

Summary ▶ 151

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152 ▶ FREUD’S AND ERIKSON’S PSYCHOANALYTIC THEORIES

Freud and Erikson produced different yet complementary perspec-
tives on development. A remark by Kierkegaard expresses an integration
of the two views: “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must
be lived forwards.”

SUGGESTED READINGS
This paperback is a short, lucid introduction to Freud’s theory:

Hall, C. S. (1954). A primer of Freudian psychology. New York: World.

This book describes various psychoanalytic theories of development:

Palombo, J., Bendicsen, H. K., & Koch, B.  J. (2009). Guide to psycho-
analytic developmental theories. New York: Springer Science+Business
Media.

Because Freud was a talented and provocative writer, his ideas should be
explored in his own writings:

Strachey,  J. (Ed. and Trans.). (1953–1966). The standard edition of
the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud (24 vols). London:
Hogarth Press. Particularly recommended are “An Outline of Psycho-
Analysis” (Vol.  23, pp.  144–207), “New Introductory Lectures on
Psycho- Analysis” (Vol. 22, pp. 5–182), and any of the case studies.

This book provides a nice introduction to Erikson’s theory:

Stevens,  R. (2008). Erik Erikson: Explorer of identity and the life cycle.
New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Three of Erikson’s books provide readable accounts of his ideas:

Erikson,  E.  H. (1963). Childhood and society (2nd  ed.). New  York:
Norton.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Identity: Youth and crisis. New York: Norton.

Erikson,  E.  H. (1982). The life cycle completed: A review. New  York:
Norton.

Erikson’s psychobiographies are a source of fascinating reading, espe-
cially this Pulitzer Prize- winning one:

Erikson, E. H. (1969). Gandhi’s truth. New York: Norton.

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Vygotsky and the Sociocultural
Approach

The experimenter has removed a crayon of a needed color before the child begins
to draw. The child talks to himself: Where’s the pencil? I need a blue pencil.
Never mind, I’ll draw with the red one and wet it with water; it will
become dark and look like blue.

—Vygotsky, 1962, p. 16

Mothers and their children construct a jigsaw puzzle together.
A 2- year- old:
C: Oh. (glances at model, then looks at pieces pile) Oh, now where’s this one go? (picks
up black cargo square, looks at copy, then at pieces pile)
M: Where does it go on this other one? (child puts black cargo square back down in
pieces pile, looks at pieces pile)
M: Look at the other truck and then you can tell. (child looks at model, then glances
at pieces pile, then looks at model, then glances at pieces pile)
C: Well . . . (looks at copy, then at model) . . . I look at it. . . . Um, this other puzzle
has a black one over there. (child points to black cargo square in model)
M: Um- hm.
C: A black one . . . (looks at pieces pile)
M: So where do you want to put the black one on this puzzle? (child picks up black
cargo square from pieces pile, looks at copy)
C: Well, where do you put it there? Over there? (inserts black cargo square correctly
in copy)
M: That looks good.

—Wertsch, 1979, p. 13

A 4- year- old:
C: I’ll tell you when I need help, Mom.

—Wertsch & hickmann, 1987, p. 261

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C H A P T E R 4

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154 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

D
evelopment is not just about individuals. It is also about their
surroundings, including the other people in their lives. An infant
is born with biologically based potential and tendencies but
would become a different adult in China, Uganda, and Texas. Yet,

most of the theories that have influenced developmental research in the
Western world have viewed individuals as separate from their social and
physical environments. These theories, such as Piaget’s, depict devel-
opment primarily as an individual activity. Most approaches view the
environment as simply an “influence on” an individual’s development. In
North America in particular, a democratic political philosophy, a focus
on the rights of individuals, and, historically, the romantic ideal of a
lone explorer separated from family in search of new land have directed
developmental psychologists to an isolated autonomous individual. The
environment simply facilitates or restricts development.

In contrast, a number of other social belief systems and their cor-
responding psychological theories, many of them Eastern, challenge
this view (e.g., Markus & Kitayama, 2010). Of this group, the most
influential for present- day developmental psychologists is the approach
developed by the Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky and, more generally,
sociocultural theorists. In the Vygotskian– sociocultural view, humans
are embedded in a sociocultural matrix and human behavior cannot be
understood independent of this ever- present matrix. As Bhaskar said,
“To think of contexts as existing in addition to or apart from practices
is like imagining smiles alongside or beside faces” (1983, p. 87)—like a
Cheshire cat in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Like Erikson’s theory, Vygotsky’s theory directs our attention to cul-
tures other than our own in order to more clearly see the role of culture
in development. The theory complements Piaget’s theory by looking at
how culture might account for children showing greater understanding
in some contexts than in others— the domain- specific concepts discussed
in the chapter on Piaget. The neo- Piagetians, particularly Fischer, drew
on Vygotskian theory to explain variability in development. Vygotsky
and the socioculturalists point out that a culture defines what knowledge
and skills children need in that culture and gives them tools such as lan-
guage, technology, and strategies for functioning in that culture. Thus,
the sociocultural approach balances the Piagetian (and Freudian) focus
on the individual.

Chapters  2–4 present the “Big 3” theorists in the history of devel-
opmental psychology. These theorists provide three very different
perspectives on development, which provide a foundation for the rest
of the book. Freud emphasized biological forces that mold personality,

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Biographical Sketch c 155

Vygotsky focused on cultural contributions to cognition, and Piaget
took an interactionist stance regarding biology and the environment.

The organization of this chapter is as follows: First, in true Vygotskian
style, a biographical sketch gives a cultural and historical perspective on
Vygotsky. Much of the material for this sketch came from Luria (1979),
Cole and Scribner (1978), and Wertsch (1985). Next is a general ori-
entation to sociocultural theory, followed by sections on mechanisms of
development, the theory’s position on developmental issues, applica-
tions, and strengths and weaknesses. Final sections describe the contex-
tual approach, which is closely associated with sociocultural approaches,
and contemporary research.

Biographical Sketch
Lev Semyonovich Vygotsky was born in 1896, the same year as Piaget,
into an intellectual Russian Jewish family. His large family valued stim-
ulating conversations while having tea around the samovar. By age 15,
Vygotsky was called the “little professor” because of his reputation as
a leader of student discussions (Wertsch, 1985). He often organized
debates and mock trials in which his friends took the roles of historical
figures such as Aristotle and Napoleon (Wertsch, 1985). Vygotsky was
well educated. He received a degree in law from Moscow University
but also read widely in literature, linguistics, psychology, the arts, social
science, and philosophy. He later wrote his dissertation on Shakespeare’s
Hamlet. He expressed this interest in language and literature in his
later work on cognitive development. Vygotsky taught psychology at a
teacher’s college in a provincial town in western Russia. In his work, he
encountered children with disabilities such as blindness, deafness, and
intellectual delay. As he sought ways to help these children fulfill their
potential, his theory developed.

Vygotsky’s systematic work in psychology began in 1924 when the
Russian psychologist Alexander Luria, impressed by the brilliance of
one of Vygotsky’s lectures, obtained a position for him at the Institute of
Psychology in Moscow. Luria described this event starring an unknown
young teacher from the provinces:

When Vygotsky got up to deliver his speech, he had no printed text from
which to read, not even notes. Yet he spoke fluently, never seeming to
stop and search his memory for the next idea. . . . Instead of choosing a
minor theme, as might befit a young man of twenty- eight speaking for
the first time to a gathering of the graybeards of his profession, Vygotsky
chose the difficult theme of the relation between conditioned reflexes

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156 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

and man’s conscious behavior. . . . It was clear that this man from a small
provincial town in western Russia was an intellectual force who would
have to be listened to.

(1979, pp. 38–39)

Vygotsky’s speeches continued to inspire his listeners in the following
years. Students sometimes even listened to his lectures through open
windows when the auditorium was overflowing.

Vygotsky, Luria, and Leontiev, the “troika” of the Vygotskian school
(Luria, 1979), enthusiastically constructed a new psychology based on
Marxism as part of the construction of a new socialist state following
the Russian Revolution. As Luria described it, “Our aim, overambitious
in the manner characteristic of the times, was to create a new, com-
prehensive approach to human psychological processes” (1979, p. 40).
Vygotsky’s lack of formal training in psychology was not a problem to
such a radical group! It was largely because of the great social upheaval
that Vygotsky was able to develop his theory and influence the psychol-
ogy and education of the times (Wertsch, 1985).

The work of Vygotsky and his colleagues shows the close connection
between economic/political systems and psychology. They wanted to
change citizens’ thinking from a feudal (landlords and serfs) mentality
of helplessness and alienation to a socialistic mentality of self- directed
activity and commitment to a larger social unit based on sharing, cooper-
ation, and support. In the new Soviet view, each person was responsible
for the progress of the whole society. A main goal was to eliminate the
massive illiteracy of Soviet society. In reaction to previous Russian psy-
chologists, Vygotsky and his colleagues constructed a cultural– historical
view of developmental psychology and emphasized higher mental activ-
ities such as thinking, memory, and reasoning. Vygotsky drew on Pavlov’s
work on “higher nervous activity” and was aware of European psycholo-
gists such as Piaget, Binet, and Freud. In fact, several of his publications
critiqued Piaget (e.g.,Vygotsky, 1962).

Vygotsky extended Marx and Engels’ ideas about economics and
politics to psychology in three main ways, all of which will be described
more fully later. First, he extended to human development their argu-
ment that humans transform themselves, as well as nature, through
labor and tool use. The hand creates the mind. The mode of economic
production— for example, socialist, capitalist, or feudal— determines
people’s working conditions and social interactions. These experiences
in turn shape their cognition— cognitive styles, attitudes, perception
of reality, and beliefs. Vygotsky applied to children’s development this
fascinating idea that the labor system creates the social structure, which

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Biographical Sketch c 157

in turn creates the fundamental nature of human thinking: Children’s
interactions with others and the culture’s “psychological tools,” such
as language used in these interactions, shape children’s thinking. In an
analogy with labor, children’s actions with these tools create thought.
Thus, both Piaget and Vygotsky thought that interaction with objects and
materials direct cognitive development, but Vygotsky emphasized social
interaction. Also, Vygotsky pointed out the cultural origins of physical
objects such as machines and toys.

Second, Vygotsky argued that the economic collectivist principle of
shared goods runs parallel to socially shared cognition. The adult col-
lective is responsible for sharing its knowledge with children and other
less advanced members of society in order to advance their cognitive
development. Third, Vygotsky used the Marxist principle (from Hegel)
of dialectical change— that all phenomena constantly undergo change
and move toward a synthesis of conflicting, contradictory elements.
For Vygotsky, this process constitutes development. Human thought,
like other phenomena, can be understood only by examining its his-
tory. Conflict can occur between developing psychological structures,
between a currently held concept and a new one, between children and
their environment, between nature and nurture, and so on.

Vygotsky remained interested in education, especially of those with
mental and physical disabilities and medical problems such as blindness,
aphasia, and severe intellectual disability. In fact, he undertook medical
training for several years. He established several research laboratories,
some of them dedicated to the study of children with physical or mental
problems. Vygotsky lectured widely, conducted research continually, and
published approximately 180 works on topics as diverse as intellectual
disabilities, language, deafness, play, emotions, personality, concepts,
multilingualism, memory, mathematics, perception, and attention.
Other interests included schizophrenia, negativity in adolescents, the
psychology of art, and even creativity in actors.

In the early 1930s, Vygotsky fell victim to the political strife sur-
rounding Stalin’s rule. The government accused him of being a “bour-
geois psychologist” of the ilk of Piaget and other suspect Western
psychologists. In fact, Vygotsky was viewed suspiciously for often refer-
ring to these writers. The government also criticized him for suggesting
that nonliterate minority people in the remote, nonindustrialized parts
of Russia had not yet developed the intellectual prowess of those in
more modern sections. Particularly suspect was his interest in intellec-
tual testing— a “pedagogical perversion” denounced by the Communist
Party. The party blacklisted him during the Stalinist purges, as it did many

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158 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

psychologists. From 1936 to 1956, the government banned his work,
though his writings continued to circulate underground. Vygotsky’s
influential book Thought and Language was published in Russia in 1934,
the year of his death. He died of tuberculosis at age 37 after only 10 years
of professional work in psychology— though they were 10 quite remark-
able years. Vygotsky’s early brilliance and premature death led him to
be called the “Mozart of psychology” (Toulmin, 1978). His theory “was
sketchily proposed by a young genius in a mortal race with tuberculosis,
during an intellectual revolution on foreign soil, over a half- century ago”
(Rogoff & Göncu, 1987, p. 23).

Vygotsky’s ideas continued through the work of Luria and others, par-
ticularly those in the Soviet Union who were building a “theory of activity.”
Only a few short articles by Vygotsky were available in English until a
translation of Thought and Language was published in 1962. The efforts of
several scholars, including Michael Cole, Barbara Rogoff, James Wertsch,
Jean Valsiner, and Ann Brown in the United States, made Vygotsky’s ideas
more accessible to the English- speaking world. The sociocultural approach
inspired by Vygotsky is a major current theoretical perspective, and
Vygotsky’s work continues to influence educational practices. Both the
growing racial and cultural diversity of children within the United States
and the globalization of contemporary life make it imperative that we
understand cultural contributions to development. We need Vygotsky’s
theory to help us conceptualize development in our changing world.

General Orientation to the Theory
Vygotsky and present- day sociocultural psychologists share certain
assumptions, which will be described below. However, they have dif-
ferences, mainly in emphasis. The main characteristics are the child- in-
activity- in- cultural- context as the unit of study, the zone of proximal
development, the sociocultural origins of mental functioning, the
mediation of intellectual functioning by tools provided by culture, and
sociocultural methodology.

Child- in- Activity- in- Cultural- Context as the Unit of Study
Sociocultural psychologists view a child- in- context participating in
some activity as the smallest meaningful unit of study. This may not
seem like a radical concept because psychologists often talk about social
or cultural influences. However, the sociocultural approach differs from
these other approaches in two ways. One is the view that it is a distortion

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General Orientation to the Theory c 159

to separate individuals from their sociocultural contexts. When other
approaches address social influences, they are separating person from
context and then asking how the context influences the person. Instead,
sociocultural approaches see individuals as always fused, or embedded,
in some culturally infused context. The second difference is the focus on
activity. People do something in some setting for some purpose, and this
is how children are socialized into the culture— through daily activities
with other people in the culture. Both of these ideas are illustrated in the
following exchange between a mother and her 24- month- old:

M: Did you like the apartment at the beach?
C: Yeah. And I have fun in the, in the, in the water.
M: You had fun in the water?
C: Yeah. I come to the ocean.
M: You went to the ocean?
C: Yeah.
M: Did you play in the ocean?
C: And my sandals off.
M: You took your sandals off?
C: And my jamas off.
M: And your jamas off. And what did you wear to the beach?
C: I wear hot cocoa shirt.
M: Oh, your cocoa shirt, yeah. And your bathing suit?
C: Yeah. And my cocoa shirt.
M: Yeah. Did we walk to the beach?
C: Yeah.

(Hudson, 1990, pp. 181–182)

A theorist, such as Piaget, focused on an individual, would ask what the
child knows and how well she remembers, and perhaps how the mother
influences her thinking. However, this is somewhat a distortion of the
event, because the dyad together is carrying out the process of remember-
ing. It is hard to say what knowledge or memory skills are in the child’s
head because the child’s mind extends beyond her skin: Her remem-
bering flows into her mother’s as her mother’s remembering flows into
hers. In short, there is no universal child developing in a vacuum. Rather,
the mind is inherently social: “The path from object to child and from
child to object passes through another person” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 30).
The child, the other person, and the social context are fused in some
activity. One might say that the mind is “socially distributed” (Hutchins,
1991). This observation also illustrates that children become members

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160 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

of their culture by engaging in the activities of the culture. The mother
is conveying to the child that it is important to remember shared activ-
ities, that the child is capable of remembering more than she does at
first, that the child’s efforts at remembering are valued, and perhaps
that family vacations are important. These cultural beliefs typically are
not conveyed explicitly and directly but rather are expressed in people
playing, talking, or working together. In other words, enculturation is
not something that happens to children; it is something that children do.

Cultural practices, which occur routinely in daily life in the culture,
include sleeping arrangements, games, household work with adults,
conversation patterns, storytelling, classroom instruction, and family
mealtime. Children actively engage in these practices in order to achieve
goals— planning a birthday party, trying to convince their parents to buy
them a bicycle, attempting to remember which friend borrowed their
baseball glove, and figuring out whether they have enough money to buy
a candy bar. Social problem solving and communicating one’s feelings
and desires to others are not just “special cases” of predominantly “cold”
cognition unrelated to personal needs; they are the fabric of everyday
life and the essence of cognition.

In sum, children actively participating in culturally organized activities
try to make sense of them and the larger society. In this way, cognition
develops— as a by- product of engaging in these cultural routines. Thus,
cognition is a dynamic process of trying to understand rather than a set
of static stored knowledge. Much of development has to do with changes
in what cultural practices they can engage in and how they participate in
them. Older children can participate in some activities, such as going to
the mall with friends or playing in a band, that younger children cannot.
Cooking with a parent eventually leads to cooking alone. These changes
in participation cause, and are caused by, increased knowledge and skills.
Doing creates knowledge and knowledge makes doing possible.

Now we turn to a more explicit definition of culture. Although there
are different definitions of culture, a common one is that culture consists
of shared beliefs, values, knowledge, worldview, structured relation-
ships, skills, ways of doing things (customs), and socialization practices.
Cultures also have shared symbols, such as spoken and written language,
images, and narratives, to make sense of their experiences. All of this
is passed on to children at many levels, ranging from engagement in
societal- level institutions such as schools, to family routines such as shar-
ing stories, to interactions with another person, such as a parent. In the
United States, culture creates settings such as malls, suburbs, schools,
and movie theaters, and artifacts such as tools, computers, television,

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General Orientation to the Theory c 161

and art. The culture organizes these settings, which can be seen, for
example, in the different kinds of instructional practices in the schools of
different cultures. As children participate in these activities and settings,
they assimilate these beliefs and develop the cognitive system necessary
to support the belief system.

The various levels of cultural settings form a system in which changes
at one level affect the other levels. A recession may cause parents to lose
their jobs. This may lead to tension at home, which in turn may cause a
child to have problems at school. Such rippling effects can move in the
opposite direction as well (from developing child to culture) and bring
about social change. Thus, individuals and cultural communities mutu-
ally create each other.

Within the overall culture, ethnic subcultures or various family
structures (traditional, single parent, blended, gay) present different
contexts. For example, processes of child rearing differ among different
races, ethnicities, social classes, dual- career versus one- career families,
rural versus urban communities, single- versus two- parent families, and
so on. These aspects of culture influence (1) what children think about
and acquire skills in (for example, academics, sports, weaving); (2) how
children acquire information and skills (for example, explicit instruction
versus learning by observing); (3) when in development children are
allowed to participate in certain activities (for example, adult work, sex,
care of younger siblings); and (4) who is allowed to participate in certain
activities (for example, only one gender, certain social classes).

Culture also incorporates physical and historical influences. The cli-
mate, type of terrain, urban or rural setting, population density, health
care, and physical risks are intertwined with social contexts. Culture
is, to a great extent, a group’s response to its physical ecology, which
biases toward certain forms of economic activity, such as farming or
industry. These activities in turn dictate a particular social organization
and division of labor, which in turn influence child- rearing practices,
which influence children’s concepts. Vygotsky also emphasized that the
history of a culture powerfully shapes all levels of context. Wars, natural
disasters, revolutions, economic depressions, and civil rights movements
reverberate at all contextual levels. At any one point in history, a culture
is both a product of its own history and a provider of settings that shape
children’s development and, consequently, the future of the culture.

Vygotsky and his colleagues provide a striking illustration of how
socioeconomic– cultural change brings psychological change in a nat-
urally occurring experiment involving illiterate peasants working on
small farms under a feudal lord in a remote area of the Soviet Union

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162 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

(Luria, 1976). As part of the movement toward a modern socialist
state, the peasants became involved in collective farming practices that
required meetings to plan production and make other decisions. They
also learned to read and write. Among the illiterate peasants without
these new experiences, classification, concept formation, reasoning,
and problem- solving skills were concrete and practical. For example,
when told that all bears in the far north are white, the peasants would
not predict what color a particular bear there would be. A typical reply
was, “I don’t know what color the bears there are; I never saw them”
(p. 108). After even minimal schooling, the farm workers, in contrast,
could consider this logical problem in the abstract and give an answer
based on logic. It should be noted that Vygotsky may have overestimated
the concreteness of the peasants’ thinking (Cole, 1988). More recent
research in traditional societies shows that such groups do think in a log-
ical abstract manner in certain contexts. The schooling and training may
simply have taught the peasants to use their abstract thinking in contexts
in which they previously did not use it.

A main current discipline associated with the Vygotskian approach
is cultural psychology. Earlier, cultural psychologists studied culture by
comparing cultures and emphasizing differences in behavior between
cultures. In fact, the field often was called cross- cultural psychology. This
approach considered culture to be yet another independent variable that
affects individual psychology, the dependent variable. However, from
a cultural psychology perspective, this view is problematic. As noted
earlier, culture cannot be separated out and treated as an external fac-
tor; culture is everywhere, and it is a system of meaning that serves to
organize all experience. That is, culture can be studied even within a
single culture. Researchers need not only to identify cultural differences
in practices (regular, organized activities) but also to understand the
processes by which culture permeates all settings; particular cultures are
only particular cases of culture. For example, as discussed later in this
chapter, parents convey cultural values to their infants by directing their
attention to particular aspects of the setting. In the above conversation
between mother and child, culture, through the mother, organized the
child’s experience and nurtured her development. Another difference
between the cultural and cross- cultural approaches is that cross- cultural
studies tend to take a task or procedure that had been studied in one
culture to another culture in order to compare the outcomes: “When
inconsistent, they are interpreted as cultural idiosyncrasies of the non-
Western children” (Gauvain & Perez, 2015, p. 856). In contrast, cultural
psychologists tend to select a task or procedure that makes sense within

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General Orientation to the Theory c 163

whatever culture is being studied. In this way, they try to understand a
culture on its own terms.

These two approaches have attracted developmentalists because they
show that the way of developing in one’s own culture is only one of
many possible ways to develop. If Piaget surprised us by showing that
our thinking is rooted in infant motor behavior and Freud shocked us
by showing us our darker unknown side, then sociocultural approaches
challenged us by showing that culture permeates every part of our lives.

As noted earlier, the more “distant” levels of culture, such as cultural
beliefs about what kinds of skills children should acquire, often reach a child
through the immediate social situation in which a child engages in activi-
ties with a parent, sibling, or peer who encourages these skills. Vygotsky
expressed this process in his most well- known concept within developmen-
tal psychology— the zone of proximal development, our next topic.

Zone of Proximal Development
Vygotsky defined the zone of proximal (nearby) development as the
distance between a child’s “actual developmental level as determined by
independent problem solving” and the higher level of “potential devel-
opment as determined through problem solving under adult guidance
or in collaboration with more capable peers” (1978, p.  86). A more
competent person collaborates with a child to help him, through guided
practice, move from where he is now to where he can be with help.
This more advanced person accomplishes this feat by means of prompts,
clues, modeling, explanation, leading questions, discussion, joint partici-
pation, encouragement, and control of the child’s attention. As Vygotsky
explained, “learning awakens a variety of internal developmental pro-
cesses that are able to operate only when the child is interacting with
people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers” (1978,
p. 90). The more skilled adult or peer builds on the competencies the
child already has and presents activities supporting a level of competence
slightly beyond where he is now.

One example of the zone is the observation at the start of this chapter
in which a mother, helping her child construct a puzzle identical to a
completed model, directs his attention to particular puzzle pieces in the
model, points to corresponding pieces in his puzzle, and says the names
of parts of the puzzle. The mother engages in “building bridges” (Rogoff,
1990, p. 8) between the child’s present abilities and new skills. She does
this by arranging and structuring his behavior in the task. An example
from infancy is that parents draw their infants’ attention to important

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164 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

aspects of the environment by carrying them close to, or pointing to,
certain objects and events.

Evidence that guided participation through the zone of proximal
development can be more beneficial than working on one’s own comes
from Freund (1990). Children ages 3 and 5 helped a puppet move his
furniture into his new house— basically a sorting task in which dollhouse
furniture was sorted into a living room, kitchen, and so on. The experi-
menter told the children to put the objects into the rooms in which they
belonged. A child could, for example, place a sofa, chair, small table,
and lamp into one room and label it a living room. In the same way,
children formed other rooms as well. This procedure assessed how well
they could perform on their own— their current level of functioning.
Next, half of the children interacted with their mothers on easy and dif-
ficult versions of the task. The latter had more rooms and more objects.
The experimenter instructed the mothers to help their children but
not explicitly teach them. The other half of the children spent this time
working on the tasks by themselves rather than with their mothers; the
experimenter did, however, give them the correct solution at the end. In
a posttest, the children performed a similar task on their own.

The children who had worked on the problem with their mothers
performed at a more advanced level on the posttest than the children
who had practiced on their own, even though the latter had been given
the correct solution by the experimenter. Mothers acted in the way
advocated by Vygotsky for optimal movement through the zone of
proximal development. In particular, they adjusted their behavior to
the child’s cognitive level. For example, they gave more specific content
(such as “That stove goes in a kitchen”) to the 3- year- olds than to the
5- year- olds. Mothers gave the older children more general help such as
planning and keeping the goal in mind (e.g., “Let’s make the bedroom
and then the kitchen”). Mothers’ sensitivity to the 3- year- olds’ greater
potential on the easy task than the hard one led them to give these
general prompts to some extent on the easy task. Mothers tended to
talk more in the difficult version. Thus, the mothers were giving their
children as much responsibility as they thought they could handle, given
their age and the difficulty of the particular task. They tried to structure
their children’s activities so that the children could move through the
zone and gradually take on more responsibility for placing the objects.
The children also contributed to the exchange by actively attempting to
solve the problems and adjusting their behavior in response to feedback.

The zone has an emotional plane as well as an intellectual one. For
preschoolers who have trouble regulating their negative emotions

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General Orientation to the Theory c 165

(frustration and anger), focusing their attention, and controlling their
own behavior, it is especially important to engage in somewhat struc-
tured planning activities with their mothers, working together toward
some goal (Perez & Gauvain, 2009). Importantly, the better emotional
functioning in these goal- oriented collaborations was associated with
improved school performance.

Each culture has its own “cultural curriculum” (Rogoff, 1990,
p. 190). Children in various cultures learn skills valued by the culture—
weaving, hunting, sorcery, healing, reading, taking a bus, or operating
computers— by observing others and responding to their informal
instruction. For example, a nomadic tribe of magicians and other enter-
tainers in Pakistan highly values the skills of careful observation, refined
visual discrimination, sensitivity to the characteristics of other people,
and selective attention to the important aspects of a task (Berland, 1982).
When adults were tested on a conservation task, if even a single grain
of rice spilled out during the pouring or a few drops of water remained
in the transfer container, they judged that there now was less. As one
adult explained, “When there is little food and many stomachs, our eyes,
ears, and noses are more sensitive than goldsmiths’ scales” (p. 174). The
adults engage in everyday activities with children that encourage these
perceptual skills, which are relevant to their nomadic life (for example,
acute awareness of surroundings) and magic performances (for example,
control of the audience’s attention). Thus, adults provide “ user- friendly”
contexts that help children perfect skills that are needed to survive or
succeed in the culture.

Vygotsky described the relation between the actual and the potential
levels as follows:

The zone of proximal development defines those functions that have
not yet matured but are in the process of maturation, functions that will
mature tomorrow but are currently in an embryonic state. These func-
tions could be termed the “buds” or “flowers” of development rather than
the “fruits” of development. The actual developmental level characterizes
mental development retrospectively, while the zone of proximal devel-
opment characterizes mental development prospectively.

(1978, pp. 86–87)

Vygotsky and other socioculturalists believe that development can
be understood only by looking directly at the process of change, not
at a static child frozen in one developmental moment. In other words,
“It is only in movement that a body shows what it is” (Vygotsky, 1978,
p. 65). Process is more important than product (for example, correct or
incorrect answers). Socioculturalists look directly at a child’s series of

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166 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

actions and thoughts as she tries to solve a problem and, in the process,
advance her own thinking. Rather than focus on what concepts a child
“has,” they examine what a child actually does over time when involved
in an activity, typically with other people and objects.

The above descriptions of parents teaching in the zone with much ver-
bal interaction and direct instruction is typical of a European- American
dyad. The interaction may differ in other cultures, for example, indig-
enous communities of the Americas (Rogoff, 2014). In such cultures,
most of the child’s learning takes place through the child watching the
mother and other adults doing important daily activities. In Rogoff’s
(1990; 2014) extension of the notion of the zone to include guided
participation, children can learn from skilled adults or more competent
peers by engaging in everyday activities, practices, and collaborative
problem solving—“learning by observing and pitching in” (Rogoff,
2014). Learning is a natural by- product of involvement in these tasks.
Any verbal explanation occurs naturally while they are working collab-
oratively rather than as part of intentional instruction. Interactions in
the zone do not have to be verbal, especially those involving infants and
young children. Adults guide children’s participation in these activities,
helping them adapt their knowledge to a new situation and encourag-
ing them to try out their emerging new skills. Children share in the
views and values of the more expert partner, offer their own views, and
engage “in the process of stretching their concepts to find a common
ground” (p. 196).

For example, Mayan girls learn how to weave, an important skill in
that culture, by watching their mothers and other adult women weave on
a loom. By age 5, they are plaiting long leaves on a play loom fashioned
from pieces of thread they find. By age 7, they weave, with help, on real
looms, and by age 9, they weave simple items alone (Rogoff, 1990).
Rogoff uses the metaphor of apprenticeship. These cultural apprentice-
ships “provide the beginner with access to both the overt aspects of the
skill and the more hidden inner processes of thought” (p.  40). Mayan
girls not only learn how to weave, but also to plan the pattern, relate
the parts to the whole, and think about the relations between their hands
and the thread. Their behaviors resemble “those appropriate for anyone
learning in an unfamiliar culture: stay near a trusted guide, watch the
guide’s activities and get involved in the activities when possible, and
attend to any instruction the guide provides” (Rogoff, 1990, p. 17).

Learning within the zone is possible in part because of intersubjectivity—
shared understanding, based on a common focus of attention and a com-
mon goal, between a child and a more competent person. For infants
and young children, this person usually is a parent because their frequent

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experience together builds these shared understandings. For example, in
a laboratory classification task, a mother related the task to the kitchen
in the child’s home: “We’re going to organize things by categories. You
know, just like we don’t put the spoons in the pan drawer and all that
stuff ” (Rogoff & Gardner, 1984). It is important to note that intersubjec-
tivity not only contributes to learning from social interactions but also
results from these interactions. Each builds on, and contributes to, the
other throughout development.

Sociocultural psychologists sometimes use the metaphor of “scaffold-
ing.” Much as a temporary framework supports workers and materials
involved in work on a building, more skilled people temporarily support
a child’s emerging skills. They structure the interaction and adjust their
degree of support according to how much help the child needs. It must
be emphasized, however, that the child’s behavior affects the adult’s
behavior as much as the adult’s behavior affects the child. Children
actively contribute to their own learning in that, motivated to learn,
they “invite” the adult to participate, actively construct new knowledge,
and gradually take on more responsibility for carrying out the activity.
Thus, they “collaborate.”

Although the zone usually refers to child– adult or child– skilled- peer
interactions, Vygotsky actually had a broader definition in mind. The
zone can refer to any situation in which some activity is leading children
beyond their current level of functioning. Thus the zone can operate
during play, work, school studies, and other activities. Play supports
young children’s emerging ability to use objects in a symbolic way—
to substitute one object for another and thereby separate the object’s
meaning from the object itself. When children “ride” a stick, they sepa-
rate the stick from its usual meaning. They can think of a stick as both a
stick and a horse. Play creates a zone of proximal development for these
children for they can operate at a higher level than is possible in nonplay
activities: “In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself ”
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 102).

The Sociocultural Origins of Individual Mental Functioning:
The Intermental Constructs the Intramental

Children are not expected just to act like others in their cultural community; they are
expected to think like them, too.

—gauVain & Perez, 2015, p. 863

What happens to children cognitively when they interact with adults?
Vygotsky’s answer is that interaction between a child and an adult or

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older child on the intermental ( between- minds) plane becomes inter-
nalized into the child’s mind, the intramental ( within- mind) plane.
External interaction becomes internal interaction. In this sense, thinking
is always social and reflects the dyad’s culture. Culture flows through
adults to children. Thinking, remembering, and attending are activities
not only of an individual; they first were carried out between individ-
uals. A mental activity “appears twice, or on two planes. . . . It appears
first between people as an intermental category, and then within the
child as an intramental category” (Vygotsky, 1960, pp. 197–198).

This movement from the intermental to the intramental is related to
the first two characteristics described in this section. First, it explains
why a child- in- activity- in- context is the smallest possible unit to study.
Intramental activity cannot be divorced from intermental activity between
children and other people, as in the vignette of the mother and child
remembering together. Second, the internalization of social processes
occurs during a child’s movement through the zone of proximal devel-
opment. Children eventually internalize the more advanced mode of
problem solving that was first supported socially. As Vygotsky expressed
it, “Children grow into the intellectual life of those around them” (1978,
p. 88). They actively internalize both social nonverbal interaction and the
language involved. In a sense, children mentally interact with themselves
as they did earlier with other people. Learning to have a conversation with
someone else leads to the ability to mentally talk to oneself when thinking
through a problem; an external dialogue becomes an internal dialogue.
In this way, children gradually take on more and more responsibility for
problem solving and become self- regulated rather than other- regulated.

Different types of settings offer different types of interpsychological
activities. Teacher– student cognitive activities may be more formal,
verbal, and objective than parent– child or older- peer– younger- peer
activities. Abstract thinking may emerge from the first, whereas intui-
tive, concrete thought may be more prevalent in the latter two. Because
children encounter a variety of settings, they incorporate a variety of
mental processes (Tulviste, 1991).

Both Vygotsky and Piaget emphasized the active internalization of
interaction between a child and the world. However, Vygotsky stressed
the internalization of patterns of social interaction and languge, whereas
Piaget was more interested in the internalization of regularities in
the child’s motoric interactions with physical objects. For Piaget, for
example, physical reversibility, such as crawling from A to B and back to
A or pouring liquid from container A to B and back to A, later becomes
the important concrete operation of mental reversibility. The process,

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General Orientation to the Theory c 169

but not the content, is similar for Vygotsky. For Vygotsky, the structure
of conversations becomes the structure of thought. Although Piaget also
recognized the influence of other people on a developing child, he did
not address the pervasive impact of culture or how a changing society
can lead to cognitive change.

Intramental processes and structures do not copy intermental ones
perfectly. Rather, intermental processes are transformed during the
internalization process. Thus internalization is active, not passive. For
example, inner speech, to be described later, is an abbreviated, personal
version of external speech. Rogoff emphasizes that children actively
constrain what they retain from social exchanges, a process that she
calls appropriation. During a shared activity a child assimilates (much as
Piaget uses the term) certain meaning but not other possible meanings.
Rogoff (1990) uses an analogy of the constant exchange of water and air
between the body and the environment. Just as bodies filter and trans-
form air and water to meet biological needs, so do our minds actively
and selectively assimilate the social activities in our “social sea” to our
current needs and abilities. The child learns something and can now
better handle another, similar situation.

A child’s selective appropriation of a new idea from a social exchange
can be seen in the following conversation between a mother (P. Miller)
and her (then) 4- year- old daughter:

M: What do you think you’d like to be when you grow up?
C: A mommy!
M: That’s nice . . . but if you want, you can be a mommy and some-

thing else.
C: I just want to be a mommy.
M: You know, I’m a mommy and a teacher— two things. You could do

that too.
C: I just want to be a mommy.
(This continues for a while until the child concedes— sort of.)
C: Okay . . . I’ll be a mommy and a bird!

The child appropriated certain meanings from this conversation and
ignored other aspects of the mother’s meaning.

Tools Provided by a Culture Mediate Intellectual Functioning
As mentioned earlier, Vygotsky and other Soviet social theorists claimed
that humans create themselves (that is, their intellectual functioning)
through activity: “Humans master themselves from the outside— through

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psychological tools” (Vygotsky, 1981, p. 141). Peers and adults assist in
this self- shaping process by helping children learn how to use their cul-
ture’s psychological and technical tools. Psychological tools include lan-
guage systems, counting systems, writing, diagrams, maps, conventional
signs, and works of art. Other examples are various strategies for learn-
ing, attending, or memorizing taught in school. Some tools that influ-
ence thinking are physical devices such as computers and robots. Tools
have ideas and skills built into them. For example, research shows that
playing video games sometimes improves cognitive functioning (Best,
2014). People use psychological tools to control thought or behavior,
just as they use technical tools such as axes, plows, and bulldozers to
control nature.

Each tool involves a different cognitive skill or style. For example,
the invention of paper influenced cognition by making the rote memo-
rization of oral texts less important; using computers for writing made
it possible to reorganize ideas in a manuscript quickly. We know little
about the effects of electronic tools on thinking: Has the Internet altered
children’s cognitive strategies for seeking information? Does the organi-
zation of websites affect children’s cognitive maps of domains of knowl-
edge? Are social networking sites changing children’s social cognition?
It has been argued that new media communication technologies are
making children and adolescents more individualistic (Manago, Guan, &
Greenfield, 2015).

These examples show that a culture’s tools connect children, through
their activities, with the physical and social world. A culture creates
these tools to help people master the environment, the favored tools are
passed on to children during social interchanges, and in turn, the tools
shape children’s minds. Children use tools to help themselves think; the
tools actually transform thought. For example, once children learn to
use language to help them remember, the nature of remembering may
change to a more verbal form.

Different cultures emphasize different kinds of tools (for example,
verbal or nonverbal), skills (reading, mathematics, or spatial memory),
and social interaction (formal schooling or informal or formal appren-
ticeships) because of different cultural needs, values, and resources.
Rogoff (1990) noted that in 1744 a group of North American Indians
politely declined an invitation from commissioners from Virginia to
send boys to William and Mary College. The Indian leaders explained
that several of their youths who had been instructed in such institutions
returned “ignorant of every means of living in the woods; unable to bear
either cold or hunger; knew neither how to build a cabin, take a deer, or

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General Orientation to the Theory c 171

kill an enemy . . . neither fit for hunters, warriors, or counselors; they
were totally good for nothing” (Drake, 1834, p. 25).

Cultures differ in the type of tools provided by schooling. A culture
that emphasizes the memorization of religious texts instills differ-
ent cognitive skills than a culture with schools stressing conceptual
understanding and scientific reasoning. The latter are intellectual skills
needed in a highly technological society relying heavily on abstract
thinking and communication through books and other symbolic media.
Language also may be more necessary for learning in industrialized
cultures because children are separated from adults and thus have
little opportunity to learn by observing and participating in adult daily
activities. In contrast, indigenous cultures may provide opportunities
for children to learn nonverbally by simply watching the adults around
them— observing their actions, direction of gaze, and facial expres-
sions (Rogoff, 2014).

Verbal tools are not even helpful for some tasks. As an example,
Australian aboriginal children of desert origin outperformed European-
Australian children at memorizing a visual array (Kearins, 1981). The
European- Australian children tried to use verbal mediational strategies,
such as rehearsing the names of the items, which were ineffective for
this type of task. The aboriginal children were more successful because
they used relevant visual strategies, developed to help them find their
way around the desert.

For Vygotsky, language is the most important psychological tool for
development. It frees us from our immediate perceptual experience and
allows us to represent the unseen, the past, and the future. Acquiring
language transforms the process of thinking. In Vygotsky’s words, “Just
as a mold gives shape to a substance, words can shape an activity into a
structure” (1978, p. 28). Language goes into the mental underground
to direct thinking, control the child’s behavior, and organize categories
of reality. Again, the intermental becomes intramental. When children
use language, they are using a system of meanings constructed by their
culture. In this way, they use the lens of their culture to make sense of
their experiences.

Language also transforms the way children use technical tools. It reor-
ganizes and controls their behavior with these objects, thus permitting
new forms of problem solving. For example, Vygotsky (1978) described
Levina’s observations of children trying to obtain a piece of candy out of
reach in a cupboard. Preschoolers typically first tried to get the candy
silently and then began to talk aloud to themselves about the problem.
Eventually, the speech became more planful and addressed, for example,

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the possible usefulness of a stool and a stick. Vygotsky concluded:
“Children not only speak about what they are doing; their speech and
action are part of one and the same complex psychological function,
directed toward the solution of the problem at hand. . . . Children solve
practical tasks with the help of their speech, as well as their eyes and
hands” (pp. 25–26). Language is a tool and works in conjunction with
other tools.

Vygotsky thought the route toward using language as a cognitive tool
is as follows: Speech and thought at first are independent. Babbling and
other such sounds are speech without thought. Infants’ sensorimotor
thinking, from Piaget’s work, is thought without speech. Vygotsky felt
that speech and thought begin to merge at around age 2. At that time,
“the knot is tied for the problem of thought and language” (Vygotsky,
1962, p. 43). Children learn that objects have names, and thus they use
words as symbols. Next, at about age 3, after children learn to talk,
speech between people splits into communicative speech to others
and private speech (sometimes called “egocentric speech” or “speech for
self ”). In private speech, children talk aloud to themselves in a running
dialogue but use this speech to guide their thinking, to think through a
problem and plan their actions. An example mentioned earlier is chil-
dren talking to themselves while trying to obtain out- of- reach candy. By
approximately age 7, private speech becomes inner speech. Children now
can silently “think in words,” though inner speech is more abbreviated,
idiosyncratic, and fragmented than spoken language. Just as children
earlier used language only to influence others, they later use it in private
and inner speech to influence themselves. In this way, internalized lan-
guage reflects its social origins: “When children find that they are unable
to solve a problem . . . instead of appealing to the adult, children appeal
to themselves” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 27). The intermental becomes the
intramental; interpersonal communication is internalized into intraper-
sonal communication.

Note that in form (auditory spoken), private speech is like speech
between people. However, in function it is like inner speech because
both serve to direct thinking and behavior. Private speech is spoken
because children do not yet fully differentiate speech for others (com-
municative speech) and speech for self. As evidence, Vygotsky observed
that children produced less private speech in situations in which com-
munication with others was impossible or difficult (a noisy room, a deaf
or foreign- speaking peer, no one present) or undesirable (a stranger
present). When children differentiate speech for others and speech for
self, private speech becomes inner speech.

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General Orientation to the Theory c 173

Vygotsky found that private speech increased when he made the task
more difficult so that children could not solve it with other available
tools. Some of Vygotsky’s manipulations were to remove paper or a
pencil of a needed color before a child began to draw, as seen in the
protocol at the beginning of this chapter. With these impediments, pri-
vate speech nearly doubled among 5- to 7- year- olds (Luria, 1961).
Recent research on private speech ( Alderson- Day & Fernyhough, 2015;
Winsler, Fernyhough, & Montero, 2009) generally supports Vygotsky’s
predictions that such speech first increases during development and then
decreases (as it becomes inner speech), and is much more prevalent
when solving difficult tasks. This research also reveals, more specifically,
how private and inner speech facilitate executive control of thought,
by aiding working memory, shifting from one way of thinking about a
problem to another, and inhibiting behaviors that interfere with task
performance. Moreover, on some difficult tasks private speech actually
continues into adolescence or even adulthood. We might expect to see
adults muttering to themselves while filling out income tax forms or
assembling a bookshelf.

Although Piaget  also studied private speech, he thought it simply
reflected the child’s egocentric inability to adapt communication to the
listener. It has no cognitive use to children. In contrast, Vygotsky thought
that such speech helps children direct their problem- solving activities.
Another difference is that Piaget thought that private speech just fades
away, whereas Vygotsky thought it becomes inner speech. More gener-
ally, Piaget and Vygotsky have very different views of the relationship
between language and thought. Piaget thought that cognition is prior to,
and broader than, language. Children develop through the sensorimotor
period before acquiring language, and language is but one expression of
the emerging ability to use symbols around 18 to 24 months. In contrast,
Vygotsky felt that language and thought begin independently and then
partially merge, to the benefit of cognition.

Speech and thought never completely overlap, even in adults. There is
always some nonverbal thought, such as that involved in tying one’s shoes
or playing the piano, and some nonconceptual speech— rote verbaliza-
tions such as saying a familiar address. Even when thoughts are expressed
in words, they are never the same thing, according to Vygotsky. There
is always a hidden subtext in our speech. For example, Vygotsky (1962)
described a passage by Dostoevsky in which six drunken workmen
conduct a brief, but complex, conversation, though the only word they
speak is a single profane word. Depending on the way it was spoken, it
indicated contempt, doubt, anger, delight, and so on. The developmental

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174 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

implication is that language acquisition is more than learning language
structure and word meanings; it also requires that the child understand
intonations of speech and the dynamics of social contexts and infer the
mental state (e.g., belief or emotion) of the speaker. Vygotsky was years
ahead of his time in this very contemporary- sounding view of language
pragmatics and understanding mental states (theory of mind).

Methodology
For Vygotsky, methods must capture the dynamic nature of develop-
ment and social interaction. He favored a dynamic assessment of children’s
potential developmental levels rather than only a static assessment of
their actual levels. He felt that what children can do with the assistance
of others (the zone of proximal development) is a better reflection of
their intellectual ability than what they can do alone. A child “is” what
he “can be.” A dynamic assessment directly measures children’s readiness
or potential for learning rather than the products of previous learning.
Standardized intelligence tests assess the latter.

One can assess the zone of proximal development in several ways. For
example, an adult might provide an increasingly specific series of clues
and determine how many are needed for a child to solve the problem.
Using this approach, Ferrara, Brown, and Campione (1986) asked chil-
dren to pretend they were a spy who wanted to send a message in a secret
code. To figure out the code, they had to find the pattern in a series of
letters and add the next four letters, for example, “NGOHPIQJ _ _ _ _.”
The first clue was “Is this problem like any other you’ve seen before?” A
later clue was “Point to the N and O in the alphabet . . . and to the G and
H . . . . Does that help at all?”

Vygotsky’s studies of the zone illustrate his more general method of
studying development by looking at change during one or several exper-
imental sessions. This is called the microgenetic method, which also is used
in contemporary research on cognitive development (see Chapter  7).
The researcher studies the process of problem solving and tries to cap-
ture a “developmental moment.” For example, Vygotsky set up obstacles
that disrupted routine procedures of problem solving and observed the
child’s attempts to cope with this change (see the first observation at the
beginning of this chapter). Or he provided various materials or tools
that could be used for problem solving and then observed how children
of different ages selected from, and used, these objects. Because the
task typically exceeded children’s cognitive level, they must construct a
new skill. For example, Vygotsky gave children a task with blocks (now

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General Orientation to the Theory c 175

cleverly called “Vygotsky blocks”) that could be solved on a nonsymbolic
(perceptual, e. g., color) or symbolic (conceptual, i.e., word) basis. By
observing children’s choice of blocks, response to feedback, and remarks
while thinking about the problem, Vygotsky inferred the small cognitive
advances emerging during the session as children gradually learned to
use the symbolic feature to solve the task.

Contemporary sociocultural research often uses conventional obser-
vational methods to study dyads or larger social groups, rather than a
child alone. Young children often show greater social cognition in family
contexts in their daily lives than they do when tested individually in the
laboratory. At home, they effectively use their social intelligence on what
matters most to them emotionally— their own rights, needs, and inter-
ests. For example, Dunn (1988) described a 24- month- old whose older
sister had three imaginary friends— Lilly, Allelujah, and Peepee. The
younger child taunted her sibling by announcing that she was Allelujah!
This rather advanced understanding of what would upset her sister and
the ability to pretend to have a different identity are skills that are more
advanced than those usually seen in the laboratory in children this young.

As mentioned earlier, cultural psychologists often compare children
in two or more countries or study some cultural difference within one
region. As an example of the latter, one could compare children of the
same socioeconomic level who attend school and some who do not to
clarify the effects of schooling. However, such studies must be inter-
preted carefully, because unschooled children, who appear to perform
poorly, may simply be unfamiliar with the language and procedures of
testing— the “rules of the game” of testing. Moreover, a culture’s move
to formal schooling typically is confounded with other changes, such as
a shift away from subsistence agriculture, large families, and sole use of
indigenous language. Thus, it is difficult to determine whether cognitive
change reflects schooling or other cultural changes.

Researchers also study the effects of societal changes, such as urban-
ization and globalization, on children. They may compare generations of
children over decades or several generations at a single point in time (see
the later section on social change). Finally, other sociocultural methods
include ethnographies (interpretive descriptions of a culture) and other
interpretive methods, often taken from cultural anthropology.

Researchers must be very careful when choosing the methods for
assessing abilities in cultures other than their own (for a review, see van
de Vijver, 2015). Consider how one might assess whether a person can
classify objects in an abstract way, characteristic of adults in literate soci-
eties. Cole, Gay, Glick, and Sharp (1971) reported that African Kpelle

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farmers, when asked to put together the items that go together, sorted
20 objects into functional groups (for example, knife with orange, potato
with hoe) rather than into abstract categorical groups (for example,
foods, tools). Knife and orange go together, for example, because you
cut an orange with a knife. (Such functional groupings are also typical
of young children in literate societies.) At one point, the experimenter
happened to ask how a fool would do it. The farmers immediately put
the foods together, the tools together, and so on, as adults in literate
societies would! It should not be concluded that people do not possess a
particular cognitive skill when they do not demonstrate it. They may be
capable of abstract thinking but simply consider other ways of thinking
to be more useful for certain everyday activities. Cultural groups differ
in cognitive functioning not so much in what processes they possess as
in which settings they use them in— which psychological tool they select
from their cognitive toolkit in a particular setting (Wertsch, 1991).

Similarly, the selection of tasks to assess a particular ability, such as
intelligence, should reflect the culture’s definition of this ability. For
instance, adults in a Ugandan village describe an intelligent person as
slow and careful, whereas westernized groups emphasize speed of think-
ing (Wober, 1972). In a number of African communities, intelligence
is defined as socially responsible intelligence— perceptive social cogni-
tion plus readiness to put this knowledge into action (Super, Harkness,
Barry, & Zeitlin, 2011). Such a person would have a sympathetic under-
standing of the world and an ability to attain social goals. Parents see this
intelligence in their children when they carry out their household chores
without being told and without supervision. Although Western parents
would value this kind of behavior in their children, it likely would be
viewed as obedience much more than intelligence.

Mechanisms of Development
Vygotsky focused on change and its mechanisms, more than on the
outcome— the child’s level of performance. For Vygotsky, development
follows a dialectical process of thesis (one idea or phenomenon), antithesis
(an opposing idea or phenomenon), and synthesis (resolution), which
produces a higher- level concept or more advanced functioning. An
example is a spontaneous, intuitive concept versus a scientific concept.
These opposing elements confront each other, intertwine, and become
transformed into a new and higher level. Thus, conflict and its resolution
play a major role in development. Vygotsky’s dialectical process often

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Posit ion on Developmental Issues c 177

occurs when children interact with adults or more advanced peers, play,
or use technological and psychological tools.

This idea that there is continual conflict punctuated by momentary
stable structures is similar to Piaget’s notion of equilibration. However,
Piaget did not include a changing society as a possible source of disequi-
librium. That is, he saw an active changing organism but a somewhat
static environment. Vygotsky, of course, assigned a major role to social
forces, such as parental guidance, teacher instruction, and language.
Another difference is that Piaget emphasized how a child works out
the conflict himself, whereas Vygotsky emphasized the collaboration of
people or ideas in this process, perhaps while moving through the zone
of proximal development.

Another mechanism of development is the internalization (or appro-
priation) process, as the intermental becomes intramental. Language
(or other cultural tools) and nonverbal learning from observing other
people’s activities contribute to the process of change. Once inner
speech and various skilled activities are acquired, they in turn stimulate
more advanced thinking.

Language also is a mechanism by which children can advance their
intersubjectivity, which permits further learning. In conversations, chil-
dren compare their own mental state with that of someone else, detect
a discrepancy, and attempt to understand that person’s mental state. This
is illustrated in the following exchange in which a young girl is trying to
understand what her mother has in mind:

C: 1, 2, 3, 4. (counting the insect’s legs)
M: 5. I think he’s having a bad day.
C: Because he’s, because he’s?
M: Because he’s missing a leg. He should have six.

(Ensor & Hughes, 2008, p. 213)

Position on Developmental Issues
Human Nature
Sociocultural theories obviously fall within the contextualist world-
view. Human nature is created in the medium of culture and thus can
be understood only in cultural context. Humans are not independent
entities that engage their environment; they are part of it— a person-
in- context. A child is an active, inherently social organism in a broad
system of interacting forces in the past, present, and future. A child’s
actions occur in the context of others’ actions. Children actively seek

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178 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

out, and respond to, a variety of social and physical contexts. These
activities in turn change children cognitively, and this subsequently
changes the nature of their future activities. Children cognitively
transform their social experiences rather than passively internalize
them. They contribute to, and select from, their participation in cul-
tural practices and thus transform the interpersonal plane into the
intrapersonal plane.

Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development
In Vygotsky’s view, development is both quantitative and qualitative, with
periods of calm alternating with periods of crisis or “turning points . . .
spasmodic and revolutionary changes” (1978, p.  73). In a dialectical
process, two elements may develop in a quantitative way, but then, as
a result of the process of synthesis, a qualitatively new form emerges.
Important examples of qualitative change are the acquisition of inner
speech, moving from an intuitive, spontaneous concept to a scientific
(logically defined) concept, and progressing from concrete perceptual to
abstract categories. During such qualitative changes, the psychological
system reorganizes itself.

Although socioculturalists typically do not posit stages of develop-
ment, they are not opposed to them. Vygotsky and his colleagues did
sketch out some possible themes for stages: affiliation (infancy), play
(early childhood), learning (middle childhood), peer activity (adoles-
cence), work (adulthood), and theorizing (old age).

Nature Versus Nurture
Although socioculturalists mainly study cultural processes, they see
nature and nurture as intertwined. Vygotsky stated that biological and
cultural forces “coincide and mingle with one another. . . . The two lines
of change interpenetrate one another and essentially form a single line
of sociobiological formation of the child’s personality” (1960, p.  47).
Thus, for socioculturalists, the question is not “how much” culture
affects development; rather, the question is, “By what process do biology
and culture co- construct development?” New information from neuro-
science and genetics (see Chapter 5) documents that the environment
(organized by culture) alters brain organization and the expression of
genes. In recent years, a new field, cultural neuroscience (Chiao, Cheon,
Pornpattananangkul, Mrazek, & Blizinsky, 2014), has been documenting
differences in brain organization, functioning, and development that
result from cultural diversity in experience.

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Applications c 179

Even biological influences are mediated by culture, as when the
impact of a newborn’s sex on subsequent development depends on the
culture’s views about gender roles. Also, cultures can vary in their reac-
tions to an infant’s temperament. In many cultures, parents prefer an
“easy” baby who is calm, attentive, and easy to care for. However, a study
of Brazilians who live a hard life in the harsh environment of the slums
found a preference for “fighters”:

I prefer a more active baby, because when they are quick and lively they
will never be at a loss of life. The worst temperament in a baby is one
that is dull and morto de esprito [lifeless], a baby so calm it just sits there
without any energy. When they grow up they’re good for nothing.

( Scheper- Hughes, 1987, p. 194)

Socioculturalists consider certain aspects of nurture as especially
important: verbal interaction and collaborative activities with others,
formal and informal learning from others, and the use of technical and
psychological tools. Vygotsky, of course, also emphasized the sociohis-
torical forces expressed in the environment, although today little atten-
tion is given to these forces. Finally, Vygotsky pointed out that people
change their environments to some extent through the use of technical
and psychological tools.

What Develops
The Vygotskian view of what develops is very broad, from cultural–
historical change to change over one’s lifetime to microgenetic moment-
to- moment change. An active- child- in- cultural- context is the unit
that develops. This unit constructs a variety of cognitive skills, most
importantly a system of meaning and its psychological tools— a cul-
turally constructed system of knowledge. Goals, values, and motiva-
tion are inseparable from cognitive activity, and thus follow a parallel
developmental course. Development has no universal ideal endpoint;
what constitutes an ideal endpoint depends on the goals of a particular
culture. This contrasts with the way Piaget privileged thinking like a
scientist. However both Vygotsky and Piaget favored higher mental func-
tions, particularly abstract concepts.

Applications
Vygotsky’s notion of the zone of proximal development has important
implications for both assessment and instruction (e.g., Wass & Golding,
2014). Assessments should measure not what children know and

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180 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

understand right now, the typical approach of such tests, but what they
can know and understand with help. Dynamic assessments often reveal
performance gains that are undetected by standard assessments. This is
especially true of “underachievers,” who do not typically work up to
their ability level. To illustrate how dynamic and traditional assessments
can lead to different conclusions, Vygotsky presented the following
example:

Imagine that we have examined two children and have determined that
the mental age of both is seven years. This means that both children solve
tasks accessible to seven- year- olds. However, when we attempt to push
these children further in carrying out the tests, there turns out to be an
essential difference between them. With the help of leading questions,
examples, and demonstrations, one of them easily solves test items taken
from two years above the child’s level of (actual) development. The other
solves test items that are only a half- year above his or her level of (actual)
development.

(1956, pp. 446–448)

These two children with the same score obviously are not the same cog-
nitively. One can proceed far with help, and thus is said to have a “wide”
zone; the other cannot and thus has a “narrow” zone.

Similarly, instruction, whether formal schooling or informal appren-
ticeships, should be based on children’s potential level (their “readiness”)
more than on their actual level. Specifically, teachers should assign the
hardest tasks that students can do with teacher assistance. They should
provide only enough assistance to ensure that students can gradually
take on more responsibility and eventually complete the task on their
own. Teaching and learning are a cooperative, collaborative enter-
prise, involving a shift from teacher- regulated activity to the student’s
self- regulation. There are recent attempts to capture these features in
computerized instruction. Such programs guide the student’s learning,
provide feedback, and pace learning activities (De Marsico, Sterbini, &
Temperini, 2013).

Teacher- student collaboration and tailoring of instruction to an indi-
vidual child’s potential is difficult to achieve in large classrooms, where
teachers often have to spend more time trying to control children’s
attention, motivation, and learning. A greater focus on teachers con-
trolling the learning process characterizes the instruction traditionally
found in Western schools— what Rogoff (2014) calls “ Assembly- Line
Instruction.”

Children also can learn through peer collaborative learning, in which
students work together and learn from each other. An increasingly

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Applications c 181

popular form of instruction thought to encourage collaborative learn-
ing is called “ problem- based learning.” A small group of students works
together to extend their current knowledge and to apply it to solving
a problem. For example, in one study with adolescents (Peace & Kuhn,
2011), a problem involved a letter from the International Institute
of Parapsychology to a physics class asking whether electromagnetic
theories can support the existence of phantoms in the Matusita House
(a Peruvian urban legend). This problem required knowledge about
electromagnetic fields and the ability to apply this knowledge to the
specific circumstances of the problem. The students together generated
solutions and provided empirical and logical support for them, thus
solidifying and extending their understanding of physics.

Vygotsky thought schooling was very important because in this way a
culture turns children’s intuitive, concrete concepts based on everyday
experience into formal abstract scientific concepts (even though they need
not have science content). In contrast, spontaneous concepts are intuitive,
concrete concepts based on everyday experience. For example “grand-
mother,” as a spontaneous concept, is defined as “She has a soft lap”
(Vygotsky, 1978, p. 50). As a scientific concept, “grandmother” is under-
stood as an abstract familial relationship that includes many different
specific people, some of whom may not have soft laps. Vygotsky thought
that scientific concepts formed one of the most powerful psycholog-
ical tools developed by modern society. Through language, children
enter into this type of thinking with their teachers and subsequently
internalize it.

However, “development in children never follows school learning the
way a shadow follows the object that casts it” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 91).
Rather, children’s minds are “ready” to accept this overlay; abstract
thinking simply formalizes their preexisting intuitive concepts from
everyday experience. Scientific concepts handed down from above by
teachers meet children’s intuitive concepts halfway and become inter-
twined with them. Scientific concepts become more concrete, and
spontaneous concepts become more logical and abstract. Vygotsky gave
the example that when teachers introduce the abstract concept of social
class conflict, children use their concrete personal knowledge (“sponta-
neous concept”) of poor and rich people to assimilate the new concept.
As intuitive concepts are transformed into scientific concepts, they are
decontextualized— taken from the child’s concrete experience into a
context- free formal system. Children then use the scientific concepts
in a variety of contexts. This “meeting of the minds” that character-
izes the interaction between teachers and students during the process

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182 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

of acquiring scientific concepts is yet another example of both the
social nature of learning and movement through the zone of proximal
development.

Another important message from cultural research for teachers is
that in many cultures children are taught behaviors that, in a school or
testing setting, would make it appear that they do not know something.
Examples are not to talk back to a person of higher status, not to act
in a way that would draw attention to themselves, not to initiate a con-
versation, not to appear to be a fool by giving an obvious answer, and
not to produce information that the questioner might not have. Navajo
children, for example, tend to pause when they answer a question,
which gives a non- Navajo teacher the impression that they have finished
their answers. Thus, they often are interrupted before they have finished
their answers (White & Tharp, 1988). As another example, children
from traditional cultures in Belize, Nepal, Kenya, and Samoa rarely ask
“Why?” questions (Gauvain, Munroe, & Beebe, 2013), which might be
misinterpreted as a lack of intellectual curiosity.

Evaluation of the Theory
The strengths of the sociocultural approach are widely acknowledged
today. Thus, they will be described briefly, and more attention will be
paid to weaknesses, particularly limitations, with an eye toward needed
future research. The strengths are the theory’s attention to the social–
cultural context, integration of learning and development, and sensitiv-
ity to the diversity of development. Weaknesses include the vagueness of
the notion of the zone of proximal development, insufficient attention
to issues of development in the zone, difficulties of studying cultural–
historical contexts, and failure to provide a legacy of prototypic tasks
revealing interesting developmental phenomena.

Strengths

Attention to Social– Cultural Context c Vygotsky is the main devel-
opmental theorist to seriously address the broader sociohistorical con-
text of development. He wove together insights from history, sociology,
economics, political science, linguistics, biology, art, and literature
into psychology. This broader context is not simply another “influence”
on children. Rather, it defines children, their activities, and develop-
ment: Development occurs at the child– society border rather than in

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Evaluation of the Theory c 183

the individual child. This notion is very difficult for the Western mind
to assimilate. We tend to dichotomize the individual and the external
world, including society, and to situate development within the indi-
vidual. Thus, by “correcting” theories focused on individuals, Vygotsky’s
view challenges our basic assumptions about psychological development
and how to study it.

Vygotsky’s theory gives us a different perspective on major develop-
mental milestones. For example, the significance of attachment is that
it serves not only to establish a foundation for later social relationships
and to develop a sense of trust in others but also to involve infants in
shared activities with adults and the cultural practices of society. In this
way children acquire language and other cultural tools.

The theory provides a set of theoretical concepts to guide research
on developmental mechanisms underlying change: movement through
the zone of proximal development, intersubjectivity, and internaliza-
tion. The next step is to identify the specific processes involved in dynamic
interchanges between child and culture as they co- construct her devel-
opment. For example, what happens cognitively moment to moment
when a parent and a child have a conversation? Is being able to infer the
other person’s mental state— her emotions or knowledge— a cause of,
or result of, intersubjectivity and internalization? What motivates chil-
dren to move through the zone?

Integration of Learning and Development c A main theoretical
contribution is the account of the relations between development and
learning— one of the most important issues of development. Vygotsky
argued that learning drives development. As children learn (proceed
through the zone of proximal development), they achieve a higher level
of development. In turn, children’s level of development affects their
readiness to learn a new concept. This theoretical focus on change, along
with the method of dynamic assessment, makes this a truly developmen-
tal theory (but see the section on weaknesses below).

Children learn how to use materials and people in their specific cir-
cumstances to obtain goals: “Cognitive development consists of coming
to find, understand, and handle particular problems, building on the
intellectual tools inherited from previous generations and the social
resources provided by other people” (Rogoff, 1990, p. 190).

Sensitivity to Diversity of Development c Most developmental
theories focus on universal aspects of development. In contrast, socio-
cultural psychologists acknowledge both individual differences within
a culture, such as wide versus narrow zones, and differences among

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184 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

cultures. This sensitivity to diversity is quite important, because most
of the knowledge base of contemporary developmental psychology
comes from research on Western (mostly North American) children—
the “weirdest people in the world”—white, educated, industrialized,
rich, and of democratic origin (Henrich, Heine, & Norenzayan, 2010,
p. 61). Yet, this group is a small minority of the world’s children. Even
in the U.S., as of 2014 only 52 percent of children were non- Hispanic
White (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics,
2015), and that percentage continues to decline. For a satisfactory the-
ory of development, it is important to know which developmental find-
ings are universally true and which vary across cultures and subcultures.
Shweder et al. (2006) used the phrase “one mind, many mentalities” to
express the idea that the mind is both universal and specific to its cultural
milieu. Different historical and cultural circumstances may encourage
different developmental routes to a developmental endpoint.

Weaknesses
Vagueness of the Notion of the Zone of Proximal Development c
There are two main ambiguities or limitations of Vygotsky’s concept
of the zone (Paris & Cross, 1988). First, knowing only the width of
children’s zones (how far they can go with help) does not provide an
accurate picture of their learning ability, style of learning, and current
level of development compared to other children of the same age. For
example, children who have narrow zones may have so little inherent
learning ability that they are unable to profit from assistance. These chil-
dren may be functioning at a very low level. Or children with narrow
zones may be successful independent learners who nearly have achieved
their potential. Consequently, social assistance helps them only slightly.
Similarly, low- achieving children who have wide zones may be unable to
solve problems independently and so rely on help from adults. Or high-
achieving children may have wide zones because they have high learning
ability but, due to low motivation or lack of appropriate learning strate-
gies, rely on adults for help. Thus, having a wide zone (or a narrow zone)
can be desirable or undesirable, depending on its causes. Moreover, chil-
dren may appear to have a narrow zone simply because adults have failed
to provide appropriate instruction. In short, simply assessing children’s
zones provides a very incomplete developmental picture.

Second, the zone has problems of measurement. Although the met-
aphor of a spatial zone implies a metric of distance, there currently
is no metric for determining this “distance” (Paris & Cross, 1988).

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Evaluation of the Theory c 185

For example, one child needs help sounding out words during reading, a
second child needs help connecting ideas across sentences, while a third
only needs encouragement. Even if these children need an equal num-
ber of prompts, do they actually have equally wide zones? No common
scale exists for answering this question. Vygotsky sometimes measured
the zone in terms of age, such as when a child with an actual level of
functioning of age 6 and a potential level of functioning of age 9 has a
zone of 3 years. Yet this is a very global metric, and it cannot be assumed
that the difference of three years between ages 2 and 5 is equal to that
between ages 6 and 9.

There are still other issues about the zone notion. One, mentioned
earlier, is that the exact psychological processes involved in internaliza-
tion of the intermental to the intramental (Vygotsky) or appropriation
of a shared activity (Rogoff) remain unclear. For example, what sorts
of mental representations of social interaction do children form? Also,
we know little about the generality and stability of an individual child’s
zone. Does a child tend to have a wide zone (or a narrow zone) across
most domains? Is the size of the zone a stable individual characteristic
that is constant over the years? Is improvement resulting from the zone
long- lasting? Can it generalize to other similar situations?

Another limitation is that most of our knowledge about the zone
concerns mother– child and, to a lesser extent, peer dyads. Do father–
child, adult– infant, sibling, and multiperson units operate in the zone
in different ways? Also, not all parents are eager and competent guides,
and children reared in hostile environments may learn not to seek con-
texts with adults. Finally, we know little about the role of affect in the
zone. Children often have a preexisting emotional (positive or negative)
relationship with the people in these contexts that colors the nature of
their social interaction. A child asks her mother to show her how to ride
a bicycle because she wants to be able to engage in this activity with her
friends. Another child is asked by a disliked relative to listen to instruc-
tions on using a vacuum cleaner so that she can help clean the house. The
nature of learning in the zone will differ in these two cases.

Insufficient Attention to Developmental Issues c Although
Vygotskian theory is a quintessential developmental theory, in some
ways the approach does not really seem very developmental. As
Bronfenbrenner noticed decades ago, “In place of too much research on
development ‘out of context,’ we now have a surfeit of studies on ‘con-
text without development” (1986, p. 288). We need a more develop-
mental account of both contexts and children. Regarding contexts, we

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186 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

have little description of contexts of children of various ages or devel-
opmental levels, and how that varies, or is the same, across cultures.
A  culture has different expectations for children of different ages and
thus places them in different settings. As children grow older, the culture
puts new pressures on children and grants them new social freedoms.
Society introduces older children to schooling, work responsibilities,
clubs, and organized athletic and social activities. It allows or encourages
different activities at different ages.

Similarly, children’s abilities, needs, and interests at each age influence
the nature of the settings they seek out and the effect that a particular
setting has on them. We have little idea how a child’s cognitive level both
permits and constrains processes in the zone of proximal development.
We do know, for example, that among children who cannot count by
themselves, 4- year- olds are more likely to shift to counting with their
mothers’ help than are 2- year- olds (Saxe, Guberman, & Gearhart,
1987). Profiting from hints, modeling, direct instruction, and explana-
tions requires certain developing cognitive skills such as attention, mem-
ory for action sequences, mental imagery for comparing the actions of
the self and others, verbal encoding, and inference of intentions. Which
activities are most effective for learning surely differ for children of dif-
ferent cognitive or social developmental levels. For example, modeling
may be a more effective clue than verbal explanation for 4- year- olds
because of their limited verbal comprehension. Language development
also is important in that children’s improved ability to use their own
language to regulate their behavior would facilitate moving through the
zone (Luria, 1961). Vygotsky suggested that, in addition to emerging
speech, mobility after the first few months of life dramatically changes
children’s potential for social interaction and the kinds of settings they
can enter. Thus, Vygotskian theory would be more developmental if we
knew more about the impact of developing skills on learning in the zone.

Vygotsky’s concept of intersubjectivity has been transformed into
a developmental account by Tomasello (2014; see also Chapter 5). He
emphasizes the development of shared intentionality, of being able to
understand and establish common ground in order to be able to engage
in cultural learning. The origins of this ability may lie in infancy, when
parent and infant have shared attention on some object. In one account,
during development, the main mechanism of cultural learning is imita-
tion, then instruction, then collaboration (Tomasello, Kruger, & Ratner
(1991). Children become increasingly able to take the perspective of
other people. Nine- month- olds can acquire new behaviors through
imitation because they understand that people are intentional agents.

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Evaluation of the Theory c 187

They know what goal the other person is trying to achieve through his
behavior. Around age 4, children see others as having representations of
the situation and try to reconcile it with their own. As a result, they can
benefit from instruction from others and can internalize the instructions,
which is similar to Vygotsky’s notion of internalizing dialogue. By age 6,
they can engage in collaboration with a peer at their level of competence
because they can integrate the mental perspectives of two people who
can think about each other’s thinking. With a peer they co- construct
knowledge and internalize the co- construction. In this model, inter-
subjectivity, because it permits social perspective taking, is central to
cultural learning.

The overall point here is that a child’s cognitive and physical develop-
mental level influences (1) what contexts a child enters, (2) the nature of
the social– cognitive processes involved in the dyadic interaction, (3) the
amount, speed, and type of learning in the zone, and (4) the effect of
sociohistorical events on the child. Children of different developmental
levels bring to a setting different knowledge, motives, reasoning skills,
attentional biases, metacognition, social skills, language ability, self-
concept, and so on.

Difficulties of Studying Cultural– Historical Contexts c Nearly
all developmental psychologists would agree that it is important to
examine the social, cultural, and historical contexts of development. Yet
few studies do this. Why this discrepancy between attitudes and behav-
ior? A main reason is the practical difficulty of conducting this type of
research. Observing parent– child or older peer– younger- peer dyads
in action is difficult and time consuming. Investigators must develop a
sensible classification system for coding the behaviors, use this system to
code the videotaped interactions, establish interrater reliability, and then
code all of the tapes. Cross- cultural research often requires expensive
travel, extensive learning about the other culture, careful translation
of materials, and identification of appropriate testers. And it is difficult
to interpret cultural differences in the results because they could be
caused by many differences between the cultures. It is even more diffi-
cult to study historical influences because the relevant events no longer
are occurring. Also, it is difficult to detect which of the many differing
aspects of a major historical event, for example, an economic depres-
sion, is responsible for the behavior. The links between broad historical–
cultural forces, such as class struggles, racial unrest, and marginalization
of certain groups, and specific parent– child interactions, in particular,
need to be worked out better.

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188 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

No Legacy of Prototypic Tasks Revealing Interesting Developmental
Phenomena c One reason that Piaget’s theory stimulated much pro-
ductive research by others is that he provided several tasks that revealed
interesting, even surprising, developmental phenomena. The conserva-
tion, object permanence, spatial perspective- taking, and class inclusion
tasks come to mind. These served as arenas for fruitful empirical skir-
mishes for many years. Similarly, information- processing investigators
(see Chapter  7) developed problem- solving, attention, and memory
tasks; ethology (Chapter  5) had imprinting, attachment, and peer-
dominance hierarchies; social learning (Chapter 6) had imitation para-
digms; and Gibson (Chapter 8) had the visual cliff and infant locomotor
tasks. No such prototypic tasks from sociocultural approaches have
caught the imagination of current developmentalists and stimulated an
outpouring of research. Vygotsky typically described his tasks and pro-
cedures in a very sketchy way and presented little or no data, relying
instead on general summaries. His studies were more like pilot studies,
or demonstrations used to illustrate what he saw as the basic principles
of cognition and development. Given the urgency of his mission and his
chronically poor health, he directed his energy toward opening up new
lines of research rather than fully examining any one area.

A Related Approach: Developing- Person-
In- Context
Closely associated with Vygotsky– sociocultural approaches are contextual
approaches, which emphasize the settings in which people develop (e.g.,
Lerner, 2006). Contextualism arose in reaction to the decontextualized,
reductionist (nonholistic) laboratory studies of children that dominated
the 1960s and 1970s. Like Vygotsky and the sociocultural psychologists,
contextualists insist on the situated nature of all behavior and thinking
and often study behaviors in everyday contexts. An additional contri-
bution of person- in- context approaches is that they typically describe
multiple levels of contexts in which developing children are embedded.
Contextualists also examine whether one context supports another. For
example, do parents ensure that children do the homework assigned at
school? Contextual approaches have extended their inquiry throughout
the life course and looked at the links between a changing person and a
changing world (Elder, Shanahan, & Jennings, 2015).

Another important notion in person- in- context approaches is the
goodness of fit between a child and her context. A particular school may
work well for one child but not another. A poor but talented musician is

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A Related Approach: Developing- Person- In- Context c 189

more likely to obtain the needed musical training in a culture that values
and supports its musical culture.

The discussion here will focus on one of the most influential contextual
models— Urie Bronfenbrenner’s bioecological theory (Bronfenbrenner &
Morris, 2006), earlier called ecological- systems theory. The Russian- born
Bronfenbrenner created the groundbreaking field of human ecology and
was a co- founder of Head Start. He advanced developmental psychology
by providing a coherent framework for understanding development in
context. He viewed the context of development as a set of nested struc-
tures, like nested Russian wooden dolls. Bronfenbrenner posited four
levels of contexts that influence children, ranging from the immediate
face- to- face interaction with another person, the level “closest” to the
child, to very general cultural belief systems, the level “furthest” from
the child. By including sociology, anthropology, economics, and political
science in these contexts, he built bridges between psychology and these
disciplines.

As Bronfenbrenner (1989a, pp. 226-229) described these layers:

1
A microsystem is a “pattern of activities, roles, and interpersonal rela-
tions experienced by the developing person in a given face- to- face
setting.” The setting includes (a) particular physical and material

features and (b) other people with particular temperaments, personal-
ities, and systems of belief. A child’s home, school, and peer group are
important microsystems. Transitions from one microsystem to another
can be difficult, for example from elementary school to middle school.

2
The mesosystem includes “the linkages and processes taking place
between two or more settings containing the developing person.”
For example, we might ask whether the peer group and school

system support or contradict the parents’ value system. Thus, a meso-
system is a system of microsystems.

3
The exosystem “encompasses the linkage and processes taking place
between two or more settings, at least one of which does not
ordinarily contain the developing person.” Events in this system

“influence processes within the immediate setting that does contain that
person.” An example is the relation between the home and the parent’s
workplace. A stressful work environment may increase a parent’s irrita-
bility at home, which could lead to child abuse. In this level are the major
institutions of society, such as the economic system, transportation
system, local government, and mass media. As an example of the latter,
watching television may interfere with family interaction.

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190 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

4
The macrosystem “consists of the overarching pattern of micro-,
meso- and exosystems characteristic of a given culture, subcul-
ture, or other broader social context.” Of particular importance

are the “belief systems, resources, hazards, life styles, opportunity
structures, life course options, and patterns of social interchange that
are embedded in each of these systems.” The macrosystem is a general
cultural “blueprint” that helps design the social structures and activities
occurring at lower, more concrete levels. This blueprint influences how
parents, teachers, and significant others in the child’s life “consciously
or unconsciously define the goals, risks, and ways of raising the next
generation.”

There tends to be consistency among the important settings of a par-
ticular culture. Bronfenbrenner pointed out that within a given society,
one elementary school classroom looks and operates much like every
other. The nature of the prototypic classroom reflects unstated beliefs
of the society, for example, an emphasis on individual learning versus
collaborative learning, or self- esteem versus group solidarity.

These four levels change over time, as parents and children age,
schools incorporate more testing, the economy waxes and wanes, and
the population and its belief systems become more diverse. Also, a
change in any level causes changes in the other levels. For example, in
the macrosystem the Great Depression and World War II (Elder et al.,
2015) obviously changed family structure and functioning and thus
children, through parents losing their jobs, a decline in family income,
loss of parents and siblings in the war, and the entry of women into the
labor force. As a contemporary example, the emergence of electronic
social networks has changed social interaction in the other levels. Other
examples appear in the Social Change section below; modernization
and globalization are changing the contexts of development in cultures
around the world.

Causality lies in the other direction as well. As children develop in
a particular sociohistoric time, they change the contexts at all levels.
Moreover, children to some extent select their contexts of development.
For example, personal attributes encourage or discourage reactions
from other people that facilitate or damage psychological development
(see also Bandura’s “triadic reciprocal determinism” in Chapter  6).
A fussy baby, a scowling preschooler, or a hyperactive school- age child
may discourage attention from adults. A happy, smiling baby, an affec-
tionate preschooler, or a good- natured, calm 8- year- old has the opposite
effect and thus creates a different environment for herself. She is likely

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A Related Approach: Developing- Person- In- Context c 191

to respond in kind to warm social attention, setting in motion a chain of
reciprocal exchanges that chart a course of development for her that is
rather different from that of the other kind of child.

Another way in which children shape their contexts is that they display
individual differences in their tendency to approach or avoid particular
aspects of the social and physical world. Temperamental differences are
expressed in social extroversion, shyness (avoiding social stimulation),
resistance to changes in the environment, a high activity level, and so on.
Consequently, different children seek out different types of contexts and
thus engage in somewhat different developmentally relevant activities.
One child may prefer to be a “ child- in- structured- quiet, two- person
context,” whereas another may tend to be a “ child- in- unpredictable,
loud, multiperson context.” In this way, different skills and learning
styles may develop.

Bronfenbrenner’s final accounts (e.g., Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006)
before his death in 2005 have an even more developmental and inter-
active flavor. In his bioecological model of a changing organism in a
changing environment, Bronfenbrenner emphasized the processes by
which child and context directly (proximally) affect each other during
frequently occurring interactions. These processes are the “engines of
development” (p. 825). The specific processes during these interactions
between child and other people or objects depends on characteristics of
the developing person (such as temperament, abilities, knowledge, and
experiences) and of the environment in which the processes are taking
place. Each child has a biological potential (the “bio” part of bioecol-
ogy), whose expression depends on the contexts of the child’s devel-
opment. Taken together, interaction among these forces leads to both
stability and change in children and in the contexts in the various levels.
Bronfenbrenner was concerned about disruptive changes taking place in
contemporary society— youth crime and violence, teenage pregnancy,
poor academic performance, dropping out of school, and drugs. Such
contexts hinder development. Recent contextualist- oriented work has
studied contexts that can promote positive youth development (e.g.,
Lerner, Lerner, Bowers, & Geldhof, 2015).

Recent contextualist approaches have taken Bronfenbrenner’s theory
one step further by even more strongly emphasizing the dynamic, inter-
active nature of development. These systems theories (see Chapter 9)
envision a complex system of two- way influences among contexts, and
between contexts and children. The various levels of organization, rang-
ing from biology to culture to history, are an integrated system, in which
everything influences everything else.

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192 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

Contemporary Research
Present- day sociocultural psychologists have focused on several research
areas with direct ties to Vygotsky: collaborative problem solving,
research across cultures, social change, immigrant families, and devel-
opment through narratives and conversations.

Collaborative Problem Solving
A central idea in Vygotskian and other cultural approaches is that chil-
dren learn through collaborative problem solving with adults or more
advanced peers. Both developmentalists and educators have been partic-
ularly interested in this form of learning because collaboration is con-
sidered a “21 st- century skill” (Dede, 2010), necessary for success today.
In contemporary research, small groups of children are usually assigned
a problem and asked to work together to find a solution.

Peer collaborations differ from parent– child ones because peers’
competencies are more equal. Also, conflict may be more frequent
than with a (typically) more patient adult. Experiences within a more
equal relationship may provide opportunities to learn how to take the
perspective of others and how to resolve conflicts. As in parent– child
collaborations, a critical element is shared understanding of what the
activity is all about. Researchers have shown cognitive advance through
peer collaborations in a variety of countries. For example, collaborative
reasoning promoted moral reasoning in Chinese and U.S.  fourth- and
fifth- graders (Zhang et al., 2013).

The nature of peer collaborations may differ across cultures, even
within the U.S. For example, in one study (Budak & Chavajay, 2012),
siblings aged 6 to 12 were observed while trying to solve a problem
together— putting block connectors together to form a track for mar-
bles. The African- American siblings collaborated more than European-
American siblings, who tended to divide up the activities and direct each
other when constructing the marble track. Related results were found
in a study ( Mejía- Arauz, Rogoff, Dexter, & Najafi, 2007) in which triads
of school- age children in the U.S. were shown how to make an origami
figure by the “Origami Lady” and then were left to work together. Triads
of children from indigenous heritage regions of Mexico tended to col-
laborate with each other, whereas triads of European- heritage children
tended to work alone or in dyads. Mexican- heritage triads whose moth-
ers had extensive schooling resembled the European- heritage triads or
showed an intermediate pattern. Similarly, Guatemalan- Mayan fathers

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Contemporary Research c 193

with little or no schooling encouraged collaborative problem solving in
child triads (Chavajay, 2008). Fathers with 12 or more years of educa-
tion more often encouraged a division of labor, with each child working
alone and perhaps occasionally checking in with the others. Fathers with
intermediate levels of schooling showed an intermediate pattern. Thus,
these studies show that both culture and schooling affect the tendency
to collaborate. Western schooling may be changing the collaborative
indigenous Mayan families.

Cultures vary in whether children choose to collaborate with parents
or peers, which may lead to differences in the relative influence of par-
ents and peers. For example, U.S. adolescents of Chinese, Vietnamese,
Filipino, and Mexican descent value discussions with their parents and
other relatives when making important decisions more than do adoles-
cents of European descent (Cooper, 1999). This was true even for their
degree of comfort with discussing sensitive topics such as sexuality and
school performance.

Despite the value of collaboration illustrated in many studies, overall
the evidence concerning the benefit of peer collaboration compared to
working alone is mixed (Kuhn, 2015). The outcome seems to depend
on “who is learning what and under what conditions” (p. 46). The chil-
dren’s ages and mix of abilities, instructions given to the group, and the
kind of problem to be solved all seem to be important. As Kuhn notes,
some “collaborations” are not true collaborations in which all members
work together in a coordinated manner and all members benefit. Rather,
sometimes the more knowledgeable members simply transmit their
knowledge to the rest. In these cases, the new knowledge may be super-
ficial and transient. In the more successful groups, the children engage
each other’s thinking in a deep way. Kuhn concludes that one kind of
collaborative- learning setting that does have demonstrated cognitive
benefits is argumentative discourse between members who have oppos-
ing positions. Finally, children may have to be taught how to collaborate:
“It is not enough simply to put individuals in a context that allows for
collaboration and expect them to engage in it effectively. Intellectual
collaboration is a skill, learned through engagement and practice and
much trial and error” (p. 51).

Some of the current issues in this area are the following: Do adult– child
and peer collaborations differ in their effectiveness and, if so, under what
circumstances of age, gender, setting, and expertise? Are the patterns of
thinking and talking together and the mechanisms of change different for
adult– child, sibling, and peer collaborations? Which specific aspects of
collaboration affect which specific aspects of cognitive progress?

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Research Across Cultures
Cross- cultural research is one method within cultural psychology. Such
research on cultures other than one’s own or on several cultures con-
tributes to our understanding of development by identifying what is
universal about development, what is culture specific, and what mecha-
nisms mediate the effect of culture on development. In this way, we can
see what is “invisible” in our own culture, such as the effects of school-
ing, because we are so accustomed to its presence. Thus, cross- cultural
research prevents us from overgeneralizing our findings and increases
our understanding of mechanisms of development.

Since parent– child interaction is a main mechanism by which culture
affects development, we begin by sampling research on parent– child
interaction. Included in the research are comparisons of two or more
countries, or, in a sort of natural experiment, comparisons of immigrant
parents in the U.S. with those in their culture of origin and with nonim-
migrant parents in the U.S. This latter sort of study identifies changes in
parental behavior after entering a new culture and clarifies the mecha-
nisms by which parents transmit culture.

One good example of how cross- cultural research can identify spe-
cific cultural practices that lead to particular child behaviors is infant
sleeping arrangements. These arrangements are thought to be important
because they affect parent– child interaction and influence the develop-
ment of independence. Many American babies sleep in their own beds
and, by the end of infancy, if not sooner, in a different room from the
parents. This practice seems wrong and bizarre to adults in many parts
of Asia, Africa, and Central America, where children sleep with their
parents even when there is plenty of sleeping space for separate sleeping
arrangements (Shweder, Balle- Jensen, & Goldstein, 1995). Mayan moth-
ers, for example, expressed pity for babies in the United States when
told that they sleep in their own rooms (Morelli, Rogoff, Oppenheim, &
Goldsmith, 1992). They consider this practice harmful for the babies.
Japanese parents believe that babies are born separate beings who must
be taught feelings of interdependence with other people, and sleeping
with parents is thought to encourage feelings of closeness and solidar-
ity with others in the family (Caudill & Weinstein, 1969). In contrast,
many  U.S.  parents believe that babies are born dependent and must
develop independence; a separate bed is thought to facilitate this. Thus,
even very early experiences are organized by culture.

Another way that culture is expressed is in adult– infant interac-
tions that shape infant attention. What a culture (through the parents)

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Contemporary Research c 195

encourages infants and children to look at is important, because this
affects what information children process and how they learn. Bornstein
and his colleagues (i.e., Bornstein, Cote, Haynes, Suwalsky, & Bakeman,
2012) have examined Japanese, American, and Japanese- American
immigrant mothers and their 5- month- old infants. This comparison
provides interesting information because both Japan and the  U.S.  are
child- oriented modern cultures. They found both universals and culture-
specific features in the interactions. In all groups, mothers successfully
guided their infants’ attention. Moreover, in all groups, mothers and
infants were attuned to one another. For example, mothers who encour-
aged their infants to look at them more had infants who looked at them
more. These behaviors were contingent; shortly after a mother encour-
aged her baby to look at her, the baby did so.

However, one way attention was culture specific concerned nonsocial
objects. Only in the European- American sample was there a pattern of
mothers encouraging their infants to look at objects, followed by infants
doing so. This finding may reflect cultural differences in the value placed
on nonsocial objects. Another cultural difference concerned whether the
mother or infant tended to initiate episodes of shared attention. Japanese
mothers tended to anticipate and direct their infants, perhaps encourag-
ing dependence on the mothers and thus expressing the cultural valuing
of harmony and interdependence among people. This behavior blurs
the distinction between self and other. In contrast, European- American
mothers tended to respond to their infants, perhaps as a way of encour-
aging infants’ independence and sense of personal agency. The fact that
the mother– infant interaction patterns of Japanese- Americans in many
ways were similar to those of European- Americans suggests that they
were beginning to adopt European- American cultural beliefs about
child rearing.

When Japanese children enter preschool, this setting continues to
instill the value placed on group harmony (Cole, 1992). For example,
American educators viewing a videotape of a Japanese preschool were
shocked that there were 30 preschoolers and only one teacher. In con-
trast, Japanese educators viewing the American classroom with only a
few students per teacher expressed concern for the children: “There is
something kind of sad and lonely about a class that size” and “I wonder
how you teach a child to become a member of a group in a class that
small” (Tobin, Wu, & Davidson, 1989, p.  38). In the Japanese mind,
“A child’s humanity is realized most fully not so much in his ability to
be independent from the group as [in] his ability to cooperate and feel

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196 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

part of the group” (p. 39). As Markus and Kitayama (1991) observed, in
America “the squeaky wheel gets the grease” and in Japan “the nail that
stands out gets pounded down.”

The differing orientations to one’s social group in Eastern and
Western children later is seen in their moral reasoning. Fourth- and
fifth- graders in China and the U.S. wrote a reflective essay after reading
a story involving a moral dilemma (Zhang et al., 2013). Compared to
the U.S. children, whose essays focused on self- interest (e.g., protecting
themselves), the Chinese children’s essays focused on altruistic moral
principles of upholding obligations to help friends, keeping promises,
and maintaining trust. For example, Chinese children were concerned
that not telling on a friend who cheated and lied would encourage him
to continue along a negative pathway.

The connections between cultural beliefs and cultural practices
affecting children’s attention also can be seen in work on other cultures.
In one study, children aged 5 to 11 from different cultures varied in
how much they learned by observing their sibling being shown how to
construct a novel toy, even when not instructed to observe ( Correa-
Chávez & Rogoff, 2009). Children from Guatemalan- Mayan traditional
families (with little maternal exposure to Western schooling) showed
more attention to, and learning from, the sibling’s learning activity than
did children from Guatemalan- Mayan families with extensive exposure
to Western schooling or European- American children with extensive
family exposure to Western schooling. This learning- by- observation of
others, often in a community setting, may indicate the sense of commu-
nity typically found in these villages. Community members may share
in the socialization of the young and even reprimand misbehavior in
other people’s children. Moreover, the children in these cultures often
are encouraged to participate in daily activities within the community in
contrast to the segregation of children from community work and social
activities in middle- class European- American communities. Children’s
learning through observing and pitching in, mentioned earlier, involves
helping without being asked. In order to detect what kind of help
is needed, children show “helpful attention”—being attentive to what is
going on in the context in order to detect what kind of help is needed
(López, Ruvalcaba, & Rogoff, 2015).

Culture touches concepts even as objective and universal- sounding
as mathematics. First, numerical symbol systems differ. For example,
the Oksapmin, a remote Papua, New Guinea group, traditionally have
used the names of parts of the body for their counting system. Counting
begins with the thumb of one hand and progresses through 27 separate

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Contemporary Research c 197

locations (each finger, wrist, elbow, shoulder, right ear, right eye, nose,
left eye, and so on) to the far side of the other hand (Saxe, 2012).
Interestingly, with recent changes in their economic exchange and
schooling, this system has been altered in order to solve new kinds of
mathematical problems. Thus, a culture adapts to social change by creat-
ing new mathematical representations.

Second, the form of mental calculation varies as a function of the
culture’s symbol system. In many Asian countries, people often use
abacuses to solve math problems. At least among older children who
achieve expertise, these devices encourage people to solve calculation
problems in their head by forming a mental image of the abacus (Stigler,
1984). As evidence, when people in these cultures make an error, it is
of the type that would be expected if they were reading off of a mental
image rather than the type of error made by people in cultures where
the abacus is not used.

Third, cultures vary in the contexts in which children develop mathe-
matical skills. One example comes from Saxe’s (1999) research on child
candy vendors on the streets of Brazil. These 6- to 15- year- old boys are
poor, and many have little or no schooling. Many need the money to help
their families survive and may work as many as 14 hours per day and
60 to 70 hours per week. When selling their products, they must very
quickly perform various numerical activities— purchase candy in bulk,
decide on a sale price per unit that ensures enough markup, negotiate
the price (for example, a discount for larger quantities), make change,
and so on. Despite their generally disadvantageous childhood environ-
ment, they develop impressive mental calculation abilities. They often
perform mathematical calculations in their heads, adjust for inflation,
and use a complex system to figure out markups. For example, 10- year-
old Luciano paid 7,000 cruzeiros at a wholesale store for his 30-unit
box of candy bars and must calculate how much to sell the candy for
so that he sells it quickly and makes a good profit. This competency is
especially remarkable given that, because of inflation, the child vendors
have to deal with very large numbers, often in the thousands. They have
constructed their own mathematical system and strategies that bear
little resemblance to those taught in schools. For example, a child might
use a strategy of many- to- one correspondences: setting three bars to
one 1,000 cruzeiros bill and then adding together many of these sets.
In Vygotskian fashion, older children, storekeepers, or parents serve as
social supports for the young vendors by helping them set the markup.
Developmental changes in participation in the social practice, such as
figuring out markup by oneself, lead to cognitive changes, such as an

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198 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

increasingly abstract and hypothetical selling plan. Interestingly, when
researchers ask child street vendors to solve similar math problems, but
without the vending context, they perform much more poorly; nonven-
dors show the opposite pattern (Carraher, Carraher, & Schliemann, 1985).

An example of cultural support for participation in mathemati-
cal activities is that Asian children surpass American children in their
mathematical prowess (though not in overall intelligence) (National
Center for Education Statistics, 2011). This difference is apparent even
among 4- year- olds (Paik, van Gelderen, Gonzales, de Jong, & Hayes,
2011). One cause may be that Asian mothers generally attribute math-
ematical performance to trying hard and not giving up, and they instill
these behaviors in their children. This attitude is consistent with their
cultural belief in improving oneself through hard work. In contrast,
American mothers tend to emphasize inherent ability, an attribution
that does not encourage studying hard or trying harder next time if one
does poorly on a test (Stevenson, Lee, & Stigler, 1986). Surprisingly,
American mothers tend to overestimate their children’s abilities and are
more satisfied with their children’s performance than are Chinese or
Japanese mothers. Another cultural influence may be that the Japanese
language system encourages attention to the quantitative aspect of real-
ity. Japanese has separate words for counting people; birds; four- legged
animals; broad, thin objects such as sheets of paper; and long, thin
objects such as sticks. And Japanese mothers encourage even very young
children to play counting games, such as “Let’s count birds” (Hatano,
cited in Siegler, 1998).

Social Change
In our rapidly changing world, can sociocultural research help us under-
stand the effects of cultural change on human development? Although
much of the research described in this chapter gives the impression
that cultures are static, cultures in fact change, and the world now is
undergoing rapid, permanent change. Increased industrialization and
communication with other cultures are changing the contexts of child-
hood. Parents try to raise their children to adapt to the world they will
encounter as adults, but during times of rapid change, they can only
guess at what that world will look like.

We now turn to two main models concerning the social change occur-
ring in most countries of the world— one from Greenfield (2009; 2015)
and the other from Chen (2015). Unlike Vygotsky’s focus on cognitive
change, these models emphasize changes in social behaviors as well.

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Contemporary Research c 199

Greenfield theorizes that different kinds of behaviors are adaptive in
different kinds of societies, and thus children are socialized toward these
adaptive behaviors. In her model, demographic shifts change cultural
values and learning environments, which in turn shift developmental
pathways. Many countries currently are moving from rural living, infor-
mal education at home, subsistence economy, poverty, ethnic and cul-
tural homogeneity, and low- technology environments to urban living,
formal schooling, commerce- based affluence, ethnic and cultural diver-
sity, and high- technology environments. This change is shifting cultural
values toward individualism (Zeng & Greenfield, 2015), egalitarianism
(e.g., attitudes about gender roles, Manago, 2015), and relativism.

Individualism changes children’s learning environment inside and
outside the home. Children adapt to these new social values as they are
socialized toward greater independence (for example, less body contact
and more face- to- face contact during infancy), competition, and more
abstract cognition (especially through formal schooling) (Maynard,
Greenfield, & Childs, 2015). Children’s relationships are shifting from
being lifelong, with kin or neighbors who spend their entire life in the
same community, to more fleeting relationships, often with nonrelatives,
peers (more than multiage relationships), and strangers (such as store
clerks). Exposure to others’ perspectives, perhaps in part through books
and other media, may change cognition in the direction of increased
perspective taking (Gauvain & Munroe, 2014). Among four cultures,
the most industrialized, the Samoans, outperformed children in Belize,
Kenya, and Nepal on perspective taking tasks. Children also are shifting
toward fewer opportunities to observe and thus learn from adult activi-
ties in the family and community as more adults work away from home.

As families become smaller, there is less need for children to care
for their younger siblings, and families become more child centered,
with possible effects on children’s self- concept. Mothers in the United
States perceive children’s self- esteem to be much more important than
do grandmothers, and in Taiwan, only half of the grandmothers were
even familiar with the concept of self- esteem, though most of the moth-
ers were, thus showing generational change (Cho, Sandel, Miller, &
Wang, 2005).

This pattern of social change involves the movement from collec-
tivism to individualism. Collectivism facilitates the socialization of
compliant– cooperative behaviors and forms of thinking that are bound
to a particular context. In contrast, individualism encourages indepen-
dent behavior and valuing of more abstract cognition. Garcia, Rivera,
and Greenfield (2015) studied three sites in Mexico undergoing social

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200 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

change. Over several recent decades, the children showed increased
competition and decreased cooperation when playing a game. Also, indi-
vidualism has increased in recent decades in China, as seen in changing
frequencies of Chinese words indexing individualistic or collectivistic
values in digitalized books (Zeng & Greenfield, 2015).

Greenfield has found that the most rapidly changing facet of a culture
tends to exert the main influence. For instance, over four decades in a
Mexican Maya community, more children are approaching visual prob-
lem solving in an abstract way and have shown greater understanding of
novel stimuli (Maynard et al., 2015). However, in the first two decades,
participation in commercial activity drove this change, whereas in the
second two decades, formal education was more influential. This shift
reflected first the transition from subsistence to commerce, followed by
the expansion of formal schooling.

Chen’s (2015) pluralist– constructive model proposes that immigration,
advances in information technology, and interaction among political,
economic, and cultural systems across regions have resulted in diverse
values, beliefs, and lifestyles today. Individual adaptation to social change
often involves the coexistence, and even integration, of these diverse
values and practices. Chen sees this as a positive development, for it
helps children develop flexibility in adapting to different circumstances.
Individualism helps them achieve personal goals, and collectivism helps
them develop social support systems, both so important for psycho-
logical well- being. Both one’s own interests and group harmony can be
goals. Children exposed to both collectivism and individualism ideally
will develop both the ability to work alone and with others. Although it
often is claimed that collectivist societies become more individualistic
during globalization, Chen argues that, in addition, individualistic societ-
ies become more inclusive, more accepting of differences. In these ways,
both kinds of cultural systems profit from these social changes. Thus, as
societies change, cultural values change. These are translated into changes
in the contexts in which children develop socially and cognitively.

Immigrant Families
The number of immigrant families has rapidly increased and is now a
quarter of U.S. families (Child Trends, 2015). This increase has created
the opportunity to study the process of development in the context of
adapting to a new culture. Looking at how children, adolescents, and
their families rise to the challenge of cultural adaptation also has made
it possible to expand and clarify our understanding of developmental
and family processes by studying, for example, socialization processes.

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Contemporary Research c 201

Such research can reveal new mechanisms of development or show that
the same child or parent behaviors have different meanings in different
cultures. We now turn to several examples of these contributions.

In Chapter 3, research showed that adolescents in immigrant families
face challenges in forming an identity that integrates their old and new
cultures. Here we consider that the meeting of two cultures in immi-
grant families can affect family dynamics, as well as show links between
family conflicts and mental, physical, and educational outcomes. For
example, Chinese- American adolescents and their parents have every-
day conflicts about both seemingly minor issues and acculturation- based
conflicts (Juang, Syed, & Cookston, 2012). The fact that these two types
of conflict are correlated and have similar developmental trajectories
suggests that they are related. That is, in immigrant families, everyday
conflicts may actually reflect larger issues involving conflicting cultural
values and beliefs. Moreover, these conflicts were associated with poor
psychological adjustment (though the specific pattern of predictions
varied for the two types of conflict).

A two- year longitudinal study (Juang & Cookston, 2009) showed
changes in family dynamics in Chinese- American families, a culture
wherein fulfilling family obligations is expected and valued. Adolescents
with high levels of family obligation were more protected against later
depression than those with low levels. Thus, assimilation to the major-
ity culture in the United States was not advantageous in this respect.
Moreover, adolescents showing increasing family obligation behaviors
over the two- year period also showed fewer depressive symptoms.
Interestingly, Chinese- Americans born in the United States rather than
in China held the family obligation value less strongly, a sign of a shift
away from Chinese culture to that of the United States, which values
autonomy. Overall, family obligation decreased over time, but only with
regard to behaviors— not attitudes— which suggests that it is important
to consider both attitudes and behaviors when looking at culture- related
developmental change; immigrant adolescents may continue to endorse
traditional cultural values, even if not behaviors, in a new culture.

The outcomes for children in immigrant families sometimes are neg-
ative, but there is some evidence that immigrant children actually are
doing better than children of native- born parents (Marks, Ejesi, & Garcia
Coll, 2014). Also, interesting recent work shows that bilingualism—
a characteristic that often goes along with being a child in an immigrant
family— often is associated with superior control of one’s cognitive
functioning (e.g., Bialystok, 2015). The now large body of research on
immigrant families has shown that any theorizing about immigrant fam-
ilies and developmental outcomes must consider many accompanying

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202 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

variables that are as important as, or more important than, immigration
per se (Crosnoe & Fuligni, 2012). Variables critical to child outcomes
are parents’ education before migrating, child’s birth before versus after
the family’s immigration to the U.S., the age at which the mother came
to the U.S., the part of the U.S. to which the family immigrated, gender,
and immigrant status (documented versus not).

Parents from different cultures or subcultures vary in how they
attempt to instill values in their children. One particularly compelling
case concerns Baumrind’s (e.g., 1973) often- cited research demonstrat-
ing the superiority of the authoritative pattern of child rearing (a com-
bination of firmness and support) over highly controlling or permissive
patterns for increasing achievement and independence in children. This
conclusion was questioned by the later finding (Dornbusch, Ritter,
Leiderman, Roberts, & Fraleigh, 1987) that this result more accu-
rately describes European- Americans than African- Americans, Asian-
Americans, or Hispanics. For example, the Asian- American parents were
high on control, but their children generally received high grades in
school. And controlling parents were associated with low grades among
Hispanic girls but not boys. Thus, the same parental behaviors may have
different meaning in different cultures. Parental control may be inter-
preted as negative in one culture and as caring in another.

Development Through Narratives and Conversations
Probably all cultures use narratives, or stories, for organizing experi-
ence over time, interpreting human action, maintaining social relation-
ships, and preserving culture. Through narratives, people and culture
construct each other. People’s stories contribute to the culture, and
the culture helps people make sense of their experiences and their life.
Narratives provide a way to pass on the culture; thus, they contribute
to children’s socialization and their development into members of their
cultures. As a device for socialization, these cultural practices maintain
the moral system of the culture. These myths and moral tales communi-
cate “lessons” about cultural beliefs and practices.

Cultural themes are expressed not only in narratives shared by the
entire culture but also in “family stories”—personal narratives within
families. Research comparing middle- class Chinese families in Taipei,
Taiwan, and middle- class European- American families in Chicago
(Miller, Fung, Lin, Chen, & Boldt, 2012) provides an example of how
cultures use such stories for different purposes. Chinese families used
family stories about their children as an opportunity to teach moral

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Contemporary Research c 203

lessons. Chinese families were more likely than the ones in Chicago to
tell stories about the child’s past misbehaviors and to weave into the
stories moral and social rules about these transgressions. These children
then developed the ability to initiate stories on moral topics and reason in
complex ways about their past transgressions. They also learned to listen
well to stories told by their parents, perhaps in part because listening is a
way to show respect and affection for their parents as moral authorities.

In contrast, European- American families used stories to focus on their
child’s strengths. When these families did construct stories about the
child’s misdeeds, they tended to downplay this aspect of the story. The
Chinese parents may have been operating within a Confucian emphasis
on teaching, strict discipline, social obligations, self- improvement, and
the value of feeling shame, whereas the American parents may have
been more concerned with the child’s self- esteem. Thus, cultures select
differently from the past when constructing personal narratives and,
consequently, children learn what experiences are important and how
they should assess them as well as construct their identities as members
of their families and societies and as individuals. This research provides
yet another example of how looking at cultures other than European-
American ones modifies our theories about the mechanisms by which
children are socialized.

The telling of stories also is culturally constructed in that this activity
is embedded in cultural beliefs about gender (Fivush & Zaman, 2015).
Parents are more elaborative and emotionally expressive when remi-
niscing about the past with daughters than sons. This leads to girls grad-
ually developing more elaborative and emotionally expressive personal
narratives compared to boys. Girls also seem to situate their identities
within family stories more than do boys. Moreover, when parents tell
their children stories about their own childhoods, these narratives about
mothers also are more elaborative and emotionally expressive than those
about fathers. This research is a good example of the implicit nature of
most of parental teaching about culture.

Thus, the social uses of language help children move from the private
world of infancy to the “community of minds” of their culture (Nelson,
2008). Much of development involves “meaning making” as children try
to make sense of their experiences and, through language, share these
meanings with others in conversations and stories. They form social con-
nections with other people and draw on these social guides to aid their
making sense of the world. This metaphor of the child as sense- maker
and a member of a community of minds contrasts with Piaget’s meta-
phor of the child as miniature scientist.

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204 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

Concluding Comments About Contemporary Vygotskian–
Sociocultural Research
Finally, we look at two contemporary themes about Vygotskian–
sociocultural developmental approaches. One theme concerns the assim-
ilation of Vygotsky’s theory into contemporary developmental theorizing.
The question is “How much of contemporary ‘Vygotskian’ research  is
actually Vygotskian?” A second theme concerns several current trends in
developmental cultural psychology research and theorizing.

Assimilation of Vygotsky’s Theory into Contemporary Develop-
mental Theories c The assimilation of Vygotsky’s theory into contem-
porary work on developmental psychology provides an interesting case
study of how any discipline incorporates a theory from another time
and place. The assimilation usually is selective and distorted in some
way— much like the distortion that occurs when people assimilate, in
the Piagetian sense, something into their current mental structure. In
the case of Vygotsky, something is lost in the translation, so to speak.
What contemporary developmental psychology needed from Vygotsky
was a sensitivity to the social and cultural context of development and
a way to conceptualize the cultural origins of a developing mind. And
that is what we took, as seen in the studies in this chapter on the zone,
guided participation, intersubjectivity, internalization, and cultural
tools. In this sense, there now have been numerous Vygotskian studies.
However, certain main aspects of Vygotsky’s theory do not fare as well
in the Western individual- oriented worldview and so have been rela-
tively ignored. Specifically, much current sociocultural research looks at
how sociocultural settings influence behavior, how cultural differences
lead to psychological differences, and how a child’s performance shifts
from setting to setting. Few studies start with the child- in- context as the
basic unit, as noted earlier. The social context is grafted on to individual
development, rather than considered an inherent part of it.

Moreover, the notion of the zone of proximal development has been
plucked out of its social– political context. Vygotsky saw interactive
learning processes in the zone as an expression of collectivism; society
shares its mental skills during “shared consciousness” much as it shares
its material goods. In contrast, current Vygotskian research still con-
veys the impression that an individual child’s cognitive development
is guided by an individual adult rather than by society in general as a
shared endeavor.

Finally, many recent studies of the zone that are presented as Vygotskian-
inspired are little more than traditional studies of mother– child

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Contemporary Research c 205

interaction in learning situations and do not incorporate the principles
that distinguish Vygotskian studies from any study of adult– child
interaction. Researchers still view cognition as something that hap-
pens inside a child’s head— an adult simply helps put it there. Truly
Vygotskian studies must (1) look at both adult and child behavior, at
their shared understanding, and at how each adjusts to the previous
response of the other, (2) assess what a child can do both alone and
with an adult’s help, and (3) look at the gradual shift in responsibility
from adult to child over the course of the session. Such studies must
also (4) assess how the adult structures the learning process, tries to
pull the child to a slightly higher cognitive level, relates the problem
to the child’s previous experience, and adjusts the amount of help to
the difficulty of the task, and (5) examine how the culture and its his-
tory shape the nature of the parent– child interaction. Very few studies
include all five aspects.

It is not necessarily wrong to selectively assimilate a theory. Scientific
progress often comes from taking only what is most useful from a the-
ory. But it should be recognized that Vygotsky’s theory is more often
appropriated than internalized.

Current Trends in Cultural Psychology Research c Because culture
is such an umbrella term, researchers have tried to identify more spe-
cific dimensions. One example is the contrast between individualistic
cultures and collectivist ones. However, this dimension does not capture
the heterogeneity within each type of culture. As we become more
familiar with cultures around the world, we become more aware of
their subcultures and the subtle differences among them. Overly general
terms, such as “Hispanic,” mask major differences among peoples from
countries such as Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Costa Rica, and Colombia.
Even within a country, especially large ones, there can be diverse sub-
cultures. An example of a within- country difference is that preschoolers
in two quite different regions of China (Beijing and Chengdu) follow a
different sequence of theory- of- mind development (Duh, Paik, Miller, &
Gluck, 2015). Preschoolers in the traditional Chengdu region were
more advanced than Beijing or U.S.  children in understanding hidden
emotions. Similarly, an adequate cultural account of development must
attend to intersections of culture with factors such as gender and social
class. For example, for young Latino immigrants in the U.S., transition
to a new culture may differ for females and males, and for lower- income
and middle- income families. Moreover, these patterns may vary as a
function of age.

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206 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

One solution to this dilemma of how to capture the diversity within
what from the outside might be seen as a single culture is the “ cultural
practice” approach (Rogoff, Najafi, & Mejía- Arauz, 2014). This approach
asks what people do— the cultural practices in which they participate—
rather than what people are (e.g., Chinese)—the “categorical box”
approach focused on language or country. Any community has a constel-
lation of social practices, which show connections among occupations,
schooling, family size, urban versus rural residence, indigenous versus
modern birthing and spiritual practices, and modes of learning (e.g.,
by observing and pitching in, described earlier). Although communities
derived from the same cultural group historically may even live in the
same city, their differing histories of cultural practices can lead to quite
different constellations of cultural practices. For example, in Guadalajara,
Mexico, among three communities with historical connections to indig-
enous communities who from the outside “are” indigenous, there is wide
variation in what they “do,” their pattern of cultural practices involving
schooling, religious festivals, and specific indigenous practices, such as
burying a baby’s umbilical cord (Rogoff et al., 2014). A group that has
experienced cultural change may show interesting transitional practices,
such as keeping the umbilical cord without knowing why or not burying
it. An individual thus may participate in two communities of practices—
indigenous and cosmopolitan— and the practices may be similar, com-
plementary, or conflicting. This cultural- practices approach provides a
way to study both stability and change over generations as communities
are touched by industrialization and technology or families emigrate.
Families immigrating to the U.S. may use a combination of their culture
of origin, for example, learning by observing and “pitching in,” and more
Westernized socialization practices. Thus, social change within a nation
or participation in two cultures after immigration can be studied by
looking at changing constellations of cultural practices.

The field appears to be in transition toward a truly cultural approach.
For many years, culture has been considered an “add on” to descriptions
of what was considered “normal” or typical development (usually from
studies of white middle- class children). However, this approach has been
challenged, because all children have a culture, and focusing on one
particular group provides only one particular view of development and
thus should not be considered the norm by which to compare other cul-
tures. Thus, the field is starting to construct a broad developmental per-
spective that starts with cultural diversity rather than ends with it. That
is, the new view is that any aspect of development can be understood
fully only by studying it in its various cultural contexts; the behavior of

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children in different cultural settings must be fully interwoven through-
out developmental science. Culture is not something separate that we
study. Also, studying a culture other than one’s own has suggested pre-
viously unstudied mechanisms of development that will lead to more
complete theories of development.

SUMMARY
Developmental sociocultural approaches have many roots, but Vygotsky
was the main historical force. Vygotsky’s theory has impacted develop-
mental research by directing attention to the cultural origins of thinking
and, more generally, stimulating researchers to consider the historical–
cultural context of development. Unlike most theories, the sociocultural
approach focuses on the child- in- activity- in- cultural- context, rather
than on the child alone. Thinking is inherently social; children use cul-
tural tools, such as symbol systems, to solve problems in their everyday
attempts to meet their goals within a social reality. Culture constructs
settings and shapes the interactions of people in them. A child’s partici-
pation in various cultural routines nurtures particular ways of thinking.
Cultural beliefs, knowledge, values, artifacts, and physical settings influ-
ence what settings children are encouraged to enter and when they can
enter them, what they learn in these settings, how they acquire skills,
and who can enter particular settings. Thus, sociocultural approaches
force researchers to reexamine dichotomies such as culture versus mind,
thought versus action, and person versus context.

Children develop in a zone of proximal development— the distance
between what a child can do without help and what he can do with help.
A more skilled person uses prompts, discussion, modeling, explanation,
and so on to guide and collaborate with children to move them through
the zone. Because the child and a familiar adult share a past and have a
common goal in the task, they have a shared understanding of the prob-
lem. Children actively contribute to their movement through the zone
by seeking out particular settings, influencing the course of the activity,
and bringing personal qualities and developmental skills to the inter-
action. Vygotsky argued that only by looking directly at moment- to-
moment change over time can we understand development; intelligence
is not what you know but what you can learn with help. Thus, only a
dynamic assessment of a child’s potential level of development, rather
than a static assessment of the current level, gives an accurate picture of
the child’s ability.

Summary c 207

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208 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

As children engage in activities with others, intermental activities,
particularly dialogue, become intramental. In this way, individual mental
functioning has sociocultural origins. Language between people even-
tually becomes spoken speech for self (private speech) and then silent,
mental, speechlike inner speech. Children internalize (Vygotsky) or
appropriate (Rogoff) information and ways of thinking from their
activities with parents, teachers, other adults, and more skilled peers.
Technical and psychological tools provided by the culture mediate intel-
lectual functioning. Language, in particular, helps children direct their
own thinking efficiently; they plan, think logically, and form abstract
concepts. However, nonverbal interaction with others encourages cog-
nitive skills as well.

The microgenetic method involves an analysis of moment- to- moment
changes as a child moves through the zone of proximal development. For
Vygotsky, the most general mechanism of development is the dialectical
process in which two contradictory ideas or phenomena are synthesized
into a new idea or phenomenon. The dialectical process operates mainly
during interaction with adults, more skilled peers, or peers of equal abil-
ity, and during play. Movement through the zone is a dialectical process
as the child collaborates with another person and they co- construct the
meaning of the task, a goal, and a solution.

Regarding the theory’s position on developmental issues, it holds a
contextualist view of human nature; human nature develops in a social
context. The temporal dimension (past, present, and future) is cross-
woven with the spatial dimension (social settings). Development is both
quantitative and, when synthesis results during the dialectical process,
qualitative. Nature and nurture also enter into a dialectical process, but
socioculturalists focus on the social strands of this process. Finally, what
develops is an active- child- in- context.

Regarding applications, Vygotsky wrote about learning in the class-
room and about children with special needs. More recent applications
focus on collaborative peer learning and the zone of proximal devel-
opment. The strengths of the sociocultural approach are its attention
to the social– cultural context of development, integration of learn-
ing and development, and attention to the diversity of development.
Weaknesses are the vagueness (or limitations) of the notion of the zone
of proximal development, insufficient attention to setting and child-
developmental aspects of the zone of proximal development, the diffi-
culties of studying cultural– historical contexts, and the failure to pro-
vide prototypic tasks revealing interesting developmental phenomena.
The developing person- in- context approach, associated with Vygotskian

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and sociocultural theories and exemplified by Bronfenbrenner, embeds
development within a social ecology consisting of various levels from
near to far. Sociohistorical events, such as the Great Depression, provide
contexts that shape development, but children are active participants in
these contexts as well.

Current Vygotskian– sociocultural research focuses on collaborative
problem solving, developmental processes in various cultures or during
times of cultural change, immigrant families, and acculturation through
narratives and conversation. Although sociocultural theory has stimu-
lated research on sociocultural influences, few studies have incorporated
the aspects of the theory that do not fit easily into the contemporary
Western cultural belief system. Vygotsky’s theory is important for
understanding development in our rapidly changing global, multicul-
tural world. The field of developmental psychology is advancing toward
a perspective in which specific dimensions of cultural diversity are
identified and cultural processes are fully integrated into any account of
development.

SUGGESTED READINGS
The following two books by Vygotsky provide a good introduction to
his theory:

Vygotsky, L. S. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psycholog-
ical processes. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Vygotsky,  L.  S. (1986). Thought and language. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Press.

Vygotsky’s works have been collected into a series:

Rieber,  R.  W. (Ed.). (1987–1999). The collected works of  L.  S.  Vygotsky
(Vols. 1–6). New York: Plenum Press.

Rieber,  R.  W., et  al. (Eds.). (2004). The essential Vygotsky. New  York:
Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers. This is a “Vygotsky sampler” of
his most important and interesting contributions from the above six
volumes.

The following provides a useful overview of culture and cognitive
development:

Gauvain, M., & Perez, S. (2015). Cognitive development and culture.
In  R.  M.  Lerner (Series Ed.) &  L.  S.  Liben &  U.  Müller (Eds.),

Suggested Readings c 209

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210 c VYGOTSKY AND THE SOCIOCULTURAL APPROACH

Handbook of child psychology and developmental science: Vol.  2. Cognitive
processes (7th ed., pp. 854–896). New York: Wiley.

This study of a Mayan midwife illustrates how cultural practices are pre-
served yet modified during social change.

Rogoff,  B. (2011). Developing destinies: A Mayan midwife and town.
New York: Oxford University Press.

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Biological Approaches: Ethology,
Developmental Neuroscience,
Genetics

At the beginning of these experiments, I had sat myself down in the grass amongst
the ducklings and, in order to make them follow me, had dragged myself, sitting,
away from them. . . . The ducklings, in contrast to the greylag goslings, were most
demanding charges, for, imagine a two- hour walk with such children— all the time
squatting low and quacking without interruption! In the interests of science I sub-
mitted myself literally for hours on end to this ordeal.

—Lorenz, 1952, p. 42

The initial phase, that of protest, may begin immediately or may be delayed; it lasts
from a few hours to a week or more. During it the young child appears acutely dis-
tressed at having lost his mother and seeks to recapture her by the full exercise of
his limited resources. He will often cry loudly, shake his cot, throw himself about,
and look eagerly towards any sight or sound which might prove to be his missing
mother. . . . During the phase of despair, which succeeds protest, the child’s preoccupa-
tion with his missing mother is still evident, though his behavior suggests increasing
hopelessness. The active physical movements diminish or come to an end, and he may
cry monotonously or intermittently. He is withdrawn and inactive, makes no demands
on people in the environment, and appears to be in a state of deep mourning.

—BowLBy, 1969, p. 27

Adenine- Thymine
Guanine- Cytosine
Adenine- Thymine
Cytosine- Guanine

—Genetic code

Se
rg

ey
N

iv
en

s/
Sh

ut
te

rs
to

ck

C H A P T E R 5

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212 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

D
evelopmental psychologists have not taken Shakespeare’s advice,
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” Some of the most fruitful
ideas about development have been borrowed from other areas of
psychology and even other sciences. Developmental psychology

has borrowed heavily from biology for clues about where to look for
connections between body and mind and behavior. In this chapter, we
look at several biological perspectives on development that are heavily
influencing developmental psychology— ethological theory (including
evolutionary psychology), developmental neuroscience, and genetics.

We focus on ethology because of its long history of contributions to
developmental psychology, especially infants’ attachment to their par-
ents, but give careful attention to recent major contributions from the
other two areas. Developmental neuroscience and genetics probably are
the fastest- growing areas within developmental psychology currently
and are changing the way developmentalists think about how nature and
nurture co- construct development. Much of the progress is due to new
tools for imaging the brain and analyzing genes, but also to new theo-
retical models that capture the complex interactions of various levels of
biology, from cells to brain organization to behavior (and back again).

This chapter first describes ethology, including evolutionary psychol-
ogy. Next is an account of developmental neuroscience, followed by
genetics. The chapter ends with models that integrate genes, brain, and
experience.

Ethology
Ethology is the study of the evolutionarily significant behaviors of a
species in its natural surroundings. As a subdiscipline of zoology, it
looks at the biological and evolutionary blueprints for animal behavior.
Ethology places humans into a broad context: the animal world and
our distant past. It is humbling to contemplate the fact that there are
more species of insects in a square kilometer of Brazilian forest than
there are species of primates in the world (Wilson, 1975). The English
geneticist Haldane, when asked about the nature of God, is said to have
remarked that he displays “an inordinate fondness for beetles” (as quoted
in Hutchinson, 1959, p. 146). The human species is just one small part
of the huge, evolving animal kingdom of approximately 3  million to
10 million species.

This section on ethology begins with a history followed by a general
orientation. Then come sections on the main contributions of ethology

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Ethology c 213

to developmental psychology, mechanisms of development, the theory’s
position on developmental issues, applications, an evaluation, and con-
temporary research.

History of the Theory

Whoever achieves understanding of the baboon will do more for metaphysics than
Locke did, which is to say he will do more for philosophy in general, including the
problem of knowledge.

—charLes darwin

Ethology is linked to the German zoologists of the 1800s who studied
innate behaviors scientifically. Darwin’s painstaking observations of fos-
sils and variations in plant and animal life added an evolutionary perspec-
tive to the field. He, along with Alfred Wallace, concluded that nature
ruthlessly selects certain characteristics because they lead to survival:
“What a book a devil’s chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful,
blundering, low, and horribly cruel works of nature” (Darwin, quoted in
Shapley, Rapport, & Wright, 1965, p. 446). As a result of this selective
force, species changed and sometimes differentiated into subspecies.
Thus, many animals, including humans, are related through common
ancestors. Darwin proposed that intelligence and other behaviors, as
well as physical structures, were products of evolution. If they increased
the chances of survival to the age of reproduction, they were retained; if
they did not, they disappeared. Darwin’s claim of a common ancestry of
humans and other primates was not received well in Victorian England:
Montagu (1973) related an anecdote about a shocked wife of an English
bishop. She said that she certainly hoped that the theory was false, but if
it were true, that not many people would find out about it!

Darwin’s careful observing and cataloging of plants and animals was
imitated by ethologists years later. Just as he carefully described animal
and plant life, Darwin also described his own infants’ behavior, as in the
following excerpt on fears:

Before the present one was 4 months old I had been accustomed to make
close to him many strange and loud noises, which were all taken as excel-
lent jokes, but at this period I one day made a loud snoring noise which I
had never done before; he instantly looked grave and then burst out cry-
ing. . . . May we not suspect that the vague but very real fears of children,
which are quite independent of experience, are the inherited effects of
real dangers and abject superstitions during ancient savage times?

(1877, p. 289)

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214 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Ethology as a distinct discipline began in the 1930s with the European
zoologists Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. They developed, often in
collaboration, many of the key concepts discussed in the next section.
Their observations of species as diverse as ducklings, butterflies, and
stickleback fish gave scientific meaning to the sometimes mystical term
“instinct.” Many of Lorenz’s observations were of wild animals that wan-
dered freely in and around his home. Lorenz and Tinbergen’s work was
honored with the Nobel Prize in medicine or physiology in 1973, which
they shared with another ethologist, Karl von Frisch.

Developmental psychology was receptive to ethology because devel-
opmentalists have a tradition of naturalistic observations of children and
consideration of the biological basis of development. Many develop-
mentalists continued to conduct natural observations of children even
through psychology’s behaviorist years and welcomed ethology as a way
to correct the extreme environmentalism of learning theory. The most
important figure to bring ethology to the attention of developmental
psychologists was John Bowlby. His turning from a Freudian to an etho-
logical account of infant– caretaker social attachment in the 1950s in
England laid the groundwork for subsequent research in this area in both
Europe and North America. (His work is described later.)

The contemporary study of animal behavior has many subfields, such
as comparative psychology, behavioral ecology, and evolutionary biology.
In general, this work is more empirical and experimental and less obser-
vational, speculative, and theoretical than the earlier European classical
ethological studies. The majority of the approaches favor a reductionist
approach and study cells, neural connections, and hormones rather than
the behaviors of the whole organism in its ecological niche.

Ethology was soon joined by sociobiology, defined by its main spokes-
man,  E.  O.  Wilson, as the “study of the biological basis of all social
behavior” (1975, p.  4). Although ethology and sociobiology overlap a
great deal, sociobiology focuses on population genetics and kin selec-
tion. Because close relatives share most of one’s genes, people can pass
on their genes not only by reproducing but also by furthering the sur-
vival of the genes of kin through altruistic behavior. Altruistic behavior
may endanger oneself but benefit the species. Sociobiology minimally
influenced developmental psychology, though there was some interest
in such topics as reproductive patterns and parenting.

Evolutionary psychology, which arose after some of the criticisms of
sociobiology as deterministic, reductionist, and socially conservative,
has had more impact on developmental psychology. This field com-
bines evolutionary biology, paleoanthropology, and cognitive psychology

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Ethology c 215

(Tooby & Cosmides, 2005). Evolutionary psychologists use primatology,
archaeological data, cultural anthropology, neuroimaging, genetic anal-
yses, and data on contemporary human universals to discover how the
mind has been shaped by natural selection to solve problems of adapta-
tion faced by our hunting- and- gathering ancestors.

A developmental perspective is important for all these approaches:
“The gap between molecular biology and natural selection will be filled by
developmental analysis of the nervous system, behavior, and psychology”
(Gottlieb, 1979, p. 169). Today, a discipline called evolutionary develop-
mental biology (or “ evo- devo”) compares the developmental processes of
various animals to determine how developmental processes evolved.

General Orientation to the Theory
Ethology is characterized by four basic concepts: (1) species- specific
innate behavior, (2) an evolutionary perspective, (3) learning predispo-
sitions, and (4) ethological methodology.

Species- Specific Innate Behavior c Ethologists focus on behaviors
that, like organs of the body, were considered primarily innate, adap-
tive, and essentially the same in all members of a species. Of course,
any “innate” behavior is influenced by the environment, because it has to
be developed within prenatal and postnatal environments. Ethologists
consider a behavior primarily innate if it has these four characteristics
(Cairns, 1979):

1. It is stereotyped in its form (that is, has an unvarying sequence of actions)
across individuals in a species.

2. It is present without relevant previous experience that could have allowed
it to be learned.

3. It is universal for the species (that is, found in all members).
4. It is relatively unchanged as a result of experience and learning after it is

established.

For example, in certain songbirds, the same song appears in all mem-
bers of the species at sexual maturity, even if they have never heard the
song sung by other members of the species. As this example illustrates,
some innate behaviors are not present at birth but appear later as a result
of physical maturation. In contrast to primarily innate behaviors, learned
behaviors vary in form from individual to individual, require relevant
previous experience, usually vary in their occurrence among members
of the species, and change as a result of subsequent experience.

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216 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Innate behaviors are termed species- specific, which means they occur
among all members of the species or at least a particular subgroup, such
as all the males or all the young. If another species also has the behavior,
two inferences are possible. One is that the two species are related, per-
haps having split into separate lines at some point in their evolution. Or,
the behavior may have evolved independently in the two species, perhaps
because they had similar physical environments and needs. For example,
in many species, the young cling to the mother’s fur— a necessity for
survival if infants must travel with their mothers as they move through-
out an area in search of food or flee from predators. Also, the same
behavior may have different meanings in the two species. An example is
tail wagging in dogs and cats, thought to indicate contentment in dogs
and conflict in cats.

Two types of innate behaviors are reflexes ( wired- in responses to stimuli)
and fixed action patterns. Examples of human infant reflexes are grasping a
finger placed in the hand, spreading the toes when the bottom of the foot
is stroked, and turning toward a nipple when it brushes the cheek. Any
long- haired parent would agree that infants are particularly likely to grasp
hair, especially during feeding. Ethologists speculate that this reflex orig-
inally served to facilitate clinging to the mother’s fur. Many such reflexes
are quite strong. A premature baby can grasp a clothesline and support its
own weight, for instance. This ability is later lost. More complex reflexes
are coordinated swimming, crawling, and walking movements when the
body’s weight is supported in newborns or young infants.

A fixed action pattern is a complex innate behavior that promotes the
survival of the individual and thus the species. It is a “genetically pro-
grammed sequence of coordinated motor actions” (Hess, 1970, p. 7) that
arises from specific inherited mechanisms in the central nervous system.
Without being taught, squirrels bury nuts, birds perform courtship
“dances,” spiders spin webs, and stickleback fish fight to protect their
territory. Fixed action patterns can become very elaborate, as when
the male bowerbird spends hours building a love nest decorated with
flowers, fruit, shells, and colorful beetles to attract a mate. He adjusts a
twig here, adds a flower there, and seemingly stops to admire his work
from time to time. Fixed action patterns involving social behavior are of
particular interest. The adaptive value of fixed action patterns lies in the
fact that they often end in eating, mating, or avoiding predators.

A fixed action pattern is elicited by a sign stimulus— a particular stim-
ulus whose presence automatically releases a particular fixed action
pattern. Lorenz (1966) likened this process to a key opening a lock. For
example, the red belly of a male stickleback fish venturing into another

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Ethology c 217

stickleback’s territory is a sign stimulus that triggers fighting behavior.
A decoy that only vaguely resembles the stickleback in shape, but is red
on its lower half, elicits this fixed action pattern, whereas an accurately
shaped decoy without the red area usually does not (Tinbergen, 1951).
Thus, the sign stimulus is specific, and sometimes it must be in a partic-
ular orientation or position. Tinbergen (1958) discovered this particular
sign stimulus when he noticed that his sticklebacks in an aquarium near
a window facing a street would become agitated at a certain time of
the day. He eventually realized that a red mail truck passed by at that
time, a stimulus that approximated the natural sign stimulus. A further
example of the specificity of the sign stimulus is that a hen will not res-
cue a distressed, flailing chick she can see under a glass bell but cannot
hear. However, she will rescue the chick immediately if she can hear the
distress cries even if she cannot see it (Brückner, 1933). When people
fish, they sometimes use lures that exaggerate the natural prey (the sign
stimuli) of larger fish.

Innate reflexes and fixed action patterns enhance young infants’ sur-
vival by allowing them to seek food and hide from predators on their
own or binding them to an adult caretaker by crying, grasping, sucking,
or smiling. This fit between the organism’s needs and its innate behaviors
is the product of a long evolutionary history. It is not always easy to infer
the adaptive value of a characteristic, however. It was once claimed that
flamingos are pink because that makes it difficult for predators to see
them against the sunset (Thayer, 1909).

Despite the focus on innate behaviors, ethologists think that learning
is important. Most behavior is viewed as an interweaving of innate and
learned components. A raven innately knows how to build a nest, but
through trial and error learns that broken glass and pieces of ice are less
suitable than twigs for this purpose ( Eibl- Eibesfeldt, 1975). An innate
skill  can easily be adapted to new situations, as when English titmice
quickly learned how to use innate gnawing behaviors to open milk bottles.

Waddington (1957) proposed an influential model of how biologi-
cal regulating mechanisms constrain the course of development while
allowing for the modification of development by the environment. He
presented development as a ball rolling down an “epigenetic landscape.”
As the ball descends, this landscape becomes increasingly furrowed by
valleys that greatly restrict the sideways movement of the ball. Slight
perturbations from the developmental pathway can be corrected later
through a “ self- righting tendency,” and the ball returns to its earlier
groove. Thus, the general course of development is set, but some varia-
tion is possible because of particular environmental events.

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218 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Evolutionary Perspective c As Samuel Butler (1878) commented,
“A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.” Evolution involves
phylogenetic change, or change in a species over generations, in contrast
to ontogenetic change, or developmental change in a single lifetime.
Each species, including humans, is a solution to problems posed by the
environment— an experiment in nature. These problems include how to
avoid predators, how to obtain food, and how to reproduce.

The course of development within an individual follows a pattern that
was acquired by the species because it facilitated survival. The young
must adapt to their environment in order to reach the age at which they
can reproduce and transmit their genes to the next generation. Just as
certain physical characteristics, such as the upright stance and the hand
with opposable fingers and thumb, facilitated making and using tools, so
did certain behaviors, such as reflexes and fixed action patterns, facilitate
survival through mating, food gathering, and caretaking. Social behav-
iors, such as interindividual communication and cooperation, encour-
aged group cohesion and thereby increased the chances of survival. New
behaviors arose through natural genetic variations or mutations and, if
they allowed the organism to survive long enough to reproduce, were
genetically transmitted to the next generation. These successful behav-
iors gradually became more common in the whole population over many
generations. Specifically, if genes are expressed in behavior (see later in
this chapter) and if the behavior is adaptive, then it can be selected for
during evolution.

Contemporary evolutionary theory has been changed dramatically
by modern genetics. Theorists are increasingly aware of complex inter-
actions of genes and environments. As explained later in this chap-
ter, it  is  not just a matter of an environment simply triggering innate
behaviors. Evolutionary models now also draw on population genetics
to detect evolution by tracking changes over generations in the rela-
tive frequencies of various genes. One current notion, for example, is
that sudden changes during evolution may have been more common
than Darwin thought. Also, more attention is given now to the role
of the environment, especially social environments. After all, species-
specific behaviors have evolved within environments that are typical for
that species. In a sense, “individuals inherit not only a species- typical
genome  but also a species- typical environment” (Bjorklund & Ellis,
2014, p. 230).

Humans have evolved few fixed action patterns. Rather, human plas-
ticity has evolved as a successful strategy for enabling an organism to adapt
to local conditions, including atypical environments. Plasticity refers to

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Ethology c 219

the flexibility of the brain, the hormonal system, and the expression
of genes. Plasticity starts to act even prenatally; chemical signals from
the mother may prepare a fetus for a harsh and unpredictable environ-
ment. Specifically, prenatal exposure to high levels of stress hormones
from the mother is associated with child behaviors such as high anxiety,
fearfulness, aggression, and risk taking (Pluess & Belsky, 2011), which
may be adaptive. However, infants typically delay significant changes in
their developmental trajectory to match local conditions (e.g., a harsh
or supportive environment) until they have had enough time to ade-
quately process information about their environment (Frankenhuis &
Panchanathan, 2011).

Note that both Piagetian and ethological approaches are con-
cerned with how an organism adapts to its environment. Both iden-
tify biological  predispositions toward learning, for example, the
assimilation– accommodation process (Piaget) and specialized learning
abilities (ethology).

Learning Predispositions c Ethologists see the biological control
of behavior not only in largely innate behaviors acquired during evo-
lution but also in predispositions toward certain kinds of learning.
Species differ in which aspects of their behavior are modifiable, in what
kinds of learning occur most easily, and in the mechanisms of learning.
Sensitive,  or critical, periods are specific time frames in which animals
are  biologically ready to learn from particular experiences. During
this time, they are biologically pretuned to notice certain types of
objects, sounds, or movements, and produce certain behaviors that are
particularly susceptible to modification. After the end of the sensitive
period,  animals can acquire the behavior with great difficulty or even
not at all.

An example of a sensitive period is Lorenz’s observation that, shortly
after birth, certain birds (for example, geese) are most able to learn
the distinctive characteristics of their mother and therefore their spe-
cies. During this sensitive period, the young learn to follow a stimulus
and come to prefer that stimulus— a phenomenon called imprinting.
Imprinting increases the survival of the young because it ensures that
they stay close to the parent and, therefore, near food and shelter and
far from predators and other dangerous situations. The stimulus to be
followed must meet certain criteria; for example, it makes a particular
call note or type of movement. The criteria vary from species to spe-
cies, but the mother always meets these criteria. In the wild, a row of
ducklings scurrying after their mother is a common sight. However, as

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220 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Lorenz discovered, certain “unnatural” objects also meet the criteria.
Young birds have become imprinted on flashing lights, electric trains,
moving milk bottles, and a squatting, quacking Konrad Lorenz (see the
excerpt at the beginning of this chapter). Horses and sheep have also
become imprinted on humans.

In many species, imprinting has a long- term effect on sexual behav-
ior. Lorenz (1931) discovered that jackdaws raised by humans will join
a flock of jackdaws but return to their first love, a human, during the
reproductive season. They try to attract the human with their species’
courting patterns.

Ethologists also have identified sensitive periods for behaviors such
as learning bird songs, learning to distinguish males and females of the
species, acquiring language, and forming a bond between a newborn and
her mother. For example, mother goats form a bond with their young
in the first five minutes after birth. If the young are removed right after
birth for two hours, the mother attacks them upon their return. Waiting
five minutes after birth before removal, however, leads to their accep-
tance later (Klopfer, 1971).

Developmental psychologists have drawn on the concept of a sensi-
tive period to argue that early experience is particularly important for
adult behavior, as suggested by Freud and others. Furthermore, all stage
theories claim that at each stage the child is particularly sensitive to cer-
tain experiences, such as motor exploration in the sensorimotor period
(Piaget), the meeting of one’s needs by other people in the stage of trust
versus mistrust (Erikson), and the satisfaction or deprivation of anal
drives during the anal stage (Freud). Most nonstage theories also use the
concept of readiness— the idea that a child is most likely to learn from
an experience if it comes at the optimal time. The child may not profit
from being shown how to put objects to be remembered into categories
when she is 3 years old but may have increased recall as a result of this
experience at age 6. Moreover, sensitive periods are a central notion in
prenatal development. A particular drug taken by a pregnant woman
may have no effect or a devastating effect on the fetus, depending on its
stage of development.

In addition to sensitive periods, a second way in which biology indi-
rectly affects learning is through specific and general learning skills. Each
species learns some things more easily than others. Digger wasps have
excellent spatial memory. They can inspect up to 15 nests, decide how
much food is needed by each nest, and retain this information for the
entire day. Babies may be born biologically pretuned to learning language
quickly. They rapidly acquire language early in life, show universal forms

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Ethology c 221

of early utterances, and show babbling even if their parents are deaf and
have no spoken language. Although a fear of snakes is not innate, infants
as young as 7 months are predisposed to learn to associate snakes with
fear and to respond quickly to the sight of a moving snake (DeLoache &
LoBue, 2009). Moreover, 9- month- old infants are more attentive to evo-
lutionarily fear- relevant sounds (e.g., hissing snake, crackling fire) than
to modern fearful sounds (e.g., bomb exploding, tires screeching) or
pleasant sounds (Erlich, Lipp, & Slaughter, 2013).Young infants also are
experts in processing human faces. Early on, they can categorize female
faces as attractive or unattractive (based on adults’ ratings of attractive-
ness) and even prefer the attractive faces (Langlois et al., 1987; Ramsey,
Langlois, Hoss, Rubenstein, & Griffin, 2004), well before they possibly
could have been taught about cultural norms regarding attractiveness.

In addition to these specific learning predispositions, human infants
have evolved a tremendous general ability to learn. Humans are “spe-
cialists in nonspecialization” (Lorenz, 1959). We can construct novel
solutions to problems in various types of environments and can learn
from the consequences of our behavior. We also have hands that can per-
form many different actions and a language system that permits symbolic
thought and verbal communication. The advantage of this flexibility is that
we can adjust to a changing environment. The disadvantage of flexibility
is that humans are born with few specific ready- made behaviors, such as
running, that lead to survival.

As a result of humans’ biologically based general ability to learn, we
have developed cultures to help us adapt. The culture is passed on to the
next generation by imitation, instruction, and other forms of learning.
Thus, even cultural adaptation has its biological origins.

Methodology c Ethologists rely on two general methods for study-
ing behavior: naturalistic observation and laboratory experimentation.
The insistence on observing organisms in their natural environments
most clearly differentiates ethology from related disciplines such as
evolutionary psychology and sociobiology. Ethologists’ particular ver-
sion of naturalistic observation ranks as one of their main contributions
to psychology.

Naturalistic Observation c Theories and methods are closely connected.
Given the goal of understanding a behavior by seeing its function for adap-
tation, it is necessary to observe an animal in its typical environment.
Giraffes’ long necks make sense when we see giraffes eating leaves from
tall trees; we understand young gulls’ innate “freezing” rather than fleeing

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222 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

in the face of danger by noting that their nests are built on narrow ledges
or steep cliffs ( Eibl- Eibesfeldt, 1975). In contrast, learning theorists
(see Chapter 6) observed rats pressing bars and pigeons playing tennis
in the laboratory— hardly typical species- specific behaviors. Interesting
natural behaviors, such as defending a territory or building a nest, are
not likely to occur in barren laboratory cages. From the viewpoint of
ethologists, psychology has worked backward historically by performing
laboratory research before obtaining a sufficient database of naturalistic
observations.

Observations of animals in captivity are inadequate because their
behavior may be abnormal due to their atypical environment. One cause
of abnormal behavior in this setting is the absence of sign stimuli that
would release fixed action patterns. Thus, behavior is often redirected.
Animals in laboratories or poorly designed zoos may restlessly pace
back and forth, constantly rock, and kill their young. Ironically, giving
too much care to a captive animal may cause problems. Titmice in a zoo
threw their young out of the nest soon after birth. The problem was that
food was provided by the zoo. The young quickly became full, stopped
gaping, and consequently were taken for dead by the parents. Young tit-
mice in the wild never stop gaping unless they are sick or dead (Koenig,
1951). In humans, abnormal behavior— for example, rocking— has
been observed in children in unnatural environments such as orphanages
and hospitals.

Ethologists’ naturalistic observations focus on developing an
ethogram— an extensive, detailed description of the behavior of a spe-
cies in its natural environment. This inventory includes the animal’s
behaviors, the characteristics of the setting, and the events immediately
preceding and following each behavior. The ethogram spotlights adaptive
behaviors, such as nesting and food gathering, and notes their frequency,
stimulus context, function, and ontogenetic development. A complete
description of the setting is particularly important, for it essentially
defines the animal that inhabits it: “If we specify in detail the niche of
a fish (its medium, its predators and prey, its nest, etc.), we have in a
way described the fish” (Michaels & Carello, 1981, p. 14). Ethologists
sometimes study human behavior by examining contemporary hunters
and gatherers in order to understand the environment in which current
human behaviors evolved. Finally, data about the frequency of behaviors
is important for interpreting a behavior when it occurs. The problem
of not having scientific data about frequency was noted long ago by
Thorndike: “Dogs get lost hundreds of times and no one notices it or
sends a scientific account of it to a magazine. But let one find its way

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Ethology c 223

from Brooklyn to Yonkers and the fact immediately becomes a circulat-
ing anecdote” (1898, p. 4).

Interestingly, ethologists have detected previously unnoticed patterns
of behavior by speeding up or slowing down their observational videos.
For example, a slower rate revealed an unnoticed part of the flirting
sequence— raising the eyebrows for only one- sixth of a second ( Eibl-
Eibesfeldt, 1975). A fast speed showed that people who eat alone look up
and around after every few bites, as if scanning the horizon for enemies,
as baboons and chimps do ( Eibl- Eibesfeldt, 1975). This is much less
obvious at a normal speed.

Once the function of a behavior is known from the ethogram, ethol-
ogists can understand the behavior further by comparing it with similar
ones in other animals. For example, they may find mother– child attach-
ment only in species in which the young are helpless, which suggests the
reason for that behavior.

Laboratory Studies c For an ethologist, a behavior has both a phylo-
genetic cause and an immediate cause. Phylogenetically, a spider spins a
web “because” that innate food- gathering behavior has allowed the species
to survive. Immediate causes could include specific physiological events,
particular inborn neurological pathways, the presence of a sign stimulus,
or motor experience. Ethologists clarify these various causes of behav-
ior suggested by the observational studies with controlled experiments,
similar to those done by psychologists. For example, by systematically
varying stimuli, they determine which attributes of a stimulus are criti-
cal for eliciting the response. They also examine the underlying physio-
logical  mechanisms. Although the laboratory experimental method is
shared with experimental psychology, ethology maintains its distinctive-
ness by the content it chooses to study: behaviors tailored to the survival
of the species.

One laboratory method associated with ethology is determining
whether a behavior is primarily innate by preventing experiences that
could teach the behavior. For example, an ethologist interested in the
origin of nut- burying behavior raised squirrels in a cage with a bare
floor  and provided a diet of only liquid food. The squirrels had no
exposure to other squirrels (who could serve as models), nuts, or earth
(which could provide digging practice). Under these conditions, squir-
rels demonstrated nut- burying behaviors at the same age as do squirrels
in the wild. When presented with a nut, they dug an imaginary hole
in the concrete floor, pushed the nut into the “hole” with their snouts,
covered it with invisible soil, and carefully patted down the “soil” to

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224 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

finish the job ( Eibl- Eibesfeldt, 1975). Thus, since they had no oppor-
tunity to learn this behavior, it must be an innate fixed action pattern
of the species.

Contributions to Human Developmental Psychology
Ethologists are interested in the same categories of adaptive behaviors
in humans as in other animals, for example, feeding, communication,
parent– child interaction, and reproduction. The study of children has
focused primarily on infant attachment but also has examined topics
such as peer interaction and problem solving. A look at representative
research in each of these areas will show ethology’s imprint on both the
content and the methodology of developmental research.

Infant– Caretaker Attachment

Bowlby’s Theory c John Bowlby (1907–1990), a London psychoana-
lyst, is credited with bringing ethology to the attention of developmental
psychologists. Because World War II had left many children as orphans,
there were concerns about the effects of maternal deprivation. Bowlby’s
observations of infants separated for a long time from their mothers (see
the excerpt at the beginning of this chapter) led him to conclude that
early social attachment between infant and caretaker is crucial for nor-
mal development. Infants show their attachment when they cry when a
parent leaves, smile and babble when she returns, and seek her out when
they are stressed.

Drawing on observations of mother– infant attachment in nonhuman
primates, Bowlby (1969/1982) proposed that human attachment evolved
because it promotes the survival of helpless infants by keeping them
close to their mother and thus protected from predators or exposure to
the elements. One newborn reflex related to attachment is grasping an
object such as a finger or the hair when it contacts the infant’s palm, just
as many mammalian infants stay with the mother by clinging to her hair.
Another reflex is an embracing movement in response to a sudden loud
sound or a loss of support. This reflex may have helped ancestral infants
avoid falling when the mother suddenly ran from a predator.

Of course, human infants today do not depend on these reflexes for
survival, because they need not physically attach themselves to their
parent. Of more importance to human babies are signaling mechanisms
such as crying, babbling, and smiling. These behaviors communicate
infants’ needs and encourage adults to come to infants, since young

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Ethology c 225

babies cannot go to adults. Just as following the imprinted object in
ducklings maintains proximity, signaling behaviors serve this purpose in
humans. Another ability found in young infants that may facilitate their
relationship with their parents is imitation of parents’ head movements
and tongue protrusions (Meltzoff & Moore, 1989). As infants mature,
other behaviors, such as crawling, walking, and talking, facilitate contact
between parent and child.

Research supports Bowlby’s notion that at least some signaling behav-
iors are innate (and possibly even fixed action patterns). Even infants
born blind or blind and deaf acquire a social smile at approximately
6 weeks, as do seeing and hearing infants. In fact, children blind and deaf
since birth reveal a wide range of normal behaviors, including laughing,
crying, babbling, and pouting, and typical facial expressions of fear,
anger, and sadness ( Eibl- Eibesfeldt, 1975, 1989). It is highly unlikely
that adults teach these behaviors, because smiling and laughing involve
a complex sequence of coordinated movements or sounds. Even the
possibility that blind and deaf children might learn facial expressions by
touching the mother’s face and imitating her facial movements was ruled
out by a child deaf and blind since birth who was born with no arms.
Despite these handicaps, he showed normal facial expressions. Thus,
these behaviors have a strong innate component.

Bowlby proposed that early reflexes and signaling behaviors, along
with a bias toward looking at faces, leads to an attachment to adults in
general and then, usually around 6 to 9 months of age, to one or a few
specific adults. Separation from a specific adult may be an innate “cue
to danger” that elicits signaling behavior intended to restore proximity.

The infant and adult behaviors eventually become synchronized into
an “attachment behavioral system,” according to Bowlby. The appearance
and behavior of each member elicits certain behaviors in the other. Each
member of the system comes to expect that the other will respond to its
own behavior in certain ways. Infants’ expectations are part of their inter-
nal working models, discussed in Chapter  3—mental representations of
the attachment figures, the self, and the relationship. These models help
children interpret and evaluate new situations and then choose a behavior
such as playing or seeking the attachment figure for comfort. Between
the ages of about 9 and 18 months, an infant’s various individual behav-
iors, especially sucking, clinging, crying, smiling, and following, become
incorporated into more complex, self- correcting “control systems.”

Bowlby used control- systems theory from engineering as a model
of  how attachment forms an organizational system. Control systems are
goal directed and use feedback to regulate the system in order to achieve

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226 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

the goal. A simple control system is a thermostat, which maintains a
particular room temperature (the goal) by comparing the actual tem-
perature (the feedback) with the desired temperature. With respect
to behavioral systems, Bowlby proposed that genetic action causes the
behavioral system to develop but that the developed system is flexible
enough to adjust to changes in the environment, within prescribed lim-
its. That is, when infants detect that the adult is too far away (feedback
to the system), they correct this state by crying or crawling, which
reestablishes contact and re- achieves equilibrium in the system. The
limits of acceptable distance vary, depending on internal factors, such as
hunger or illness, and external factors, such as the presence of an adult
stranger or other cues of danger. The development of a secure attach-
ment expands the distance acceptable by establishing the caretaker as a
secure base from which the child can explore.

Bowlby’s theory of attachment includes many ideas from ethology.
Species- specific reflexes and fixed action patterns, which are the prod-
ucts of evolution, ensure proximity to the mother. Sensitive periods
and general and specific learning abilities biologically predispose infants
and caretakers to develop a system of synchronized interactions. As in
ethological theory, Bowlby observed children (though recent research
on attachment stimulated by his theory often is conducted in a labora-
tory). His colleague, Mary Ainsworth, developed methods for assessing
attachment (see below) and provided much of the empirical evidence
for attachment theory.

The ethological account of attachment, with its focus on innate behav-
iors, obviously contrasts with learning theory’s (Chapter  6) focus on
food or physical contact as reinforcement. Although it seems likely that
pleasant interactions have a positive effect on the bond between child
and adult, ethologists point out that attachment occurs even when the
attachment object physically abuses the infant. Ethological accounts also
differ from Freudian theory’s focus on the oral drive. Finally, ethology
differs from both traditional learning and Freudian theory in stressing an
infant’s effect on the parent as much as the parent’s effect on the infant.

Bowlby later (1980) incorporated into his theory some of the notions
of information- processing theory (Chapter  7). He explained unsatis-
factory early social relationships, abnormally strong repression, and
thinking disorders in part by general principles of selective attention
and selective forgetting. For example, if young children’s attachment
behavior is continually aroused but not responded to, they eventually
exclude from awareness the sights, thoughts, or feelings that normally
would activate attachment behavior.

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Ethology c 227

Bowlby continually applied his ideas about attachment to his clinical
work. Interestingly, his final book (1991), a biography of Darwin, traced
Darwin’s chronically poor health back to his failure to fully mourn his
mother’s death when he was 8 years old.

Adults’ Responsiveness to Infants c Ethology contributed the
important idea that adults, as well as infants, are biologically predisposed
to develop attachment. A caretaker typically begins to form an emo-
tional bond to a child in the first few hours or days of life, which encour-
ages caretaking and thus enhances the infant’s survival. Babies elicit adult
attachment behavior with signaling behaviors such as smiling, looking at
the mother’s face, and babbling, or by their babyish appearance.

The words of a 1926 popular song were: “Baby face, you’ve got the
cutest little baby face” (music by Harry Akst, lyrics by Benny Davis). An
infant’s babyish appearance may elicit caretaking. The infants of many
species, especially mammals, share certain physical characteristics depicted
in Figure 5.1—a head that is large in relation to the body, a forehead that
is large in relation to the rest of the face, limbs that are relatively short and

heavy, large eyes at or below
the  midline of the head, and
round, prominent cheeks— in a
word, cuteness (Lorenz, 1943).
This babyishness is exaggerated
in baby dolls for children and
in young animals in the Disney
cartoon films. Interestingly, as
Mickey Mouse became more
lovable and well behaved over
the years, his physical appear-
ance became more babyish— a
larger head with softer, more
rounded features and larger
eyes (Gould, 1980).

Infants’ smiles also may be
powerful elicitors of adults’
attention. The adaptive signifi-
cance of an infant’s smile may
be to make a tired, busy mother
of a young infant feel that those
difficult first months are worth-
while (Robson, 1967).

F I G U R E   5 . 1
Characteristics of babyishness or cuteness com-
mon to several species.
[From “Die angeborenen Formen möglicher Erfahrung,” by
Konrad Lorenz, in Zeitschrift für Tierpsychologie, 1943, 5,
235–409. Reproduced by permission of Verlag Paul Parey,
John Wiley & Sons.]

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228 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

The Developmental Course of Attachment c Very young infants
are predisposed toward attachment. For example, they prefer looking
at people’s faces, and they vocalize in response to human voices. They
also are biased toward looking at biological motion rather than random
movements (Bardi, Regolin, & Simion, 2014). Early on, infants learn
to discriminate their mother’s odor from that of others. Two- week- old
breast- fed infants turned toward a pad that had been worn in their moth-
er’s underarm area rather than a pad worn by another lactating female
(Cernoch & Porter, 1985). Likewise, mothers quickly learn to recognize
their infant’s distinctive smell. Six hours after giving birth, and after
only a single exposure to their babies, blindfolded mothers could pick
out, by smell alone, their own baby from a set of three babies (Russell,
Mendelson, & Peeke, 1983).

Attachment furthers infants’ learning about their environment,
because parents serve as a “secure base” for exploration in the first year or
two of life. Children venture away to explore the next room but return
from time to time for “emotional refueling” (Mahler, 1968). If, however,
a  parent’s responses to children’s signals are inappropriate (unpredict-
able,  slow, abusive, or not matched to the child’s needs), children feel
insecure and are less likely to use the mother as a base for exploring
a strange environment (Ainsworth, Blehar, Waters, & Walls, 1978).
Because the appropriateness of the adult’s responses is more important
than the total amount of interaction, infants become attached to parents
who work full time, if they respond appropriately to the child’s signals.

Ainsworth (e.g., Ainsworth et  al., 1978) devised the “Strange
Situation” procedure, which lasts about 22 minutes, to assess babies’ pat-
terns of attachment to their mothers. The infant, a parent, and a stranger
in a laboratory setting proceed through a sequence of episodes, gradually
moving from low stress (infant with parent) to high stress (infant alone
with stranger). Based on their reactions to these events, children are
classified into four categories. Securely attached infants (the majority of
typical middle- class samples) cry when their mother leaves and greet
her happily, for comforting, when she returns. Insecure– avoidant babies
show little emotion when the mother leaves or returns. Insecure– resistant
babies are difficult to comfort on the mother’s return and show either
anger or desperate neediness toward her. Infants who do not fit into any
of these categories (e.g., no consistent way of dealing with stress; contra-
dictory behaviors) are called disorganized or disoriented (Main & Solomon,
1990). These infants sometimes have abusive parents.

A large literature (e.g., Cassidy & Shaver, 2008) shows that a dyad’s type
of attachment depends on many factors, including parents’ sensitivity to

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the child’s needs, stresses on the family, parental psychopathology, and
child characteristics such as Down syndrome or a difficult temperament.
Universally, secure attachment is the most common pattern, mater-
nal sensitivity influences infant attachment patterns, and secure infant
attachment leads to later social and cognitive competencies (Van
IJzendoorn & Sagi- Schwartz, 2008). However, the percentage in each cat-
egory shows some variability across countries. For example, in one study
(Van IJzendoorn & Sagi, 1999), U.S. and Western European groups showed
more avoidant infants than did groups from other regions. One reason for
the great interest in attachment type is that the categories predict later
social competence. In general, secure attachment predicts effective social
functioning during childhood and adolescence, and even later, whereas
insecure attachment is associated with various sorts of later psychopa-
thology, as discussed in the chapter on psychoanalytic theory. The initial
attachment pattern sets in motion particular styles of thinking, feeling, and
relating to others that continue to influence the way children negotiate their
environments throughout development. Also, work on young children at
developmental risk, such as children with Down syndrome, cerebral palsy,
or autism spectrum disorder, promises to broaden our understanding of
the variety of social attachments and the complex interweaving of genetic
and environmental forces (Vondra & Barnett, 1999). Today, attachment is
seen as a lifelong process of forming affectionate bonds with various people,
including romantic partners. In fact, assessments of adult attachment styles
have been developed and related to various kinds of social relationships,
including parenting (Frias, Shaver, & Mikulincer, 2015).

From a contemporary evolutionary perspective, attachment styles are
different solutions to the problems in the environment faced by a child
after birth. The particular style is an infant’s attempt to adapt to her
parents’ behaviors and the resources available in the environment. For
example, parents differ in their pattern of investment in their offspring
in terms of time, effort, and resources. Infants increase their chances
of survival if they can adapt to their particular caregiving condition
(Bugental, Corpuz, & Beaulieu, 2015). If parents are heavily invested in
their children and thus are sensitive and responsive, environmental risk
decreases and children can explore more freely from their safe base.
If, because of environmental pressures such as scarce food, parents are
unable or unwilling to invest heavily in caring for their children, resistant
or avoidant attachment may be more adaptive. In resistant attachment,
clinging to the caregiver could elicit whatever meager resources are
available. In avoidant attachment, a more independent infant can try to
obtain resources from other adults.

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230 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Issues about the attachment categories include the following
(Cassidy & Shaver, 2008): How stable over time is an infant’s attachment
classification? Should attachment be measured as categories or as a con-
tinuum? How broad is the effect of the early attachment category on
later social relationships and cognitive abilities? What is the child’s active
contribution (for example, temperament) to the attachment relation-
ship? How, if at all, do child- care arrangements affect type of attach-
ment? What accounts for the variability in a child’s attachment behavior
across situations? What specific effects does parental physical abuse of an
infant have on attachment type?

Peer Interaction
Ethologists argue that children are innately predisposed toward interact-
ing with other people in adaptive ways. Ethological studies of animals’
dominance hierarchies, aggression, play, altruistic behavior, and nonver-
bal communication have provided a powerful framework for observing
and interpreting these behaviors in children in natural settings ( Blurton-
Jones, 1972; McGrew, 1972).

A basic feature of the organization of nonhuman primate groups is
the dominance hierarchy— the ranking of members of the group according
to their power, especially regarding access to resources such as food or
mates (Hinde, 1974). This hierarchy indicates who can control whom.
It is adaptive because, once established, it lessens conflicts within the
group. These dominance hierarchies also construct the social environ-
ment into which an infant is born. For example, in rhesus monkeys,
which form large and complex social groups, the matrilineal (mothers’)
dominance hierarchies affect the rank of the infant. All members of the
highest- ranking matriline, even infants, outrank lower matrilines. Thus,
a newborn “inherits” the status of the mother and outranks even adults of
lower- ranking matrilines. Dominance hierarchies even affect how moth-
ers treat their infants. High- ranking mothers are more “ laissez- faire” in
their supervision of their young than are low- ranking mothers. The lat-
ter are more limited in the social situations from which they can rescue
their infants, so they are reluctant to let them explore much (Sameroff &
Suomi, 1996).

In humans, even 15- month- old infants can infer a social dominance
hierarchy from a series of videos showing pairs of adults in which one
person was dominant over the other (Mascaro & Csibra, 2014). These
hierarchies can be seen in preschoolers’ groups (e.g., Hawley & Geldhof,
2012) and in adolescent groups, in which popular peers are looked at

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Ethology c 231

more (Lansu, Cillessen, & Karremans, 2014). Within this structure, chil-
dren learn how to use both prosocial and coercive behaviors to negotiate
status and gain access to resources (Hawley, 2014). In particular, when
children enter elementary school, they learn that they must express
dominance in more subtle ways in order to obtain resources— what
Hawley (1999) calls “competing with finesse.” Prosocial strategies, such as
persuasion, cooperation, and helping, enable children to access resources
such as toys or friends in ways that foster acceptance and maintain group
harmony. Thus, aggression, or the threat of aggression, which usually is
considered a negative behavior, actually may be a positive adaptation for
a group and also provide opportunities to acquire the skills needed later
during adulthood. Similarly, boys’ rough- and- tumble group play may
enhance their ability to compete and permit them to evaluate each oth-
er’s relative strengths, which is one basis for dominance hierarchies. Such
observations of children’s groups demonstrate several characteristics
of ethological research. Researchers observe children’s adaptive behav-
iors, typically in natural settings, and compare them with that of other
primates. In response to conflicts, such as a struggle over a toy, a child
could, for example, submit, seek help, counterattack, give up the object
or position, or make no response. The child who wins in these encounters
is considered to be the more dominant. These categories of initiated con-
flict and response to the conflict are quite similar to those used to study
dominance in nonhuman primate groups.

Individual differences in peer interaction might be explained in terms
of social defense systems that have evolved for coping with negative peer
behaviors and protecting oneself from interpersonal threat (Martin,
Davies, & MacNeill, 2014). Children select a relevant strategy from a
large repertoire of defense strategies for defusing threats from peers.
A dominant child can threaten aggression. In contrast, a low- status child
may run away, use subordination behaviors to deflect harm and social
exclusion, or warily watch the dominant group members. These behav-
iors calm down the dominant members and avoid rejection from the
group. The heightened arousal, need to be vigilant for potential violence,
and frequent activation of the social defense system, may deplete the less
dominant child’s resources that could have been devoted to other sys-
tems, such as exploring or caregiving. More secure, dominant members
of the group do not have this high cost.

The ethological approach to children’s aggression clearly contrasts
with social learning theory’s focus on how a behavior (for example,
aggression) in individual children is affected by reinforcement, punish-
ment, imitation, and self- efficacy. And, unlike Freud, ethologists focus

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232 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

on interpersonal processes of aggression more than individual psycho-
logical processes. Finally, Vygotsky’s theory gives more attention to
cultural contributions to aggression than does ethology.

Evolutionary psychology has addressed gender differences in social
behaviors, especially mating strategies and parenting behaviors. Other
behaviors for which evolutionary arguments have been made are male
competition and violence; gender differences in play, risk taking, and the
ability to inhibit behaviors; and parental investment in their children,
with applications to child abuse.

Problem Solving
I gather firewood
As if I had been at it
For a million years

—wiLLiam charLesworth, one year of haiku, 1978

The human brain is designed to solve daily problems in the human-
typical environment in which the species has evolved. This view of
intelligence differs greatly from other approaches to studying this topic.
The intelligence- testing approach views intelligence as a trait on which
people differ and assesses it on tests administered by an adult, usually
in an unfamiliar setting. Laboratory studies of problem solving (see
information- processing theory in Chapter 7) examine children’s think-
ing about novel tasks, out of context, usually in a laboratory. Ethology
lies  closest to Vygotsky’s theory of cognition, among the various the-
ories, in that both address the fit between children and their social
environment.

Although even Darwin (1890) studied the “mental power” of earth-
worms, most of the research on cognition falls within the more recent
evolutionary psychology framework. Evolutionary psychologists sug-
gest  that cognitive mechanisms may be the missing link between evo-
lution and human behavior; that is, evolution may have led to changes
in the brain, which changed thinking, which in turn changed behavior
(Tooby & Cosmides, 2005). Complex cognitive skills must have evolved
to solve problems such as finding a mate, hunting for food, recognizing
group members, communicating with others, warding off enemies,
raising offspring, and cooperating to obtain resources. People had to
attend to, encode, process, store, and retrieve relevant information,
such as remembering specific individuals and figuring out the costs and
benefits of interacting with an individual, especially whether to risk one’s

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Ethology c 233

life to help the person. In this way, evolution selects for the neurological
mechanisms that underlie adaptive social and cognitive behaviors.

Tooby and Cosmides (2005), two main voices of evolutionary psychol-
ogy, have identified Darwinian algorithms— evolved cognitive mechanisms
specific to particular domains. The mind is like a Swiss army knife, with
different tools for performing tasks well in different domains. Examples
of these “core domains” are face recognition, language acquisition, cer-
tain characteristics of objects, and certain types of processing of social
information. The brain consists of modules that process information
in these domains with little effort. Infants are programmed to acquire
and store certain sorts of information needed for solving certain sorts
of problems. Their behaviors generated by Darwinian algorithms bear
some relation to fixed action patterns but are more flexible, less tightly
wired to particular stimuli.

It is important to note that these cognitive skills enhanced adaptation
for our ancestral hunters and gatherers: “Our psyche is not built for
the present. It resonates to the vibrations of 200,000 generations ago”
(Thiessen, 1996, p. 159). We do not do much hunting and gathering these
days. Thus, the cognitive skills underlying these activities may not lead to
survival and reproductive fitness in today’s urban habitats. Still, we do
have these ancestral ways of thinking that continue to influence our devel-
opment and behavior in a world of shopping malls and computers, and the
task of an evolutionary psychologist is to reveal how they are expressed in
modern environments. One interesting hypothesis concerning the “mod-
ernization” of an ancestral cognitive module is that a module acquired to
process information in one domain, such as the acoustical properties of
the human voice, may be applied today to another domain, such as music.
Music itself may not  be  essential for survival, but it may come from a
module that is (Sperber, 1994).

One modification of the Tooby and Cosmides model is Geary’s (2005)
model, in which modules within a domain are organized hierarchically.
Lower- level modules process less complex information, which is integrated
to form higher- level, more complex, and flexible modules. For example,
infants have biases that orient them to important social stimuli and lead
them to imitate others. Information obtained from these lower- level mod-
ules combines with more flexible higher- level social- cognitive mechanisms,
to help children develop an understanding of themselves and other people,
and thus adapt to various social and physical environments (Bjorklund &
Ellis, 2014). Similarly, in concepts of the physical world, infants’ surpris-
ingly sophisticated understanding of objects and the ability to use tools is
integrated into more advanced and flexible understanding later.

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234 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Mechanisms of Development
Ethologists emphasize biological processes as mechanisms of develop-
ment. Physical maturation, including hormonal changes, motor devel-
opment, and increased efficiency of the nervous system, underlies the
emergence of sensitive periods or of fixed action patterns at appropriate
times. For example, nest- building behavior surfaces when a bird matures
to the point where reproduction is possible. All of the biological mecha-
nisms of behavior interact with experience, of course. In addition, innate
general and specific learning abilities built into the nervous system allow
the organism to profit from its experience.

Position on Developmental Issues
Human Nature
Human nature is just one hodgepodge out of many conceivable.

—WiLson, 1978, p. 23

Humans are social animals with certain species- specific characteristics.
Human intelligence, language, social attachment, and perhaps even aggres-
sion and altruism are part of human nature because they serve or once
served a purpose in the struggle of the species to survive. However, humans
select from their evolutionary heritage the behaviors that best help them
adapt to local circumstances— supportive or harsh caretaking, a resource-
rich environment or poverty: “ ‘Human nature,’ then, is in part decided by
the context within which we find ourselves (Hawley, 2014, p. 5).

Identifying the theory’s worldview highlights the differences among
ethological theorists. Lorenz stressed the mechanistic, automatic, elic-
ited nature of behaviors, such as reflexes and sign stimuli that elicit fixed
action patterns. This stimulus– response model is based on early views of
how the nervous system operates. In contrast, Bowlby and many modern
ethology theorists are more organismic and draw on systems approaches.
Humans spontaneously act to meet the demands of their environment
by actively searching for the parent or playmates or by exploring. In
Bowlby’s control- systems approach, an infant seeks to maintain a certain
state, for example, an acceptable degree of proximity to the caretaker.
Finally, the theory is contextual in its focus on links between a species’
evolutionary history and the present, and on the immediate physical and
social setting, to which an organism must adapt.

Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development c Ethology allows
for both qualitative and quantitative change. It is not a stage theory and

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Ethology c 235

therefore does not posit large- scale qualitative changes in development.
Qualitative change occurs when biological maturation reaches the
point where a sign stimulus triggers a new fixed action pattern. In this
way, a new behavior appears in a more or less discontinuous fashion.
Qualitative change also occurs when a system is expressed in different
behaviors as a child develops. One such instance is attachment, the
desire for which is expressed at first by crying or smiling and later by
crawling toward the mother or talking to her. The underlying attach-
ment, however, may be changing quantitatively, usually toward increased
organization and efficiency.

Nature Versus Nurture c Like Piaget, ethology was concerned with
how an organism adapts to its environment. Both identified biological
predispositions toward learning, for example, the assimilation–
accommodation process (Piaget) and specialized learning abilities (ethol-
ogy). Although ethologists focus on the biological basis of behavior, they
are quite aware that heredity and environment are intertwined through-
out the lifespan. Indeed, any evolved behavior requires some environ-
mental input for its activation. A particular experience has more impact
if it occurs during a relevant sensitive period rather than at another time.
Moreover, a given genotype may be expressed differently in different
environments. Also, one way to think about the importance of the envi-
ronment is that it selects for or against genetic mutations that occur.

It is the fit between the genes and a particular environment that is
adaptive, not just the genes themselves. The set of human genes evolved
within a particular environment, so it is adaptive for the “expectable”
environment into which most members of the species are born. This
environment, typical for the species, provides the relevant experiences
for expressing predispositions.

What Develops c The most important behaviors to develop are
species- specific behaviors that are essential for survival. These include
such behaviors as social attachment, dominance– submission, eating, mat-
ing, social cognition, and infant care. Both general abilities to learn or
process information and specific behaviors such as fixed action patterns
or domain- specific cognitive algorithms are applied to the environment
at hand. The theory seeks to explain similarities in what behaviors are
acquired and how they develop in all humans and in both humans and
other animals. Like for Piaget, the focus has been on what is universal for
a particular species. Biology constrains the range of possible differences
between cultures or within a culture.

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236 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Applications
Ethological work on attachment has had the most impact on real- life
topics such as orphanages, adoption, day care, prolonged separation
from the mother, and early contact between mother and child. A pop-
ular current parenting approach, “attachment parenting,” encourages
parents to keep their babies close and to respond promptly and appro-
priately when babies  signal their needs. For a securely attached child,
a parent serves as a safe base from which to explore the environment
and establish  independence. Parents should be sensitive to their children’s
emotional needs during separation caused by hospitalization or other
traumatic events.

Bowlby found pathological behaviors in children when they did not
receive adequate attention from a caretaker early in life. A more recent
project (Nelson, Zeanah, & Fox, 2007) has shown that early social
deprivation in the institutional rearing of infants abandoned at birth in
Bucharest, Romania, had serious negative effects on brain behavior and
nearly all aspects of development. For example, almost half of the chil-
dren appeared to suffer from one or several forms of psychopathology.
However, subsequent adoption into normal families reversed some of
these adverse effects, especially if adoption occurred early on. A variety
of interventions for infants at risk for not developing secure attachment,
as well as children and adolescents with attachment issues, have proven
successful (Cassidy, Jones, & Shaver, 2013). Researchers also have
applied attachment theory to policy concerning families with working
parents, or a parent in the military or in prison (Cassidy et al., 2013).

Evaluation of the Theory

Strengths c Both realized and potential contributions of ethology to
developmental psychology are explored in three areas: theory, method,
and content.

Theoretical Contributions c Ethology broadens our perspective on
what constitutes an explanation of development. We can fully understand
children’s behavior only if we expand our vision to include a larger space
(the larger social context) and a larger time span (the history of the spe-
cies). Tinbergen (1973) identified four types of questions about the causes
of behavior that developmentalists should try to answer about their topic
of study. The questions are based in part on the time span involved, which
varies from seconds to centuries. These “four whys” pertain to causes that
are immediate, ontogenetic, functional, and phylogenetic.

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Ethology c 237

1
Immediate causes are the external or internal events that occur
directly before the behavior. They provide clues as to the causal
mechanism. An infant smiles after viewing a human face or cries as

a result of hunger pangs.

2
Ontogenetic causes encompass a longer time span— the genotype
and the environment interact to produce changes in behavior over
an individual’s lifetime. In this process, earlier events contribute to

later events, as when a secure attachment may cascade to later positive
relationships and social competence.

3
Functional causes involve the immediate adaptive value of a behav-
ior. An ethologist asks, “What is this behavior trying to achieve?”
Children behave in certain ways because they want to obtain food,

protection, desired resources, and social support.

4
Phylogenetic causes lie in the earlier forms of the behavior as it was
shaped over generations as a result of the food supply, types of pred-
ators, mating patterns, and so on. Thus, human social cognition may

have evolved because of the need for hunting and gathering together.

Most developmental research has examined immediate causes or
ontogenetic causes rather than functional or phylogenetic ones, but the
latter two are needed as well for an adequate account of development.
Knowing the function of a behavior helps the investigator relate a child’s
behavior to its natural context. For example, the way that investigators
think about children’s aggressive behavior changes if they discover that
one of its functions is to increase the overall stability and cohesiveness
of the group. The focus changes from a problem in the child to a fea-
ture of human groups. As for phylogenetic causes, among the theorists
in this book, only the ethologists and Gibson (see Chapter 8) take an
evolutionary perspective. Piaget was concerned with adaptation to the
environment but paid little attention to evolutionary processes.

Few human behaviors today are a matter of life and death, such as
avoiding predators, and children with mental disabilities, poor health,
or physical disabilities are protected, so they may survive and repro-
duce. Thus, survival of the fittest is much less apparent as an evolution-
ary force. Developmentalists may find it most useful to draw on the
concept  of adaptation for understanding how a society may produce
optimal adaptation (rather than biological survival). Optimal adaptation
might include happiness, a feeling of competence at play, success at
school, and efficient use of tools such as eating utensils, scissors, and
computers.

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238 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Thinking about how a child’s behavior might be adaptive also can sug-
gest new hypotheses about development. For example, behaviors that
seem maladaptive actually may confer advantages in certain develop-
mental niches. For instance, children with a strong tendency to approach
novel but potentially dangerous situations tend to develop disruptive
behaviors (e.g., Davies, Cicchetti, & Hentges, 2015). However, this risky
behavior may be adaptive in adverse environments by making it more
likely that children will find new, resource- rich, settings ( Gatzke- Kopp
2011). Thus, ethology offers a more balanced perspective by considering
both the costs and benefits of any developmental pathway, even when
the behaviors are considered psychopathological (Martin et al., 2014).

Methodological Contributions c What can we learn from scientists
who spend hours staring at crabs and birds? Regarding developmental
psychology’s focus on laboratory research rather than naturalistic obser-
vation, Bronfenbrenner characterized the discipline as the “science of
the strange behavior of children in strange situations with strange adults
for the briefest possible periods of time” (1977, p.  513). Moreover,
developmentalists rely too heavily on the questioning of children. As
Charlesworth commented, “As soon as a research subject has the appro-
priate Piagetian operations and can talk, researchers stop observing and
start asking. It’s less strenuous that way” (1988, p. 298).

Laboratory studies tell us what can happen during the attentional pro-
cess. Ethological observation in natural settings tells us what in fact usu-
ally does happen and what function the behavior has. Ethology provides
theoretically based observational methods that can fruitfully be combined
with traditional developmental laboratory methods. As an illustration,
consider what ethologically oriented observational studies might con-
tribute to the understanding of the development of attention, typically
examined in the laboratory. Lab research assesses infants’ preferences for
attending to one of two stimuli placed in front of them or older children’s
attention to physical attributes, such as shape, color, or size. A child looks
preferentially at one object rather than another, sorts the objects, or tries
to remember them. An ethologist, in contrast, would shift the focus of
such research by asking the following questions: What types of objects or
events do children look at or listen to at home and at school? Do chil-
dren mainly look at people or nonsocial objects and events? What events
distract young children? Does efficient attention lead to efficient problem
solving or other adaptive behaviors? Does playful, exploratory attention
resemble that observed in other primates, humans of other ages, and
other cultures? Such observational studies would suggest new variables

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Ethology c 239

to be examined in depth in the laboratory. In a similar way, ethological
methods could be applied fruitfully to the other theories examined in
this volume. We know little about when and how often children engage
in problem solving (Piaget and information processing), displaced aggres-
sion (Freud), or collaborative learning (Vygotsky).

Content Contributions c Ethology has influenced developmental psy-
chology by showing the importance of behaviors such as attachment
and the structure of peer groups. A rich set of data about attachment
provided a foundation for the neuroscience and genetic research on the
long- term impact of poor early parenting described later in this chap-
ter. Similarly, the information about human phylogenetic change from
ethology and evolutionary psychology provided a backdrop for current
developmentally oriented evolutionary approaches (e.g., Bjorklund &
Ellis, 2014; Tomasello, 2014). More generally, observations of the social
behavior of other primates, especially their apparent “mindreading” of
their peers (e.g., Kaminski, Call, & Tomasello, 2008) has stimulated
similar topics in children.

Weaknesses c The following are critical shortcomings in theoretical,
methodological, and substantive areas that must be addressed by etho-
logical theory if it is to fulfill its promise as a theory of development.
Some of these shortcomings merely reflect a lack of developmental
research in certain areas; others are more serious because they reflect
the incompleteness of the theory itself.

Theoretical Limitations c Many of the ethological notions that are
most useful to developmental psychology require further elaboration if
they are to serve as specific explanations of development. For example,
by what processes do sensitive periods begin, have their effect, and end?
Are the effects of contact between mothers and their young infants due
to biological, social, or cognitive variables or all these variables in interac-
tion? What makes infants predisposed to attend to particular stimuli? The
neuroscience and genetic approaches described later are beginning to
identify the mechanisms that could answer these questions. Similarly, the
cognitive foundation for adaptive behaviors is not well worked out. For
example, by what cognitive processes do children detect and understand
a dominance hierarchy in their peer group and their own place in it? How
do children interpret social cues that could provide this information? The
development of transitive reasoning (A > B > C . . . ) may be necessary
for perceiving a dominance hierarchy (Edelman & Omark, 1973).

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240 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

More specificity also is needed for theory- based predictions: What
specific aspects of a secure or insecure attachment predict specific future
social competencies? As Thompson noted, “It is as important to deter-
mine what a secure attachment does not predict to, and why, as it is to
understand its network of predictable consequences” (1998, p. 48). If
the various attachment patterns are adaptive for different environmental
situations, then the expected long- term outcomes of each attachment
type are not so obvious.

Another problem concerns identifying the function of a behavior.
The evolution of anatomical structures can be gleaned from fossils,
but we have no fossils of human behavior. At best, we can examine
other primates, contemporary hunter– gatherers, skulls, DNA, and
archeological data such as diseases, housing, cultural artifacts, age dis-
tributions, and tools. We can speculate about how an upright stance,
enlarged brain area, and increasingly sophisticated tools reflect changes
in human behavior in our history. We can hypothesize what sorts of
cognitive demands were made on early hunters and gatherers and the
extent to which these demands are similar to or differ from those in
modern human environments. What was adaptive generations ago may
not be adaptive today, however. For example, a preference for fats and
sugars was adaptive in our early history, but not now, and in fact leads
to obesity and Type 2 diabetes. As another example, attention- deficit/
hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may consist of tendencies that were
adaptive in early humans (Jensen et  al., 1997). Rapid scanning, quick
responses, and high motor activity work better for monitoring threats
and escaping from enemies than for reading and concentrating on home-
work. Moreover, the function of a behavior may be far from obvious.
“Morning sickness” and the food aversions associated with it during early
pregnancy may protect the fetus from toxic foods at a time when it is
most vulnerable (Profet, 1992). Food aversions are most common for
foods high in toxins.

Methodological Limitations c One obvious limitation to applying
ethological methods to humans is that the most critical experiments
are  unethical. We cannot perform experiments such as preventing an
infant from seeing a human smile for the first few weeks of life in order
to see if the social smile is innate. In an early, misguided experiment,
Frederick II (1194–1250) raised babies in silence and near isolation to
find out if there is a “natural” human language. The babies, not surpris-
ingly, died before the outcome was clear (Wallbank & Taylor, 1960).
Instead of experiments, we must rely on naturally occurring atypical
situations, such as infants born blind or deaf, institutionalized infants,

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Ethology c 241

or infants of mothers who are hospitalized and thus absent for a long
period.

A limitation to naturalistic observation is that it is not clear what
constitutes a “natural environment” for children in a highly technologi-
cal society. Should we study children running through a meadow, sitting
in a classroom, or playing electronic games? Moreover, developing a
comprehensive ethogram of human infants would be a time- intensive,
expensive undertaking. As Charlesworth noted, “Unlike most tests,
which throw out a small net with a small mesh, the present method
throws out a big net with a small mesh and thereby catches many small
fish. Herein, of course, lies a big problem of effort and cost. The net gets
awfully heavy very quickly” (1979, p. 522). It also is not always clear
what behaviors are relevant. An observer unfamiliar with Bowlby’s work
might well record that the infant crawled to the door of the adjoining
room but would probably not record the distance between the mother
and the infant.

Content Limitations c Certain psychological phenomena that are not
consistently reflected in spontaneous overt behavior may be difficult to
study from the ethological perspective. Cognition is a good example.
A researcher might be limited to studying overt behaviors, such as
removing a physical barrier blocking a desired object. Since cognition
and motivation become more complex with increasing age, ethological
observations may in general be more informative in infants and toddlers
than in older children.

Contemporary Research
The influences of ethological and evolutionary theory on developmental
psychology can be seen most clearly in three contemporary topics—
attachment, the evolution of human cognition in social groups, and
adaptation during development.

Attachment c Research on attachment categories was presented earlier
in this chapter, and work on internal working models appeared in the
Freud section of this book. Most contemporary research on attachment
focuses less on categories of attachment and more on psychological
and biological processes involved in both child attachment and relevant
parenting behaviors. The focus is on the process of forming a socioemo-
tional relationship between parent and child, with attention given not
only to parent effects on children but also how child factors, such as
temperament, affect the parent (Laible, Thompson, & Froimson, 2015).

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242 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

A typical model of the development of attachment is the following
(Cassidy et al., 2013): Children develop an attachment behavioral sys-
tem, which is an organized system of behaviors with the goal of estab-
lishing proximity with the parent in order to obtain protection. The
parent’s state of mind regarding attachment contributes to both their
caregiving behavior and their child’s attachment. The child’s attachment
consists of two- way interactions between an internal working model and
physiological processes. The child’s attachment then contributes to her
developmental trajectory— either successful psychosocial functioning or
psychopathology.

Much of the recent research identifies correlates between parenting
quality and infant attachment, or between attachment categories and
later child behaviors (e.g., empathy, compassion, altruism, internalizing
or externalizing symptoms) and adulthood functioning (e.g., roman-
tic relationships; parenting behaviors). Particularly of interest are the
mechanisms underlying these links. Recent breakthroughs in genetics
and neuroscience have provided additional levels of explanation of the
process of attachment. For example, researchers have identified geno-
types associated with the various attachment styles, particularly disor-
ganized attachment (Spangler, Johann, Ronai, & Zimmermann, 2009).
Contemporary neuroscience models of attachment generally propose
that the brain systems underlying attachment involve sensitivity to threat
in the environment and regulation of attachment- related behaviors and
emotions (Gillath, 2015). Brain imaging is clarifying the child and par-
ent neural correlates of attachment categories, such as underlying brain
networks or brain volume. For example, mothers showed different
brain responses when viewing their own 3- to 6- month- old infant’s face,
compared to the face of another infant (Esposito, Valenzi, Islam, Mash, &
Bornstein, 2015). Thus, today attachment is viewed as a process involv-
ing genetics, physiology, cognition, emotion, and behavior.

New directions in attachment research include the role of attachment
style in constructing enduring patterns of response to stress, relations
between attachment and health and immune function, school readi-
ness, and culture (Cassidy, Jones, & Shaver, 2013; Rholes & Simpson,
2015). For example, insecure attachment during childhood and adult-
hood is related to altered stress responses, which affect the immune
system and lead to poor health outcomes (Pietromonaco & Powers,
2015). Researchers also have added biological measures. Of particular
interest is the role of the neurohormone oxytocin in promoting social
bonding. For example, over the first three years of life, parents’ oxy-
tocin levels predict their children’s oxytocin levels (Feldman, Gordon,

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Ethology c 243

Influs, Gutbir, & Ebstein, 2013). The child’s social reciprocity with a
friend was correlated with the child’s oxytocin levels, the mother’s
oxytocin- related genes and hormones, and mother– child reciprocity.
One important unanswered question concerns the mechanisms under-
lying the intergenerational transmission of attachment— how a child’s
attachment category links to her adulthood attachment category, and
how the latter, through the adult’s state of mind regarding attachment,
affects her parenting behaviors and thus her child’s attachment. In other
words, what are the relations between the caretaking system and the
attachment system (Cassidy et al., 2013; Jones, Cassidy, & Shaver, 2015)?
Another important question concerns whether the findings largely based
on maternal behavior apply to fathers as well.

Evolution of Human Cognition in Social Groups c The five species
of great apes (gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos, humans)
share a common ancestor from approximately 15 million years ago, and
the last three share a common ancestor from about 6 million years ago
(Tomasello & Herrmann, 2010). What is unique about human cogni-
tion? The great apes have considerable genetic similarity: Chimpanzees
and modern humans, for example, share approximately 95 percent to
99 percent of their genetic material, a proportion similar to that of lions
and tigers or rats and mice (King & Wilson, 1975). The other great apes
clearly have certain humanlike cognitive and social skills and, in fact, are
surprisingly sophisticated cognitively (Call & Tomasello, 2008). They
understand the physical world much like humans do. They can count,
communicate, recognize themselves in a mirror, and understand object
permanence. They also can deceive others of their species so that they are
misled as to the location of food, engage in pretense, and predict others’
behavior on the basis of their emotional states and direction of locomo-
tion. Chimpanzees have been observed pretending to pull an imaginary
pull toy and even carefully disentangling the imaginary string (Hayes,
1951). They understand kinship and dominance relations, and they will
select an appropriate ally, such as someone dominant over their oppo-
nent. Great apes even understand certain mental states. Chimpanzees,
in a within- species competitive game, showed that they know whether
their competitor knows or does not know something, though they did
not understand false belief (Kaminski et al., 2008). Thus, “chimpanzees
know what others know, but not what they believe” (p. 224).

Human thought is unique mainly in the ability to engage in joint atten-
tion and cooperative communication, and thus coordinate efforts and
collaborate (Tomasello, 2014). These cognitive skills are possible because

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244 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

humans can think about others’ perspectives, reflect on their own think-
ing, and think about others’ thinking and one’s own in a recursive way
(“He’s thinking that I’m thinking that. . . .”). That is, humans can represent
others’ thinking (including false beliefs), interpret their perspectives, and
monitor their own thoughts. These skills evolved when ancestral humans
faced problems presented by attempts to collaborate and communicate
with others. Specifically, early humans’ small social units required them
to hunt collaboratively to acquire enough food. In order to collaborate,
they had to be able to recognize others, communicate at least nonverbally,
and form long- term social relationships. Collaboration also encouraged
members to help each other so they would be available for future collab-
oration. Later, when societies became so large that members could not
know all group members, humans came to rely on information about
who belonged in their group. These ideas have generated research with
children. Infants start helping others around 12 to 18 months (Warneken,
2015). By age 3½, they act prosocially toward their collaborative part-
ners, and by age 5, both collaborating with others and belonging to the
same group (even if the assignment to a group was arbitrary— a green
group and a yellow group) led children to prefer, help, and trust their
collaborative partners (Plötner, Over, Carpenter, & Tomasello, 2015).
More generally, young children tend toward an in- group bias of liking,
acting positively to, and feeling obligations to their own group, and a
bias toward viewing out- groups negatively (Rhodes, 2013).

The economic necessity for larger groups with coordinated roles
and perspectives, shared understanding that permitted communicating
through language, and collective intentions, also led to the development
of culture— norms and institutions (Tomasello, 2014). Humans’ social-
cognitive skills permitted them to engage in cultural learning and pool
their cognitive resources. Humans can work together to create  new
knowledge about objects, quantities, tools, and social relations that
cannot be created by a single individual. Cultural artifacts, such as lan-
guage and other social tools or systems of belief, were developed in each
generation and taught to the next. Although young chimpanzees can
communicate and learn how to use tools from adult chimpanzees around
them, only humans show cultural transmission— an evolved biological
mechanism that enables children to take advantage of the knowledge
and skills  acquired over generations by the species. Children grow up
surrounded by the very best tools and symbols that  the  species has
developed. A simple example, based on evidence from physical artifacts,
is that during human evolution hammers changed from simple stones to
stones tied to sticks to modern metal hammers and mechanical hammers

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Ethology c 245

(Basalla, 1988). Humans were able to improve the tool because they
understood what the purpose of the  tool was (that is, what people
intended to do with the hammer); they could go beyond simple imitation
of someone using a particular type of hammer.

As a result of this evolutionary heritage, young infants can develop the
knowledge that other humans are like themselves, with intentional and
mental properties. The mirror neuron system discussed in Chapter 6—
brain activation that is similar to that of the person observed performing
some behavior (e.g., Keysers, Thioux, & Gazzola, 2013)—may facilitate
young children’s understanding of the psychological causes of another’s
behavior. Tomasello refers to the “9-month social- cognitive revolution”
in which infants begin to understand others as intentional beings. They
see others as similarly motivated by goals and thus begin to share atten-
tion, as well as intentions, with other people, toward objects and events.
Once this social cognitive skill evolved, humans could “imagine them-
selves ‘in the mental shoes’ of some other person, so that they can learn
not just from the other but through the other” (Tomasello 1999, p. 6). In
this way, infants understand why others are using a tool or symbol— what
the person intends to do with it. With this understanding, children can
engage in cultural learning and become full participants in various cul-
tural rituals and games. Language obviously is particularly important,
for example, to ensure that children engage in complex interactions
with others that demand negotiation.

Adaptation During Development c Many species have adapted to their
environments by evolving specific innate behaviors. In contrast, humans
have adapted by evolving plasticity— flexibility in the hormonal system,
the expression of genes (see later), and, especially, the brain. Thus, in
humans, adaptation is a developmental phenomenon, as the young learn
about their environment and adapt to their particular local conditions.

The young brain exhibits flexibility, but this decreases as brain regions
becomes specialized to respond mainly to certain kinds of stimuli, such
as faces or moving bodies. This plasticity is adaptive because it keeps the
brain open to learning about the specific features of the child’s particular
environment (Bjorklund, 2007; Bjorklund & Ellis, 2014; Bugental et al.,
2015). Moreover, understanding the complex human social structure
requires a big brain, which necessitates an extended infancy and child-
hood. This extended period for maturity is a risky strategy for the human
species, because infants cannot obtain food or flee from enemies on their
own. Moreover, it takes a lot of cognitive resources to constantly scan
and evaluate environments.

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246 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Early childhood is a sensitive period during which children learn
about positive (e.g., resources) and negative (e.g., violence) aspects of
their environment and use this information to adapt by calibrating their
developmental trajectory (Bugental et al., 2015). Specifically, they learn
what physical and social resources are available in the environment, how
predictable these resources are, how trustworthy other people are,
whether close relationships are likely to last, and what threats exist.
For example, early experience with “growing up in poverty, exposures
to violence, harsh childrearing practices . . . shifts resource allocations
toward more risky and aggressive behavior, earlier pubertal timing
and sexual debut, enhanced early fertility, less stable pair bonding,
more offspring, and less parental investment per child” (Bjorklund &
Ellis, 2014, p. 237). In earlier evolutionary times, this strategy would
have maximized people’s reproductive success (Bugental et al., 2015).
It may be that the predictability of the environment is key. Having
an unpredictable, rapidly changing environment (e.g., moving a lot,
parents changing jobs frequently, divorce) from birth to age 5 is the
best predictor of this  fast- track developmental trajectory (Simpson,
Griskevicius, Kuo, Sung, & Collins, 2012). Moreover, this early adaptive
strategy of impulsivity and risk taking developed in uncertain environ-
ments affects later behaviors during adulthood; how adults respond to
indicators of current resource scarcity (impulsive and risky decisions)
depends on their childhood socioeconomic status not their current one
(Griskevicius et al., 2013).

Adaptation during development is constrained by many factors, such
as species- specific genes, the child’s developmental level (e.g., how
much information about the environment can be processed), the nature
of developmental mechanisms (e.g., small rather than large leaps in
cognitive change), and characteristics of the environment (e.g., avail-
able resources). Thus, children inherit the ability to modify their own
development so that it is maximally adaptive to local conditions, but
within limits, and with the possibility of making wrong choices. Still,
this imperfect evolutionary strategy may be the best balance between
wired- in behaviors and total plasticity.

Bjorklund (Bjorklund, 2007; Bjorklund & Ellis, 2014) argues that
although some of children’s behaviors were selected for and are devel-
oping because they will lead to an adapted adult, some may have evolved
because they serve an adaptive function only at a particular time in
childhood. Certain reflexes, such as the grasping reflex, are present in
newborns but then disappear several months later after they have served
their purpose of aiding survival during that particular period. Also, the

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Ethology c 247

cognitive immaturity that goes along with brain plasticity during child-
hood allows time for play, which may provide a sense of mastery and
self- efficacy that encourages children to try out new activities and roles.
These activities and roles provide opportunities for learning new skills.
Even behaviors that seem maladaptive actually may be adaptive. For
example, toddlers’ limited working- memory capacity may be adaptive
for language learning. The reason is that restricting how much language
information can be processed simplifies the language corpus that is
analyzed, and this in turn simplifies the process of acquiring language.
Children first may acquire single syllables and then gradually deal with
more information and increasingly complex information. If children
could initially process more linguistic information, they might be over-
whelmed by the amount of information and not be able to extract any-
thing useful. In this case, less is more (Newport, 1991).

An example of immature, but advantageous, cognitive skills from the
preschool period is children’s poor awareness of their cognitive perfor-
mance, for example, their vastly overestimating how well they perform,
even after feedback that they have performed poorly (see Chapter 7).
Until approximately age 7, children unrealistically think of themselves as
“one of the smartest kids in my class” (Stipek, 1984). This seemingly non-
adaptive characteristic may in fact be quite adaptive. This Pollyanna atti-
tude may encourage them to keep trying to do activities that are beyond
their current ability level. In this way, they obtain valuable experiences
that strengthen their skills. Because they do not expect to fail, they may
not be afraid to try out a variety of new activities. This optimism and
disregarding negative feedback also may be seen when children continue
to use a good, new strategy that does not yet help them (Miller & Seier,
1994; see Chapter 7). This attitude keeps them using and thus strength-
ening the new strategy until it can help them. Another adaptive cogni-
tive immaturity may be Piaget’s notion of egocentrism. Children’s bias
toward perceiving and conceptualizing in terms of their own perspective
obviously limits social understanding and interaction, but it may help
them in other ways. Given that people tend to remember better when
they relate the information to themselves (e.g., Pratkanis & Greenwald,
1985), egocentrism actually may help young children’s recall. Thus,
although we tend to see young children’s apparent limitations as evi-
dence that they are less advanced than older children and adults, they
may be quite well adapted to the demands of their particular develop-
mental period.

In sum, ethology and evolutionary psychology have made signifi-
cant contributions to developmental psychology. They provide a larger

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248 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

temporal context in which to view development. The focus on the func-
tion of molar behaviors complements the focus of most current biologi-
cally oriented developmental work on cells and the brain. We now turn
to two main contemporary biological perspectives on development—
developmental neuroscience and genetics.

Developmental Neuroscience
The human brain has evolved relatively recently:

If we compressed the 4.5 billion year history of the Earth into a 24-hour
period, the first single- cell organisms would have emerged around
18 hours ago, the first simple nervous systems separating animals from
plants would have emerged around 3.75 hours ago, the first brain would
have emerged about 2 hours and 40 minutes ago, the first hominid brain
would have emerged less than 2.5 minutes ago, and the current version
of the human brain would have emerged less than 3 seconds ago.

(Cacioppo & Cacioppo, 2013, p. 667)

The boom in research exploring the human brain began in the 1990s,
designated the “decade of the brain.” This exciting new work was stim-
ulated by new technologies of brain imaging that generate maps of
brain activity. Here are some of the more common techniques: Several
measure currents produced by electrical activity of brain neurons— for
example, electroencephalography (EEG; sensor electrodes placed on
the scalp) and magnetoencephalography (MEG). Others measure brain
activity indirectly, by assessing blood flow and oxygenation as an indica-
tor of increased neural activity— for example, functional magnetic reso-
nance imaging (fMRI) and near- infrared spectroscopy (NIRS). MRI uses
a magnetic field and pulses of radio wave energy. DTI (diffusion tensor
imaging)—a variant of MRI that detects the movement of water— can
be used to infer information about the pathways of brain white matter
(brain tissue containing nerve fibers). PET (positron emission tomog-
raphy) uses radioactive tracers in a dye injected into the bloodstream.

Each of these technologies has strengths and weaknesses for describ-
ing the structure and functioning (changes in activity) of the brain (see
de Haan, 2015). For example, some tell us more about spatial patterns
of brain activity, and others tell us more about the time course of this
activity. Techniques vary in their spatial resolution and their temporal
resolution of a moving image. Some (e.g., EEG) can be used with very
young children but are limited because they do not probe deeply into
the brain. PET cannot ethically be used with children because of the

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Developmental Neuroscience c 249

radioactive tracers. Moreover, there obviously are challenges with doing
neuroimaging with squirmy young children, but researchers are devel-
oping creative ways to do this. Thus, the choice of a technique depends
on the research question and the person’s age.

Neuroimaging methods reveal brain functioning when, for example,
a picture or sound is presented. Thus, one could compare the patterns
of brain activity in children of different ages or ability levels working
on the same task, to infer developmental differences in cognitive pro-
cessing. Or children of the same age might engage in different sorts of
tasks thought to activate different cognitive skills, such as numerical and
spatial reasoning. This approach provides information about the relations
among brain regions (and among concepts). The patterns of brain activ-
ity associated with the two tasks might show both commonalities and
domain- specific activity, thus addressing the issue of whether children’s
thinking forms a general stage or domain- specific areas of knowledge.

Neuroimaging initially focused on identifying the particular region of
the brain primarily associated with particular cognitive activities, emo-
tions, or behaviors. More recently, models depict neural networks that
may involve several regions of the brain. Also, measures have expanded
beyond detecting brain activity to include anatomical measures, such as
thickness of the cerebral cortex, that might show significant develop-
mental changes.

In addition to providing information about the brain correlates of
behavior, neuroimaging makes several contributions to assessment of
abilities. Some imaging techniques can be used with infants, which is an
important methodological contribution to developmental psychology,
given that infants have few behaviors that can be used for assessment.
Another methodological contribution is that imaging sometimes pro-
vides more sensitive assessments of social or cognitive skills that are not
yet detected by behavioral measures. For example, after an eight- month
exercise program, obese children showed brain changes in their fMRI’s
consistent with improved executive function— a change that was not
detected on standard behavioral assessments (Krafft et al., 2014).

A few words about brain anatomy and functioning can set the stage
for a discussion of brain development by showing the enormity and com-
plexity of the brain: “The brain is rather like a large, very wrinkled wal-
nut” Karmiloff- Smith (2012, p. 3). If all the surface of the brain were laid
out flat, it would be about the size of a football field. The fibers in white
matter, laid into a line, would stretch 100,000 miles, enough to circle
the earth four times. There are approximately 100  billion neurons in
the brain. Each neuron might connect to approximately 1,000 neurons.

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250 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

The cerebral cortex, which is critical for humans’ advanced cognition,
language, and perception, accounts for 80  percent of the brain’s vol-
ume. For the purposes of this chapter, it is most important to know
that the frontal lobes, at the front of the brain, involve activities of great
interest to psychologists, such as thinking, intentionality, voluntary
movement, personality, and attention. As for brain functioning, this
occurs at various levels. At the cellular level, chemical substances such
as neurotransmitters (e.g., dopamine and serotonin) transmit signals
across a synapse (connection between neurons) to another nerve, muscle,
or gland. At the brain level, activated neural networks across various
regions collaborate to produce thought, feeling, or behavior. Finally, any
one region of the brain carries out many functions, though it may be
more responsible for particular functions.

The following section describes some of the main themes of brain
development and its links with behavior. It provides an overview, rather
than a detailed technical account, in order to focus on models of devel-
opmental neuroscience. These themes are derived mainly from several
recent key sources in this area (e.g., Johnson & de Haan, 2015; Stiles,
Brown, Haist, & Jernigan, 2015).

Brain Development

1
Early anatomical changes Important structural changes in the
brain occur in the first few weeks and months of life: For example,
the rapid increase in myelin (insulation around the nerve fibers)

increases the speed and efficiency of the transmission of neural signals
and thus enhances information processing (see Chapter 7). As discussed
in the neo- Piagetian section of Chapter 2, being able to think about, and
manipulate, larger amounts of information is necessary for moving to
the next cognitive level. Although this anatomical change is most rapid
in the first few years of life, the efficiency of information processing
continues to improve until late adolescence or early adulthood.

2
Strengthening or pruning of connections between neu-
rons A major task for the brain, especially in the first two years
of life, is to form connections between neurons as a result of envi-

ronmental stimulation. These neural networks, which typically involve
numerous neurons, become increasingly refined through late adoles-
cence and continue to change throughout the lifespan. Infants have many
more neurons and synapses than end up actually being used. This is one
reason why the human infant brain has so much plasticity for adapting to
local conditions. Neural pathways that are not used are pruned away— a

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Developmental Neuroscience c 251

sort of “neural Darwinism” (Edelman, 1987)—while others strengthen.
The complex relations between biology and experience can be seen
in this biologically driven overproduction of synapses early in devel-
opment, coupled with the pruning away of certain ones because they
are not stimulated by experience. An example is infants’ perception of
phonemes. Infants are born with the ability to discriminate the sounds
of all human languages, but the particular subset of these phonemes
that they still can discriminate by late infancy depends on the language
or languages to which they were exposed during early infancy. Through
pruning, they lose the ability to discriminate the phonemes of languages
that they do not hear.

The brain seems to have major periods of growth and then pruning
during the toddler years and adolescence. These periods of rapid neural
growth might indicate that some developmental change is qualitative,
especially if it involves brain reorganization, thus addressing the issue of
qualitative versus quantitative development.

3
Increased specialization At first, most areas of the cerebral cor-
tex are capable of performing a variety of functions. However, the
cortex becomes increasingly lateralized, with the left hemisphere

typically becoming more dominant. Moreover, with increasing age, brain
regions and networks become more specialized, committed to particular
activities. In general, a particular task elicits a larger, more diffuse area of
brain activity in children than in adults. That is, the engagement of neu-
ral networks becomes more specific during development. The outcome
is that brain plasticity decreases as brain regions commit to particular
tasks. This can be seen, for example, in the fact that late second- language
learners do not achieve the level of proficiency of earlier second-
language learners. Late second- language learners may even process the
second language differently from native speakers. These findings suggest
that the brain organization associated with the first language has to be
used to learn the second language later. Similarly, the greater ease of
discriminating faces from one’s own race than faces from other races,
when babies primarily have seen faces of their own race, is reflected in
different patterns of brain activity when comparing two same- race versus
two different- race faces, showing brain specialization for same- race faces
(Vizioli, Rousselet, & Caldara, 2010). The experienced brain cannot go
back to its less differentiated past.

4
Effects of environmental stimulation Normal brain devel-
opment is dependent on environmental stimulation. Without the
stimulation that a typical human environment would have, for which

the brain evolved, the brain develops differently. Most children, because

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252 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

they are physically normal and are raised in an environment typical
for the species, have more or less the same sorts of experiences at about
the same time. Thus, the pruning proceeds along similar lines for most
children. However, what about atypical situations, such as children who
are deaf or blind and thus do not receive auditory or visual stimulation?
In deaf children, certain areas of the brain that normally would be
devoted to auditory processing if the brain received both auditory and
visual stimulation instead gradually become devoted to visual processing
(Neville, 1995). Conversely, in blind children, areas normally devoted
to visual processing when receiving both auditory and visual stimulation
instead are devoted over time to auditory processing. Thus, when an area
of the brain does not receive its normally expected input, it can be used
for other purposes. The brain is preset to rapidly guide children along
certain developmental paths, but it is also flexible enough to deal with
atypical circumstances. Thus, cognitive neuroscience research is about
brain plasticity as much as brain determinism of behavior.

The social environment is as important as the physical environment.
For example, infants of mothers experiencing high stress due to social
isolation have an altered development of brain inhibitory systems
(Huggenberger, Suter, Blumenthal, & Schachinger, 2013). The moth-
ers’ mental– emotional state likely decreased their verbal and nonverbal
interaction with their infants, which prevented typical pathways from
developing and instead set in motion other pathways. Recall also the
atypical developmental timetable or pathways set in motion by adverse or
unpredictable local conditions, described earlier in this chapter.

5
Constraints on brain development These constraints are
genetic, environmental, and developmental (the current devel-
opmental level of the child). Genetic constraints that impact the

structure and function of the brain are discussed in the genetics section
of this chapter. The environment sets limits on ways that the brain might
develop; it presents options, but not all possible options. Developmental
constraints, such as the current organization of the brain system, influ-
ence subsequent brain development.

6
Brain areas develop at different rates Subcortical brain areas,
associated with emotion and sensitivity to reward (e.g., the amyg-
dala and striatum) mature rather quickly. In contrast, prefrontal

areas (the front part of the frontal lobes), which support higher- level
cognition, especially control over one’s thoughts and behaviors, develop
more gradually over a longer period of time, continuing even through
early adulthood. Thus, young adolescents have an imbalance between

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Developmental Neuroscience c 253

early maturing subcortical structures that increasingly draw them into
risky, rewarding behaviors, and later maturing structures for cognitive
and emotional control that could put the brakes on these behaviors. This
asynchrony presents an interesting theoretical model to explain normal
young adolescents’ tendencies to engage in risky behaviors, followed by
decreases in risk taking in later adolescence as prefrontal areas continue
to develop (e.g., Steinberg, 2011). Given these neural findings, along
with the significant social and hormonal changes during adolescence, it
is not surprising that adolescence seems to be a time of increased vul-
nerability for psychopathology (Powers & Casey, 2015).

7
Lifespan changes Brain changes, including strengthening and
weakening of synapses, continue throughout the lifespan. The brain
is always a work in progress. During aging, the brain does, for

example, becomes smaller and there is a reduction in neurotransmitters.
However, certain experiences, such as exercise, can cause changes in the
brain that improve brain functioning during the aging years. Contrary
to prior belief, recent research shows that new neurons are created
throughout our lifetimes, even during old age. This finding questions
some of the theories of aging that focus on cognitive loss.

From these themes, the most important point may be that neurosci-
ence research shows the impact of environmental influences on the brain
as much as brain influences on behavior. The next section describes con-
tributions of neuroscience to developmental theoretical issues, including
interactions of nature and nurture.

Theoretical Issues
What can a neuroscience perspective contribute to our theoretical
understanding of development? A main contribution is that neuroscience
increases our understanding of how nature and nurture collaborate in
complex ways to drive development. The research findings reported above
show how environmental inputs to a plastic, yet constrained, brain start
a journey down a particular developmental path. Moreover, as described
later in this chapter, the brain often is the mediator between genes and
behavior, as genes affect behavior and behavior affects gene expression.

Neuroscience findings bolster theories emphasizing the evolution of
humans within social groups (e.g., Tomasello, 2014) and identifying the
importance of early social experience. A main function of the brain is
to recognize and interpret social information. Even in infancy, “babies’
brains are adapted to tap into the richest source of new information in
their early environment: other human beings” (Johnson, 2013, p. 8). As

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254 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Grossmann (2015, p.  1266) notes, “Humans are such intensely social
creatures that already as young children they outperform their closest
living primate relatives (the great apes) in terms of their social- cognitive
skills, while showing very similar skills as great apes when dealing with
the physical world.” For example, even a rather subtle emotional
response such as empathy can be tracked in terms of its changes in brain
activity during childhood. These changes, measured by EEG, indicate a
gradual decrease with age in emotional arousal and an increase in cog-
nitive evaluation of the situation (Cheng, Chen, & Decety, 2014). More
generally, there seems to be a network of specific brain areas focused on
the processing of social information that is somewhat independent from
other forms of cognition.

Developing brains are sensitive to both positive and negative social
environments. On the positive side, neuroimaging documents competent
mothering. For example, competent mothering of children at age 12 pre-
dicted brain changes (seen in MRIs) thought to indicate positive develop-
ment at age 16 (Whittle et al., 2014). On the negative side, stresses from
maltreatment (Bruce et al., 2013), low socioeconomic status (Muscatell
et al., 2012), and institutionalized rearing (Mehta et al., 2010) are asso-
ciated with brain functioning in children and adolescents that differs from
that of children reared in more typical environments. Even mild stress-
ors affect brain activity. In one study (Graham, Fisher, & Pfeifer, 2013),
mothers’ reports of higher conflict between parents was associated with
infants’ greater neural responses to very angry speech, compared to neu-
tral speech, across several brain regions known to be involved in emotion
and reactions to stress.

Some neuroscience models have addressed explicitly the continual
interplay of biological and environmental influences and the causes of
diverse developmental pathways. As described in Chapter 2, neurocon-
structivism posits slight initial brain constraints or biases such that, for a
particular task and situation, some neural pathways are more easily acti-
vated or more easily connect to certain outputs. Examples are infants’
biases toward looking at faces or analyzing language sounds. Infants seek
out these stimuli, which further strengthens and specializes these path-
ways. Thus, infants may be slightly biased to look at particular types of
stimuli, but the small biases become further amplified through special-
ized activity. The outcome is specialization of brain pathways, because
the infant does not use the other pathways that initially could have been
used. Slight individual differences in brain structure or function initially
also could cascade into larger differences later that are considered neu-
rodevelopmental disorders.

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Developmental Neuroscience c 255

As for other theoretical issues, neuroscience can address the issue of
quantitative versus qualitative development. Imaging reveals qualitative
changes in the changing organization of neural networks during devel-
opment and quantitative change in the strength of activation of each
neural network. Neuroscience findings also can inform the issue of the
extent to which cognition is general versus domain specific. The increas-
ing specialization of areas of the brain during development suggests that
cognition becomes more domain specific during development.

Another contribution to theorizing is that cognitive neuroscience
research can test some of the claims of theories presented in this book.
For example, the fact that cognitive tasks activate both cognitive-
control and motor areas of the brain (Diamond, 2000) suggests close
connections between action and thought. This could be taken as sup-
port for Piaget’s claim that motor actions play a key role in cognitive
development. Relevant to Piaget’s claims about stages, if engaging in
two tasks believed to tap the same knowledge system in fact activate
the same neural networks, this would suggest that the two cognitive
skills involved are part of the same cognitive structure rather than two
domain- specific ones. Also relevant to Piaget, seeing how different neu-
ral networks interact at various ages can provide clues to age differences
in cognitive organization. Another issue relevant to Piaget is whether
the unexpected competence of infants described in Chapter 2 indicates
the same level of knowledge as that of older children at the age when
Piaget thought they develop that concept. The fact that EEG and NIRS
measures of infants’ face and eye gaze processing, joint attention, and
understanding of human action detect precursors of later networks
for social cognition  (Grossmann & Johnson, 2014) could suggest that
social understanding at these two ages is related but not identical.
A final example is that  the observed heightened self- consciousness
of adolescents, described by Piaget and Erikson, has been supported
by fMRI measures. When research participants thought that a peer
was actively watching them, adolescents showed higher physiological
arousal compared to other ages, as well as engagement of brain regions
thought to be involved  in the processing of socioaffective information
(Somerville et al., 2013).

Applications
The neuroscience approach has led to a number of interesting appli-
cations.  An important one is the insights into atypical development due
to brain injury, atypical environments, or neurodevelopmental disorders.

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256 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

This information about brain functioning in such children both clarifies
typical development and suggests interventions for children developing
atypically. For example, 3- and 4- year- old children with autism spectrum
disorder (ASD) showed an atypical pattern of brain activity when view-
ing photos of an unfamiliar woman with a neutral or a fearful expression
(Dawson, Webb, Carver, Panagiotides, & McPartland, 2004). Given that
the ability to accurately identify emotional states in other people is crit-
ical for using emotions to explain behavior, children with ASD clearly
are disadvantaged in this way. One goal is to detect brain patterns during
infancy that predict the later development of ASD so that interventions
can begin early.

Another important application has been to legal issues, an area called
“neurolaw.” Evidence about adolescents’ asynchronous brain develop-
ment, with emotions running ahead of the development of inhibition,
contributed to the Supreme Court decision to end sentences of life
without parole for crimes committed by minors. The reasoning was that
adolescents’ neurobiological immaturity makes them less responsible
for their actions than are adults. Still another application is called “edu-
cational neuroscience.” The idea is to use information about children’s
brain development to design instruction.

Summary
Neuroscience findings and theoretical models have generated a great
deal of excitement in developmental psychology for three reasons.
First, neuroscience provides additional levels of analysis for under-
standing development. This information about the biological processes
involved  in  behavior has become increasingly important as develop-
mental theorizing has moved more and more to a focus on development
as a changing system, with interacting levels from cells to society (see
Chapter 9). The brain is one important part of this organized, interactive
system. Second, neuroscience has revealed the importance of experi-
ence and learning, as much as the brain, when explaining behavior. In
this way, neuroscience strengthens the long history of developmental
research on  the influences of the environment. One sees brain plas-
ticity  throughout life in the strengthening or weakening of synapses
and the formation of new neurons and new synapses as the contexts
of  development change.  Development involves continual interplay
among brain development, behavior, and environmental resources.
Third, neuroscience findings serve as a bridge to clarify the relations
between genes and the environment. As described in the next section,

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Genetics c 257

the brain often is the mediator between the expression of genes into
thinking, feeling, and behavior, and between environmental condi-
tions and the expression of genes. Still, it should be noted that some
developmentalists are  concerned that the focus of developmental psy-
chology  has  shifted  so  much toward  neuroscience perspectives that
the field  is out of balance empirically and theoretically as well as in
resources such as grant funding, employment, and university investment
in research.

Genetics
Genetics has had a presence in developmental psychology for decades,
particularly in discussions of the nature– nurture issue— how genetic
predispositions come together with environmental factors to contribute
to behavioral outcomes. However, recently the conversation has shifted.
Historically, behavioral geneticists could ask “How much of the variation
in this trait (e.g., IQ) is due to genetic differences among individuals in
this population and how much is due to environmental differences?”
The question was about sources of individual differences in a group.
Researchers often looked at how the known degree of genetic relat-
edness in the group correlated with similarities in a trait. Thus, they
studied families, twins, and adopted children. For example, studies
have compared adult identical twins, separated early in life, to estimate
the relative contributions of genetic and environmental influences. This
approach continues today and is clarifying some of the nuances of heri-
tability. For example, the siblings of individuals with schizophrenia have
impaired functioning in several areas of cognition compared to normal
control families, even when these siblings do not develop schizophrenia
(Barch, Cohen, & Csernansky, 2014).

A newer approach in developmental psychology draws on molecular
genetics to ask a different question. It asks how the meshing of genes and
environment in an individual causes a trait. What is the causal pathway
from genes to cells to tissues to organs to behaviors, and vice versa? This
question could not have been studied before technologies for assessing
genetic makeup were developed. Geneticists’ drive to map the genome, in
the Human Genome Project, basically completed in 2003, provided tech-
niques to determine the order of DNA building blocks in an individual’s
genetic code (see the beginning of this chapter). Psychologists then used
these techniques to try to map the gene– environment connections
throughout development. That is, they correlated genetic variations with

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258 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

variations in behavior. In part because genetic analyses now are accessible
and cost effective, research in this area has boomed in psychology.

Molecular genetics has generated a great deal of excitement in devel-
opmental psychology because it provides the genetic component for new
theoretical models of the developmental unfolding of brain and behavior
as influenced by genes and the environment together. This contemporary
approach involves Gene X Environment interactions (G X E) and epi-
genetics (when the environment causes chemical changes affecting reg-
ulation of the genes). We now look at each of these.

Models of Gene X Environment Interactions
Mapping the human genome did not lead to the dramatic breakthrough
in understanding physical and mental illness that geneticists expected.
A  likely reason is that genes are only part of the equation for human
physiology and behavior. Genes are simply potentials that may or may
not be expressed in particular environments, so in a sense we need to
map the human environment as well as the human genome. G X E inter-
actions show that the environment moderates the association between a
particular gene variant and an outcome. For example, the known associ-
ation between a particular gene variant and depression might be stron-
gest in people who experience stressful major life events. Thus, genes
may or may not be expressed, depending on a child’s developmental
contexts. Similarly, a person’s genotype moderates the effect of an envi-
ronmental factor on outcomes, such as traits, behaviors, mental health,
and cognition. For example, highly stressful life events might be more
likely to lead to depression if a person has a particular pattern of genes.
Thus, due to the contributions of the environment, a given genotype
(genetic makeup) can result in different phenotypes ( outcomes— traits,
behaviors, etc.) in different children, and a given phenotype can reflect
different genotypes in different children.

To understand G X E interactions, it first is necessary to review a
few basic genetic concepts. Humans have 23 pairs of chromosomes in
each  cell, and each chromosome is composed of thousands of genes.
Genes are short segments along a long chemical spiraling chain of two
strands of DNA (see Figure 5.2). The basic chemical building blocks of
each gene’s DNA provide an information code (for example, the code
at the beginning of this chapter) for making proteins. These proteins
contribute to the  development and regulation of the organism. This
code involves particular sequences of these chemical building blocks. An
allele is one of two or more possible versions of a gene; these are called

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Genetics c 259

genetic polymorphisms—
variants of a particular
DNA sequence. Polymor-
phisms most commonly
involve different versions
of a single base pair (one
of the four pairs of the
genetic code presented
at the beginning of this
chapter) but instead can
involve long stretches

of DNA. A single gene may have many polymorphic regions and poly-
morphisms. An individual has two alleles for a gene pair— one from
each parent. The two alleles in a gene pair can be the same or different
versions, which affects which phenotype (e.g., eye color, blood type) a
person has. This is a main source of genetic variation among individuals
that could affect how much an environmental event or substance (e.g.,
an environmental toxin) affects them.

It is exceedingly complex to study G X E interactions because the
genetic landscape is huge: A person’s genome has 20,000 to 25,000
genes, which sounds like a lot, but is barely more than the number for
the miniscule roundworm, and much less than the 32,000 for an ear of
corn (Schnable et al., 2009). The genome has more than 3 billion bits of
information. Thus, the search for the genes relevant to the behavior or
trait of interest may seem like a search for a needle in a haystack. Still,
the search takes place with the knowledge that the genomes of any two
humans are more than 99 percent the same. Importantly, this one per-
cent of variation can provide valuable clues to the nature– nurture issue.

Genes can be analyzed from a small amount of blood or saliva. One
analytic technique is to examine variations across individuals in a very
small region of a gene that, based on prior research, is a prime suspect
for the outcome of interest. This is called the candidate gene approach.
The initial results were exciting, but subsequently they were not rep-
licated for the most part, perhaps because the gene– outcome link
depends on the environment, as shown in the G X E findings above.
Subsequently, researchers turned to a newer technique, called “Genome

F I G U R E   5 . 2
Chromosome structure, includ-
ing epigenetic changes.
[Patricia Miller]

DNA

Chromosome

Epigenetic modif ication

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260 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

Wide Association Studies” (GWAS), which examines much of the whole
genome of a very large number of individuals (usually thousands) to
detect genetic variations that are correlated with a particular mental
or physical disorder. Particular genetic patterns tend to co- occur with
schizophrenia, autism spectrum disorder, substance- use disorders, and
bipolar disorder (e.g., Horga, Kaur, & Peterson, 2014). Typically the
genetic pattern identified involves numerous genes, because few if any
outcomes of interest to psychologists are due to a single gene. In fact,
mental disorders likely are influenced by thousands of genetic polymor-
phisms (Hindorff et al., 2009). One finding of great surprise to genet-
icists is that about 98 percent of genetic variations are not even in the
coding portions of genes but somehow help regulate genes’ functioning.
Little is known about how these noncoding variants (formerly consid-
ered “junk” DNA) influence outcomes. Another complication to tracking
gene– behavior links is the discovery that what a gene can do can depend
on nearby genes; genes can interact, such that one gene can suppress
another one.

In general, the amount of variation in outcomes associated with
genetic variations from these analyses has been disappointingly small.
Thus, geneticists have moved to larger and larger samples to capture
small correlations between genetic polymorphisms and behavior. Again,
one reason that geneticists have found only small direct effects may be
that the association is large only in particular environments, which
reflects a G X E interaction. That is, the correlation may vary from one
environment to another, for example, under conditions of parental sup-
port versus neglect. Thus, G X E interactions show that mapping the
genome is not enough. At this point, psychologists have studied G X E
interactions for a variety of outcomes (e.g., depression, drug abuse, psy-
chopathology) in a variety of environments (e.g., high stress or trauma,
neglectful parenting, poor nutrition, and low physical activity).

In Chapter 1, the discussion of the issue of how nature and nurture
interact to direct development included examples of G X E interac-
tions. A study was described (Brody et  al., 2009) in which improving
parenting skills provided a protective factor for adolescent boys who
had a genetic predisposition for engaging in high- risk behaviors, such
that the predisposition was less likely to be expressed. Thus, good par-
enting is like an insurance policy. If children do happen to be genetically
predisposed to certain disorders that could be expressed under adverse
circumstances, then the effects of good parenting and social supports
may provide a buffer against gene expression and the resulting negative
outcomes. Such findings are exciting to developmental psychologists,

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Genetics c 261

because they show that when children have both high- risk genes and a
high- risk environment it is possible to create an environmental buffer to
genetic tendencies. Complicating the choice of interventions, however,
is the fact that the effects of an experience, such as a psychological inter-
vention, depend partly on a person’s genetic makeup.

The overall model of G X E interactions is that having, or not having,
particular adverse experiences can “turn on” or “turn off ” genes that pre-
dispose children to psychological or health problems later. This model
obviously is of great interest to developmentalists, who want to know
how genes are expressed during development in particular environments,
which may differ from one developmental point to another. To understand
how the environment can be a trigger or a silencer for relevant genes, it
helps to liken a person’s DNA to a large, organized library:

Asking what DNA does is like asking what a book in this library does.
Books sit on a shelf waiting to be read. Once read, the information in
those books can have limitless consequences and can perhaps even lead
to the reading of more books, but that refers to the book’s potential.
Likewise, DNA sits in our cells and waits to be read. The reading or so
called “expression” of DNA can, like the books in our library, have lim-
itless consequences. However, without the active process that triggers
“expression,” this potential may never be realized.

(Champagne, 2009, p. 27)

Just as certain books are blocked and others are easily reached, both
the environment and regions that regulate DNA can block DNA or make
it accessible, thus affecting how easily DNA is expressed. The environ-
ment provides, or does not provide, the trigger. Ineffective parenting,
high stress, or poor nutrition are examples of triggers. In this way, expe-
rience affects the expression of genes. The result is that each cell turns
on only a fraction of its genes. Developmental psychology takes center
stage in this work because turning on particular genes is timed to partic-
ular phases of development, as seen, for example, in puberty changes in
adolescence. Similarly, whether a particular experience is a trigger often
depends on the child’s age and developmental history (for example, poor
prenatal nutrition or lack of cuddling during infancy).

A fuller picture of the pathway between a genetic liability and an out-
come comes from a recent study (Davies et  al., 2015) illustrating the
G X E approach. It shows that genetic variation affects the sensitivity of
low- socioeconomic, predominantly minority toddlers to particular expe-
riences, specifically, mothers’ unresponsive caretaking. For children with
a genetic pattern known to put them at risk for poor self- regulation, this

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262 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

poor parenting was linked to an increase in disruptive behaviors two years
later. Children in the sample without that genotype did not show these
disruptive behaviors. Thus, a given environmental variable, unresponsive
mothering, may negatively impact only children with a particular genetic
makeup; some children are more vulnerable than others to adverse family
situations. The likely pathway was that prolonged unresponsive caretaking
triggered the expression of the high- susceptibility genetic variant, which
caused decreased dopamine activity in brain circuits involved in reward
seeking. This in turn led to an uninhibited temperament, with sensation
seeking and risk taking, which escalated into disruptive behaviors.

Epigenetic Models
One groundbreaking and startling finding is that one way that envi-
ronments can affect gene expression (a G X E interaction) is through
epigenetics— the modification of gene activity without actually changing
the gene. These chemical changes to or near the genes affect which genes
are turned on and which are turned off, and this change can continue
into the future. In effect, these chemical tags serve as enhancers and
repressors that reprogram the gene’s activity. It is as if little red or green
flags are attached to certain gene regions (see Figure 5.2). Epigenetic
changes can be caused by poor prenatal nutrition, parental maltreat-
ment, extreme stress, social isolation, and exposure to pollutants,
as well as many other events. Various outcomes have been observed,
including depression, schizophrenia, abnormal responses to stress, and
decreased learning and memory. Every individual has numerous epigen-
etic changes during development.

The actual mechanism of epigenetics sometimes involves attaching
certain chemical compounds to segments of DNA in genes, thereby
affecting access to them and governing the gene’s activity by suppress-
ing or enhancing it. That is, the compound “turns on” or silences the
gene. For example, in one study (Romens, McDonald, Svaren, & Pollak,
2015), high stress from parents’ physical maltreatment of their children
(ages 11 to 14) caused an epigenetic change affecting a gene involved
in stress regulation. The disrupted hormonal system for regulating
stress led to “cascades of downstream changes in biology and behavior”
(p. 303) known to lead to later health and psychological problems. It
often is the combination of genetic risk and environmental risk that
can push children into a maladaptive developmental pathway. What is
particularly important about epigenetics is that it potentially can be a
permanent change that continues to affect development in the future.

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Genetics c 263

Developmental science is at the heart of epigenetics because genes
are expressed during development as experiences accumulate. At any
developmental point, our epigenome (all our epigenetic changes) is
the sum of the environmental signals it has received thus far. Thus, for
example, the epigenetic effects of child maltreatment can accumulate
and only at some point trigger a genetic region. Also, new experiences
later in life can cause new epigenetic changes. Epigenetics is a lifelong
process, and each change in our epigenetic makeup affects how we react
to future environmental events. Also, developmental timing is everything.
A particular environmental event might cause an epigenetic change in
one developmental period but not another. Complicating the picture of
environmental influences on gene activity even further, to some extent
children create their own environments. For example, children with a
genetically predisposed temperament to engage with adults may then
evoke cognitively stimulating experiences from their environments,
which then enriches their environment and affects what epigenetic
changes might occur.

One of the most surprising findings is that epigenetic changes some-
times are passed on to future generations. For instance, maternal abuse
and neglect can cause epigenetic changes resulting in abnormal reactivity
to stress, which continues into the next generation (Champagne et al.,
2006). This finding helps explain the observed cycle of abuse and its nega-
tive effects across generations. The impact of environmental effects on the
next generation seems to contradict classical genetics principles taught in
high school— that experience does not alter genes. However, it is not the
genes themselves that are modified; rather, it is the “cellular memory” of
the altered gene expression profile that somehow is transmitted.

It still is uncertain how abnormal gene regulation conditions are
passed  on. It may involve the transmission of the chemically changed
context of the gene that altered its expression; the epigenetic signa-
ture  is passed on. Or, the transmission may occur prenatally, affect-
ing the  development of the fetus. Suggesting prenatal processes, the
newborns of depressed mothers also have the chemical changes asso-
ciated with this gene expression in the blood of their umbilical cords
(Oberlander et al., 2008).

Finally, an important, and intriguing, index of environmental influ-
ences on the genome is the length of telomeres— the tail- like regions
protecting the ends of chromosomes. Telomeres are thought to be a
molecular clock for biological aging in that eroded (and thus short-
ened) telomeres can indicate that factors such as smoking, obesity, or
chronic stress have  caused physiological wear and tear on the body

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264 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

(e.g., the cardiovascular system) and thus physical aging. Short telo-
meres are associated with chronic diseases of aging and early death. In
a longitudinal study,  children who experienced two or more forms of
violence— domestic violence, bullying, or physical maltreatment by an
adult— showed significant telomere erosion between ages 5 and 10, even
after controlling for socioeconomic status (Shalev et al., 2013). Similar
effects were shown in young adults, with high levels of stress at age 17
associated with nonsupportive parenting and predicting shorter telomere
length five years later (Brody, Yu, Beach, & Philibert, 2015). Specifically,
chronic activation of the body’s stress response damages the body.

Theoretical Issues
In a sense, epigenetic findings even destroy the dichotomy between
nature and nurture, because nurture changes the regulation of genes.
In light of G X E interactions and epigenetics, perhaps the most accu-
rate way to think about nature and nurture is that humans inherit
resources for development rather than specific gene- based character-
istics (Lickliter & Honeycutt, 2015). The meeting of genetic and envi-
ronmental processes is exceedingly complex— more complex than ever
imagined. An individual is constructed over the lifespan from a dynamic
developmental system consisting of various levels from genes to envi-
ronments, with causality in both directions. Moreover, genetics research
shows the importance of the timing of a particular experience, consis-
tent with ethologists’ notion of sensitive periods. For example, the study
described above on depression was conducted on adolescents because
that is a time when a number of major psychiatric disorders appear, sug-
gesting that adolescence may be a time of particular vulnerability to epi-
genetic changes. The fact that epigenetic effects can be cumulative and
permanent provides an explanation for how adverse early experiences
can cause problems years later.

One important theoretical advance is the differential susceptibil-
ity hypothesis, the theory that some children are especially affected
by environments— both positive and negative ones— whereas other
children are much less affected (Ellis, Boyce, Belsky, Bakermans-
Kranenburg, & Van IJzendoorn, 2011). Some children are like dande-
lions, who seem to be rather impervious to environmental input and
can grow in a variety of environmental circumstances; others are like
orchids, highly reactive and very influenced by both harsh and highly
nurturing environments. This concept may help solve certain mysteries
from research on environmental influences. For example, some children

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Genetics c 265

show remarkable resilience in a childhood of poverty, abuse, and high
stress and manage to stay on a positive developmental pathway. These
children may have genetic polymorphisms making them less susceptible
to environmental influences.

G X E and epigenetics research provide another level of explanation
to the other theories in this book. Each theory identifies particular types
of experience important for development, which potentially could affect
gene expression. For instance, Piaget focused on active interaction with
one’s physical world, Freud and ethologists emphasized early mother-
ing and attachment, Erikson emphasized culture- based socialization,
and Vygotsky thought early language interactions were important. The
genetic approach suggests pathways between these experiential histories
and psychological outcomes, namely, pathways involving turning genes
off or on and perhaps permanently altering the regulation of genes.
Epigenetics research also spotlights the physiological and behavioral
route between the environmental triggering of a gene and the positive
or negative behavioral outcome.

Genetics research also adds to our understanding, in each theory, of
individual differences in children’s responses to events and environments.
Polymorphisms affect the impact of the experiences and environmen-
tal influences emphasized by various theories. For example, different
children may respond differently to disequilibrium (Piaget’s theory) or
guidance in the zone of proximal development (sociocultural theory) or
aggressive models (social learning theory, Chapter 6).

Genetics research points to the need for theories to identify spe-
cific critical aspects of experience. For instance, in a longitudinal study
(Murphy, Slavich, Rohleder, & Miller, 2013), adolescent females at
risk for developing major depression showed more epigenetic markers
for depression at testing sessions only when one specific type of rejec-
tion, “targeted rejection” (intentional rejection of a person), recently
had occurred. This effect was especially strong for females who per-
ceived themselves as high in social status in their peer group. This sug-
gested that  targeted rejection set in motion a neurohormonal chain of
events that led to the inflammation of body systems, which is the body’s
protective response to damage or harmful stimuli, including stress.
Chronic inflammation is a change associated with mental and physical
illnesses. These findings suggest new hypotheses about possible different
effects of different kinds of environmental stressors. The study also sug-
gests that perceptions of the environment (accurate or inaccurate), not
just the environments themselves, influence the impact of environments
on susceptibility genes.

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Cultural developmental theories (Chapter 4) suggest the importance
of  attending to human diversity in G X E and epigenetics research.
Human  cultures differ in their DNA profiles. It matters who is stud-
ied. Most genetic research has been conducted on people of European
descent, but various genetic polymorphisms occur at different frequen-
cies in different populations. The NIH 1000 Genomes Project is an
international public– private consortium attempting to build a detailed
catalog of the main genetic variations between populations in Europe,
Africa, and East Asia. The goal is to identify the contribution of genetic
variation to illness. A main step is to show which genes indicate the most
variability in their responses to particular aspects of the environment.
However, cultural theories would argue that attending to genetic diver-
sity is only part of the story. Cultural diversity also may contribute to
G X E and epigenetic outcomes. For example, what constitutes a sup-
portive parental environment or what kinds of events are stressful may
show cultural differences.

The focus of genetics research on mental and physical diseases has
prompted developmentalists to construct new models of links between
experience, psychological development, and health. The impact of stress
on health, and on telomere length as an indicator of overall health, for
example, was described earlier. The growing awareness of connections
among genes, the environment, and health can be seen in a current
NIH initiative aimed at understanding effects of different environments
on genes. The Environmental Genome Project identifies “susceptibility
genes,” which have polymorphisms that make individuals particularly
sensitive or insensitive to radiation and natural and human- made chem-
icals, including environmental pollutants.

Some of the current theoretical controversies in genetics are quite
relevant to development. One concerns the extent to which epigene-
tic changes and the resulting bodily changes can be reversed. Another
concerns the fact that much of the genetic variation among people now
appears to come from outside of the coding genes, the basis for the
mapped human genome. Another controversy has to do with the fact
that most of the research thus far has focused on negative outcomes, such
as mental disorders or atypical development. Are the identified genetic
and epigenetic processes the same for normal development, including
positive developments or traits such as language acquisition, prosocial
behavior, and musical talent? Is there a critical difference between typical
environments and very enriched environments?

Several important questions about development likely will be
addressed  in future research. Are there sensitive periods for specific

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Genetics c 267

environments measured in G X E interactions? In fact, it has been sug-
gested that researchers should be developing G X E X D (Development)
models (Hyde, 2015). Early childhood and adolescence are good
candidates for sensitive periods because of significant neural, behav-
ioral, and environmental changes at those times. For example, peer
relations (e.g., affiliation and support versus rejection) may be a partic-
ularly strong mediator of gene- brain- behavior links during adolescence.
Another question concerns the range of environmental triggers in chil-
dren’s lives. Much of the genetic- oriented work thus far has looked at
mothering, which, though important, is only one of many important
environmental influences, particularly fathers.

Applications
These genetic and epigenetic breakthroughs have important applications.
Having more information about their children’s genetic makeup, or their
own, and the probability of susceptibility genes being expressed, can help
people make decisions related to physical and mental health (e.g., suscep-
tibility to depression, recommendations about lifestyle, such as exercise).
Eventually, newborn screening involving whole- genome analysis may be
routine. One goal of knowing the genetic composition and environmen-
tal stressors of various racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic groups is to help
tailor interventions to these groups in an attempt to eliminate health
disparities. This is similar to “personalized medicine” in the medical field.
An intervention that reduces stress on children or improves parenting
early on can deter the expression of susceptibility genes into negative
outcomes. Along with these applications, however, come a host of ethical
and legal issues. Do you want to know your genetic makeup, given that
it may alert you to dangers that might never materialize? Would informa-
tion about your child’s genetic makeup affect how you treat him or her?
Should doctors tell patients about a genetic risk for a disorder with no
known preventive treatment, such as early dementia?

Summary
G X E and epigenetic research provides complex new developmental
models of genetic and environmental influences. In fact, such research
has documented the importance of the environment as much as that of
genes. Genes mediate the impact of the environment, and the environ-
ment affects the expression of genes. Sometimes, through epigenetics,
experience even chemically alters gene regulation in ways that are
transmitted to the next generation in some cases. Children differ in their

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268 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

particular genetic vulnerabilities and even in how sensitive they are to
the environment in general. Environments vary in their degree of sup-
port for positive developmental pathways despite genetic vulnerabilities.

Integrated, Multilevel Biological Theoretical
Perspectives
The various biological approaches in this chapter have developed models
of the pathways between biological processes and behavior, making it
clear that genes, brain, and experience form a complex system in which
each influences, either directly or indirectly, each of the others. This
system is particularly complex because their interactions are develop-
mentally sensitive. For example, a particular environmental event might
cause an epigenetic change during early infancy but not if it occurs
later. Also adding to the complexity is the fact that interactions occur at
multiple levels, from cells to society. The following examples of these
complex models give a flavor of this interrelated system.

Because the brain often is the pathway through which genes are
expressed and thus influence behavior, a new field called developmental
neurogenetics has emerged recently (Hyde, 2015). This approach develops
models in which genetic polymorphisms are associated with particular
neural variability. In other words, the goal is to determine which genetic
polymorphisms predict particular variations in brain neurochemis-
try, architecture, or functioning, which in turn result in variations in
behavior. This approach typically uses the imaging techniques discussed
earlier to assess brain outcomes. An example of a neurogenetic finding
is that a particular genetic variant increases amygdala reactivity during
adolescents’ response to stress (i.e., angry faces) (Battaglia et al., 2012).
Specifically, such a pattern typically indicates a gene (or genes) send-
ing signals to the brain that affect the pathways of neurotransmitters.
Another example is that genetic polymorphisms that affect dopamine
production in certain brain areas are associated with low inhibition of
behavior, for instance, sensation seeking and impulsivity (Caylak, 2012).
One variation of this approach that can advance our understanding
of development is to study these correlations in specific subgroups of
people. For example, one might describe the neural and genetic profiles
of individuals who are resilient despite their developmental history of
harsh, and thus risky, environments (Hyde, 2015).

The developmental aspect of neurogenetics is that the gene- brain-
behavior associations often change as a function of age, not only during

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Integrated, Multi level Biological Theoretical Perspectives c 269

brain development but also throughout the lifespan as individuals engage
in new experiences. A main question is the mechanisms by which these
connections occur. The end result of correlating genetic, neural, and
behavioral variability is a probabilistic model of development. For
example, a model might present the probability of a child developing
depression in a particular environment (e.g., high social support vs.
maltreatment), based on information about the child’s genetic vulnera-
bilities and particular brain structure and functioning. Development is
central because, for example, an initial genetic variant with very small
effects can cascade (see Chapter 1), as one thing leads to another, into
large effects on behavior over time.

Neurogenetics is beginning to be applied to models of the develop-
ment of psychopathology (Hyde, 2015). There are known correlations
between particular brain patterns and particular psychopathologies.
A  neurogenetics model would link such correlations to particular
genetic polymorphisms. In other words, the goal is to link genetic vari-
ation to brain variation to behavior variation, including pathological
behaviors. Because brain chemistry and functioning are a phenotype that
is at a level closer to the genotype than are the more distant behaviors
used to classify different kinds of psychopathology, gene- brain links may
be easier to identify than gene- behavior links.

A recent model (Hyde, 2015) expands developmental neurogenetics
by adding measures of environmental variability. Thus, this model adds
G  X E interactions to neurogenetics, such that associations of brain
variability with both genetic and environmental variability are included.
Genes, brain, and behavior are all in an environmental context, and the
brain is  a mechanism linking G X E interactions to development. For
example, a strong brain reaction to stress might occur with a particular
genetic variant in a child developing in a harsh, stressful  environment
but not in a child developing in a more supportive environment.

Another model that nicely ties together the perspectives of this
chapter addresses the relations between the body’s response to stress
and later outcomes. Experiencing chronic violence during childhood,
such as mistreatment by adults, bullying, or domestic violence, often
has adverse effects inside a child’s body that put the child’s physical,
psychological, and cognitive health at risk later, even decades later. The
main mechanism appears to be the stress response, which can lead to the
epigenetic, telomere, and inflammatory changes described earlier. These
changes are associated with increased risk for health problems such as
heart disease, stroke, immune diseases, dementia, and metabolic diseases
(Moffitt et  al., 2013). Moreover, altered brain functioning, as seen in

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270 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

neuroimaging, is expressed in behavioral and learning problems, as well
as in depression and anxiety. The hormone cortisol, part of the stress
response, appears to be particularly important (e.g.,Wadsworth, 2015).
Some models of the stress response emphasize environmental conditions
such as poverty and racial discrimination. For instance, preadolescent
African- American preadolescents in the rural South who developed
psychosocial competence despite the developmental risks posed by their
family’s low socioeconomic status, paid a price in harmful physiological
changes in response to the high stress, evident by age 19 (Brody et al.,
2013). Moreover, the negative effects of family instability and maternal
unresponsiveness during the preschool years result in lower cognitive
functioning by age 4 (Suor, Sturge- Apple, Davies, Cicchetti, & Manning,
2015). Finally, maternal prenatal stress can affect development during
infancy and later. Mothers who experience chronic stress during preg-
nancy have newborns with elevated levels of cortisol in their bodies
(Pluess & Belsky, 2011).

Ethology and evolutionary psychology also are part of the study of
this complex system, as reflected for example in new fields, such as
neuroethology and evolutionary cognitive neuroscience. Regarding
connections between genetics and evolution, genetic variation and
plasticity in gene expression (as seen in epigenetics) contribute to
the survival of the species during evolution; when the environment
changes, some genetic polymorphisms may be better adapted than oth-
ers to the new environment. The growing evidence of both plasticity
in gene expression  and brain plasticity (in the effects of the environ-
ment and behavior on brain networks) shows that humans are uniquely
equipped to adapt to  changing environments. Altered gene regulation
and neural connections can, for instance, help us adapt to harsh social
or physical environments. For example, dangerous and unpredictable
environments tend to lead to  a  chronic stress response, which is neg-
ative from a health perspective, but by encouraging constant vigilance
may help children survive, adapt, and develop within that environment
(Wadsworth, 2015). In one study, children with stressful childhoods
showed improved detection, learning, and memory on tasks involving
stimuli of importance to them, such as those having to do with dangers
(Frankenhuis & de Weerth, 2013). These systems have evolved and, in
turn, potentially change the course of evolution through, for example,
the transmission of epigenetic changes across generations. In fact, some
of any individual’s inherited epigenetic makeup may have been created
by conditions hundreds of years ago and transmitted through subse-
quent generations.

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Summary c 271

Another way to think about relations between genetics and ethology
is that, given that the environments in which humans develop cause epi-
genetic changes that affect whether a gene is expressed, some genetically
possible behaviors never are expressed and thus cannot enter into the
process of natural selection by increasing or decreasing survival. Thus,
evolution involves not only genetic changes, but also epigenetic changes.

What can we conclude, regarding theory, from this account of neuro-
science and genetics? The predominant contemporary theoretical model
of gene- environment connections is that there is a dynamic interplay at
various levels, including genetic, epigenetic, neuronal, hormonal, emo-
tional, cognitive, behavioral, and environmental levels (e.g., Lickliter &
Honeycutt, 2015). In this developmental system (see also Chapter 9),
each level affects and is affected by each of the other levels: “All adapta-
tions, regardless of when they appear, have their roots in earlier expe-
riences, shaped by the bidirectional interaction between all levels of an
organism and its environment (both macroenvironments, such as the family
and one’s culture, and microenvironments, such as neurotransmitters and
chemicals affecting the functioning of DNA molecules)” (Bjorklund &
Ellis, 2014, p. 247). Note that genes do not hold a privileged controlling
position but are just one component that must interact with other com-
ponents in the system to function. Moreover, the nature of this system
changes from one developmental point to another, and early events can
cascade through later development. We already knew that development
is exceedingly complex; neuroscience and genetics, along with contem-
porary ethological and evolutionary psychology perspectives, are pro-
viding additional mechanisms to explain this complexity.

SUMMARY
The biological terrain of development has many players— ethology,
evolutionary psychology, developmental neuroscience, genetics, epi-
genetics, and many more. Each of these perspectives has made important
contributions to developmental theorizing. Each approach has revealed
both biological and environmental influences on development, and has
proposed models of how they interact. Environmental influences “get
under the skin” and become biologically embedded to impact develop-
ment, as when chronic stress in adverse environments can trigger sus-
ceptibility genes, cause epigenetic changes, and modify brain functioning.
These new findings basically destroy the nature– nurture dichotomy.

Ethology, along with other evolutionary perspectives, is one of zool-
ogy’s main contributions to developmental psychology. Thousands of

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272 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

hours spent observing animals, especially nonhuman primates, have
helped us understand human behavior and its development. Each spe-
cies, including humans, has a set of innate behaviors, specific to that
species. These behaviors have evolved phylogenetically because they have
increased that species’ chances of surviving in its particular environment.
Some of the most important behaviors are social, such as imprinting and
dominance behaviors. Of particular interest are fixed- action patterns
elicited by sign stimuli. Even learned behaviors have a strong genetic
component, because each species has particular learning predispositions
in the form of sensitive periods or general and specific learning abilities.
Ethologists study behaviors by conducting both observations in natural
settings and experimental studies in laboratories.

The ethological point of view has most influenced developmental
psychology by stimulating work on attachment. Very young infants
and adults are pretuned to respond to each other. Current attachment
research examines long- term effects of each pattern of attachment,
adult attachment styles, correlates between parenting quality and infant
attachment, links between attachment quality and an infant’s stress
response, and biological processes involved in developing attachment.
Observation of dominance hierarchies in primates and other animals
has led to similar studies of human peer groups, especially in preschool
settings. Investigators also have asked what cognitive skills might have
evolved in natural settings. With respect to developmental issues, ethol-
ogists see humans as a species that has evolved in order to survive within
a particular environmental niche. Behavior changes both quantitatively
and qualitatively as innate and environmental factors interact during
development. The result is an organism that can operate efficiently within
its environment.

Ethology has several strengths to offer the current field of develop-
mental psychology. With respect to theory, it provides a broad evo-
lutionary perspective on behavior that has encouraged investigators
to look at the function of children’s behaviors. Ethologists advocate
more observational studies of children in natural settings in order to
determine the function of particular behaviors. A final contribution is
the identification of several content areas as particularly important in
development, such as dominance hierarchies, attachment, and cogni-
tion. Ethology has certain weaknesses, however, that limit its usefulness
for developmental psychology. Its theoretical notions, such as sensitive
periods, have not yet reached an explanatory level. With respect to
methodology, the observational method poses many challenges. Finally,
ethologists find it difficult to study certain aspects of development, such

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as language and abstract thought in older children. Main examples of
contemporary ethological and evolutionary research on development
are attachment, the evolution of human cognition in social groups, and
adaptation during development.

Ethology and evolutionary psychology are a fruitful source of work-
ing hypotheses about what behaviors are important and why they are
acquired. An ethological attitude opens the investigator’s eyes to a broad
context that spans space and time and various levels of analysis. In par-
ticular, ethologically based observations in the early phases of a research
project can give the “big picture” of the behavior that will later be stud-
ied in a controlled laboratory setting.

Neuroscience perspectives have produced models of brain develop-
ment, as cause of and effect of, children engaged in their environments.
Anatomical changes, such as increased myelination, make new learning
possible. An initial overproduction of neurons in early infancy is mod-
ified by experience. Humans have a lifetime of strengthening certain
neural pathways, developing new pathways, and pruning away unused
pathways. An initially highly plastic brain becomes less plastic as spe-
cialization of brain areas and pathways gradually occurs during devel-
opment. Brain areas develop at different rates, resulting in important
asynchronies at certain developmental points, as seen in adolescents’
difficulties controlling their risk- taking behaviors. Finally, brain devel-
opment takes place over the lifespan, subject to constraints from genes,
the environment, and development. Neuroscience has revealed import-
ant mechanisms related to the nature– nurture issue and has provided
evidence for both qualitative and quantitative development. In applica-
tions, neuroscience has improved our understanding of developmental
disorders, such as autism, and has informed the design of educational
programs.

The human genome is an amazingly complex blueprint for develop-
ment. Just as a blueprint may never become a house, a genome may never
be fully translated into behaviors. Genes may be expressed similarly in
most environments, expressed more in some environments than others,
or not expressed at all in certain environments. The two main approaches
are Gene X Environment models and epigenetics. G X E interactions
show that a person’s genotype moderates the effect of an environmental
factor on outcomes, such as traits, behaviors, mental health, and cogni-
tion. For example, highly stressful life events might be more likely to lead
to depression if a person has a particular pattern of genes. Similarly, the
environment moderates the association between a particular gene poly-
morphism and an outcome. Positive, close relationships, especially with

Summary c 273

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274 c BIOLOGICAL APPROACHES

parents, can buffer the negative effects of certain genes. Epigenetics pro-
vides the molecular mechanism by which G X E interactions affect cell
biology and consequently behavior. Through epigenetics, certain aspects
of the environment affect whether a genetic predisposition is expressed
in behavior, which can result in permanent changes in gene regulation.
Moreover, epigenetic changes can be transmitted to the next generation.
G X E interactions and epigenetics during the course of development
influence degrees of risk for developing a problem, given vulnerable gene
polymorphisms. Bringing together neuroscience and genetics, recent
models have correlated genetic variations and specific patterns of brain
activity. Such information clarifies how the brain is a mediator between
genes and behavior. Variations in environments also should be added to
these models.

Current models of the dynamic interplay among genes, brain, behavior,
and the environment favor a systems approach, to capture the complexity
and co- influences of these components. Development emerges from these
interactions among multiple levels of influence.

SUGGESTED READINGS
The following readings survey evolutionary, including ethological,
research on humans and animals:

Bjorklund, D. F., & Ellis, B. J. (2014). Children, childhood, and devel-
opment in evolutionary perspective. Developmental Review, 34(3),
225–264.

Narvaez,  D., Panksepp,  J., Schore,  A.  N., & Gleason,  T.  R. (Eds.).
(2013). Evolution, early experience and human development: From research
to practice. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Lorenz delights us with this account of his life with animals:

Lorenz, K. Z. (1952). King Solomon’s ring. New York: Crowell.

Cognitive developmental neuroscience:

Johnson, M. H., & de Haan, M. (2015). Developmental cognitive neurosci-
ence: An introduction. New York: Wiley- Blackwell. A clear overview of
the field— a good place to start.

Genetics:

NIH has worked with several scientific organizations to create websites
with genetics tutorials for scientists and students in the social sciences.

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Suggested Readings c 275

As of this writing, the following one with the National Coalition for
Health Profession Education in Genetics is especially useful: http://
www.nchpeg.org/bssr/

Hyde,  L.  W. (2015). Developmental psychopathology in an era of
molecular genetics and neuroimaging: A developmental neurogenet-
ics approach. Development and Psychopathology, 27, 587–613.

Meaney,  M.  J. (2010). Epigenetics and the biological definition of
Gene X Environment interactions. Child Development, 81, 41–79. This
article provides background on epigenetics and Gene X Environment
interaction.

06_MIL_7898_ch5_211_276.indd 275 1/8/16 5:10 PM

http://www.nchpeg.org/bssr/

http://www.nchpeg.org/bssr/

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Social Learning Theory

Subjects were tested for the amount of imitative learning. . . . Three measures of
imitation were obtained: Imitation of physical aggression: This category included
acts of striking the Bobo doll with the mallet, sitting on the doll and punching it
in the nose, kicking the doll, and tossing it in the air. Imitative verbal aggression:
Subject repeats the phrases, “Sock him,” “Hit him down,” “Throw him in the air,” or
“Pow.” Imitative nonaggressive verbal responses: Subject repeats, “He keeps coming
back for more,” or “He sure is a tough fella.”

—Bandura, ross, & ross, 1961, p. 33

Dialogue between an interviewer (I) and a mother (M) about her adolescent son:
I: Have you ever encouraged Earl to stand up for himself ?
M: Yes, I’ve taught young Earl, and his Dad has. I feel he should stand up for his
rights, so you can get along in this world.
I: How have you encouraged him?
M: I’ve told him to look after himself and don’t let anybody shove him around or
anything like that, but not to look for trouble. I don’t want him to be a sissy.
I: Have you ever encouraged Earl to use his fists to defend himself ?
M: Oh yes. Oh yes. He knows how to fight.

—Bandura & Walters, 1959, p. 115

These lessons were learned well. One of the boys interviewed mentioned his pride
in his prowess at “stomping”—fighting with his feet: “Like my Dad, he said, ‘If you
know how to fight with your feet, then it’s in your hands, you’ve got it made,’ or
something like that. ‘You never need to be afraid of anybody. ’”

—Bandura & Walters, 1959, p. 122

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C H A P T E R 6

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278 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

M
ark Twain once remarked, “Training is everything. The peach
was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage
with a college education.” This optimistic view of learning
captures learning theorists’ belief that development comes

primarily from experience. Children acquire new behaviors and modify
old behaviors as they encounter their social and physical world. As spe-
cific learning experiences accumulate, children develop, but not in the
stagelike way described by Freud and Piaget. The learning approach is
at the opposite end of the continuum from the biological approaches of
the previous chapter.

It is important to know about learning theories because they brought
scientific respectability to developmental psychology. The approach’s
rigorous research methods made laboratory studies of children possible
in the 1950s and early 1960s, developmental psychology’s formative
years. In this chapter, we see the expansion and transformation of early
learning theory into social learning theory. The focus is on social learning
theory, the most influential learning theory within developmental psy-
chology. The chapter will also present some contemporary approaches
to learning as it is defined today.

Learning theory is the most truly American theory. Most of the
theories in this book arose in Europe and only later influenced North
American psychology. Although early learning studies in Europe can be
found in Russian work on reflexes and conditioning and Ebbinghaus’s
verbal-learning studies in Germany, learning theory blossomed and had
most of its influence on U.S. soil. Learning theory has become part of
our culture and has entered our language as “behaviorism,” “rat psy-
chology,” “behavior modification,” “Skinner box,” and “reinforcement.”
It probably is no accident that learning theory’s emphasis on the role
of the  environment fits so well with American egalitarian ideals. If
the environment offers equal opportunity for all, then all humans can
achieve their potential.

In order to understand the assumptions and goals of social learning
theory, we start with its heritage in “classical” learning theory. After that,
sections include a general orientation to social learning theory, examples
of developmental research, and an overview of mechanisms of devel-
opment. Final topics include the theory’s position on developmental
issues, its applications, its strengths and weaknesses, and contemporary
research. The coverage of social learning theory focuses on work stim-
ulated by Albert Bandura, the figure most associated with the theory.
Although Bandura now prefers the term “social cognitive theory,” that
term will not be used because it causes confusion with other areas of

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History of the Theory ▶ 279

developmental psychology typically labeled as “social cognition.” Also,
the term “social learning theory” still is commonly used by developmen-
tal psychologists when referring to Bandura’s theory.

History of the Theory
Classical learning theory raised many of the issues to which social learn-
ing theory responded. As Henri Bergson (1911, p. 11) noted, “The pres-
ent contains nothing more than the past, and what is found in the effect
was already in the cause.”

Learning Theory
In the early 1900s, psychologists’ attempts to examine systematically
the structure of the mind and the nature of consciousness relied on
introspection—verbalizing one’s own thoughts or feelings. This unsatis-
factory state of affairs led to John Watson’s “declaration of behaviorism”
in 1913. In this strongly worded statement, he asserted that the goal
of psychology should be to predict and control overt behavior, not to
describe and explain conscious states. Just as physical scientists could
observe physical events, psychologists could now point to physical
events (behaviors) as the content of their science and measure them
objectively. Rats press bars, children push buttons, and adults say words.

Learning theorists’ belief in the influence of the environment is
expressed in a famous quote from Watson:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified
world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random
and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor,
lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief,
regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and
race of his ancestors.

(1924, p. 104)

Watson did, however, go on to say: “I am going beyond my facts, and I
admit it, but so have the advocates of the contrary and they have been
doing it for many thousands of years.”

Although there are many definitions of learning, a common one is
“a more or less permanent change in behavior which occurs as a result
of practice” (Kimble, 1961, p. 2). Learning theorists’ reductionist strat-
egy for understanding complex behavior is to break it down into simple
units, study the units, and then put the behavior back together again.

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280 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

The simplest units are associations between a stimulus and a response—
the atoms of psychology. The research strategy, then, is to study sim-
ple associations, then chains of S–R (stimulus–response) associations,
and perhaps even hierarchies of chains, in order to explain complex
behavior. Metaphorically, many simple units of Tinkertoy sticks and
joiners are combined to form a larger structure. During development,
S–R associations can be strengthened, weakened, or chained with other
associations.

Traditionally, learning has been divided into two types: classical con-
ditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning begins with
a reflex—an innate connection between a stimulus and a response.
Examples of reflexes that can be classically conditioned include salivating
when food is placed in the mouth, sucking when a nipple is placed in
an infant’s mouth, and constricting the pupil when a light is shone into
the eye. An unconditioned stimulus (nipple placed in the mouth) elicits
the unconditioned response (sucking). A conditioned stimulus (sight of
the bottle) occurs just before the bottle is given. After repeated pairing
of the bottle and sucking, simply showing a bottle produces sucking.
Sucking has become a conditioned response. More exotic examples are
asthmatic attacks triggered by stimuli such as elevators, children’s choirs,
bicycle races, political speeches, and the national anthem (Dekker &
Groen, 1956).

The most famous case of classical conditioning in children is Watson’s
“Little Albert” experiment. Watson was awarded the grand sum of $100
in 1917 to do this research. He and Rosalie Rayner (Watson & Rayner,
1920) classically conditioned a fear response in 11-month-old Albert.
They placed a white rat in front of the toddler. As he reached for it,
they struck a steel bar behind him with a hammer, producing a noxious,
painful sound. Albert jerked in alarm and cried. After several repeti-
tions of this pairing of the rat and the sound, Albert cried and crawled
away when the rat alone was presented. Albert’s fear was a conditioned
response to the conditioned stimulus, the white rat. The initial reflex was
that the noxious sound (unconditioned stimulus) produced pain (uncon-
ditioned response). The conditioned response generalized to objects
such as a rabbit, a fur coat, and a Santa Claus mask. As it turned out, his
mother removed him from the experiment before Watson had a chance
to decondition him. This study has become controversial in recent years
(Griggs, 2014). In addition to ethical issues, questions have been raised
about Albert’s identity, whether he might have been born with neuro-
logical problems, and whether the conditioning was as successful as is

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History of the Theory ▶ 281

commonly believed. Over the years, textbook writers have “improved”
the results. In addition, there were methodological problems that muddy
any interpretation of the results.

At a later time, one of Watson’s students, Mary Cover Jones (1924),
found that a naturally acquired fear of animals in a 2-year-old child,
Peter, could be eliminated by extinguishing this fear response, which
presumably was a conditioned response. Peter was seated in a highchair
and given a snack, which produced a positive response. As he ate, a white
rabbit in a cage was brought closer and closer. The conditioned stimulus
(the white rabbit) was not allowed to become powerful enough to evoke
the response of fear by, for example, suddenly being brought too near.
As the stimulus occurred without the related fear response, this associa-
tion was weakened. At the same time, eating, the positive response, was
replacing the negative fear response to the rabbit. The procedure was
quite successful. By the end of the study, Peter was stroking the rabbit
and letting it nibble at his fingers. This treatment obviously requires
a skillful experimenter who does not inadvertently teach the child to
associate eating with fear!

There is an interesting footnote to this research. Peter had to enter a
hospital for treatment of scarlet fever. As Peter was leaving the hospital,
an unfortunate incident occurred. A large dog lunged at him, frightening
him terribly. When Jones then retested Peter, he had reacquired his fear
response to animals and had to be deconditioned again.

This deconditioning technique for overcoming fears contrasts with
Freud’s psychoanalytic study of Little Hans’s fear of horses. Whereas
Freud was concerned with the deep-seated, underlying anxieties, learn-
ing theorists simply try to change the behavior. If Hans would very
gradually approach horses and at the same time establish some posi-
tive response to horses, his conditioned fear response should weaken.
Freud’s view would be that these procedures treat only the symptoms,
not the underlying psychological cause of the problem. If one symptom
is removed, another may appear in its place.

It is difficult to extinguish phobias without intervention because
they  are self-perpetuating. By avoiding the feared situation, people
reduce the rising anxiety. Thus, the phobia is reinforced. In addition,
they have no opportunity to extinguish the fear because they do not
allow the feared stimulus to be present. There is an old joke about a man
who is asked why he always holds a banana in his ear. His answer is that
it keeps the lions away. When told there are no lions around, he replies,
“See? It works!”

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Watson (1924) considered children “lumps of clay” to be shaped by their
environment. He carried his ideas to parents in his child-care manual:

There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they
were young adults. Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspec-
tion. Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm. Never hug
and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once
on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the
morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary
good job of a difficult task. Try it out. In a week’s time you will find how
easy it is to be perfectly objective with your child and at the same time
kindly. You will be utterly ashamed of the mawkish, sentimental way you
have been handling it.

(1928, pp. 81–82)

It speaks well for the wisdom and common sense of parents that they did
not adopt his philosophy wholeheartedly. By the 1920s, Watson had left
academia and had become an advertising executive.

The other main kind of learning, operant conditioning, was championed
by B. F. Skinner—one of the most well-known psychologists in history.
Unlike classical conditioning, which begins with a reflex, operant con-
ditioning begins with a behavior that a child spontaneously produces.
Children learn that if they produce a certain behavior, such as smiling
at a parent, they will receive a reinforcement (the delighted parent will
pick them up and play with them). If this sequence occurs a number
of times, smiling can be said to be operantly conditioned as it becomes
more frequent.

The environment changes not only the frequency of behavior by
strengthening and weakening associations but also its form—through
shaping. Pigeons do not naturally play table tennis. However, by begin-
ning with the table-tennis-related behaviors they do have, it is possible
to slowly modify these behaviors into a chain of movements appropriate
to table tennis. The experimenter “ups the ante” (raises the requirement
for obtaining reinforcement) as the behavior gradually comes to approx-
imate the desired behavior. Early in training, moving toward the ball
might be sufficient to receive reinforcement, but later on it may be nec-
essary to make the ball drop onto the opponent’s side in order to receive
reinforcement. Two of Skinner’s students, Keller and Marian Breland,
used shaping to train animals to perform acts for advertising and in their
“IQ Zoo” (Joyce & Baker, 2008). Popgun Pete, a trained chicken, could
pull a string to fire a cannon, and a rabbit could ride a fire engine and
put out a fire. In one exhibit, “Bird Brain,” visitors could play tic-tac-toe
against a chicken, who usually won.

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History of the Theory ▶ 283

Skinner described his first attempt to use shaping on a human:
I soon tried the procedure on a human subject—our 9-month-old
daughter. I was holding her on my lap one evening when I turned on
a table lamp beside the chair. She looked up and smiled, and I decided
to see whether I could use the light as a reinforcer. I waited for a slight
movement of her left hand and turned on the light for a moment. Almost
immediately, she moved her hand again, and again I reinforced. I began to
wait for bigger movements, and within a short time, she was lifting her
arm in a wide arc—“to turn on the light.”

(1980, p. 196)

Thousands of behaviors can be operantly conditioned, ranging
from rats increasingly pressing a bar to children’s diminished drool-
ing (Johnston, Sloane, & Bijou, 1966) to pigeons’ guiding missiles to
their targets in Skinner’s Project Pigeon during World War II. Skinner
(1967) even kept a cumulative record of his writing output, for self-
reinforcement. In a novel, Walden Two (1948), Skinner proposed that
children in his utopian society be raised by behavioral engineers, special-
ists in operant conditioning. Desirable behaviors such as self-control and
independence would be fostered by reinforcement, whereas undesirable
behaviors such as jealousy and poor work habits would be extinguished
by lack of reinforcement.

Skinner’s research goal of defining and controlling the environment
led to the development of certain apparatuses, such as the Skinner box.
This cage-box, with a lever that the animal presses, delivered a food pel-
let to the tray below. Skinner also created a controlled environment for
one of his own infants—a completely enclosed, temperature-controlled,
soundproof “baby tender.” This device has been called a “baby box” and
even an “heir conditioner” (Bradley, 1989). However, it was not, as many
people believed, a Skinner box for conditioning babies.

In the 1960s, laboratory research showed that a wide variety of behav-
iors in infants and children could become more frequent if they were
reinforced. Developmentalists were particularly interested to find that
(a) social reinforcers, such as attention, smiles, and praise from other
people, are especially potent, and (b) the principles of operant condi-
tioning could be applied successfully to undesirable behaviors in natural
settings. So-called behavior modification thus was applied to problematic
behaviors such as temper tantrums, avoidance of social interaction, and,
with autism spectrum disorders, the lack of spoken language. A behav-
ior modifier changes the reinforcement contingencies so that desirable
behavior is reinforced and thereby maintained while undesirable behav-
ior is ignored and thereby weakened. In other words, you try to catch

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284 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

the child doing something right and reinforce it. Harris, Wolf, and Baer
(1967) observed an extremely withdrawn boy who spent 80 percent of
the time at preschool playing alone. Their observations revealed that the
teachers had unintentionally reinforced this behavior by talking to him
and comforting him when he was alone. They ignored the child when he
played with others. The behavior modification program reversed these
contingencies. The teachers attended to the boy when he joined a group
and ignored him when he withdrew. He soon spent 60 percent of his
time playing with other children. Behavior modification thus showed
that a common set of learning principles underlies both normal and
abnormal behavior in children.

As the above account shows, learning studies with children were sim-
ply translations of paradigms used with animals. Children even wandered
through mazes seeking prizes (rather than cheese) at the end (Hicks &
Carr, 1912). It should come as no surprise that children learned faster
than rats but more slowly than college sophomores. The laws of learning
were considered the same in children and other populations. For learning
theorists in the 1950s and 1960s, development involves the accumula-
tion of operantly and classically conditioned responses: “The developing
child may be adequately regarded, in conceptual terms, as a cluster of
interrelated responses interacting with stimuli” (Bijou & Baer, 1961,
p. 15). Learning changes behavior, and thereby causes development.

However, children soon showed that they were unlike rats in many
ways. As learning theorists used slightly more complex tasks in the 1950s
and 1960s, they came to view children as “rats with language.” Children
could label attributes of objects, such as their color or size, and use the
labels to help them learn which attribute always led to reinforcement.
Learning began to look cognitive: Attending to relevant information,
forming hypotheses about the correct answer, and generating strategies
for gathering information increased children’s speed of learning. In fact,
these cognitive skills struck developmentalists as much more important
and interesting than learning per se—the somewhat trivial behavior
of detecting which stimulus was arbitrarily linked to reinforcement in
that particular task. Thus, psychologists began to study language, atten-
tion, memory, and strategies instead. The active, strategic, hypothesis-
forming child seen in learning tasks resembled children described by
Piaget, whose work was beginning to attract attention in the U.S. in
the early 1960s. Furthermore, learning researchers had used abstract,
meaningless stimuli—often colored, geometric shapes—because they
wanted to measure “pure” basic processes of learning, uncontaminated
by previous learning. It is ironic, then, that the most interesting findings

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History of the Theory ▶ 285

from learning research involved children’s use of their previously
acquired cognitive, linguistic, and social abilities as they attempted to
make sense of the simple, meaningless task put before them. The “con-
tamination” was interesting indeed.

Discontent with learning theory came from other quarters as well.
Some of the doubts came from within; hundreds of studies of verbal
learning had not led to a satisfactory account of memory or learning.
In addition, new evidence suggested that biological predispositions
limit or modify the laws of learning. For a given species, some kinds
of learning are easier than others. For example, rats learn to associate
nausea with a certain taste but not with a light or a sound (Garcia &
Koelling, 1966). At the same time, learning theory faced external chal-
lenges. Noam Chomsky’s (1959) attack on B. F. Skinner’s account of
language acquisition was a serious blow because it showed that learning
approaches could not explain the acquisition of a skill as complex as lan-
guage. In addition, alternative conceptions of learning were developing.
Information processing (see Chapter 7), Chomsky’s transformational
grammar, and Piaget’s cognitive theory provided attractive alternative,
more cognitive, explanations of behavior: They characterized learning
as a change in knowledge rather than as a change in the probability of
response. With the entrance of cognitive psychology, psychology began
what Hebb (1960) called its “second American revolution,” the first
being the elimination of any psychology based on introspection.

However, learning theory served a need of the young discipline of
psychology at a critical point in its history. Researchers adopted William
James’s (1892, p. 146) attitude: “I wished, by treating psychology like a
natural science, to help her become one.” Learning theory adopted the
physical sciences as its model, an emphasis that has been called “physics
envy.” Learning theorists asked questions that could be answered and
provided a fruitful methodology for examining those questions, usually
tightly controlled laboratory experiments. In Sheldon White’s words,
learning theories were so influential

because they found for Psychology a reasonable species of psychologi-
cal reality, and because they then laid down a paradigm of cooperative
research procedures which might search that reality with a hope of sig-
nificant findings. . . . one could stop the hair-splitting and throat-clearing
and one could move into intensive scientific development.

(1970, p. 662)

This phase in the history of developmental psychology, from the early
1960s to the early 1970s, was an exciting and fruitful time. A new wave

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286 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

of productive and enthusiastic researchers developed clever experimen-
tal tasks adapted to children. There was confidence that developmental
psychology was progressing. Developmentalists conducted hundreds of
laboratory studies, usually with children easily available—bright, upper-
middle-class children in university towns. (Some 4-year-olds even
greeted experimenters with “What reinforcement do I get this time?”)

Social Learning Theory
Against this backdrop, social learning theorists emerged. They took
learning theory and made it social. Social learning theory was born in
the 1930s at Yale University, perhaps when Clark Hull offered a graduate
seminar on relating learning theory to psychoanalysis. Many of those
attending would become pioneers in social learning theory—O. H.
Mowrer, Neal Miller, John Dollard, Robert Sears, Leonard Doob, and
John Whiting. One of the seminar topics led to the group’s first major
publication, Frustration and Aggression (Dollard, Doob, Miller, Mowrer, &
Sears, 1939), which explored the causes of aggression.

The young group of scholars, trained in learning theory by Hull but
also inspired by Freud, combined these two traditions. In fact, one of
their publications, Personality and Psychotherapy (Dollard & Miller, 1950),
was dedicated to both Freud and Pavlov. Social learning theorists took
interesting and important content from Freudian theory, such as the con-
cepts of dependency, aggression, identification, conscience formation,
and defense mechanisms, but sought explanations for behavior in princi-
ples of stimulus-response learning, which could be observed, rather than
the unconscious, which could not. In Dollard and Miller’s words, “The
ultimate goal is to combine the vitality of psychoanalysis, the rigor of
the natural-science laboratory, and the facts of culture” (1950, p. 3). The
guiding belief of social learning theorists was that personality is learned:

If neurotic behavior is learned, it should be unlearned by some combina-
tion of the same principles by which it is taught. . . . We view the thera-
pist as a kind of teacher and the patient as a learner. In the same way and
by the same principles that bad tennis habits can be corrected by a good
coach, so bad mental and emotional habits can be corrected by a psycho-
therapist. There is this difference, however. Whereas only a few people
want to play tennis, all the world wants a clear, free, efficient mind.

(Dollard & Miller, 1950, pp. 7–8)

Social learning theorists explored much territory in the 1940s and
1950s: imitation, neuroses, cross-cultural influences on personality, iden-
tification, dependency, and child-rearing practices. Their work focused

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History of the Theory ▶ 287

on socialization, the process by which society attempts to teach children
to behave like the ideal adults of that society. As Dollard and Miller
observed, “A system of child training built on the laws of learning might
have the same powerful effect on the neurotic misery of our time as
Pasteur’s work had on infectious diseases” (1950, p. 8). Research exam-
ined correlations between characteristics of parents (for example, high
control and low warmth) or their child-rearing practices (e.g., early
toilet training—Freudianism was still hovering) and the child’s later
personality. In a prototypic study (Sears, Rau, & Alpert, 1965), a child
was placed in a roomful of attractive toys and asked to watch a hamster,
which was in a box with no lid. The experimenter left the room to finish
making the lid for the box. When the temptation to take a closer look
at the toys became too great and the child’s attention left the hamster
for a moment, the hamster silently disappeared through a false floor in
the box. Measures of conscience, specifically guilt, included the length
of time before deviating, the child’s emotional reaction to the deviation,
whether the child confessed, and whether the child accepted blame for
the disappearance.

At first, social learning theorists kept Freud’s focus on drives, whose
reduction is reinforcing. Later, in a major theoretical shift, Miller and
Dollard (1941) turned to imitation as a powerful learning process for
socialization. They proposed that children learn a general tendency
to imitate because various imitative behaviors are reinforced. This
reinforcement of imitation may start very early, as illustrated by this
11-month-old:

Shamini (11 months), noticing great-grandmother snoring with open
mouth, makes a face with jaws open wide but mouth pulled down to
form a small “o” as an imitation of what was an extreme facial gesture.
This causes enormous though slightly embarrassed hilarity in [the] rest
of [the] family. Shamini responds directly to the laughing others, looking
at their faces, laughing, and repeats her “face” with great amusement
several times.

(Reddy, 1991, p. 145)

Social learning theory provided a new perspective on Freud’s import-
ant concept of identification with the same-sex parent. Rather than
“incorporate” the parent and thus acquire a superego, children observe
parents and imitate their behaviors, reflecting their moral values.
Children also control their own behavior by repeating to themselves
their parents’ approving (reinforcement) or disapproving (punishment)
statements. Moreover, adults may praise a boy for being “just like his

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288 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

father.” Children tend to imitate models, such as parents or siblings, who
have been rewarding in the past.

Bandura and Walters (1963) then carried the concept of modeling one
step further by showing that children acquire new behaviors simply by
watching a model who is reinforced. (This cannot have been a stunning
discovery to any parent!) Children who see a hard-working classmate
praised by the teacher learn to try that behavior. And, on the side of
evil, children who get away with a naughty behavior are quickly imitated
as well. Bandura and Walters called this process vicarious reinforcement.
Thus, learning occurs without overt behavior—“no-trial learning,” in
Bandura’s words. This was an important advance over traditional learn-
ing theory, because operant conditioning can gradually produce rela-
tively new behaviors by shaping but cannot explain how complex new
behaviors emerge suddenly after a child watches peers play a new game
or views the antics of superheroes on television.

Bandura and Walters’ imitation theory greatly influenced develop-
mental psychology in the 1960s and early 1970s. It guided most studies
of aggression, sex typing, and resistance to temptation. There was great
interest in discovering which characteristics of models, such as warmth,
power, and similarity to the observer, encouraged imitation. In addition,
the list of social reinforcers was broadened to include peers.

Bandura continued to develop social learning theory and made it even
more cognitive, and thus coined the term social cognitive theory (Bandura,
2012). Social learning theory was able to continue to thrive, despite
the demise of learning theory more generally, because Bandura brought
cognition into social learning theory early on in plausible and interest-
ing ways. He rejected what he called the radical behaviorist “cognitive
bypass operation” (Evans, 1989, p. 83). He was less concerned with the
literal duplication of behavior (imitation) than with observational learning
as a more general process of acquiring information from other people,
books, and electronic media. Observational learning may lead to imita-
tion when there is a model to imitate, but it need not lead to imitation.

After children acquire new behaviors by observing various models,
they can combine and cognitively organize these behaviors to form
more complex behaviors. A girl may become gender typed as female
by observing behaviors of her mother, older sister, female teachers, and
females on television. Learning to play basketball requires integrating a
number of simpler subskills, such as dribbling, guarding, and shooting
baskets. Children sometimes can learn whole complex behaviors all at
once. A young child may learn to play Monopoly after watching peers
play one game.

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 289

Because of his groundbreaking work, Bandura is listed as the 20th
century’s fourth most eminent psychologist, right after Skinner, Piaget,
and Freud (Haggbloom et al., 2002). He won several top awards, includ-
ing the American Psychological Association’s Distinguished Scientific
Contribution award “for masterful modeling as researcher, teacher,
and theoretician” (American Psychologist, 1981, p. 27). He was elected
to the  National Academy of Sciences, is a Fellow of the American
Academy of Arts and Sciences, and served as president of the American
Psychological Association.

General Orientation to the Theory
The main characteristics of social learning theory are the centrality of
observational learning, a causal model that involves an environment–
person–behavior system, cognitive contributions to learning, and
self-efficacy and agency.

Observational Learning
Both Vygotskian–sociocultural theory and social learning theory empha-
size environmental, nonbiological influences on behavior and the impor-
tance of learning from watching other people in this environment. Both
view development as embedded within pervasive cultural belief systems,
which are acquired by children in part by participating in activities with
other people. However, social learning theorists focus on children as
individuals acquiring competencies and skills, whereas sociocultural the-
ories emphasize children’s culturally saturated social contexts.

Observational learning provides one answer to one of the big myster-
ies of development—how children quickly learn complex new behav-
iors. Observational learning accounts for most new behaviors. Toddlers
learn an average of one to two new behaviors every day simply by
watching and listening to others (Barr & Hayne, 2003). Observational
learning is particularly useful for explaining how novel, complex behav-
iors are acquired during development, which is especially important in
those areas where mistakes are costly or life threatening. There cannot be
much trial-and-error learning in avoiding playing in the street, learning
to drive a car, or conducting brain surgery.

How observational learning occurs can be illustrated by a real-life
example and a laboratory study. One skill acquired by many boys and
girls today is playing soccer. This skill includes a complex set of concep-
tual and perceptual motor skills. It is doubtful that this skill could be

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290 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

taught simply by telling children how to play the game (just try, through
words only, explaining to a child how to do a “header”—deflecting the
ball with one’s head). Children learn from observing models playing—
older children, parents, coaches, and professional soccer players on tele-
vision. These models are particularly likely to be imitated because they
are perceived as having high status, competence, and power (Bandura,
1986; Wood, Kendal, & Flynn, 2013). Books on how to play soccer also
provide symbolic models. These various types of models demonstrate
how to travel with the ball, pass, attempt goals, make corner kicks, and
express elation appropriately after scoring a goal.

To a great extent, children learn the game through what Bandura calls
abstract modeling—abstracting a general rule from observing specific
behaviors. Children gradually extract general concepts of group action
in the game: team defensive strategy, predicting where one’s teammates
will be at a particular moment, and strategies concerning how to play
one’s position.

Children often receive feedback regarding how closely their behavior
matches the model’s. The coach may praise a skillful pass. An attempt to
score that misses the goal gives immediate feedback, and players may
adjust the angle of their kick next time or seek further verbal instruction
or demonstration from others. This reinforcement or nonreinforcement
is a source of information to children concerning their behavior and also
provides an incentive for further participation. Still, reinforcement or
punishment to the model or the child is not necessary for observational
learning to occur: “After the capacity for observational learning has fully
developed, one cannot keep people from learning what they have seen”
(Bandura, 1977, p. 38).

Of the numerous laboratory studies of observational learning, an
excerpt from the famous “Bobo doll” experiment by Bandura, Ross, and
Ross (1961) appears at the beginning of this chapter. Preschool children
saw an aggressive adult model punch a large, inflated Bobo doll and hit
it on the head with a hammer, saying, “Sock him in the nose” and “Pow.”
In a comparison group, the model played nonaggressively with toys, and
a control group had no model. Later, the children played in a room con-
taining a variety of aggressive toys (Bobo doll, dart guns, tetherball with
a face painted on it) and nonaggressive toys (tea set, teddy bears, trucks),
including the toys the adult model had used aggressively. The children
who had observed the aggressive model were more aggressive than the
children who had seen a nonaggressive model or no model. Some of
children’s aggression matched novel behaviors shown by the model, such
as hitting a Bobo doll over the head with a hammer. However, seeing an

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 291

aggressive model also seemed to generally disinhibit other aggressive
behaviors, not shown by the model, that the children already had but
typically kept under control. Examples were firing imaginary shots at
objects and saying “Stupid ball” and “Knock over people.” This point is
important because it indicates that seeing even mild aggression might
elicit a great deal of aggression of various kinds.

This study attracted much interest because it suggested that watching
violence on TV or in movies would increase aggression. It was debated,
however, whether the children were expressing “aggression” or simply
playing vigorously in a setting in which doing so seemed to be approved
by adults. Also, they just may have been aroused emotionally and thus
more active.

It is clear that Bandura and Freud give us opposite predictions con-
cerning the effects of watching aggression in other people. Freud would
see such an activity as a way of reducing aggressive tensions, thus less-
ening subsequent aggression. In contrast, Bandura would predict that
viewing aggression, especially if the aggression is not punished, is likely
to cause imitation, thereby increasing aggression. And that is what was
found. Ethology offers yet another perspective on the effect of watching
aggression. Watching who successfully aggresses against whom provides
information for learning the dominance hierarchy of one’s group.

A further result in this study is noteworthy. Although the boys were
physically more aggressive than girls, from other studies we know that
girls learn as much aggression from the model as do boys (e.g., Bandura,
1965). That is, girls can produce the aggressive behaviors when asked
to or rewarded for doing so but typically do not produce as much phys-
ical aggression, perhaps because adults are more likely to prohibit this
behavior in girls than boys. Thus, one must make a distinction between
learning and performance. The finding that children learn and remem-
ber what they observe even if it is not reproduced immediately raises
the concern that viewed violence on television may not have obvious
immediate effects but may be stored in memory for future use.

Researchers have used the basic paradigm of Bandura’s study to show
that observational learning of a variety of behaviors (prosocial behavior,
styles of information processing, conservation of number) is widespread
throughout childhood through a variety of models (filmed, symbolic,
real). Observational learning continues during adolescence. For exam-
ple, adolescents with high exposure to smoking in movies were about
three times as likely to try smoking or become smokers (Heatherton &
Sargent, 2009), even after controlling for a variety of demographic and
personality factors, as well as parenting style.

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Can social learning explain cultural differences in social behaviors and
personality? Many of the behaviors pervasive within a culture reflect the
fact that children in the culture are exposed to the same or similar mod-
els. For example, cultures vary in teaching about aggression. The Dugum
Dani, a warrior society in the New Guinea highlands, has a training
program that brings boys closer and closer to real warfare (Gardner &
Heider, 1969). War games include skewering the enemy (berry seeds)
on a sharp stick, spearing a hoop tossed by the opposition, battling with
grass “spears,” and watching real battles from a distance. In contrast,
the Polynesians of the Society Islands actively discourage aggression and
rarely provide aggressive models (Levy, 1969). They teach their children
that spirits punish aggression with illness and injury.

Observational learning not only is a process of normal socialization
but also can be a therapy for problem behaviors. For example, observa-
tional learning can help children overcome fears. In one study (Bandura,
1967), preschool children who were afraid of dogs watched a child hap-
pily approach a dog gradually and play with it. After the therapy and even
one month later, most of the previously fearful children would hand-feed
a dog and even climb into a playpen with it. Even just showing the mod-
eling sequence on film also reduced their fears.

Causal Model Includes Environment–Person–
Behavior System
Bandura’s model of learning includes three components: biological and
psychological characteristics of the person (P), the person’s behavior (B),
and the environment (E). In triadic reciprocal causation, these three fac-
tors are highly interdependent, and each factor influences, and is influenced
by, each of the others. Consider a situation in which a girl observes a boy
giving some of his pennies to help poor children. Several characteristics of
the observing child influence whether she will imitate this behavior (P→B).
Is she cognitively and socially developed enough to understand what it
means to be poor? What are her standards of fairness or social justice? Has
she observed her parents contributing to charities in the past? The environ-
mental factors might include the social status of the model, whether the
model was praised after he gave, the salience of the model in that situation,
and other social influences (E→P, E→B). If the girl feels pleased with her-
self after sharing, the behavioral act of sharing affects her psychologically
(B→P). Cognition is important in this process; children symbolically repre-
sent the relationships among the situation, their behavior, and the outcome.

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 293

Bandura (1997) describes three types of environments: imposed,
selected, and created. They vary in the child’s active contribution. An
imposed environment is thrust on people. They cannot control its pres-
ence, but they have some control over how they construe it and react
to it. For example, children must attend school, but if they do not like
it at first, they can try to find aspects they like. A selected environment is
the part of the potential environment that people actually experience.
Only the parts of the environment that children select and activate can
affect them. A high school student chooses certain school courses but
not others. A student may take advantage of extracurricular activities
and engage in rewarding leadership experiences or become entangled in
peer pressure to engage in risky behaviors such as heavy drinking. Created
environments are those that children construct through their behavior
(B→E, P→E). Children who choose to watch television a great deal
expose themselves to a set of models that differs from that of children
who usually play with friends instead. Or children may perfect a skill,
such as drawing or ballet dancing, which creates an environment of
social reinforcement in the form of praise from others. In the sharing
situation described above, children who have habitually shared in the
past and thereby elicited warmth and gratitude from others have created
a positive, supportive milieu for themselves. In contrast, aggressive chil-
dren may create a hostile environment for themselves wherever they go,
causing others to react negatively toward them. Thus, children actively
contribute to their own development.

Evidence that children’s behavior can change their social environment
comes from a study by Brunk and Henngeler (1984). Two 10-year-
old child actors exhibited either anxious–withdrawn or aggressively
noncompliant behavior in a setting in which mothers (not their own)
attempted to engage each boy in a game of checkers. The mothers used
more helping and rewards with the anxious–withdrawn child and more
ignoring, commands, and discipline with the aggressively noncompliant
boy. Thus, the boys “created” two different social environments.

One striking example that personal factors lead people to select par-
ticular environments, even where to live, comes from a study in Finland
(Jokela, Elovainio, Kivimäki, & Keltikangas-Järvinen, 2008). Major
temperament traits, such as sociability, emotionality, and activity pre-
dicted migration patterns. Highly sociable people tended to migrate to
urban areas and longer distances; high activity people generally tended
to migrate, and highly emotional people tended to leave home but not
move far away.

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294 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

Cognitive Contributions to Learning

What is Matter? —Never mind.

What is Mind? —No matter.
—Punch, 1855

Figure 6.1 presents Bandura’s (1986) outline of the cognitive processes
underlying observational learning and, to provide a context, the other
component processes involved as well. This model advanced research
on observational learning because it provided a detailed, careful analy-
sis of the specific processes involved in such learning. Because each of
these processes undergoes development, the model provided a map for
studying processes of social development. Children select and process
information, apply general rules or principles, weigh information, and
make a decision—processes described by information-processing theory
(see Chapter 7). Cognitive factors influence what is observed, how that
person or event is perceived, how this new information is organized for
the future, whether the observational learning has a lasting effect, and
what this effect is.

To illustrate these processes, consider a young boy watching a TV
show in which a character beats up another person. Characteristics of
both the model and the boy control the boy’s attention. As summarized
in Figure 6.1, the boy is more likely to attend to the model if the model
is salient (e.g., aggressive) and attractive (e.g., a superhero), if the mod-
el’s behavior is not too complex for the boy’s understanding, if there
are many opportunities to see the model fighting (prevalence), and if
the model’s behavior proved to be effective (functional value). The boy’s
cognitive level, his ability to attend selectively, and his past experiences
influence whether he attends to this particular model. Also, if he has an
optimal level of arousal—not tired, in an alert state—he is more likely
to attend. His attention also may be affected by his expectations about
what the model will do, based on previous viewing of the show. Finally,
his interest in violence will increase his attention.

Even if the boy attends to the model’s behavior, it will have little
influence unless he remembers it later. He must translate the event into
symbols—verbally or in visual images—and integrate it into his cog-
nitive organization. He may use cognitive rehearsal—visualizing himself
fighting like the superhero. Similarly, outstanding athletes sometimes
prepare for a competition by mentally visualizing themselves successfully
carrying out the desired sequence of activities. The boy may engage in
enactive rehearsal—actually practicing the behavior—hopefully with a toy

07_MIL_7898_ch6_277_316.indd 294 1/8/16 11:41 AM

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296 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

rather than another child. What he retains in memory does not have to
be structurally similar to the model’s behavior; it could be a rule, such as
“It’s OK to beat up bad guys.”

The two remaining component processes—production processes and
motivational processes—pertain to the child’s actual performance of the
learned behaviors. When he is pretend-fighting later, he may compare
his behaviors with his mental representation of the model’s behavior and
perhaps modify his behavior (“I have to do a high kick to the chin”). As
for motivation, the boy is more likely to reproduce the fighter’s behav-
ior if the fighter won the fight and the boy thought it looked like fun.
In contrast to Piaget, who examined only the cognitive development
making imitation possible, Bandura is interested also in why a child is
motivated to imitate only certain actions of certain models at certain
times and places.

Abstract modeling, described earlier, is a particularly important
developmental advance. Children can formulate an abstract rule by
pulling out the relevant elements from a number of specific episodes of
observational learning. Abstract modeling is the theory’s main mecha-
nism for explaining language learning. As children observe that the past
tense is usually formed by adding -ed, they abstract this as a general rule
and correctly say “walked” and “talked” and incorrectly say “hitted” and
“doed.” They may even use rules to make very complex incorrect utter-
ances such as “He was disingappeared.”

In contrast to Piaget’s theory, thinking stays near the surface in
Bandura’s theory. That is, children detect regularities in the environ-
ment and generalize them; for example, “I’m usually good at that sort
of game.” These external events are translated into a symbolic form
and combined with other symbolically represented events or used as
information to develop a more general rule; however, the theory does
not specify the construction of broad cognitive structures of the type
described by Piaget. Bandura’s concepts are more like constructed sum-
mary statements about the world.

Self-Efficacy and Agency

“I think I can. I think I can. I think I can.”
—PiPer,The Little Engine That Could, 1989/1930. (quoted in Maddux, 1998)

In recent years, Bandura has emphasized self-efficacy—people’s perception
of their competence in dealing with their environment and exercising
influence over events that affect their lives. A more formal definition

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 297

is “beliefs  in one’s capabilities to organize and execute the courses of
action required to produce given attainments” (Bandura, 1997, p. 31).
These courses of action may include behavior, thoughts, and emotions.
Self-efficacy affects all types of behavior—academic, social, and recre-
ational. Children may have the necessary skills for mastering a task, but
if they do not perceive themselves as capable of actually using their skills
effectively, they may fail or, unlike “the little engine that could,” may not
even attempt the task. For example, when given difficult math problems,
children with high math self-efficacy solved more problems, more quickly
rejected strategies that did not work, more willingly reworked failed prob-
lems, and displayed more positive attitudes toward mathematics than did
children with low math self-efficacy (Collins, 1982). This was true even
of children with low math ability. This positive reaction to failure among
highly efficacious children reflects their attributions of their failure to
insufficient effort; they then try harder. In contrast, low-efficacy children
attribute their failure to low ability, an attribution that does not encourage
them to continue trying.

Thus, high self-efficacy is essential for persisting in the face of rejec-
tion. Bandura recounts the many rejections encountered by talented
people who persisted:

James Joyce’s The Dubliners was rejected by 22 publishers. Gertrude Stein
submitted poems to editors for about 20 years before one was finally
accepted. Hollywood initially rejected the incomparable Fred Astaire as
“a balding, skinny actor who can dance a little.” Decca Records turned
down a recording contract with the Beatles with the unprophetic eval-
uation, “We don’t like their sound. Groups of guitars are on their way
out.” . . . Walt Disney’s proposed theme park was rejected by the city of
Anaheim on the grounds that it would only attract riffraff.

(1997, p. 73)

Even infants are developing a sense of personal agency, a sense that
they can cause effects in their environment, which is essential for
self-efficacy. During development, children gradually construct their
self-knowledge about their efficacy in various situations from four main
types of information. The most authentic and direct source of infor-
mation is the success or failure of previous similar attempts. A second
source is the vicarious experience of observing others fail or succeed
on similar tasks. If children perceive themselves as similar to a model
who succeeds, their self-efficacy is enhanced. A third source of infor-
mation is others persuading children into believing they can achieve
their goal. For example, parents praising their child’s efforts at age 14

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298 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

to 38 months predicts children at age 7 to 8 attributing their success
to hard work, preferring challenging tasks, and generating strategies
for improvement (Gunderson et al., 2013). Finally, information comes
from one’s physiological and affective states: arousal, anxiety, fatigue,
and physical pain. Cognitive development helps children integrate
these four sources of information. Acquiring language, becoming more
socially aware, and learning to tell one’s emotions apart contribute
information as well.

Both parental and child self-efficacy is important for positive develop-
mental outcomes. Parents’ self-efficacy regarding their parenting skills
underlies many of the correlates of parenting quality such as maternal
depression, child temperament, social support, and poverty (Coleman &
Karraker, 1997). Not surprisingly, parents’ feelings of self-efficacy con-
cerning their parenting decrease as their children move from early to
middle adolescence, with its new challenges (Glatz & Buchanan, 2015).
This drop is less if the adolescent and parents have established good
communication. The peer group becomes increasingly important for
self-efficacy. Children with low social self-efficacy “exhibit social with-
drawal, perceive low acceptance by their peers, and have a low sense
of self-worth” (Bandura, 1997, p. 173). Children with high self-efficacy
for aggression are quick to use aggression with their peers to obtain
goals. Schooling, of course, contributes greatly to children’s sense of
intellectual efficacy in various areas. An example of schooling’s effect on
self-efficacy is that children who perceived their classroom environment
as more caring, challenging, and mastery oriented had greater math
self-efficacy, which in turn predicted math performance (Fast et al.,
2010). All of these sources influence children’s resulting self-efficacy,
which affects how resilient they are to adversity and how vulnerable they
are to stress and depression.

Throughout the life span there are changes in which aspects of self-
efficacy are most important. For example, adolescence and young
adulthood bring new challenges to self-efficacy regarding interper-
sonal relationships, physical appearance, and occupational competence.
During middle age, people may reevaluate their lives, doubt their effi-
cacy concerning physical performance, and seek to achieve efficacy in
new areas. A divorce or retooling for a new occupation may be the out-
come. Elderly people may face damaged self-efficacy as a result of per-
ceived memory loss, slowed reactions, and lessened self-esteem because
they no longer hold a job. A self-fulfilling prophecy can occur: If elderly
people are insecure about their efficacy and expect to fail, they may
limit their range of activities and invest little effort in any activity, thus

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General Orientation to the Theory ▶ 299

ensuring their failure. Bandura argues that true declines due to aging can
be offset greatly by real-world knowledge and coping strategies acquired
throughout one’s lifetime.

Self-efficacy is related to the processing of information outlined in
Figure 6.1. Interesting processing biases may be at work. People who
tend to attend to and recall the negative features of their performance
may underestimate their efficacy. Thus, parents and teachers can enhance
children’s self-efficacy by drawing attention to the positive aspects of
their performance and thereby increasing the salience of those aspects.
In fact, the efficacy judgments most conducive to development are slight
overestimations, because these motivate children to try moderately chal-
lenging tasks that could hone their present skills. Parents across cultures
may differ in their response to their child’s success and failure. Chinese
mothers de-emphasize their children’s academic success and emphasize
their academic failure, whereas the opposite is true for American moth-
ers (Ng, Pomerantz, & Lam, 2007).

Collective efficacy is a group’s shared belief in its ability, through collec-
tive action, to produce valued outcomes. For example, high collective
family efficacy is associated with adolescents’ and parents’ satisfaction
with their family life, in part because of the open family communica-
tion and adolescents’ disclosure to parents of their activities outside the
home (Bandura, Caprara, Barbaranelli, Regalila, & Scabini, 2011). As
for a larger group, efficacious schools have characteristics such as strong
academic leadership by administrators, high academic standards and
the belief that students can meet them, and instruction that encourages
students to exercise control over their performance. Bandura believes
that collective political efficacy locally and nationally can bring about
social change that addresses social problems such as ineffective schools,
illiteracy, poor health practices, risky behaviors, unwanted pregnancies,
and the threat of nuclear war. Collective efficacy empowers individuals,
who then increase collective efficacy.

Closely related to self-efficacy is agency. Children are active rather
than passive. If children believe they have the power to produce desired
outcomes (self-efficacy), they are motivated to behave in ways to achieve
these goals (agency) (Bandura, 2006a). For example, a boy wants to buy
a bicycle (sets a goal), plans how he will earn enough money to do so,
and persists at mowing neighbors’ lawns because he keeps thinking
about buying the bicycle. He resists temptation to play with his friends
instead (regulates himself) and when he finds he is proceeding toward
his  goal more slowly than he expected, he reflects on whether he in
fact has the necessary motivation to achieve his goal. People reflect on

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300 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

and manage their inner life of emotions and thoughts, as well as their
actions: “[P]eople live in a psychic environment largely of their own
making” (Bandura, 2006a, p. 165).

Examples of Developmental Research: Moral
Judgments and Gender Roles
Two main points of contention between social learning theory and other
theories concern two important developmental acquisitions—moral
judgments and behavior, and gender-role development.

Moral Judgments and Behavior
An important legal question is “At what age can children understand
right  from wrong and be responsible for the crimes they commit?”
Different theories offer different perspectives on children’s understand-
ing of morality. For Piaget, changes in moral judgments result from
general cognitive development. Children move from a focus on amount
of damage and degree of punishment to a focus on intentions and exten-
uating circumstances. For Vygotsky, children internalize the moral belief
system of their culture during interaction with adults and peers, such that
moral reasoning varies from culture to culture. For Freud, identification
with parents, especially a parent of the same sex, brings a set of internal-
ized moral standards to children. Social learning theorists emphasize that
children use observed specific behaviors or moral statements to actively
construct general standards of conduct—rules, goals, and expectations
for their own behavior. These standards are especially effective in regulat-
ing behavior because children generalize them to many situations, and use
them even when an external authority is not present. Unlike for Freud,
the parent of the same sex serves as only one of many models from whom
the child learns.

One contribution of social learning theory is to explain why a child’s
moral reasoning or behavior would vary from situation to situation and
from child to child. A child’s previous history of observational learning
and the models in a particular situation influence the child’s behavior. For
example, young boys use moral-judgment rules that are similar in form
and complexity to those of their mothers (Leon, 1984). Also important
are the child’s personal standards, adults’ prohibitions, the expected
punishment or reward, and peer influence. Moral judgments involve a
complex process of considering and weighing various criteria in a given

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Examples of Developmental Research: Moral Judgments and Gender Roles ▶ 301

social situation. Thus, unlike in Piaget’s theory, in some situations a child
makes a judgment based on intentions and in another situation makes a
judgment based on amount of damage.

The tendency of older children to emphasize intentions in moral
judgments reflects their greater exposure to models making such judg-
ments. Also, adults have heightened expectations of older children,
and older children can more easily infer internal states from situational
cues. For example, when disciplining a child, parents are more likely to
explain their reasons for doing so if the child is 8 years old rather than
3 years old. The younger child is not impressed with arguments about
fairness and equality. Similarly, parents’ presentation of legal codes and
societal punishment may be reserved for preadolescents and adolescents.
Thus, children of different ages tend to see models presenting different
sorts of moral judgments.

The main evidence bolstering the social learning account is that chil-
dren’s moral judgments can be altered by a brief social experience in
the laboratory. In a prototypic study, Bandura and McDonald (1963)
first assessed 5- to 11-year-olds’ moral reasoning, based on Piaget’s
stories depicting moral dilemmas. One actor had good intentions but
produced great material damage, whereas the other actor had bad
intentions but produced minimal material damage. First the model
and then the child made judgments about stories. Then the researchers
exposed children to a model whose judgment was opposite that of the
child’s. In  a  final test for generalization, a different adult in another
room presented new stories that the child judged. As predicted by social
learning theory, the children adopted the model’s moral standards. The
fact that  this new moral perspective generalized to new stories in the
third phase suggests that the children abstracted a general rule rather
than imitated specific responses. A control group with no model did
not  change. Children maintained these changes for at least a month
(Dorr & Fey, 1974).

Bandura proposed an interesting concept, moral disengagement, which
refers to people justifying their unacceptable behavior. This mental fire-
wall between moral standards and behavior illustrates the important dis-
tinction between moral cognitions and behavior. Moral disengagement
(e.g., blaming the victim, diffusing responsibility away from oneself to
one’s social group) is related to both traditional and cyberbullying in
young adolescents (Robson & Witenberg, 2013). Online social inter-
action may particularly encourage bullying, because features of online
communication, such as not seeing others’ emotional reactions in per-
son, may facilitate aggression (Runions & Bak, 2015).

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302 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

Gender-Role Development
The development of gender roles is central to much of social develop-
ment. Almost everything we do is gendered, and almost every aspect
of society, from parents to the media, shapes children toward cultural
values concerning gender roles. For social learning theory, the devel-
opmental processes described above also apply to gender-role develop-
ment (Bussey, 2011). Gender development flows from the interaction of
intrapersonal, behavioral, and social influences operating within societal
systems composed of parents, peers, teachers, mass media, and various
social institutions. Gender roles develop through the processes of obser-
vational learning and self-regulation.

Cognitive development also contributes: Infants and toddlers learn
to differentiate between males and females according to their associated
appearance and activities. They learn what their gender is, label them-
selves and others according to gender, and note the styles of behavior of
each gender. By age 3 or 4, or even earlier, children disapprove of boys
feeding, diapering, and comforting dolls and girls playing with trucks.
In fact, in one study (Bussey & Bandura, 1992), when children of this
age were confined to a playroom with only toys gender-typed for the
other gender, they ignored the toys. One boy even flung the doll across
the room and turned his back on it. Some boys tried to transform the
feminine toys into masculine ones, for example, by using an eggbeater as
a gun or a drill. The boys tried to have the “feminine” toys removed. One
boy pointedly told the departing experimenter, “No, I’m finished with
those toys,” even though he had not played with them at all.

During childhood, children continue to form abstractions about
gender based on observations of behaviors and rewards or sanctions.
Childhood provides numerous opportunities to observe gendered behav-
ior because children tend to seek out same-sex playmates and, even
when both sexes are available, to imitate same-gender models more than
other-gender models. Even 3-year-olds copy the preferences of same-sex
(over different-sex) child models for novel food, clothes, toys, and games
(Frazier, Gelman, Kaciroti, Russell, & Lumeng, 2012). They see people
and behaviors repeatedly labeled according to gender and observe that
only certain behaviors are sanctioned for each gender and that opportu-
nities are heavily organized by gender (for example, how far away from
home one can ride one’s bicycle alone, whether wearing jewelry is dis-
couraged). Girls learn that others disapprove of their physical aggression.

Self-efficacy comes into play in many ways, for example, regarding
probable success if one enters male-dominated versus female-dominated

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Mechanisms of Development ▶ 303

occupations. This has been particularly true for fields requiring math
skills; females tend to underestimate their efficacy in this area. For exam-
ple, girls whose teachers do not hold stereotypic biases about gender
develop greater mathematical self-efficacy and valuing of mathematics
(Eccles, 1989), and girls’ perceived self-efficacy in various areas affects
whether they select careers traditionally associated with females (Bandura,
Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Pastorelli, 2001).

Mechanisms of Development
Social learning theorists focus on processes of change (as did Vygotsky)
in contrast to Piaget and Freud, who were more interested in struc-
tural change as children go through the stages. According to Bandura,
development occurs because of three main factors: physical maturation,
experience with the social world, and cognitive development. These
three factors cause developmental changes in all of the processes in
Bandura’s model in Figure 6.1. The first factor, physical maturation, holds
little interest for social learning theorists. Its main relevance is that
young children may not have the physical maturity to reproduce certain
motor  patterns they observe. The other two factors are much more
important.

As already discussed, experience with the social world causes develop-
ment as children engage in observational learning and construct general
concepts or rules. As children get older they are exposed to a wider
variety of people, behaviors, and media. Moreover, their social environ-
ment changes simply because society, ranging from their parents to the
legal system, changes its expectations of them. A 4-year-old who cannot
add is not a cause for alarm to adults, but a 7-year-old who cannot add
faces a social environment in school directed toward learning this con-
cept. A teacher provides much more help with reading to a first-grader
than to a third-grader. Older children, by watching the teacher, are
expected to learn complex new skills quickly, with a minimum of verbal
instruction.

The third factor, cognitive development, refers to changes in the cognitive
skills in Figure 6.1. Cognitive processes such as attending, remembering,
integrating pieces of information, and evaluating feedback pull social
development along. The growing ability to translate observations into
symbols and to recombine these symbols makes observational learning
much more flexible and enduring. Older children can model behavior by
reading a description of it or listening to instruction rather than by having

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304 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

to see the behavior. Age differences in cognitive processes can be seen in
what children assimilate while watching a movie. Older children have
much better comprehension and recall of characters, behaviors, motiva-
tions, and outcomes of the behaviors (Newcomb & Collins, 1979). Young
children often do not even make a connection between the model’s
behavior and the consequences of that behavior later on.

Position on Developmental Issues
Human Nature
Learning theories have served as textbook writers’ favorite example of a
theory with a mechanistic view of human behavior. An infant—“a lively
squirming bit of flesh” (Watson, 1928, p. 46)—is material to be fash-
ioned by parents and society. The mechanistic model, however, does not
accurately represent modern social learning theory, in which “people are
self-organizing, proactive, self-reflective, and self-regulating” (Bussey &
Bandura, 1999, p. 691). In triadic reciprocal causation, discussed earlier,
people actively operate on the environment, just as the environment acts
on them. People filter their experience through their current knowledge
and expectations about the world, create their own environment as their
own behavior influences the environment, and generate new behavior
by reorganizing previously learned behaviors. Thus, one can see some
elements of the organismic (e.g., self-organizing) and contextual (e.g.,
contexts matter) worldviews.

There is a basic difference among theorists concerning the role
of interaction. For Piaget and Vygotsky, the interaction or exchange
between a child and the physical (Piaget) or social (Vygotsky) environ-
ment forms a structure that later becomes an internalized cognitive
structure. In contrast, for Bandura the structure of the interchange
between the child and the environment is less important than the new
information acquired or the increased self-efficacy as a result of this
interchange.

One point of comparison among the theorists is the view of humans
as rational or irrational. Both Piaget and Vygotsky emphasized the devel-
opment of rational, logical thought. Although all the theorists consider
logical thinking important, both Freud and Bandura studied illogical,
irrational thought as well, perhaps because of their focus on motivation.
For Bandura, children may think logically or illogically, depending on the
types of models they have encountered in problem-solving situations.
They acquire styles of processing information from other people.

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Posit ion on Developmental Issues ▶ 305

Qualitative Versus Quantitative Development
Social learning theory views development primarily as a process of quan-
titative change, in which learning accumulates over time. Development
simply involves a multitude of short-term changes. Observational learning
may change somewhat qualitatively when symbolic representation of oth-
ers’ behaviors becomes possible, and when changing from one set of rules
to different ones. However, we do not find either rapid qualitative changes
in movement from one stage to another or massive cognitive reorganiza-
tion. Bandura considers the search for stages counterproductive because
stages draw attention away from individual differences and differences in
the way a given child functions in different environments. Furthermore,
Bandura notes that a failure to learn may be dismissed as a lack of cognitive
readiness, when it actually reflects a poor learning environment. He thinks
that an analysis of which subskills are needed to produce a certain behavior
or knowledge is much more promising than positing stages.

Nature Versus Nurture

A young branch takes on all the bends that one gives it.
—chinese ProverB

Social learning theorists, like sociocultural theorists, emphasize nurture
more than does Freud and much more than does Piaget, the interactionist.
However, social learning theorists do not follow the militant environmen-
talism of traditional learning theory, which viewed the young mind in the
way British empiricist John Locke viewed it: a blank slate on which expe-
rience writes. Rather, biology, for example, species-specific behaviors, can
constrain learning. This was demonstrated dramatically in an attempt to
train raccoons to drop tokens into a slot (Breland & Breland, 1961). The
animals stopped to “wash” the tokens, as if they were food, even though
there was no water around. Bandura’s view of the roles of biology and
children’s active constructors of their experience is captured in his notion
of triadic reciprocal causation. The environment, the person (including
physical maturation), and the person’s behavior are interdependent forces
operating in any event. However, the evolutionary, genetic, and neural
developmental aspects of the person are given little attention.

What Develops
Because what is developed depends greatly on what the environment has
to offer for learning, learning theorists propose few universal behaviors
that would be found in every culture. Whereas Piaget claimed that all

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306 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

physically normal children in the world develop concepts of object
permanence, causality, and conservation, and Freud assumed a universal
concern with sexuality and aggression, social learning theory appears to
be almost content-free (as does Vygotsky’s theory). Investigators have
directed their energy toward process rather than content. One culture
may encourage aggressive behavior, whereas another may discourage
it. Superstitious behavior may be valued and nurtured in one culture,
whereas scientific, analytic thinking may be fostered in another. In other
words, there is no universal endpoint to development. Piaget, in con-
trast, saw development toward a particular way of thinking: formal
operations. And Freud saw mature sexuality and freedom from excessive
anxiety as the goal of development.

Applications
Social learning theory has addressed a variety of social problems involving
children, for example, aggression. Does watching violence on television
and in movies, or playing violent video games make children aggressive?
Are bullies created by watching others effectively use violence and by
successfully bullying other children with no negative consequences?
Why do violent adolescent boys sometimes come from “privileged,”
middle-class families in neighborhoods that support law-abiding behav-
ior? The latter question was examined in a classic study by Bandura and
Walters (1959), illustrated in the excerpt at the start of this chapter.
Although the parents discouraged their sons’ aggression toward them,
they actually encouraged them to use aggression to solve their problems
with their peers and with adults outside the home.

Social learning theory also has been useful for helping dysfunctional
families. Families sometimes unknowingly develop coercive systems
(Patterson, 1980; Smith et al., 2014). During hostile interchanges,
certain behaviors habitually lead to certain other behaviors through a
system of reinforcement. For example, a mother asks her son to clean his
room, the child whines, the mother intensifies her command, the child
resists, and the conflict rapidly escalates. Patterson noted that “rapid
escalation is thought to be an important component in the repertoire
of the trained fighter and well practiced coercive children” (1980, p. 7).
When the behavior of the child becomes unbearably aversive for the
mother, as when the child throws a temper tantrum, the mother gives
up and the child stops his aversive behavior. Each person has ended the
aversive behavior of the other. The mother has increased the chances

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Applications ▶ 307

that the child will act aversively in the future because his resistance was
reinforced by not having to clean his room. Ending the temper tantrum
reinforced the mother, which increases the likelihood that she will give
in on future occasions. This pattern of reinforcement also increases the
likelihood that a rapid escalation of conflict will occur in their future
interactions. More generally, parents in functional and problem families
differ in their discipline skills. In functional families, the parents set up
specific consequences for the child’s misbehavior and consistently apply
them. In contrast, in coercive dysfunctional families, the child learns that
parents may react explosively to misbehavior and make vague punish-
ment threats but will not follow through on these threats.

This negative developmental cascade begins early. Coercive caretaker–
child interactions when children are ages 2 through 5 predict later
teacher-reported oppositional behavior at school age (Smith et al.,
2014). In school, many of the child’s coercive interactions and conduct
problems are directed toward peers, which often leads to rejection by
peers. Thus the child continues to head down a negative developmen-
tal pathway toward later behavioral problems. Families assigned to an
intervention, in contrast, showed declines in child oppositional and
aggressive behavior.

Even the entire family can become a coercive system in which each
family member learns to cope with aversive behavior from others, such as
hitting, teasing, ignoring, verbal abuse, and requests to do work, by coun-
terattacking, which often ends the aversive behavior. A young girl’s teasing
of her older brother leads to his hitting her, which in turn leads to punish-
ment from the parents, which finally may even escalate the boy’s aggression.
Each family member is periodically reinforced for behaving aggressively
and coercively when overpowering another family member through neg-
ative behaviors. After the psychologist makes the problem family aware of
these correlated events, together they try to reduce the amount of aversive
behavior with which the child must cope and try to lower the “payoff ” for
the child’s coercive behaviors. If the child is old enough, the family may
write a contract that includes the child, specifying what behaviors will be
punished by withdrawal of rewards. Thus, they present expectations for
behavior and the consequences of disobeying in a clear and consistent way
that the aggressive child can easily grasp and represent symbolically.

Bandura has applied his theory on an international scale. He has imple-
mented several programs to improve personal and collective self-efficacy
to bring about social change. For example, television and radio programs
focused on increasing self-efficacy have been very effective at increasing
literacy, safe sex to protect against AIDS infection, and the adoption of

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308 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

family-planning methods in several countries in Africa, Asia, and Latin
America. For example, in Mexico, almost one million people took a
course to learn how to read after seeing a drama showing people of
various ages learning to read and consequently improving their lives
(Bandura, 2006b). Other programs have addressed pornography, deter-
rents to crime, encouragement of healthy behaviors, and moral disen-
gagement regarding violence after terrorist attacks.

Evaluation of the Theory
Social learning theory’s strengths are its focus on the situational, social,
and emotional influences on behavior and its testability. As in the chapter
on  psychoanalytic theory, the emphasis is on what the theory could
contribute to present and future research and theory building in devel-
opmental psychology. Two weaknesses are an inadequate account of
cognitive development and an inadequate description of development in
natural settings.

Strengths

Focus on Situational Influences on Behavior ▶ As mentioned in
Chapter 2, one challenge to structural theories, such as Piaget’s and
Freud’s, is that a person’s concepts or personality are not expressed
in all situations. Social learning theory’s focus on situational variables
provides a way to explain this domain specificity of knowledge and
behaviors. This analysis of situations is sorely needed in current work
on children’s thinking, remembering, and learning. Looking at charac-
teristics of available models, the child’s previous learning history in that
situation, and available reinforcers may clarify the child’s unevenness
of behavior across situations, or even cultures. Cultures differ in what
concepts parents and teachers emphasize. As mentioned in Chapter 4,
Japanese mothers encourage even very young children to play counting
games. A situational analysis also could contribute to an understanding
of children’s theory of mind. Observing others deceive, manipulate, and
comfort people may contribute to this knowledge.

Cognitive theories generally also ignore motivation. In contrast,
Bandura addresses “hot” cognition (Zajonc, 1980) as well as the “cold”
cognition of other theories. Hot cognition consists of the emotional,
motivational aspect of thinking; cold cognition includes the nature
of thinking but not its emotional aspects. Examples of hot cognition
are children thinking about how to please their parents, experiencing

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Evaluation of the Theory ▶ 309

sadness when they fail at a task, and feeling disappointed in themselves
when they do not meet their own standards of conduct. Motivation
affects whether children apply their knowledge in a particular setting
and thus is important to consider during cognitive assessment.

Another potential contribution is to cultural approaches, which, like
social learning theory, place importance on children learning by watch-
ing the activities of parents, other adults, siblings, and older peers. Social
learning theory can specify the motivational, attentional, and cognitive
processes involved as well as cultural differences in the extent to which
children learn in this way.

Testability ▶ Even those who have attacked learning theories admit
that they are among the most testable theories in psychology. Learning
researchers have defined terms clearly, stated hypotheses precisely, and
kept unobservable, intervening variables to a minimum. Parsimony is
highly valued. It is desirable to have a theory that reminds us that we are
interested in observable behaviors as well as in thinking and attitudes.
Thus, social learning theorists can serve as watchdogs of cognitive psy-
chologists, who sometimes seem to have forgotten about behavior. We
must remember that representations, mental operations, and concepts
of other people ultimately are related to behavior.

Weaknesses

Inadequate Account of Cognitive Development ▶ It is not clear
whether social learning theory is truly a developmental theory. Is devel-
opmental change simply short-term change accumulating over a longer
period of time? Are the processes of social learning the same at all ages?
If development is merely accumulated learning, are there any limits
on how much one can speed up development? A truly developmental
theory should be able to specify, for example, what differences underlie
infants’ ability to copy their mother when she sticks out her tongue and
10-year-olds’ ability to play a new card game after reading the rules.

Adding a clear and specific account of cognitive development would
make the theory more developmental. A child’s cognitive level both
enables and constrains what she can learn through observation. For
example, watching another child share a toy with a friend may be
regarded as an isolated behavior by a 4-year-old but may imply a set
of meanings concerning fairness and reciprocity for an 8-year-old. The
two children differ in what they learn from this observation. As another
example, 48-month-olds were able to sort visually identical objects

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310 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

according to weight after watching an adult do this and could even trans-
fer this observational learning to novel objects, but 36-month-olds could
not (Wang, Meltzoff, & Williamson, 2015). The younger children did
not have the cognitive readiness needed in order to imitate this behavior.

Bandura posited some simple cognitive organization and restruc-
turing during development. He also proposed that as children develop
cognitively, perceptually, and motorically, their observational learn-
ing becomes more efficient and abstract. However, he devoted little
attention to exactly which developing cognitive skills contribute to
observational learning. From a contemporary perspective, several good
candidates to be studied include perspective taking, monitoring reac-
tions to the model’s behavior, considering contexts, evaluating a model’s
testimony, understanding knowledge states, and calibrating multiple
pieces of information or cues (Wood et al., 2013).

Inadequate Description in Natural Settings ▶ A strength of ethology
is its method of observing organisms in their natural settings. In contrast,
from learning theory, we know much more about the variables that can
affect the learning of social behaviors than about what variables actually
operate in the lives of children or what behaviors actually occur at vari-
ous ages. We know how variables operate to produce short-term changes
in the laboratory but less about how they operate in natural environ-
ments. We do not know the ecology in which children learn aggression,
sex typing, or dependency. Similarly, laboratory studies have identified
many processes, such as imitation, abstract modeling, reinforcement,
self-efficacy, and concept formation, that mold gender-role behaviors.
Which processes, in fact, are most important in particular natural settings
at different ages? We need a taxonomy of the various learning situations
in which children typically find themselves in each developmental period.
The theory’s contribution would be much greater if investigators would
examine the models and reinforcement contingencies usually found in
the typical environments of each phase of development. One recent
study (Flynn & Whiten, 2012) shows how research in natural settings
can be informative about observational learning from dominant and
prestigious models. In a preschool setting, children were more likely to
watch another child play with a novel puzzle-box if the observed child
was older, more popular, or more dominant than other children.

Moreover, observational learning and patterns of reinforcement need to
be tied systematically to social–ecological variables, such as both parents
working outside the home, diversity in what constitutes a family, urban-
ization, racial discrimination, and changing gender roles. A complete

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Contemporary Research ▶ 311

account of social learning must also consider demographic variables,
such as socioeconomic level, race, gender, and geographic location. For
instance, we need a description of developmental changes in aggression
that takes into account the type of peer models in the neighborhood that
are seen by children in various subgroups of the population, the type of
day care the child has, and the father’s involvement in child rearing.

Contemporary Research
Social learning theory peaked in its influence on developmental psychol-
ogy in the 1960s and 1970s. Although today it still is included in most
standard accounts of development, relatively few studies with children
are directly stimulated by the theory. The recent work on agency and
self-efficacy, for example, has focused on adolescents and adults. In a
more general sense, however, social learning theory is indirectly respon-
sible for much of the current research on children’s social development:
aggression (Eisner & Malti, 2015), gender development (Hines, 2015),
moral behavior (Killen & Smetana, 2015), peer interaction (Rubin,
Bukowski, & Bowker, 2015), and influences of the media (Calvert,
2015). Work on aggression, for example, has expanded in interest-
ing ways to include bullying, relational aggression (e.g., gossip, social
exclusion), and the genetic and neural foundations of aggression. Today,
important social learning theory concepts such as observational learn-
ing, self-efficacy, and the importance of adults’ and peers’ reactions to
a child’s behavior are simply assumed because of social learning theory.
We now turn to three current active areas of research related to learning
theory: cognitive approaches to learning, imitation, and selective social
learning from others.

Cognitive Approaches to Learning
Developmentalists recently have shown a renewed interest in learning,
in the sense of acquiring new knowledge and skills. Today, learning is
virtually indistinguishable from cognitive change over short periods of
time. Interestingly, many of these more cognitive approaches draw on
the idea from traditional learning theory of the strengthening or weak-
ening of associations. Even infants are adept at detecting regularities in
their environment—which events or stimuli tend to occur together and
may be causally related. These detected regularities are used to form
mental models of the world and neural networks (see Chapter 7). For
example, a toddler hears the word “dog” when a small animal with four

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312 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

legs, a panting tongue, a barking sound, and other characteristics is pres-
ent in various contexts. These features tend to co-occur. Despite some
differences in these specific dogs, they are included in the toddler’s new
concept of dog. These approaches, to be discussed in Chapters 7 and 9,
go by several labels, such as probabilistic models, statistical learning,
computational models, Bayesian networks, and connectionist models.
More generally, a new field—learning sciences—has emerged. This inter-
disciplinary endeavor draws on fields such as cognitive science, machine
learning, computer science, and educational psychology. The goal is to
understand learning processes and to apply them to effective instruction.

Imitation
There is considerable interest in imitation itself—how early it appears,
how it develops, and how it helps development. The ability to imi-
tate is present early on, perhaps even at a few days of age (Meltzoff &
Moore, 1989; Nagy, Pilling, Orvos, & Molnar, 2013). Even as early as
6 months, infants imitated, after 24 hours, what they saw on television,
and did so as often as for live models (Barr, Muentener, & Amaya, 2007).
Anecdotally, parents can attest to their toddler imitating in great detail
their own idiosyncratic mannerisms or the dance moves of a rock star
the toddler has seen on television.

Young children’s imitation presents a paradox. On the one hand,
their imitation often is selective. They extract the important features
of another person’s behavior, infer his intentions, and abstract a rule
that they can see the other person is using (e.g., Williamson, Jaswal, &
Meltzoff, 2010). On the other hand, they sometimes imitate exactly and
even show overimitation—imitating everything the person does, relevant
or not, and even when they know that they are imitating irrelevancies.
A current controversy is over why children do this. It may be that when
a child can easily understand the other person’s behavior she imitates
selectively, but when the behavior is new and complex, and she is not
sure which aspects are important, she may imitate everything and fine-
tune later (Nielsen, Mushin, Tomaselli, & Whiten, 2014). This may be
adaptive in a complex, rich culture with many artifacts that children
have to learn how to use. Or, children may overimitate when they
want to be like the model, or want to demonstrate shared intentions
with the model and communicate affiliation (Over & Carpenter, 2013).
Children also may perceive that sometimes models show cultural con-
ventions or rituals, which should be imitated closely, and sometimes
models are providing opportunities to develop new skills, which permit

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Contemporary Research ▶ 313

some variability in the child’s modeling (Legare, Wen, Herrmann, &
Whitehouse, 2015).

Imitation plays an important role in the evolution of human societies
and in cultural learning during childhood. Chapter 4 described how
culture is transmitted through watching and listening to others and
engaging in the activities observed. Imitation also seems to be a part
of belonging to a social group. People are more likely to imitate others
in their own social groups—their in-groups—than in their out-groups
(Howard, Henderson, Carrazza, & Woodward, 2015). Interestingly,
infants prefer adults who imitate them (Meltzoff, 2007) and show dif-
ferences in brain activity when adults do or do not imitate them (Saby,
Marshall, & Meltzoff, 2012). Children with autism spectrum disorders
imitate less than typically developing children (Vivanti, Trembath, &
Dissanayake, 2014) and even show less “contagious yawning”—yawning
when someone else nearby yawns (Helt, Eigsti, Snyder, & Fein, 2010).
This tendency not to imitate may partially account for their poor social
learning.

One reason for the recent interest in imitation is neuroscientists’ dis-
covery of action mirroring, including a possible underlying mechanism—
the mirror neuron system (Fogassi & Rizzolatti, 2013; Rizzolatti &
Craighero, 2004): When people watch someone else perform an action,
such as reaching for an object, the pattern of brain activity is virtually the
same as when people themselves perform the action. This phenomenon
suggests that performed and observed actions are coded in a common
cognitive and neural network that may enable even infants to imitate
others and understand their intentions and goal-directed behaviors, and
thus learn from them. For example, when 7-month-olds see a failed
behavior, such as an adult’s unsuccessful attempt to reach for an object,
they imitate the intended behavior (successfully reaching for the object)
rather than the failed one (Hamlin, Hallinan, &Woodward, 2008). This
may be a case of “filling in,” during imitation, what one knows based on
one’s prior similar actions. Further evidence that infants apply knowl-
edge about their own actions to those of others comes from studies in
which infants are taught a new goal-directed behavior. Ten-month-old
infants were trained to pull a cane to retrieve a toy. Subsequently, they
could detect the goal-directed nature of another person’s cane-pulling
actions (Sommerville, Hildebrand, & Crane, 2008).

The larger important message of this line of research is that mind
and body are not separated; action and thought are one. The controver-
sies are: Is the neural mirroring system present at birth? How does it
change developmentally? How is it modified by experience? What does

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314 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

this system contribute to the understanding of others’ behavior? Does
this meaning shared between two people also provide a foundation for
language development and communication? Can a poorly functioning
mirror neuron system explain the apparent deficits in imitation in chil-
dren with autism spectrum disorders? Finally, some researchers doubt
that mirror neurons exist in humans.

Selective Social Learning from Others
Children trust, and therefore imitate or accept information from, only
certain people (e.g., Mills, 2013). Preschoolers judge the accuracy and
trustworthiness of people’s information from cues such as speakers’ past
accuracy (e.g., Koenig, Clément, & Harris, 2004) and their perceived
positive or negative intent (e.g., Mascaro & Sperber, 2009). Moreover,
it has been argued (Csibra & Gergely, 2009) that children have an innate
tendency to imitate people who indicate, through cues such as point-
ing, verbal instructions, or eye contact, that they are trying to teach
them something. This research adds to early social learning work on the
characteristics of the model that affect children’s observational learn-
ing by showing that the model’s mental state and previous competence
are important. In this way, children’s cognitive development (ability to
evaluate others’ intent and quality of information) contributes to their
observational learning.

SUMMARY
Social learning theory retains the spirit of the behaviorist movement: the
experimentally rigorous study of basic learning processes. The spotlight,
however, has switched from a hungry rat pressing a bar to a child inter-
acting with other people. Children learn new behaviors by observing
others. Moreover, the effect of environmental influences is cognitively
mediated, as seen in children’s use of language and strategies during
problem solving.

Bandura contributed three key concepts:

1. Observational learning can be much broader than mimicking another per-
son’s behavior. Children can symbolically construct new, complex behav-
iors by listening to another person or watching a movie. Furthermore,
overt behavior is not even necessary in order for learning to occur.
As Bandura summarized the influences of models, they “can serve as
instructors, motivators, inhibitors, disinhibitors, social facilitators, and
emotion arousers” (1989, p. 17).

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Summary ▶ 315

2. Children are self-regulatory. Although reinforcement is not neces-
sary for learning, it is helpful for self-regulation, in part by providing
feedback. Children observe which behaviors lead to reinforcement and
punishment and use these observations as sources of information to
help them abstract rules, evaluate their efficacy, develop standards of
conduct, set goals, and decide in which situations to use the observed
behavior.

3. Triadic reciprocal causation provides a model of behavior change. Three
sources of influence—the person, his behavior, and the environment—
interact and thus influence each other. The most novel features of this
three-pronged model are that children actively select certain environ-
ments, and their behavior even helps shape their environment, which in
turn acts on them.

Children develop five skills that are very important for social learn-
ing: symbolization, vicarious learning, self-regulation, self-efficacy, and
the ability to see the future consequences of present behaviors (Perry,
1989). During development, children become more skilled at the four
component processes of observational learning: attention, retention,
production, and motivation. In particular, the growing ability to use
visual and verbal symbols boosts children’s observational learning. Much
of social development results from the accumulation and integration of
episodes of observational learning. Social learning theory has examined
a wide variety of developmentally important behaviors, such as aggres-
sion, concept formation, language, gender-related behaviors, and moral
development.

Learning theories have become less mechanistic over the years and
increasingly acknowledge biological contributions, though still focus on
nurture. Development mainly is quantitative. Social learning theory has
been applied to interventions for dysfunctional families.

Bandura’s theory is testable. It also is integrative in that it brings
together information processing and socialization processes. Social learn-
ing theory could correct several shortcomings of cognitive approaches,
providing a way to conceptualize why the child’s behavior or demon-
strated knowledge might vary from situation to situation. There are two
needed directions for further developing social learning theory. First,
the interface between cognitive development and observational learning
must be worked out in greater detail before the theory can be consid-
ered a truly developmental theory. Second, the theory could become
much more powerful in predicting and exploring behavior if it acquired
a broader ecological database. The theory has shown us that processes of

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316 ▶ SOCIAL LEARNING THEORY

social learning can guide development; the next step is to discover how
these processes are involved in the environments typically found at var-
ious points in development, in various types of families, and in various
socioeconomic and ethnic niches. Contemporary research has expanded
many topics emphasized by learning theories, including aggression and
environmental influences such as the media. Topics of current interest
include cognitive learning, including applications to instruction; the
development of imitation itself and a mirror neuron system that might
contribute to it; and selective social learning.

SUGGESTED READINGS
Bandura, A. (in press). Moral disengagement: How good people can act inhu-

manly and feel good about it. New York: Worth.

Bandura, A. (2012). Social cognitive theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W.
Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.). Handbook of theories of social psychol-
ogy (Vol. 1, pp. 349–373). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications Ltd.

Bandura, A. (2009). Social cognitive theory goes global. The Psychologist,
22(6), 504–506.

Forgatch, M. S., Patterson, G. R., & Gewirtz, A. H. (2013). Looking
forward: The promise of widespread implementation of parent train-
ing programs. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 8(6), 682–694.

Meltzoff, A. N., & Williamson, R. A. (2013). Imitation: Social, cognitive,
and theoretical perspectives. In P. D. Zelazo (Ed.), The Oxford handbook
of developmental psychology. Vol 1: Body and mind. New York, NY: Oxford
University Press.

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Information- Processing Theory

An experimenter (E) questions a child, Lauren (L), about an addition problem:
E: How much is 6 + 3?
L: (Long pause) Nine.
E: OK, how did you know that?
L: I think I said . . . I think I said . . . oops, um . . . I think he said . . . 8 was 1
and . . . um . . . I mean 7 was 1, 8 was 2, 9 was 3.
E: OK.
L: Six and three are nine.
E: How did you know to do that? Why didn’t you count “1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9”?
How come you did “6, 7, 8, 9”?
L: Cause then you have to count all those numbers.
E: OK, well how did you know you didn’t have to count all of those numbers?
L: Why didn’t . . . well I don’t have to if I don’t want to.

—Siegler & JenkinS, 1989, p. 66

A part of a connectionist model:
The hidden layer activities, Y⃗ 1(t) and Y⃗ 2(t), resulted from

Y⃗ k(t) = s(V kX⃗k(t) + U k Y⃗ k(t−1)),

where k P{1, 2}, V k and U k are weight matrices and s is the sigmoid:

s(x) = (1 + e−x)−1.
The output, Z⃗ (t), is calculated accordingly:

Z⃗ (t) = s(W 1Y⃗ 1(t) + W 2Y⃗ 2(t)),
with the W k being weight matrices to the output layer.

—Franz & TrieSch, 2010, p. 650

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318 ▶ INFORMATION-PROCESSING THEORY

T
his is the information age. With our various electronic devices,
we have constant, fast access to information from friends,
family, work colleagues, and websites around the world. In our
information- heavy world, almost every aspect of play and work

involves decision- making about what information to select, store, and
use. It is not surprising, then, that at least one developmental theory
would use a technology metaphor and focus on how children deal with
information.

In the last five decades, the information- processing approach, on the
wave of the cognitive revolution, spread quietly through the field of cog-
nitive development. It is said that the approach “was never born; it grad-
ually coalesced” (Kendler, 1987, p. 364). Information processing arrived
with little fanfare and, surprisingly, with only moderate clashes with
Piagetian theory. The approach attracted psychologists seeking a more
rigorous experimental approach than Piaget’s and a more cognitive
approach than learning theory. To a great extent, information processing
defines the study of cognitive development as it exists today. However,
as with Piaget’s theory, the influence has so permeated the field that its
presence is almost invisible. Many developmental psychologists who
study memory, mental representation, and problem solving— major
topics of information processing— are not aware that they have accepted
certain assumptions and methods of that approach. They feel they are
simply performing empirical, atheoretical studies of various aspects of
thinking. This chapter makes explicit this implicit agreement about what
thinking involves, what aspects of thought change during development,
what questions are worth asking, and how those questions should be
studied. The information- processing approach continues to change with
the advent of another new technology— neuroimaging. Developmental
cognitive neuroscience is providing another level of explanation of
changes in information processing.

This chapter begins with a brief description of the information-
processing approach and then continues with a historical sketch, a gen-
eral orientation, des