TheoriesofDevelopment: MapMakers


TheoriesofDevelopment: MapMakers

© Ariel Skelley/Blend Images/Corbis

FocusQuestions 1. What are the pur-

poses and character- istics of good theories in child development?

2. How does Erikson’s theory relate to child development?

3. What are the main assumptions and explanations of behaviorism?

4. What do children learn through imitation?

5. What are the basic ideas underlying Piaget’s theory?

6. What is self-actualization?


2.1 TheoriesinPsychology Purposes of Psychological Theories Characteristics of Good Theories Models Underlying Theories of Child


2.2PsychoanalyticandPsychosocial Approaches Basic Freudian Ideas Freud’s Psychosexual Stages Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial Stage Theory

2.3BehavioristicApproaches Basic Assumptions of Behavioristic

Approaches Classical Conditioning Operant Conditioning Social Cognitive Theory: Albert Bandura Effects of Imitation Triadic Reciprocal Determinism Self-Efficacy

2.4CognitiveApproaches Piaget’s Basic Ideas

Piaget’s Stage Theory Information-Processing Approaches

2.5BiologicalandEcological Approaches Bowlby’s Biological Attachment Theory Vygotsky’s Ecological Approach Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory

2.6DynamicSystemsTheory Basic Ideas Underlying Dynamic Systems Implications of Dynamic Systems Theory

2.7 AHumanisticApproach:Abraham Maslow Maslow’s Humanistic Need Theory Self-Actualization Peak Experiences

2.8AFinalWordaboutTheories SectionSummaries






The moment a person forms a theory, his imagination sees in every object only the traits which favor that theory. —Thomas Jefferson

My grandmother was like that; she tended to notice things that fit her theory.I learned this when my parents sent me to live with her so that I could continue school. We had been sitting on the porch one June evening, gazing out over her garden.

“Nice potatoes,” she commented, which they were.

“Nice carrots too,” I responded, which would have been a politically wise thing to say even if it weren’t true.

“Horse manure,” said the old lady matter-of-factly. “I use horse manure.”

“But your neighbor, Boutin, uses manure too,” I said, “and his potatoes aren’t nearly as good as yours.”

“Cow manure. That’s what he uses,” said grandma. “All wrong for potatoes.”


“I have a theory about that,” said my grandmother.

That’s when I was given my first lesson on Grandma Francœur’s theory of wastes. (My cousins and I were less polite then; we called it Grandma’s theory.) Among other things, the theory explained why horse manure favors potatoes and carrots; why chicken droppings— though not those of roosters—invigorate cabbages; why flattened and dried patties of cow dung excite flowers.

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2.1 TheoriesinPsychology My grandmother’s ramblings were a lesson in theory building—a lesson that I now pass on. A theory need not be an exotic collection of obscure pronouncements; nor does it substitute for facts in the absence of the latter. In its simplest sense, a theory is an explanation of facts. As Thomas (2005) explains, to theorize is to speculate about which facts and which relationships among these facts are most important for understanding children.


A theory is a collection of related statements intended to organize and explain observations. In psychology, as in other sciences, explanation is very important. If we can explain some- thing, we can not only make predictions about it, but also control it. That my grandmother understands why specific manures affect certain crops in given ways allows her to predict these effects and to exercise a high degree of control over her garden.

Similarly, if a theory explains why it is that some children are happy and others are not, then it should be possible, given relevant facts, to predict which children will be happy. And if the circumstances affecting happiness are under our control, it should also be possible to bring happiness to saddened lives. Thus theories can be very practical.

Theories are also one of science’s most important guides for doing research. It is a theory that tells the medical researcher where to look for a cure for cancer, what the cure will look like when it is found, and how it might be used. In the same way, psychology’s theories tell

the psychologist where and how to look for change in the course of development. They suggest as well what some of the causes of change might be and how change might be predicted and perhaps even controlled.

A theory of child development is very much like a detailed map. It guides our study and our understanding. It tells us what routes to follow if we are to understand children’s jour- neys. And it points out what we should look for during our travels.

Scientific theories are seldom based on the kinds of observa- tion that were of such interest to my grandmother. Science, if nothing else, insists on objectivity, precision, and replica- bility (repeatability). The classic “scientific method” (state the problem, make a prediction, select methods and gather required materials, make observations, and reach conclu- sions) is simply a way of ensuring that observations are made under sufficiently controlled circumstances that they can be replicated and confirmed by other scientists.


We cannot easily determine whether a theory is right or wrong. But we can at least decide whether or not it is useful. The best theories, says Thomas (2005), are those that

▲ Theories are important maps for research. And they can also have very practical application. If a theory describes what it is that makes infants thrive and be happy, and if the circumstances it describes are under our control, it might suggest many useful things we can do – perhaps like giving our little urchins milk and fat dogs. © Larry Williams/Corbis

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• accurately reflect the facts

• are expressed in a clearly understandable way

• are useful for predicting future events as well as explaining past ones

• can be applied in a practical sense (have real value for counselors, teachers, pediatri- cians, and so on)

• are not based on a large number of assumptions (unproven beliefs)

• provide reasonable answers for the questions they address


Theorists don’t all share the same views of people, of human nature, and of the child’s devel- opmental voyage. Sometimes they make very different assumptions about what is involved in that journey. For example, some theorists think it useful to view people as though they were machines. This mechanisticmodel suggests that in the same way as machines are highly predictable, so too might it be possible to predict—and control—human behavior given suf- ficient knowledge about the conditions that affect it.

Other theorists insist that it is more useful to emphasize the biological, highly active, self- directed aspects of humans. This organismic model describes development as resulting from self-initiated activities. It looks for regularities in behavior to understand the uniqueness of the individual.

A third model, the contextualmodel(sometimes labeled the ecological model), emphasizes the role of society, culture, and family in shaping the outcomes of development.

The organismic model is reflected in theories such as those of Freud, Erikson, and Piaget; the mechanistic model is evident in early behavioristic learning theories such as that of Watson; and the contextual model is apparent in the theorizing of Bronfenbrenner, Bandura, Vygotsky, Thelen, Maslow, and behaviorists such as Skinner.

2.2 PsychoanalyticandPsychosocialApproaches One of the best known and most influential of all psychological theories is that of Sigmund Freud, the psychoanalytic approach. This theory is based on the assumption that the most important causes of human behavior and personality are deep-seated, usually unconscious forces within individuals. Freud believed that these forces, some of which are in conflict with each other, are at the root of mental disorders. Hence psychoanalysts (Freudian therapists) can help restore mental health, argued Freud, by helping patients understand their unconscious drives and resulting conflicts (Freud, 1940/2003).


Perhaps the most basic of all Freudian ideas is the notion that the human odyssey is driven by two powerful drives: the drive toward life (Eros) and an opposing drive toward death (Thanatos). Of special importance to child development is the drive toward life. It is evident in our basic urge to survive and to procreate (Freud, 1940/2003). The urge to survive is not usu- ally threatened by our environments, but the urge to procreate is constantly being discouraged

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and prevented—especially in the Victorian period during which Freud lived. As a result, sexual urges are so important in Freud’s description of development that they are given a special term: libido. Libidinal urges refer not only to activities that are clearly associated with sex but to all other activities that may be linked with body pleasure, however remotely (for example, behaviors such as thumb sucking or smoking cigarettes).

Three Levels of Personality

There are three sequential stages of personality development, says Freud, apparent in the development of id, ego, and superego (Lear, 2005).

ID The Freudian infant is all instincts (unlearned tendencies) and primitive reflexes seeking almost desperately to satisfy urges based on the drive to survive and to procreate. These urges, labeled id, are a lifetime source of motivation for all we do. But, unlike older children and adults, the infant has no idea of what is possible or impossible nor any sense of right and wrong. As a result, the infant is driven by an almost overwhelming urge to satisfy impulses immediately. An infant who is hungry does not wait; right now is the time for the nipple and the sucking!

EGO But life is not always kind. Almost from birth, there is a clash between these pow- erful libidinal urges and reality. For example, hunger, perhaps the most powerful of the survival-linked drives, can’t always be satisfied immediately. Repeated conflict between id impulses and reality results in the development of the ego, the rational level of personality that grows from a realization of what is possible and what is not. Although the id wants immediate gratification, the ego tries to channel desires in the most profitable direction for the individual.

SUPEREGO There is no conflict between the goals of the id and the ego: Both work toward satisfying the needs and urges of the individual. But the third level of personality, the superego, acts in direct opposition to the first two. The superego is essentially the person’s conscience. Like the ego, it develops from repeated contact with reality, but it reflects social rather than physi- cal reality. As such, it is concerned with right and wrong.

The superego (or conscience) begins to develop in early childhood, says Freud, and results mainly from

the child’s identifying with parents, and especially with the same-sex parent. Identification involves attempting to become like others—adopting their values and beliefs as well as their behaviors. By identifying with their parents, children learn the religious and cultural rules that govern their par-

ents’ behaviors; these rules then become part of a child’s superego. Because many religious, social, and cultural rules oppose the urges of the id, the superego and the id are generally in conflict. Freud assumed that this conflict underlies many mental disorders and accounts for much deviant behavior (Figure 2.1).

▲ The forces that drive human behavior, our darkest and deepest urges (the Id) are largely unconscious, claimed Freud—but they might be revealed in dreams. Do the beasts this lad now dreams reflect unconscious desires or fears? Or are they simply creatures loosed from the magical pages on which he sleeps? © Joe Bator/Corbis

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Freud’s description of the development of these three levels of personality—the id, ego, and superego—traces the child’s progression through a series of five psychosexual stages. Because Freud believed that the main underlying source of energy for human behavior and develop- ment is sexual, stages in psychosexual development are identified and distinguished mainly in terms of the objects or activities necessary for the satisfaction of basic urges during that stage.

The Oral Stage

The oralstage, which lasts to about 18 months, is characterized by the infant’s preoccupa- tion with the mouth, with sucking, and with eating. During this first stage, children constantly seek to satisfy their urges and are incapable of deliberately delaying gratification.

The Anal Stage

During the second year, the area of sexual gratification shifts from the oral region to the anal region. In the early part of the analstage, says Freud, the infant derives pleasure from bowel movements. But later, as the child acquires control of sphincter muscles, pleasure may come from withholding bowel movements to increase anal sensation. Both of these behaviors oppose the mother’s wishes, creating a conflict that leads to the development of the ego—a sense of reality, an awareness that some things are possible and others are not, coupled with the ability to delay gratification to some extent.

Freud believed that development sometimes becomes stuck at a particular level (fixation) or goes back to a more primitive level (regression). The anal-retentive personality (stingy, self-centered) is one example of fixation or regression at the anal stage. Similarly, the oral- aggressivepersonality (loud, boorish, insistent) might result from developmental problems linked with the oral stage (Agmon & Schneider, 1998). In a sense, it’s as though the child’s journey runs into roadblocks that are difficult to get around (fixation), or as though the child turns around and goes back to a more familiar, more comfortable stretch of road (regression).

Conscious portion

Unconscious portion


Conflict area


Superego Ego


Dark, basic urges

FIGURE 02.01

Figure2.1:Freud’sThree ComponentsofPersonality

The part of which we are con- scious is represented by the por- tion that is above the wavy blue line (like the tip of an iceberg, claimed Freud; most is uncon- scious). Instinctive urges (the id) are present from the beginning. The superego (conscience) builds as a result of contact with social reality and is typically in conflict with the id. The ego develops as the individual becomes aware of what is possible and what is not, and tries to act as a mediator between the conflicting id and superego. Source: Nathan Lefrançois

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The Phallic Stage

In the Greek legend, King Oedipus, who has been abandoned by his parents and then adopted, ends up unwittingly killing his father and marrying his mother. Each of us who is male, claims Freud, is a little like Oedipus: As we progress through the phallicstage (roughly ages 2 to 6), our increasing awareness of the sexual meanings of our genitals leads us to desire our mothers and to wish to replace our fathers—all unconsciously, of course. This is our Oedipus complex. Healthy resolution of this complex depends on being able to identify closely with our fathers, at the same time renouncing the lust we sense unconsciously for our mothers.

For girls, too, there is a similar developmental progression marked by what Halberstadt-Freud (1998) describes as vehement rejection of the mother based on an unrecognized jealousy of her. This jealousy results from the girl’s sexual feelings for her father, and is labeled the Electracomplex.

The Latency Stage

The resolution of the Oedipus or the Electra complex marks the transition from the phallic stage to a period of sexuallatency (roughly ages 6 to 11). This period is marked by a loss of sexual interest in the opposite-sex parent and a continued identification with the same-sex parent. The process of identification is very important in Freud’s system because it not only involves attempts to behave like the parent with whom the child is identifying but also implies attempting to be like the object of identification in terms of beliefs and values. In this way, the child begins to develop a superego. Note that identification, like many other significant phenomena described by Freud, is largely an unconscious rather than a conscious process.

The Genital Stage

At about age 11, following a lengthy period of sexual neutrality, the child enters the stage of adult sexuality. The hallmark of this stage is typically the beginning of heterosexual (or homo- sexual) attachments. Also, during this last developmental stage the superego (conscience), which has previously been very rigid, becomes progressively more flexible as the adolescent matures (Figure 2.2).

FIGURE 02.02

Oral Stage

0–18 months

Sources of pleasure include sucking,

biting, swallowing, playing with lips.

Anal Stage

18 months–3 years

Sources of sexual gratification center around expelling or

retaining feces.

Phallic Stage

3–6 years

Child becomes concerned with

genitals as source of pleasure.

Latency Stage

6–11 years

Loss of interest in sexual gratification. Identification with like-sexed parent.

Genital Stage

11 onward

Concern with adult modes of sexual



Freudian stages are differentiated mainly in terms of sources of sexual gratification. Age boundaries are approximate.

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Of the theories inspired by Freud’s psychoanalytic views, that developed by Erik Erikson (1956, 1959, 1961, 1968) is the most important and influential in human development. Although Erikson’s theory draws heavily from Freud’s work, it rejects his emphasis on the role of sexu- ality (libido). Instead, Erikson describes how children’s journeys are influenced by their social environment. His is a theory of psychosocialdevelopment—not of psychosexual develop- ment. Unlike Freud’s theory, it is concerned with the development of a healthy personality rather than with the resolution of powerful internal conflicts.

There are eight broad developmental stages that span our lives, says Erikson. The first five of these stretch from infancy through adolescence; the final three cover the period from adult- hood to death.

Each of Erikson’s stages is identified in terms of a basic conflict brought about mainly by the need to adapt to the social environment—hence psychosocial rather than psychosexual. At each level, new competencies are required of the individual if that stage’s conflicts are to be resolved.

Trust versus Mistrust

For example, in the first year of life, the infant has to learn how to trust. Trust is one of the basic components of a healthy personality. But, says Erikson (1959), the infant has a strong tendency to mistrust the world because so little is known about it. This presents a conflict with the infant’s inclination to develop a trusting attitude and to become more independent— hence trustversusmistrust.

The most important person in an infant’s life at this stage is the primary caregiver—usually the mother. Successful resolution of the conflict between trust and mistrust depends largely on the infant’s relationship with this caregiver and on the gradual realization that the world is predictable, safe, and loving. If the world is unpredictable and the caregiver rejecting, says Erikson, the infant may grow up to be mistrustful and anxious.

Autonomy versus Shame and Doubt

In the beginning, infants have no sense of themselves as authors of their own actions: They react rather than act. But during this second stage, they gradually realize that some intentions can be acted upon—that, for example, the nipple can deliberately be sucked. As a result, they begin to develop a sense of autonomy. However, this autonomy is threatened by an inclina- tion not to accept responsibility for personal actions, but instead to return to the comfort and security that characterized the first stage—hence the autonomyversusshameanddoubt conflict (Erikson, 1961). If children are to resolve this conflict successfully and develop a sense of autonomy, it’s important that parents encourage attempts to explore and that they provide opportunities for independence. Overprotectiveness can lead to doubt and uncertainty in dealing with the world later. What the child needs, according to Erikson (l959), is a balance between parental firmness and flexibility.

Note that here, as in all of Erikson’s stages, the resolution of the psychosocial conflict is never absolutely final. The conflict between the urge to be both dependent and autonomous con- tinues throughout the lifespan. But it is a conflict that, at least in the case of normal, healthy development, provides little unhappiness or turmoil.

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Initiative versus Guilt

By the age of 4 or 5, children have resolved the crisis of autonomy: They have discovered that they are autonomous and independent, that they are somebody. During this next stage they establish a wider physical and social environment, made possible by their greater free- dom of movement and by their increasingly advanced language development. And with their increasing exploration of the environment, they develop a sense of initiative: Not only are they autonomous, but they are also responsible for their behavior.

Because the central process involved in resolving the initiativeversusguilt conflict is one of identification, parents and family continue to be the most important influences in a child’s development. It is important for parents to encourage young children’s sense of initiative and to nurture a sense of responsibility.

Industry versus Inferiority

The fourth developmental stage, industryversus inferiority, is marked by an increasing need to interact with and be accepted by peers—mainly same-sex peers. It now becomes cru- cial for children to discover that their selves, their identities, are significant and that they can do things—in short, that they are industrious and competent. Children now take advantage of opportunities to learn things they think are important to their culture, hoping that by so doing they will become someone. Successful resolution of this stage’s conflict depends greatly on the responses of significant social agencies—especially schools and teachers—to children’s efforts. If the child’s work is continually demeaned and seldom praised, the outcome may be a lasting sense of inferiority.

Identity versus Role Confusion

The most highly researched and widely discussed of all of Erikson’s ideas relates to his notion of identity development during adolescence. At a simple level, the formation of an identity involves arriving at a notion of who one is and can be. The source of conflict lies in the various possibilities open to adolescents—possibilities that are magnified by the variety of cultural models in the environment. Conflict and doubt over choice of identity lead to what Erikson terms roleconfusion. It is as though adolescents are torn between early acceptance of a clearly defined self and the dissipation of their energies as they experi-

ment with a variety of roles. One of the primary functions of adolescence is to serve as a period during which the child need not make a final decision concerning the self (as a moratorium, in Erikson’s words).

Adult Stages

Erikson’s description of development does not end with adolescence but continues throughout the entire lifespan. He describes three additional psychosocial conflicts that occur during adult- hood and old age and require new competen- cies and adjustments. These are included in Figure 2.3.


Erikson was very optimistic and positive in his analyses of contemporary societies, notes Smelser (1996). He had visions of a highly ethical, peaceful, harmonious world.

As a thought challenge, phrase the contemporary world’s (or your nation’s) developmental stage as an Eriksonian type of conflict and, as is done in Figure 2.3, specify what developmental tasks and competencies might be involved in resolving this conflict, and what influences might be important for a positive outcome.

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Each task requires overcoming a challenge and developing some new competence.

2.3 BehavioristicApproaches Freud and Erikson’s psychoanalytic approaches have a number of important things in com- mon: First, they are developmentaltheories (they are concerned with changes that occur over time); second, they are stage theories (development consists of progression through sequential stages); and third, they make important assumptions concerning the biological (inherited) aspects of behavior and personality.


Behavioristic approaches do not share any of these characteristics to any important extent. They present an entirely different kind of map of children’s journeys—one that makes few assumptions about biological predispositions or about unconscious forces, and that doesn’t describe sequential stages of increasing capabilities and competencies.

FIGURE 02.03

Trust vs


Erickson’s Psychosocial



Corresponding Freudian

Psychosexual Stage

Develop enough trust in the world to explore it

Principal Developmental Task and Important Influences

0–18 months

Autonomy vs

shame and doubt AnalDevelop feelings of control over behavior.

Realize that intentions can be acted out 18 months– 2–3 years

Initiative vs

guilt PhallicDevelop a sense of self by identifying with parents;

develop a feeling of responsibility for own actions 2 or 3–6


Industry vs

inferiority LatencyDevelop a sense of self-worth through

interaction with peers 6–11 years

Indentity vs

role confusion GenitalDevelop a strong sense of self (identity); select among

various vocational, political, religious, or lifestyle alternatives 11 through adolescence

Intimacy vs

isolation GenitalDevelop close relationships with others; achieve the

intimacy required for long-term commitment Young


Generativity vs

self-absorption GenitalAssume responsible adult roles in community;

contribute; be worthwhile Adulthood

Integrity vs

despair GenitalFace death; overcome possible despair;

come to terms with the meaning of lilfe Older


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As the term implies, behaviorism focuses on actual behavior. Behavioristictheory is espe- cially concerned with relationships between experience and behavior; consequently it makes extensive use of concepts such as reinforcement and punishment, which describe how behav- ior may be encouraged or discouraged.

Behavioristic approaches to development (also referred to as learning theory approaches) make two fundamental assumptions: (1) behavior consists of responses or actions that can be observed, measured, and analyzed; and (2) behavior is highly responsive to reinforcement (usually rewards) and punishment. Accordingly, the main goals of behavioristic theorists have been to discover the rules that govern relationships between a stimulus (plural: stimuli: con- ditions that lead to behavior) and a response, and to learn how responses can be controlled through the administration of rewards and punishments.

The behavioristic approach was introduced into American psychology through the work of John B. Watson and B. F. Skinner and led to a dramatic upheaval in psychology. Both theo- rists believed strongly in the importance of the environment as the principal force in shaping development. Watson is associated with a learning theory based on a model of classicalcon- ditioning; Skinner developed a model of operantconditioning. Conditioning refers to a simple kind of learning whereby certain behaviors are affected by the environment, becoming more or less probable.


The name of the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov (1927), will probably be forever associated with classical conditioning. Ironically, however, he stumbled upon his most famous observa- tion almost by accident while studying the digestive processes of dogs—work for which he was awarded no less than the 1904 Nobel prize in medicine and physiology!

While studying digestion, Pavlov noticed that the more experienced animals in his laboratory began to salivate even before they had any food in their mouths. In fact, they began to drool as soon as they saw their keeper approaching. Pavlov reasoned that they were salivating because they had formed some sort of association between the sight of the keeper and the presentation of food—an association that defines classical conditioning.

In a well-known demonstration of this phenomenon, food powder is injected into a dog’s mouth. The food powder is termed an unconditionedstimulus(US)because it leads to a response (salivation) without any learning (any conditioning) having to take place. Because the salivation occurs in response to an unconditioned stimulus, it is an unconditionedresponse (UR). Now the food powder is paired with another distinctive stimulus, such as the sound of a bell. The bell is initially a neutral stimulus: It does not lead to salivation. But after the bell has been paired often enough with the food, it becomes a conditionedstimulus(CS) which now leads readily to salivation—now termed a conditionedresponse(CR) because it occurs in response to a conditioned stimulus (Figure 2.4).

An Example: Little Albert

Watson believed that in the same way as behaviors can be conditioned in animals, so, too, might they be in humans. For example, he reasoned, infants typically react with fear when they hear a sudden, loud noise. The noise is an unconditioned stimulus for an unconditioned fear response. It follows from what we know about classical conditioning that if a frightening

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noise were paired often enough with a neutral stimulus, the neutral stimulus might eventually become a conditioned stimulus that would reliably lead to a conditioned fear reaction.

In a widely known demonstration of this possibility, Watson and his assistant, Rosalie Rayner, presented an 11-month-old infant, Little Albert, with a white rat (Watson & Rayner, 1920). In the beginning, Little Albert played fearlessly with the rat. But then Watson (or Rayner, the point isn’t clear from Watson’s notes) pounded a 3-foot long, 1-inch steel bar just behind Albert. But Albert, being a brave little fellow, didn’t immediately start crying. So again, some- one banged the bar. This time, Albert began to whimper. “On account of his disturbed condi- tion,” wrote Watson, “no further tests were made for one week” (1930, p. 60).

(B) Neutral stimulus No salivation

FIGURE 02.04

Salivation (Unconditioned response: UR)

Salivation (Unconditioned response: UR)

Before Conditioning

Conditioning Stage

(C) Conditioning stimulus paired with unconditioned stimulus (CS & US)

(A) Unconditioned stimulus (US)

Salivation (Conditioned response: CR)

After Conditioning

(D) Conditioned stimulus (CS)


In A, an unconditioned stimulus leads to an unconditioned response whereas in B a conditioning stimulus does not. In C¸ the US and the CS are paired a number of times so that in D, the CS alone leads to the CR. © Getty Images; © Comstock/Thinkstock; © iStockphoto/Thinkstock

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A week later, Albert was brought back into the lab and the banging and the rat were paired a total of five times. After that, whenever Albert saw the rat, he started to cry and tried to crawl away. “Surely,” claimed Watson, “this is proof of the conditioned origin of a fear response. It yields an explanatory principle that will account for the enormous complexity in the emotional behavior of adults” (1930, p. 161).

Although Watson and Rayner’s demonstration with Little Albert is more systematic than most situations in which we acquire emotional responses, Watson believed that the results could be generalized and that classical conditioning accounts for much of our emotional learning. My brother is a case in point. When he was five, he ran over a snake with his tricycle and ended

up crying in the ditch. Now, years later, when we tour strange countries on our bicycles, he constantly watches for snakes. And if he sees one, he jumps off his bike and walks as far around it as he can. He is conditioned to fear snakes; he has little control over his physiologi- cal reactions when he sees one.


Classical conditioning is sometimes useful for explaining simple learning such as my brother’s reaction to snakes. But, as Skinner (1953, 1957, 1961) points out, many human behaviors are not evoked by obvious stimuli such as snakes (elicitedresponses), but are simply produced by the organism (emittedresponses). In Skinner’s terms, an emitted behavior is an operant;

an elicited response is a respondent. Skinner’s work is mainly an attempt to explain how operants are learned.

Skinner’s most widely known experiments were with rats. When placed in specially equipped cages, they quickly learned to depress a lever as a result of being reinforced for doing so. Similarly, pigeons can easily be conditioned to peck—or not to peck—at a disk depending on the consequences of pecking. It seems clear, says Skinner, that the likelihood of a response being repeated has a lot to do with its consequences. Behaviors that are reinforced tend to be repeated; those that are not reinforced or that are punished are less likely to be repeated.

Reinforcement and Punishment

That which increases the probability of a response occurring is said to be reinforcing. A reinforcer is the stimulus that reinforces; reinforcement is the effect of a reinforcer.

Reinforcement is positive when the addition of something, such as a reward, leads to an increase in behavior. It is negative when the removal of something, such as an unpleasant (aversive) stimulus, leads to an increase in behavior. The important point is that both positivereinforcement and negativereinforcementincrease the probability of a response occurring. Whereas positive rein- forcement involves a reward for behavior, negative reinforcement involves relief from something unpleasant.


Whatever happened to Little Albert? How did the little tyke turn out? Write up some possibilities.

▲ B.F. Skinner with a rat in a “Skinner box.” Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning has been applied widely in fields as diverse as education, parenting, psychia- try, the armed forces, and animal training. © Bettmann/Corbis

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In the same way as there are two kinds of reinforcement, there are two corresponding kinds of punishment. One kind involves the introduc- tion of an unpleasant consequence (for example, physical punishment). This is sometimes referred to as presentation punishment because it involves presenting an aversive stimulus (castigation). Another kind of punishment involves taking away something that is pleasant, such as being prevented from watching television (called a time-out proce- dure), or having to give up something desirable such as money or privi- leges (called response-cost punishment). This type of punishment is sometimes labeled removal punishment.

Distinctions among the various kinds of reinforcement and punishment are illustrated in Figure 2.5. As the illustration makes clear, both rein- forcement and punishment may involve stimuli with pleasant or aver- sive effects, but whether these stimuli are added to or removed from the situation determines whether they are reinforcing or punishing. It is worth emphasizing again that both reinforcement and punishment are defined by their effects. Many types of reinforcers, some of which are described in Figure 2.6, can be used systematically in childrearing and in the classroom.


Using reinforcement and the principles of operant conditioning, it is relatively easy to teach a rat to depress a lever, a pigeon to peck a disk,

FIGURE 02.05

QE: I don’t see arrows inside the box

Pleasant Stimulus (Appetitive)

Something is added to a situation after

a reponse

Something is taken away from a

situation after a response

Unpleasant Stimulus (Aversive)

Be ha

vi or

s tr

en gt

he ne


Be ha

vi or

s tr

en gt

he ne


Be ha

vi or

w ea

ke ne


Be ha

vi or

w ea

ke ne

dPositive reinforcement


[Sam is given a dollar for getting 100% on

his spelling test]

Negative reinforcement


[Sam is allowed to rejoin the class when

he apologizes to Sarah and offers her his


Presentation punishment (castigation)

[Sam is given a “time out” for breaking Sarah’s crayons]

Removal punishment


[Sam has his dollar taken away for

disobeying his mother]


The four combinations of stimulus effects that define the two kinds of reinforcement and two kinds of punishment.

▲ “I will not fetch a stick,” says this cow. “That’s not one of the things I do.” Biology prepares organisms to learn certain things and not others. But the shaping techniques of operant conditioning can sometimes overcome biologi- cal predispositions—even in stubborn cows. © iStockphoto/ Thinkstock

BehavioristicApproaches Chapter2

or a dog to fetch a stick: These are some of the things rats, pigeons, and dogs do. But, as Guthrie (1935) observes, “We cannot teach cows to retrieve a stick because this is one of the things that cows do not do” (1935, p. 45).

Guthrie may have been wrong. Although no normal cow is likely to emit spontaneous stick- fetching behavior—as might a dog—Skinner describes a technique that just might work

with this problem. Clearly, you cannot simply wait around for the cow to pick up a stick and then reward her—say with a nice bale of new-mown hay. What you have to do, Skinner explains, is reinforce responses that are progressively closer approximations to the final, desired behavior. In the begin- ning, for example, you might reinforce the cow every time she turns toward the stick. Later, you would reinforce her only when she takes a step in that direction. Little by little, you might eventually succeed in shaping the cow’s behav- ior to such an extent that she

FIGURE 02.06

Classes of Reinforcers

Consumables (candy, drinks, chocolate, fruit . . . )

Manipulables (toys, games, puzzles . . . )

Visual and auditory stimuli (Bells, buzzers, smiling puppets, green lights, gold stars)

Social stimuli (Praise, a pat on the back, a smile, applause)

Token reinforcers (Coins, counters, points, or other tokens that can be exchanged for other reinforcers)

Premack principle (Activities that occur frequently— and that are presumably pleasant can be used to reinforce other, less frequently occurring activities)

© Getty Images/Jupiterimages

© Getty Images/Jupiterimages

© Photodisc/Thinkstock

© Brand X Pictures/Thinkstock

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock

© iStockphoto/Thinkstock


Shown are different classes of reinforcers with examples appropriate for younger children.


Watson firmly believed that what we become is mainly a result of the experiences we have as we develop. “Give me a dozen healthy infants,” he said in what may well be his most widely quoted (and longest) sen- tence, “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” (1930, p. 104).

Elsewhere he wrote, somewhat less optimistically, “The world would be considerably better off if we were to stop having children for twenty years (except for experimental purposes) and were then to start again with enough facts to do the job with some degree of skill and accuracy” (Watson, 1928, p. 16).

What is your reaction to each of these statements?

BehavioristicApproaches Chapter2

will gladly run and fetch a stick every time you throw one. Or not. (See In the Classroom: The Bubble-Gum Machine.)


Yet another map maker, Albert Bandura, presents a somewhat different emphasis. Operant learning, he explains, might be a highly inefficient and ineffective way of learning if all we could do is gradually shape behavior through successive reinforcements, or, worse yet, wait for a fully formed behavior (operant) to be emitted and then hope it will be reinforced. Would it be reasonable to expect that an inexperienced learner, given keys and a car, would learn to

I N T H E C l A S S R O O M :

The Bubble-Gum Machine

TheSchool: Westland Primary

TheSituation: Miss White’s second grade classroom

Miss White: You’ve all been really good today, so now it’s reward time! There is much cheering, talking, smiling and laughing. . .

Miss White: Bobby, it’s your turn to pick the reward gum today.

Bobby rushes to the “gum machine,” a large, transparent plastic globe. The “gumballs” it contains are colorful circles, on the backs of which are written various rewards. Bobby reaches into the globe and pulls out a large red circle.

Bobby: Can I read it? Huh? Can I?

Miss White: Yes you may read it, Bobby. Go ahead.

Bobby: Mi. . Miss White. It says Miss White reads. . .What. . . Where, where

Miss White: You’re doing very well, Bobby, Miss White reads where. . .

Bobby: Where the Wild Things Are!!

Miss White: Who has the book finding job today?

Jenny: Me. She finds the book and brings it to Miss White. The children rush to their on-the-tummy positions in front of the “reading chair.”

Miss White: Where were we? Ah, Here. . . “Max says: Carol, did you know the sun was gonna die? Miss White changes her voice for Carol: “What? I never heard that. . .Oh, come on. That can’t happen. . .”

ToThinkAbout: Miss White’s reading of this famous Maurice Sendak story is a wonderful example of a whole class reward system. In this class, there are many other applications of the bubble-gum machine theme. For example, at different times, the machine has contained silhou- ettes of the children’s heads with their names on the back, “bubbles” assigning jobs for the week, reward bubbles for individual accomplishments. During spelling lessons, the backs of the bubble gums sometimes have new words written on them; these are used in cooperative spelling exer- cises. Can you think of other applications of this theme? Of other themes that might be used in similar ways?

BehavioristicApproaches Chapter2

drive as a result of, by chance, emitting the right sequence of operants and being sufficiently reinforced before running up against a tree?

Not likely. But the fact is that there are few inexperienced 15-year-olds. Most have seen others driving; many have read instructions and listened to peers talk about how you start and drive cars. In Bandura’s terms, they have been exposed to many different models.

Much of our learning, says Bandura, is observationallearning (learning through imitation). It results from imitating models. But learning through imitation, Bandura (1977, 1997) points out, is really a form of operant learning. That’s because an imitative behavior is much like an operant; it’s not just a response to a specific stimulus. And imitative behaviors are often reinforced in one of two ways. Directreinforcement occurs when the consequences of an imitative behavior lead to reinforcement—as, for example, when a child learns to say milk as a result of imitating a parent and is then given milk. Vicariousreinforcement involves a kind of second-hand reinforcement—as when observing someone else being rewarded leads to further imitation (Bandura & Walters, 1963).


In Bandura’s theory, a model may be either an actual person or a symbolicmodel (for exam- ple, characters in books, television, or film; oral or written instructions; photos, cartoon char- acters, star athletes, and so on). Nor are models always examples of more advanced skills and competencies displayed by older people, as might be the case when children imitate adults. As Flynn and Whiten (2010) note, even preschoolers imitate and learn all sorts of behaviors from each other, including social behaviors, games, and even important elements of language.

Through imitation, explain Bandura and Walters (1963), young children (and adults) learn three different classes of behavior:

1. They learn new behaviors (the modelingeffect). For example, in one of Bandura’s experi- ments, (described in Chapter 8), 3- to 7-year old children exposed to violent models beat- ing up and being verbally aggressive with an inflated “bobo” doll later displayed precisely imitative aggressive behaviors (Bandura, Ross, & Ross, 1961).

2. They learn to suppress deviant behaviors (the inhibitoryeffect) usually as a result of see- ing a model being punished for a similar behavior. Or they learn to engage in previously suppressed behaviors (the disinhibitoryeffect), often as a result of the model’s being reinforced for similar behaviors. For example, if 7-year-old Edward’s friends steal the neigh- bor’s forbidden apples, the amount of reinforcement he thinks they receive (in terms of the “fun” and prestige they seem to gain) may disinhibit his refusal to join them. That Edward now steals apples does not mean that he has learned something new, as in modeling; it simply illustrates that his previously suppressed “deviant” behavior has been disinhibited. But if Edward later sees his friends apprehended and punished, he might quickly stop steal- ing apples (the inhibitory effect).

3. They learn to engage in behaviors similar but not identical to those of the model (eliciting effect). In this case, the behavior is neither novel (as in the modeling effect) nor deviant (as in the inhibitory-disinhibitory effect). It‘s as though the model’s behavior suggests some related response to the observer and therefore elicits that response. The eliciting effect is evident when a kindergartener’s “acting up” elicits a range of other misbehaviors in his classmates (Figure 2.7).

BehavioristicApproaches Chapter2


Some behaviors (such as our classically conditioned fears) are under the control of stimuli (snakes, for example), explains Bandura. Others (such as our love of material possessions) are controlled more by their reinforcing consequences (like praise for our shiny new toys). And a third group, such as our dedication to work and study, are controlled by cognitive activities (like imagining the eventual consequences of our sacrifices). Bandura refers to these behavior control systems as stimulus control, outcome control, and symbolic control.

In the end, although the reinforcements and punishments that children’s environments pro- vide clearly affect their behavior, it is the symbolic control system that is most important in Bandura’s theory. We are not simply pawns, he explains, reacting unconsciously to stimuli, pushed this way and that by rewards and punishments. We are in control, Bandura (1997) insists: We are agents of our own actions.

Being agents of our actions requires three things: intention, forethought, and self-reflection. That is, we can’t be in control of our actions unless we intend them, anticipate their conse- quences, and have some notion of the likelihood of accomplishing what we intend.

That we are agents of our actions is reflected in our habit of deliberately arranging our envi- ronments to try to control the consequences of our actions. Even 4-year-old Jenna chooses aspects of her environment: She deliberately avoids her cousins, Michael and Jack, who like to play rough games that sometimes hurt. On the other hand, she runs to play with Jessica, who always tells her how pretty she is.

FIGURE 02.07

Modeling Effect Learning novel behavior as a result of observing

a model.

After watching a violent cartoon, 4-year-old Karen

whips her little brother with her aquatic “noodle,”

yelling, “I have the power!”

Inhibitory/ Disinhibitory Effect

Stopping or starting some deviant behavior as a

result of seeing a model punished or rewarded for

similar behavior.

Five-year-old Ralph stops writing on his bedroom wall after his sister is punished

for writing on her wall.

Eliciting Effect Engaging in behavior

related to that of a model.

Six-year-old Robin dances for her teacher after her

cousin is praised for playing the piano

in school.

Effect of Imitation Explanation Example


Through imitation, children learn new behaviors (modeling effect), they learn to inhibit or engage in deviant behaviors (inhibitory/disinhibatory effect), and they learn to engage in behaviors similar but not identical to those of the models (eliciting effect).

BehavioristicApproaches Chapter2

Even at this age, as Bandura explains, we both affect and are affected by our contexts (social and physical environments). This notion is summarized in Bandura’s phrase triadicrecipro- caldeterminism. As shown in Figure 2.8, the three main factors that affect who we are and what we do are personal factors (our personalities; what we know, feel, and intend); our actions (what we do); and our contexts (the social and physical aspects of our environments). These three factors affect each other reciprocally. For example, a frustrating environment might change 5-year-old Harry’s personality, leading him to loud and violent “meltdowns.” These actions might change his relationship with his parents, affecting their behavior toward him, thus changing important aspects of his social relationships. And the changing social envi- ronment might, in turn, increase the frequency and severity of his meltdowns.

On the other hand, instead of leading to violent outbursts, a frustrating environment might increase Harry’s patience and determination, and might lead him to enlist the help of his par- ents for difficult undertakings. The reciprocal influence of person, action, and environment might be no less in this case, but the outcomes will be very different (Figure 2.8). (See Across Cultures: Ellen De Luca, The Fat Girl for an illustration of environment-person interaction.)

FIGURE 02.08

The person’s behavior

Personal factors like biology (gender; hormones),

affect (emotions; moods); and cognition (knowledge;

goals; expectations)

The social and physical environment as experienced

by the individual

Juan’s tantrums annoy his parents and they change their behavior

toward him. Their altered behavior increases his tantrums.

Juan’s being “difficult” frustrates

his father who responds m ore

harshly to him . In turn, Juan

becom es increasingly difficult.

Ju an

’s ta

nt ru

m s r

efl ec

t a b

io lo

gi ca


pr ed

isp os

iti on

to wa

rd b

ein g

di ffi

cu lt.

Th is

in cre

as es

h is

ex pe

cta tio

n of

fru str

at io

n— wh

ich th

en in

cre as

es h


ne ga

tiv e b

eh av

io r.


Behavior, the person, and the environment all mutually influence and change each other. The descriptions provided in the arrows represent only a few of many possible interactions and influences.

BehavioristicApproaches Chapter2

A C R O S S C U lT U R E S :

Ellen De Luca, The Fat Girl

Her name was Ellen De Luca. But I never thought of her with a name until the day I made her cry,” says Jeff of the girl who arrived at his first high school ceramics class at the same time he did (Sachs, 1984). The girl was easily twice as wide as Jeff, so he had to stand back to let her through. “What a butt!” said the guy behind him.

The girl moved off to a corner, away from the others, and Jeff promptly fell in love with Norma, a slim and gorgeous blond, the kind of girl, he says, “I had been dreaming about ever since I started dreaming about girls.”

In ceramics class, the beautiful Norma threw exquisite pots and vases; Ellen’s were clumsy and ugly. She kept bumping into things, breaking pottery, slamming doors—and also watching Jeff, wistfully catching him kissing Norma or rubbing her back. But Jeff didn’t even know Ellen’s name, noticing only how big she was as she waddled down the aisles, or how she would sometimes eat two cheeseburgers in the school cafeteria and then as many as six chocolate bars. And she threw the wrappers under the table.

“Somebody should tell her,” said Jeff.

“Tell her what?”

“That she’d do herself and the rest of us a big favor if she’d go bust up another class. It’s a real drag having her around.”

Suddenly Jeff realized that Ellen de Luca, standing silently behind him, had heard every word. Crying, she turned and shuf- fled away. Next day, and the next, and the one after that, she didn’t return to class. In the end, Jeff went to her home and tried to apologize, but Ellen de Luca would hear none of it. “I’m going to kill myself,” she said.

“I didn’t mean it, Ellen. Honestly,” Jeff insisted.

“It’s everybody else too.” she answered. “Nobody likes me. I’m going to kill myself.”

ToThinkAbout: Norma and Ellen share many important aspects of context: They attend the same school and classes, they know many of the same people, and their families live in the same neigh- borhoods and have similar lives and values. What is it that makes their lives so different? Can you think of other situations in which cultural rules and expectations interact with people’s characteris- tics to determine important aspects of context?

Based on Sachs, M. (l984). The fat girl. New York: Dutton.

© iStockPhoto/ Thinkstock

BehavioristicApproaches Chapter2


To be successful and effective agents of our own actions, we must think well of our per- sonal competence—in Bandura’s (1997) terms, our self-efficacyjudgments. Efficacy means competence in dealing with the environment. The most efficacious people are those who can most effectively deal with a variety of situations. Thus self-efficacy has two separate but related components: the skills that are required for the successful performance of a behavior, and an individual’s beliefs about personal effectiveness. From a psychological point of view, it is not so much the skills component that is important, but rather people’s perceptions of their own self-efficacy.

The Development of Self-Efficacy in Early Childhood

Not long ago my oldest son said something that surprised and alarmed me. We were talking about the various foolish things each of us had done when we were very young. I didn’t have much to say. He did.

“Remember that house we had in California?” he asked. “Well, I used to think I’d be able to fly from the upstairs window if I held a really clean sheet over my head like Superman’s cape. And I almost tried it one day but I didn’t know where the clean sheets were. So I didn’t jump.”

Young children don’t have very good notions of their personal capabilities. Their self- judgment, and their corresponding self-guidance, is less than perfect. As a result, without external con- trols they, like my son, would often be in danger of severely hurting themselves. Instead of imposing on themselves the internal self-judgment, “I can’t do that,” they require the external judgment, “You can’t do that.” As Harter (1988) reports, most young children have an exag- gerated and unrealistic notion of self. For example, when asked if they think they are “smart” or “not smart,” there is a definite bias in the direction of “smart.”

The sense of personal control over behavior, essential for judgments of personal efficacy, begins to develop very early in infancy. Some of its roots lie in an infant’s discovery that looking at the mother makes her look back in return; that smiling or crying draws her atten- tion; that waving a hand makes her smile. Later, as infants begin to move around freely, they begin to learn more about the effects of their behaviors—and also more about their own effectiveness.

Importance of Self-Efficacy Judgments

As Bandura phrases it, “Perceived self-efficacy refers to beliefs in one’s capabilities to orga- nize and execute the courses of action required to produce given attainments” (1997, p. 3). This aspect of self-knowledge is critically important, says Bandura. Among other things, it’s an important determiner of what we do and don’t do. Under most circumstances, children don’t seek out and undertake activities in which they expect to perform badly. “Efficacy beliefs,” says Bandura (1993, p. 118), “influence how people feel, think, motivate themselves, and behave.”

Judgments of personal efficacy affect not only children’s choices of activities and settings, but also the amount of effort they are willing to exert when faced with difficulties. The stronger their beliefs about their personal efficacy, the more likely they are to persist and the greater

BehavioristicApproaches Chapter2

will be the effort expended. But if their notions of self-efficacy are not very favorable, they may abandon challenging activities after very little effort and time.

Perceived self-efficacy influences thoughts and emotions as well as behaviors. Those who believe that their effectiveness is low are more likely to evaluate their behaviors negatively and to see themselves as being inadequate. Not surprisingly, negative evaluations of personal effectiveness have been shown to be related to depression and emotional problems in chil- dren (Bandura, Pastorelli, Barbaranelli, Caprara, & Gian, 1999).

Finally, as illustrated in In the Classroom: Yay, Jennifer!, notions of self-efficacy are intimately linked with what children think and feel about their selves. Children want to mean something. They want others to think they are worthwhile, important, effective. And they’re not likely to believe that is the case if they don’t have positive evaluations of their personal effective- ness. That’s why parents, schools, and peers are so important: Each tells children a great deal about how well they can do things—or how badly. (See Concept Summary: Behavioristic Approaches to Development.)

I N T H E C l A S S R O O M :

Yay, Jennifer!

ThePlace:Mrs. Gupta’s Kindergarten class

TheSituation:Special person day!

The children have settled on the carpet, ready to welcome today’s “special person.” In this class, this is a rotating privilege.

Mrs. Gupta: Today, you’re the special person, Jennifer!

Jennifer, smiling from ear to ear, takes the pointer, walks to the front of the room, and points to the big “J” on the smart board.

Jennifer: Give me a “J!”

Class: “J.” “J.” The chorus echoes through the room.

Jennifer, pointing to the E: Give me an “E!”

Another chorus as the pointer moves. Now an “N”, another “N” and on, until, finally, the “R”

Jennifer: And what do we have?

Loud class chorus and clapping: Jennifer! Yay Jennifer!

Man, it feels good to be Jennifer today.

ToThinkAbout:We know that our judgments of our effectiveness—our self-efficacy—are inti- mately involved in what we think and do, and in how we feel about ourselves. Can you develop other activities and games that might be helpful in building children’s notions of competence. Is it enough simply to be told “You’re the special person, today,” or should you be allowed to do some- thing more challenging than spelling your name—something that would allow you to demonstrate some real competence?

CognitiveApproaches Chapter2

2.4 CognitiveApproaches Psychoanalytic theories are concerned mainly with personality development; behavioristic theories emphasize behavior and its consequences; and cognitive theories focus on children’s intellectual development. Cognition is the art or faculty of knowing. Cognitive theories are concerned with how we obtain, process, and use information.

For many decades, the most widely cited and most influential of all theories of cognitive development has been that of Jean Piaget—a map maker who developed his complex, far- reaching theory over a career spanning more than half a century.


Probably the most basic of all of Piaget’s ideas is this: Human development is a process of adaptation. And the highest form of adaptation for humans involves cognition (or knowing). This idea stems directly from the fact that Piaget was trained as a biologist rather than as a


Behavioristic approaches to development look at the relationship between the individual’s experiences and behavior, paying special attention to the consequences of behavior (reinforcement or punishment, for example).


ClassicalConditioning OperantConditioning

associated with Watson and Pavlov associated with Skinner

deals with respondents deals with operants

which are elicited by stimuli which are emitted by the organism

as reactions to the environment as actions upon the environment


Much learning is based on the consequences of observing and imitating models—a process in which the ability to symbolize and to anticipate consequences is central.

ImportantConcepts Explanations,Illustrations,Examples

Observational learning Learning through imitation of models that can be symbolic (like fictional heroes or written instructions) or real-life. Evident in acquisition of new behaviors (modeling effect), suppression or reappearance of deviant behavior (inhibitory/disinhibitory effect), or emission of behaviors related to those of model (eliciting effect)

Triadic reciprocal determinism Children’s personalities, behaviors, and contexts interact and affect each other in important ways

Self-efficacy Judgments about personal effectiveness and competence; fundamen- tally important in determining what children do and how they feel about themselves

CognitiveApproaches Chapter2

psychologist. As a biologist, he asks two questions about child development: (1) What are the characteristics and capabilities of children that allow them to adapt? and (2) What is the most useful way of classifying or ordering child development? Assimilation and accommodation lead to adaptation is his highly abbreviated answer for the first question; development can be ordered in stages answers the second. Piaget’s answers for these two questions are the basis for his theory.

Adaptation through Assimilation and Accommodation

The newborn infant, says Piaget, is in many ways a helpless little organism, unaware that the world out there is real, lacking any storehouse of thoughts with which to reason or any capac- ity for intentional behaviors, and having only a few simple reflexes like sneezing, swallowing, and sucking. But these reflexes allow the child to assimilate important aspects of the envi- ronment. Assimilation, Piaget explains, involves making a response that has already been learned, or that was present at birth.

But previously learned responses and reflexes aren’t always sufficient. The newborn’s sucking reflex may be adequate for ordinary nipples but might not work quite as well for fingers and toes; the preschooler’s understanding of numbers might serve for keeping track of toys but may not impress kindergarten teachers. Assimilating these situations to old learning is not sufficient. In Piaget’s words, the child is in a state of disequilibrium. There is a lack of balance between the child’s capabilities and the requirements of the situation.

This state of disequilibrium leads to changes in knowledge and behavior—changes that define accommodation. And if the changes are appropriate—for example, the infant can now suck the toe or finger, and the preschooler learns what 2 + 2 equals—there is a new state of equilibrium. Put another way, there is now a balance between assimilation (using old behav- iors and knowledge) and accommodation (making changes in response to the environment). Finding this balance involves what Piaget calls equilibration.

Equilibration, the balancing of assimilation and accommodation, along with maturation, active experience, and social interaction, are the forces that lead to change and adaptation (see Chapter 5 for more information and for an illustration of assimilation and accommodation).


The second of Piaget’s questions asks what is the most useful way of organizing and describ- ing child development. His answer is found in a description of the four major stages through which children pass. Each stage is marked by strikingly different perceptions of the world and different adaptations to it; each stage is the product of learning that occurred in earlier stages; and each is a preparation for the next stage.

As we see in later chapters, not all researchers agree that Piaget has accurately described child development. He is often accused of having underestimated the abilities of younger children—and perhaps of having overestimated those of older children (Sutherland, 1992).

The stages are summarized briefly in Figure 2.9 and are discussed in more detail in chapters 5 and 7.

CognitiveApproaches Chapter2


Information-processing approaches are an important subset of cognitive theories. In a sense, these are less theories of cognitive development than a general framework for studying how we process information mentally. Unlike Piaget’s theory, which is mainly concerned with describing changes in children’s cognitions—that is, what they can and cannot do; what they understand and don’t understand—information processing approaches try to identify the processes and the mental representations that are involved in cognitive activity. As we see in later chapters, researchers in this area investigate topics such as memory, problem solving, reasoning, and language. They are less interested in whether children can solve problems or remember concepts, but more in how they accomplish these tasks.

Information-processing approaches are often based on a computer analogy: They assume that to the extent that both humans and computers manipulate symbols, one can serve as an analogy for the other. Some information-processing theorists try to simulate human cognitive processes with computers, assuming that by so doing, they might discover unexpected things about the human mind.

FIGURE 02.09

Sensorimotor 0 to 2 years

• World exists only when infant is actually sensing it

• No language, no thought, no notion of objective reality at beginning of stage

Preoperational 2 to 7 years • Thought is egocentric and dominated by perception

• Intuitive rather than logical solutions

Concrete operations 7 to 11

or 12 years

• Increasingly logical understanding of classes and relations

• Impressive understanding of numbers

• Thinking bound to concrete instances and objects

Formal operations 11 or 12 to 14 or 15 years

• Thinking increasingly abstract

• Ability to imagine and reason about hypothetical states

• Development of strong idealism

Piaget’s Four Developmental Stages Approximate Ages

Some Major Characteristics of Developing Child


There is some evidence that Piaget might have underestimated the achievements of very young children—and perhaps overestimated those of adolescents and adults.

BiologicalandEcologicalApproaches Chapter2

Information-processing theorists also assume that the human cognitive system has discover- able properties, and that its functioning can be understood in terms of these properties. For example, as we see in Chapter 7, memory has limitations in terms of capacity and accu- racy. Why and how this is the case is a question for information-processing research. Put another way, information-processing theory focuses on the specific processes and mental representations involved in activities such as thinking, perceiving, sensing, and remembering. Much of the research and many of the conclusions we look at in later chapters are based on information-processing research.

2.5 BiologicalandEcologicalApproaches Biological approaches to understanding human development emphasize innate behavior pat- terns or tendencies. These approaches are often based on research with nonhuman animals in which genetic influences are sometimes more readily apparent than among humans. In con- trast, ecological approaches emphasize the importance of the individual’s context (social, cul- tural, historical, and physical environment). Ecology is concerned with relationships between individuals and their environments.


The role of biology (of heredity) in determining nonhuman animal behavior is clear. I fully expect my English Setter to be reasonably adept at sniffing out birds precisely because she has the genetic ancestry of all English Setters. We know that many of the behaviors and habits characteristic of animals such as my dog aren’t acquired primarily as a function of experience. A moth doesn’t fly into a flame because it has learned to do so; dead moths don’t fly. We can therefore assume that the attraction light has for a moth, like the overpowering urge of a Canada goose to fly south in the fall or a salmon to swim upriver, is the result of inherited tendencies.

Are we, in at least some ways, like moths and salmon? If so, what are our flames, our rivers? Ethologists (scientists whose principal concern is ethology, the study of behavior in natural situations) think that yes, we are a little like moths. And although the flames that entice us might be less obvious than those that attract the moth, they are perhaps no less powerful.

Imprinting and Attachment

Our mothers, says Bowlby, might be one of those flames because, in some ways, we are a little like baby ducks or chickens who almost inevitably imprint on their mothers. Imprinting is the tendency of some newly hatched birds such as geese to follow the first moving object they see. They do this, explains Lorenz (1952), as long as they are exposed to this moving object during a criticalperiodof time. If they are exposed to the same moving object (a releaser) before or after this critical period, imprinting does not ordinarily result (Figure 2.10).

Although the search for imprinted behaviors among humans has not led to the discovery of behaviors as obvious as “following” among geese, some theorists, such as Bowlby (1982), suggest that there are important parallels between the findings of ethologists and the devel- opment of attachment between human mothers and their infants. As we see in Chapter 6, Bowlby believed that young infants have a natural (inherited) tendency to form emotional bonds with their mothers or with some other permanent caregiver during what he terms a

BiologicalandEcologicalApproaches Chapter2

sensitive period. Such bonds, Bowlby argues, would clearly have been important for an infant’s survival in a less civilized age. The need for bonds is evident in an infant’s attempts to maintain physical contact, to cling, and to stay in visual contact with the mother. It is evident as well in the effects of separating mother and infant—effects that, in Bowlby’s (1979) words, are marked by “emotional distress and personality disturbance, including anxiety, anger, depression, and emotional detachment” (p. 127).


Vygotsky was “the Mozart of psychology,” its “child genius” writes Davydov (1995). At the age of 28, (sadly, he died of tuberculosis only 10 years later), he had assimilated all the rel- evant information then current and he had begun to map out a theory of development that dominated the field in the former Soviet Union for more than 70 years (Thomas, 2005). Two main themes unify this theory: the importance of culture, and the role of language.

The Importance of Culture

We are not like other animals, says Vygotsky. Why? Because we can use symbols and tools; as a result, we create cultures, and a culture has vitality, a life of its own (Vygotsky, 1986). Cultures grow and change and exert a very powerful influence on their members. They deter- mine the end result of competent development—the sorts of things that their members must learn, the ways they should think, the things they are most likely to believe. As Bandura’s notion of reciprocal determinism emphasizes, we are not only culture-producing beings, but


Under appropriate environmental conditions, exposure to a releaser during the critical period leads to predictable behaviors. © Hemera/Thinkstock; © iStockphoto/Thinkstock; © John Foxx/Thinkstock

FIGURE 02.10


No Effect


Imprinting: Predictable,

complex, instinct- like behavior


No Effect

Before Critical Period During Critical Period After Critical Period Effect

BiologicalandEcologicalApproaches Chapter2

also culture-produced. This is one of the most fundamental themes underlying the current study of child development.

The importance of culture, explains Vygotsky, is that it allows us to go beyond elementary mentalfunctions, eventually making highermentalfunctions possible. Elementary func- tions are our natural, unlearned capacities. They are evident in a newborn’s ability to attend to human sounds and to discriminate among them; and they are apparent in the ability to remember the smell of the mother, or in the capacity to goo and gurgle and cry.

Higher mental functions are sophisticated mental functions such as thinking and imagining. These, explained Vygotsky, are not evident in nonhuman animals. They come about in humans as a result of interaction with adults and competent peers—that is, with exposure to a human culture and especially with the learning of powerful symbol systems such as language.

The Role of Language

Language, after all, is what makes thinking possible. Language is not only the basis for human culture, but is essential for consciousness. Thus, during the preverbal stage of develop- ment, children’s intelligence is much like that of, say, an ape, says Vygotsky (1986). It is purely natural, purely practical—elementary, in other words. But language changes all that. Why? Because language makes human social interaction possible.

Language is a cultural invention. It is one of the most important ways in which cultures influ- ence and shape the course of development. For Vygotsky, development is a function of the interaction between culture and children’s basic biological capacities and maturational time- tables. But, insisted Vygotsky, it is the environmental context (the culture) that is most impor- tant, not biological maturation.

Development (or growth) takes place when environmental opportunities and demands are appropriate for the child. In a sense, culture instructs the child in the ways of development. But the instruction is effective only if the child’s biological maturation and current develop- mental level are sufficiently advanced. For every child, says Vygotsky, there is a zoneofprox- imaldevelopment—a sort of potential for development. This zone of development spans what the child can do alone and what might be accomplished with the help and guidance of others. Davydov (1995) explains the concept as follows: “What the child is initially able to do only together with adults and peers and then can do independently, lies exactly in the zone of proximal development” (p. 18).

The challenge is to present children with tasks that lie within this zone, and then to provide them with the help they need to accomplish the tasks successfully. Demands that are beyond children’s capacities—that are beyond their zone of proximal development—are ineffective in promoting growth. Similarly, demands that are too simple are wasteful. Thus, one of the important techniques for teachers and parents is what is labeled scaffolding—providing sup- port by initially limiting the complexities of a task and then progressively increasing demands as children’s competence increases.

There are a tremendous number of different types of scaffolds—of supports, in other words— that teachers can build for learners. For example, Pentimonti and Justice (2010) describe how preschool teachers use scaffolds such as generalizing, reasoning, predicting, cooperating, and reducing choices. Other scaffolds include demonstrating how to do things, explaining proce- dures, providing models, systematically developing prerequisite skills, correcting errors, and asking questions that lead to important realizations.

BiologicalandEcologicalApproaches Chapter2

Table2.1Some Scaffolds for Early Childhood Education

Scaffold Explanation Illustration Generalizing Applying a concept to a variety of situations;

pointing out similarities See how the moon is round when it’s full. Now look at all those balls. . .

Reasoning Using rules of logic to increase understanding

Look at the baby’s eyes. Why do you think they called her “Owl?”

Predicting Encouraging the use of plausible guesses What do you think will happen when I let go? Will all the water spill?

Cooperating Arranging for groups to work toward common goals with individual responsibility

You’ll be working in little tribes to color and decorate your face masks.

Correcting errors Guiding learners by pointing out errors— and correct responses

No, if the answer were 20, Dick couldn’t put all the puppies in one basket, could he?

Reducing choices Focusing efforts by eliminating alternatives Let’s say you can’t use your fingers to solve the problem. What else can you use?

Demonstrating Showing how certain tasks and problems can be approached

Watch. See how I hold the racket? See where my thumb is?

Providing models Use of symbolic or real-life examples of desired behaviors

Robert is going to show us how to do a triple somersault.

Asking questions Leading learners in desired directions through series of questions

What color was the thief’s coat? How about her eyes? Do you think she was as tall as the man?


The importance of cultures and of changing social environments is the central theme of an important map presented by Bronfenbrenner (1979, 1989, 1998a, 1998b). The emphasis in his theory is on understanding development as the product of interactions between the person and the environment. Hence Bronfenbrenner’s model has three components: the individual, the context in which behavior occurs, and the processes that account for devel- opmental change. It is, in Bronfenbrenner’s words, a process-person-context model, and development is simply the processes through which “. . . properties of the person and the environment interact to produce constancy and change in the characteristics of the person . . .” (p. 191).

One of Bronfenbrenner’s most important contributions to our understanding of early child- hood development is his description of the various levels of context in which a developing child interacts. Children’s environments—the ecological systems in which development occurs—go far beyond the activities and events that affect them directly, Bronfenbrenner insists. Many things happen in the wider community, in the country, perhaps even in the world, that influ- ence development in important ways. One way of looking at the child’s ecology, suggests Bronfenbrenner, is to look at the characteristics of the different ecological systems that com- pose the child’s total environment.

The Microsystem

For example, many important interactions occur at an immediate, face-to-face level. These define the microsystem. The complex patterns of behaviors, roles, and relationships within the home, the school, the peer group, and the playground that include the child in actual interactions are all part of the child’s microsystem. Everybody in the microsystem influences the child.

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The Mesosystem

In turn, microsystems may influence each other in important ways. For example, how Ronald’s mother treats him may be influenced by her interactions with his father. Perhaps she is less likely to be gentle and loving with her son if she has just had an argument with her husband. Similarly, how Ronald interacts with his sister, Nan, may reflect how his mother interacts with Nan. Interactions between microsystems that include the developing child define what is meant by the mesosystem.

The Exosystem

The home does not exist in isolation. How parents treat children is influenced by schools, by teachers, perhaps by the church, and by employers and friends. In short, it is influenced by all the relationships that exist between members of a child’s microsystems and institutions or individuals with which they interact. For example, interactions between Ronald and his father may be influenced by the father’s relationships with his colleagues or his fishing bud- dies. Interactions between an element of the microsystem that ordinarily includes the devel- oping child and an element of the wider context that does not include the child define the exosystem.

The Macrosystem

All the interactive systems—micro-, meso-, and exo-—that characterize cultures define the macrosystem. Macrosystems are describable in terms of beliefs, values, customary ways of doing things, expected behaviors, social roles, status assignments, lifestyles, religions, and so on, as these are reflected in interactions among systems. In Bronfenbrenner’s (1989) words, the macrosystem “may be thought of as a societal blueprint for a particular culture, subcul- ture, or other broader social context” (p. 228).

© Kimmasa Mayama/epa/Corbis © Patrick Frilet/Hemis/Corbis

▲ We tend to look at the world, and understand children, through our cultural blinders. For example, we find it difficult to believe that “baby tossing” would ever have been a sport among medieval gen- try. Yet here we have, in 2006, an amateur sumo wrestler trying to get a baby to cry louder during a baby crying contest at Sensoji temple in Asakusa, Japan—a competition that seems strangely inappro- priate to us. But would a little lad riding a sheep seem more appropriate to the sumo wrestler?

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All of the ecological systems in which children develop change over time. Chronosystem is the term Bronfenbrenner uses to describe this fact. Many of these important changes will occur in microsystems. They might involve events such as the birth of a sibling, parental divorce, loss or introduction of pets, and so on. Sometimes changes involve wider aspects of the macrosystem. For example, within the last few decades, there have been profound changes in family employment patterns (from one to two wage earners), in family struc- ture (from two- to one-parent families), in child-rearing styles (from home-rearing to other child-care options), in age of marriage (from younger to older), in age of childbearing (also from younger to older), and in range of expected school attendance (from rare and optional to quasi-compulsory kindergarten). Clearly, many of these macrosystem changes over time directly affect the microsystems of which the child is a part—the family, the home, the school. (See Concept Summary: Ecological Systems in Bronfenbrenner’s Theory. For an illustration of how contexts are shaped by cultural expectations and beliefs, and of how important they can be in the life of a developing child, see Across Cultures: Goyaalé, An Apache Boy.)

Usefulness of Bronfenbrenner’s Ecological Theory

Although most contemporary developmental theorists pay lip service to the importance of taking context, person, and interaction between the two into account, many researchers con- tinue to operate within one of the two models that have dominated much of our thought and research. One model says that the causes of developmental change are to be found primarily within the individual; the other insists that the individual’s environment is a more important cause of change. It’s the old nature-nurture debate (about which we say more in Chapter 3).

The model that underlies our thinking is tremendously important to our research and our conclusions. One model says that if Johnny turns out to be an unmanageable scoundrel, we should look for the cause and the explanation in his temperament and his personality charac- teristics; the other says we should look to his environment. But neither of these models says that we should look at how Johnny’s characteristics influence his environment, and at how,


Level Definition Example

Microsystem Child in immediate, face-to-face interaction

Mother singing to child

Mesosystem Relationships between two or more microsystems

Mother and father interacting

Exosystem Linkages and relationships between two or more settings, one of which does not include the child

Father’s relationship with employer

Macrosystem The totality of all other systems, evident in the beliefs, the options, the life-styles, the values, the mores of a culture or subculture

Society’s child-care legislation; expectations and requirements of culture; school attendance laws; immunization policies

Chronosystem Changes, over time, in ecological systems that affect the child

Parental divorce; birth of new sibling; war; famine

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A C R O S S C U lT U R E S :

Goyaalé, An Apache Boy

Goyaalé was born on an Arizona reservation on July 12, 1906. He was named after the great Apache warrior, Geronimo, who was then 77 years old. Geronimo’s real name was Goyaalé—which, in the Apache language, means one who yawns. It was not a very appro- priate name for Geronimo, whose struggles to save his people from the reservation system left him little time for sleeping or yawning.

It was far more appropriate for the young Goyaalé who, when he was only 8, was torn from his home and herded to Carlisle Indian Residential School. When he realized he could no longer return home, all he wanted to do was sleep, but the dreams kept him awake and, every day, he yawned through early mass. And every morning, Father Paradise strapped him and then sent him out to chop wood for two hours while the others ate their breakfast porridge: One has to learn to pay attention.

When he first arrived, they had taken Goyaalé’s clothes and burned them.

They burned his sweetgrass bundle, holding it gingerly to throw it in the fire, as though it might be dirty.

They gave him a suit of heavy wool so that he would now be dressed “white.”

They cut his long hair in the current European style.

They took away his language and made him watch the nightly ritual when they strapped those who had forgotten themselves and spoken the language of the Na’isha

Worst of all, they threw away his name and chose another, drawn randomly from the Rector’s hat. They said he was now Joseph Stone.

ToThinkAbout:The U.S. government was determined to assimilate the “Indians” and Americanize them, explains Hoxie (1984), so tens of thousands of Native American children were rounded up and sent to missionary-run boarding schools to be immersed in the English language and Christian religion. “Kill the Indian and save the man,” said Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of the Carlisle Indian Residential School which, between 1879 and 1918, saw some 12,000 “Indian”

children slowly lose their culture, their language, their native identity (Paul, 2006).

Explained in terms of Bronfenbrenner’s ecological theory, why do you suppose residential schools might have been effec- tive in “Americanizing” Native Americans?

◀ Carlisle School students, 1879. Note the European dress and haircuts. © Yale Collection of Western Americana, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript


DynamicSystemsTheory Chapter2

in turn, his environment influences him. Neither insists that the cause is at least partly to be found in the changing interactions that occur between Johnny and his alcoholic mother, his overworked and indifferent teachers, or his peers (the microsystem). Neither suggests that the animosity between Johnny’s father and his kindergarten teacher is of consequence (the meso- system). Neither is concerned with interactions that might have occurred between Johnny’s mother and her employer, leading to a reduction in her pay and increasing her chronic ill humor (the exosystem). Neither asks the researcher to look at how society’s encouragement of the changing structure of the family affects Johnny’s well-being (the macrosystem and the chronosystem). That neither model asks these questions is a weakness of some of our traditional approaches to understanding child development; that Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory does is among its strengths.

2.6 DynamicSystemsTheory Ecological theory is an example of what von Bertalanffy (1950) calls opensystemstheory (also called general systems theory). An open system is one that depends on interactions—on activity. It is a system that is continually affected by its context and by the changing interac- tions that occur in that context. Such a system is termed an open system because its identi- fying feature is its openness to change. It is a dynamic (changing) rather than static system. Activity and outcomes in an open system are highly variable. In contrast, closed systems are based on activities within the system; outcomes in such systems are highly predictable.


Human behavior and development, too, is dynamic, insists Esther Thelen (Thelen and Smith, 2006; Smith and Thelen, 2003). Like Bronfenbrenner, Thelen believes that development can only be understood in terms of continuous, mutual interaction among all levels of the develop- ing system. According to this view of children, any change in one aspect of the system—rapid biological growth, for example—leads to disequilibrium and a readjustment in other aspects of the system—social reactions, for instance. The result is a continual process of reorganizing behavior to make it more effective and more appropriate. It is one of the fundamental tenets of a dynamic system that it has to reach a state of disequilibrium—of instability—before there is change and developmental progress.

If we look closely at human behavior, say Smith and Thelen (2003), we see that its main characteristic is its tremendous variability, its dynamism. As they put it, “children from the same family grow up to be amazingly different from one another. Children with social and economic advantages sometimes fail in life, whereas those from impoverished backgrounds sometimes overcome them” (p. 347).

Although the explicit use of dynamicsystemstheory (or general systems theory) is rela- tively new in developmental psychology, recognition of the variability of human behavior, of the importance of interaction, and of the role of instability is not at all new. For exam- ple, Piaget based much of his theory on the notion that instability (disequilibrium) is one of the great forces that shapes development. And the cornerstone of both Bronfenbrenner’s and Vygotsky’s theories is their recognition of the importance of the individual’s interactions within changing social environments, and their emphasis on the variability of human experi- ences as well as of developmental outcomes. But recognizing the complexity of development

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is not the same thing as analyzing it. As Fischer and Bidell (1998) put it, “Dazzled by all this complexity, scientists often retreat into oversimplification and stereotyping” (p. 468).

Dynamic systems approaches are complex approaches, often based on advanced mathemati- cal models and predictions. But the two core ideas on which they are founded are simple (Thelen & Smith, 2006):

• Development can only be understood in terms of multiple, continuous, and mutual interactions of all levels of the developing system;

• Development can only be understood as a product of processes that unfold over peri- ods of time that can range from milliseconds to many years.


As an illustration of the application of dynamic systems theory, Thelen (2005) describes how it might be used to understand something as apparently simple as an infant learning to reach. According to dynamic systems theory, this activity does not simply depend on the brain put- ting into action some sort of “reaching” program that sends out messages to the various muscles involved. Among other things, the infant needs to develop the motivation to reach for the object. And the motivation, or desire, to do so needs to be coordinated with the infant’s perception of the object, with certain cognitions related to it, and with the necessary motor activities. Thus development can only be understood in terms of multiple interactions of all related systems.

But learning to reach might be an event that occurs over a very short period of time, explains Thelen (2005), much as the infant learning to take the first steps might occur within a single day. Yet these are events that have implications for developmental change over very long periods of time. Hence Thelen’s interest in dynamic interactions that span milliseconds as well as days, months, and years.

Although dynamic systems theory presents a new way of looking at development, it readily accepts that knowledge of child development needs to build on the theories of those who have come earlier. “We must not scuttle the past masters—Freud, Piaget, Erikson, Bowlby— who were likely wrong in some of the details and perhaps in some of their assumptions,” writes Thelen (2005). “Rather, we must use as models their bold visions to probe deeply into the mystery and complexities of human development and to articulate general principles that give meaning to so many details” (p. 256).

Dynamic systems theories, notes Thomas (2005), emphasize changes within interacting com- ponents of a system. They recognize that physical, emotional, social, and intellectual growth are linked in complex ways, that changes in functioning in one area can have profound effects on functioning in other areas. They agree, as well, that the human organism carries its own sources of motivation and energy; it doesn’t simply respond to external forces. Dynamic sys- tems theories introduce new metaphors for human development. These metaphors replace machine models that see humans as highly reactive to external forces. They also replace meta- phors that view development as a series of steps or stages, or perhaps as a mountain to climb (and then to tumble down?). One of the new metaphors proposed by Thelen (2005) compares development to the patterns of water flow in a mountain stream, with its constantly changing eddies and whirlpools, its currents, and its riffles, its responsiveness to storms and droughts and melting snows and winds and maurauding bears, and geological changes over many eons.

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It is a complex—and wonderful—thing to understand the patterns of water movement in a stream; so too, is it complex—and wonderful—to understand the interwoven patterns of change that mark children’s journeys.

2.7 AHumanisticApproach:AbrahamMaslow Had I spoken of Piaget or Freud, of Skinner or Bandura, of biology or ecology or dynamic systems in my grandmother’s kitchen, the old lady would have listened politely. But in the end she would probably have said, “That’s all very nice, but it’s just theory. What about Frank?” Why Frank? Simply because he was a unique child. And although there is little doubt that Freud, Skinner, and Piaget might each have had something very intelligent and even useful to say about Frank, they would have been hard-pressed to convince my grandmother that they knew more about him than she did. My grandmother was a humanist.

In a sense, humanistic psychologists would have us throw away all our detailed maps and simply follow the child’s rambling. Their concern is with the entire, unique individual. One of the basic beliefs of the humanistic orientation is that, as deRobertis (2011) put it, “a child is never looked upon as the mere sum of diverse interacting parts” (p. 6). Our theories need to be holistic, the humanists insist: They need to be concerned with the whole child. This means taking into account all the systems with which the child interacts (Bronfenbrenner’s micro-, meso-, exo-, and macro- systems).

But it is difficult to describe these systems in a truly meaningful way because what constitutes the important features of the environment is different for every child. Accordingly, humanism emphasizes the importance of each person’s view of the world and of themselves. To understand the behavior of children, this view says, we need to perceive the world as they see it—from the perspective of their knowledge, their experiences, and their goals and aspirations (deRobertis, 2008). This orientation underscores that the individual is unique rather than average.

Maslow presents a well-known, intriguing humanistic theory. Its relevance to child develop- ment is twofold: It describes what motivates the child’s development; and it speculates about what the end goal of development is. These are dramatic departures from other theories we have discussed.


The child is moved by two systems of needs, Maslow (1970) informs us. The basicneeds are physiological (food, drink) and psychological (security, love, esteem). These needs are deficiency needs because when they are not satisfied, the child needs to fill a deficiency. For example, hunger represents a deficiency that can be satisfied by eating.

The metaneeds are higher-level growth needs: Activities that relate to them don’t fulfill a lack but instead lead to growth. Metaneeds show themselves in the desire to know, in appre- ciation of truth and beauty, and in a tendency toward growth and fulfillment—or, in Maslow’s terms, a tendency toward self-actualization.

Our needs are hierarchically arranged, says Maslow, in the sense that the metaneeds will not be attended to unless the basic needs have been reasonably well satisfied. That is, we pay attention to beauty, truth, and the development of our potential when we are no longer hun- gry and unloved (Figure 2.11).

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The most important of Maslow’s metaneeds is self- actualization—a not entirely clear concept. Even Maslow (1970) admitted that the concept is difficult and that finding examples of self- actualized people seemed nearly impossible.

Self-actualization is most often viewed as a process rather than a state. It is a process of growth, of becoming, of fulfillment. Because it is a process, suggests Rowan (1998), the tri- angle that has typically been used to illustrate the hierarchy of needs is misleading because it suggests that there is an end point—a goal. But we never reach that goal because self- actualization is not an end state but a continuing process.

Maslow (1970) suggests that self-actualization is characterized by absence of “neurosis, psy- chopathic personality, psychosis, or strong tendencies in these directions” (p. 150). More positively, he claims that self-actualized people “may be loosely described as [making] full use and exploitation of talents, capacities, potentialities, etc.” (p. 150). Using this loose definition, Maslow’s examination of 3,000 college students revealed only one person he considered to be actualized (although there were several dozen “potentials”).

FIGURE 02.11

Physiological food • drink

Self- Actualization

Aesthetic goodness • beauty

truth • justice

Cognitive knowledge • symmetry

Self-Esteem competence • approval • recognition

Belongingness and Love affiliation • acceptance • affection

Safety security • psychological safety

( G r o

w t h

N e e d

s )

B a s

i c N

e e d

s ( D

e fi c i e n c y N

e e d s )

M e t

a n e e

d s


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. The open pyramid suggests that self-actualization is a never-ending process, not an easily achievable goal.

AFinalWordaboutTheories Chapter2


In Maslow’s writings, the concept of peakexperience is an intriguing and important aspect of self-actualization. Peak experiences are profoundly moving experiences that, in many

instances, come close to defining what it might be like to be fully actualized. Maslow researched the dimensions of the peak expe- rience by asking 190 college students to describe for him the “most wonderful experi- ence of your life” (1970, p. 67). The resulting composite picture of a peak experience sug- gests that it is a relatively rare but profoundly moving experience that might have to do with work, human relationships, athletics, nature, mysticism, and so on. Studies with children suggest that they, too, are capable of peak experiences. The most common of these include feelings that accompany being in places of overwhelming beauty, near- death experiences, crises involving danger or fear, spontaneous moments of euphoria, or even unforgettable dreams (Hoffman, 1998). Peak experiences are often associated with wilderness settings (McDonald, Wearing, & Ponting, 2009).

2.8 AFinalWordaboutTheories We began this chapter by insisting that facts and theories are not worlds apart in terms of “truthfulness”—that theories are intended to be explanations of facts. From these explana- tions, scientists strive for understanding, for the ability to predict, and sometimes for control. But theories do more than explain facts. As Thomas (2005) notes, they suggest which facts we should look at. In effect, they map and guide our invention of “facts” and give them meaning. Theories lead us to accept certain things as true—specifically, those things that fit our beliefs and expectations. By the same token, theories also lead us to ignore contradictory or apparently irrelevant observations.

Theories also tend to “normalize” the child. That is, theories give us a picture of what a “nor- mal” or average child is like, and then we compare real children to this sometimes very unreal picture. Also, the pictures that our theories draw for us vary enormously. Thus learning theo- ries give us a picture of a highly malleable, “conditionable” child; Piaget draws a picture of the child as a thinker; Freud shows us the “instinctual” child; Bandura, Vygotsky, Bronfenbrenner, and Thelen describe a child in the midst of dynamic interactions that include the child at the center of other interacting influences; and Maslow emphasizes the uniqueness, wholeness, and potential of each individual child.

Concept Summary: Approaches to Developmental Theory summarizes much of this chapter. History, as is so often its custom, may one day inform us about the usefulness and accuracy of the maps these makers have drawn for us.

▲ Children, too, can have peak experiences—as this young lass would gladly tell you. These intensely emotional, unfor- gettable experiences can have a profound influence on development. © Photolibrary/Getty Images

AFinalWordaboutTheories Chapter2


Approach Representative Theorist

MainUnder- lyingModel

MajorAssumptions (theoreticalbeliefs)


Psychoanalytic Freud




Individual is motivated by instinctual urges that are primarily sexual and aggressive.

Child progresses through stages by adapting to the sociocultural environment.

Id, ego, superego, psycho- sexual, fixation, regression

Competence, develop- mental tasks, psychosocial

Behavioristic Pavlov, Watson




Mechanistic/ Organismic

Contextual/ Organismic

Child learns through conditioning of reflexive behaviors.

Changes in behavior are a function of reinforcement and punishment.

Observational learning leads to developmental change; our ability to anticipate the conse- quences of our behavior is fundamental.

Reflex, conditioned stimulus and response

Reinforcement, punish- ment, shaping

Imitation, self-efficacy, social/cognitive, reciprocal determinism

Cognitive Piaget

Information Processing


Mechanistic/ organismic/ Contextual

Child develops cognitive skills through active interac- tion with the environment.

Development is a process of learning to represent, process, store, and retrieve information.

Stages, assimilation, accom- modation, equilibration

Memory, perception, thinking, symbolic repre- sentation, computer models

Biological Ecological Approaches





Organismic/ Contextual

Organismic/ Contextual

Social behaviors have a biological basis understand- able in evolutionary terms.

Human development is highly dependent on culture and language.

Development results from a complex series of inter actions and accommo- dations between a person and the systems in which the person is embedded.

Attachment bonds, imprinting, sensitive period

Culture, language, zone of proximal growth, scaffolding

Micro-, meso-, exo-, macro-, and chronosystem

Dynamic Systems

Thelen Organismic/ Contextual

A change in any part of the system (mind, body, environment) leads to disequilibrium, readjust- ment, and growth

Integrated systems, interac- tions, dynamism


Humanistic Maslow Organismic/ Contextual

All individuals are unique and whole, and strive toward the fullest develop- ment of their potential.

Meta- and basic needs, self-actualization, peak experiences

SectionSummaries Chapter2

SectionSummaries 2.1 TheoriesinPsychology Theories attempt to organize observations, explain them, and predict future outcomes. Good theories reflect “facts” and are understandable, useful for explaining and predicting events, practical, internally consistent, and stimulating. Models on which they might be based include the mechanistic, organismic, and contextual.

2.2 PsychoanalyticandPsychosocialApproaches In Freud’s psychoanalytic theory, the causes of behavior are deep-seated, unconscious, primarily sexual (libido) and aggressive forces (the id). The second level of personality, the ego, is reality-based and typically in conflict with the id; the third, the superego, reflects conscience. Freud describes five devel- opmental stages (oral, anal, phallic, latency, and genital) differentiated in terms of main sources of sexual gratification. Erikson’s psychosocial theory is concerned more with healthy adjustment to social requirements. His childhood stages, each identified by a basic con- flict, the resolution of which results in the manifestation of some new social competence, include trust versus mistrust (birth to 18 months); autonomy versus shame and doubt (18 months to 2 or 3 years); initiative versus guilt (2 or 3 to about 6 years); and industry versus inferiority(around 6 to 11 years).

2.3 BehavioristicApproaches Behavioristic theories focus on actual behavior. Classical con- ditioning (Pavlov and Watson) describes how repeated pairing of stimulus or response events leads to learning. Operant conditioning (Skinner) explains how the probability of a response changes as a function of its consequences (reinforcement or punishment), and how outcomes shape behavior. Observational learning theory (Bandura) describes how imitation leads to new learning (the modeling effect), the suppression or appearance of deviant responses (inhibitory or disinhibitory effect), or to behaviors related to that of a model (eliciting effect). We are agents of our actions whose sense of competence (self-efficacy) is important in determining how we affect and are affected by our environments.

2.4 CognitiveApproaches Piaget’s theory of cognitive development describes adaptation through balancing (equilibrating), assimilation (using already-learned activities), and accom- modation (changing behavior). The four major stages of cognitive development are senso- rimotor, preoperational, concrete operations, and formal operations. Information processing approaches are concerned less with whether and when a child develops some capability, but more on how the capability is put into play. They are especially concerned with topics such as remembering, problem solving, perceiving, and concept formation.

2.5 Biological and Ecological Approaches Ethologists are biologically oriented scien- tists who study behavior in natural situations. Bowlby uses principles of ethology to explain attachment bonds. Vygotsky emphasizes the importance of culture and especially lan- guage. Vygotsky’s zone of proximal growth is the child’s potential for development reflected in what the child can accomplish with guidance from more competent peers and adults. Bronfenbrenner looks at interactions between children and various systems (micro-, exo-, meso-, macro-, and chrono-) with which they interact directly or indirectly.

2.6 DynamicSystemsTheory This approach views development as the product of an open system, which can be understood only in terms of complex, continuous interactions at all lev- els of the system over both very brief and very long periods of time.

PossibleResponsestoThoughtChallenges Chapter2

2.7 AHumanisticApproach:AbrahamMaslow Humanistic theory is concerned with the whole, unique individual motivated by two sets of needs: deficiency (basic) needs, which are psychological (safety, esteem, love) and physical (food, drink); and metaneeds (growth) needs, such as the drive toward self-actualization—a never-ending process tending toward the devel- opment of “full humanness.” Peak experiences (monumental, life-changing events) may be an important part of self-actualization.

FocusQuestions:Applications 1. What are the purposes and characteristics of good theories in child develop-

ment? Describe what an ideal theory of child development might tell us.

2. HowdoesErikson’stheoryrelatetochilddevelopment? Give examples of children’s behavior that illustrate each of Erikson’s psychosocial stages.

3. Whatarethemainassumptionsandexplanationsofbehaviorism? Devise a class- room procedure that applies some principles of conditioning theory for reducing a behav- ior problem in a kindergarten class.

4. Whatdochildrenlearnthroughimitation? Identify examples in children’s behavior of each of the three principal effects of imitation.

5. WhatarethebasicideasunderlyingPiaget’stheory? Illustrate the twin processes of assimilation and accommodation in a preschooler’s behavior.

6. Whatisself-actualization? Analyze your own life in terms of the extent to which you think you are on your way to self-actualizing.

PossibleResponsestoThoughtChallenges Possible Response to Thought Challenge 2.1:  Possibilities include developmental con- flicts such as advanced morality versus violence and destruction; global altruism versus “me first”; fair distribution of national wealth versus economic dominance, etc. Resolving each of these implied conflicts requires different actions, different competencies. Their resolution, says Smelser (1996), and the realization of Erikson’s vision of a peaceful and harmonious world seems improbable given inescapable evidence of humanity’s propensity for violence and destruction.

PossibleResponsestoThoughtChallenge2.2: It’s possible that Little Albert grew up with a debilitating fear of rats, of people wearing white, of loud noises, of steel bars, of clinics, of psychologists, of female assistants . . . It’s possible, too, that he suffered from none of these conditions.

The fact is we really don’t know what happened to Little Albert. An impressive number of psychologists have reported that Albert was later deconditioned (or, more precisely, coun- terconditioned) by Watson and Rayner so that he would no longer fear rats. But the truth is that Little Albert was taken away from the hospital before Watson could cure him. That he would have attempted to do so is clear from the original article (Watson & Rayner, 1920; see also Prytula, Oster, & Davis, 1977). A conditioning procedure could have been used for that as well, as Jones, Albert, and Watson (1974) later demonstrated with Peter, a boy who was afraid of rabbits.

StudyTerms Chapter2

Ethical guidelines for child research being what they now are, it’s unlikely that this experiment would be approved today.

PossibleResponsestoThoughtChallenge2.3: Both of these statements are clear exam- ples of Watson’s environmentalism, the belief that what we become is entirely a function of environmental forces. Though psychologists continue to accept that environmental forces are critical in shaping developmental outcomes, and many continue to debate (sometimes very emotionally) the relative contributions of heredity and environment in human development, it’s likely that none would agree completely with either of Watson’s statements.


accommodation anal-retentive anal stage assimilation autonomy versus shame and

doubt basic needs behaviorism Behavioristic theory chronosystem classical conditioning cognitive conditioned response (CR) conditioned stimulus (CS) conditioning conscience consciousness context contexts contextual model critical period culture developmental theories direct reinforcement disinhibitory effect dynamic systems theory ecology ego Electra complex elementary mental functions

elicited responses eliciting effect emitted responses equilibration ethologists exosystem fixation higher mental functions humanist id Identification identity imitation imprinting industry versus inferiority inhibitory effect initiative versus guilt instincts libido macrosystem mechanistic model mesosystem metaneeds microsystem modeling effect models needs negative reinforcement observational learning Oedipus complex

open systems theory operant operant conditioning oral-aggressive oral stage organismic model peak experience phallic stage positive reinforcement psychoanalytic psychosexual psychosocial development punishment regression reinforcement reinforcer releaser replicability respondent response response-cost rewards role confusion scaffolding science self-actualization self-efficacy sensitive period sexual latency shaping


stimulus superego symbolic model theory time-out

triadic reciprocal determinism

trust versus mistrust unconditioned response (UR) unconditioned stimulus (US)

vicarious reinforcement zone of proximal