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What is Human Development?

By Malysa Stratton Louk
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Human development refers to the overall growth and changes that occur over a person’s life span, from conception to death. Developmental psychologists study the physical, mental or cognitive, and social changes that occur, as well as why or why not and how these changes take place. The study of human development and developmental theories provides a way for psychologists to examine societal and cultural norms and deviances through each developmental stage.

Developmental stages are broken down into categories based on age and developmental level. The lifespan stages of human development are prenatal development and birth, infants and toddlers, the play years, the school years, adolescence, early adulthood, middle adulthood and late adulthood. Through each stage of development, people experience physical, cognitive and social changes. Many people pass through each stage within what is considered the normal timeframe, though some people have more difficulty moving to the next stage or get stuck at a certain developmental level in one or more areas.

Developmental psychopathology examines normal human development, based on cultural norms and theories, in relation to developmental and psychological disorders. Disorders occur when there is a significant deviation from the general developmental theory or stage of development. Among the developmental theories, cognitive development is dominantly used by psychologists. The cognitive theory focuses on patterns of thinking that affect a person’s beliefs, behaviors and attitudes at each developmental level.

Most developmental psychologists incorporate different aspects of psychoanalytic theory, behaviorism, sociocultural theory and epigenetic theory in their approach to the different stages of human development. The psychoanalytic theory of development maintains that unconscious inner thoughts and urges influence all thinking and behavior through each stage. Behaviorism, also known as learning theory, focuses on how people learn and change specific behaviors. Sociocultural theory suggests that all development results from interactions between the person and society. In this theory, society and culture play a large role in development at each stage.

Epigenetic theory focuses on a person’s genetics and how environmental influences change a person’s genes during development. Throughout time, human development has come to include some aspect of each theory, combining unconscious urges, behavior, cognitive abilities, cultural or environmental influences and genetics. Regardless of the chosen theory of development, developmental psychologists agree that a combination of both nature, or genetics, and nurture, or environmental influences, plays a key role in human development through each stage. All of these factors determine how a person develops physically, mentally and socially through each stage of development.

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Discussion Comments
By Mykol — On Jul 13, 2012

My daughter works as a child psychologist and many of her clients are adolescents and teenagers. This can be a really tough job as many of these kids are dealing with some tough issues.

She spends time focusing on learning theory, and how they can learn and change certain negative behaviors. I don't think I would be up for the challenge of this on a daily basis.

I think human development is complex at any age because there are so many factors that are involved. I don't know how you can separate out something like environment and cognitive thinking and apply that to human behavior.

By myharley — On Jul 12, 2012

@julies - I agree with you that attitude makes a big difference. My dad is in his 80's and is quite healthy and active. He told me he really had a hard time when he turned 40 and that always surprised me because he always seemed to have such a positive attitude.

Once I turned 40 I really understood what he meant. You realize that half of your life is probably over and feel like there is so much more you want to accomplish.

I also think genetics plays a huge role in part of our human growth development. It seems like I see more of an impact from this the longer I live. I realize I really am starting to look think, and act more like my parents all the time.

By julies — On Jul 12, 2012

Now that I am in what you would call middle adulthood, I can tell you I am not looking forward to late adulthood. The changes that are happening physically seem to really affect me emotionally as well.

I always thought I would handle the big milestones with ease and that I would grow old gracefully, but that is not as easy as it sounds.

As you start going through changes that are inevitable, it is easy to see how your perceptions and attitude can change along with them. That must be why they say attitude is so important no matter what stage of life you are in.

By andee — On Jul 11, 2012

I didn't major in psychology when I was in college, but have always been fascinated with human growth and development. I love to study people and why they make certain decisions.

I have three kids who are spaced about two years apart. When they were young, you really noticed the difference in their growth and cognitive development at each stage.

As they get older, a year or two difference in their age doesn't seem quite as big. You certainly can't expect an infant to do the same things a two year old would do. Once they are teenagers, that 2 year gap seems to make a bigger difference emotionally than physically.

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