Sunday, September 16, 2012

Comparing Theoretical Perspectives on Human Development

                                  Comparing Developmental Theories
Psychoanalytic Theory

In psychoanalytic theories early childhood experiences, especially the influences of close relationships such as family and caretakers, contribute in large part to development of the individual (Corey, 2009). In psychoanalytic theory, the unconscious is at least as influential in development as is the conscious, more accessible part of the mind (Santrock, 2008). Both Freud and Erikson perceived development through stages, although Freud saw them as related to deep sexual thoughts and experiences, whereas Erikson perceived them as related to socialization (Corey, 2009). Freud's theory derived from his idea that eroticism was an influential part of development, whereas Erikson as well as cognitive and ethological theories did not account for such sexual experiences in development (Santrock, 2008).

Cognitive Theory

Cognitive theory emphasizes thought processes, reasoning, and language as the most contributory aspect of development (Santrock, 2008). Like cognitive theory, both Freud and Erikson theories described stages primarily driven by thought processes, but cognitive theory's focus is on the more overt cognitive processes and their changes during development. Whereas cognitive theory emphasizes individual active cognitive construction in the present, Freud's theory determines that individuals construct the present consciously and unconsciously as a result of past experience. Cognitive theory focuses on the active processes of thinking and the construction of understanding, whereas psychoanalytic theory perceives thought processes as under the influence of past experiences and unconscious directives (Corey, 2009). Cognitive theories address life changes through new and better organized ways of perceiving experiences, whereas psychoanalytic theory attempts to ameliorate distress by bringing subconscious directives into the conscious mind for processing. Erikson's theory agreed with the cognitive perspective that determined people have the ability to change throughout the lifespan, whereas Freud had a deterministic perspective of change (Berger, 2008).

Ethological Theory
Both psychoanalytic and cognitive theories are based on internal processes, such as psychoanalytic theory's focus on internal emotions and drives, and cognitive theory's emphasis on the internal processes of the mind. Ethological theory, however, includes the powerful influence of evolutionary processes on human development, which is a less personal, albeit intrinsic, influence (Santrock, 2008). One might add, though, ethological and cognitive theories are similar because both account for developmental change according to intrinsic thought processes. Cognitive theory emphasizes the power of the mind or brain, whereas ethological theory focuses on the same powers from a broader perspective of cognition as it has developed over time and through adaptive evolutionary processes. Ethological theory describes critical periods of development, which are necessary for learning, however cognitive and psychoanalytic theories fail to address critical learning periods (Santrock, 2008). Unlike the gender bias often criticized in Freud's psychoanalytic theory, ethological theory perceives humankind as an evolving species and from a scientific perspective, without typical gender bias.

                 Psychoanalytic Theory through a Constructive Developmental Lens
Although I believe that each theory is incomplete in and of itself, and the more accurate perspective of human development derives from the multi-dimensions of a variety of theories, my personal choice is psychoanalytic theory and the idea that we perceive our surroundings according to early life experiences. I cannot, however, implement this theory in practice without the addition of cognitive theory. Furthermore, I must consider the evolving nature of humankind as described by Dr. Kathleen Taylor (Laureate Education, Inc., n.d.). Humans are adaptive, and as life becomes more complex, some people have the opportunity to evolve their understanding of reality, or how such reality exists in relation to their perceptions. Perhaps this is an example of human adaptation and its effort to match, or adapt to, the current complex nature of human life.

Kegan (1980) described constructive developmental theory as "the study of the development of our construing or meaning-making activity" (p. 373). It explains the evolving human capacity of some individuals ability to perceive reality other than the way they have traditionally perceived it. Intersecting the psychoanalytic perspective with constructive developmental theory, individuals are able to transcend their traditional perceptive lens that is created early in life. Some individuals are able to function from a new consciousness and circumvent personal perspectives, in effect, "transforming our epistemologies, liberating ourselves from that in which we are embedded" (Kegan, 1994, p. 34). Most people see life as they are, rather than how it is; however, some learn to see life without perceiving it through a lens tainted by personal affect. They become the authors of their lives.


Perhaps the next frontier in human development is determining why some individuals have the ability to make the leap in consciousness and grasp the deeper aspects of the human capacity to apply chosen meaning to one's environment or to apply none. There are tremendous implications to realizing this consciousness. If meaning is a contrived product of perception, grave responsibility lies with those who understand and can implement the authorship described in constructive developmentalism.


Berger, K. S. (2008). The developing person through the life span (7th ed.). New York: Worth Publishers.

Corey, G. (2009). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (8th ed.). Belmont, CA: Thompson Brooks/Cole.

Kegan, R. (1980). Making Meaning: The Constructive-Developmental Approach to Persons and Practice. Personnel & Guidance Journal, 58(5), 373-379.

Kegan, R. (1995). In over our heads: The mental demands of modern life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Laureate Education, Inc. (Producer). (n. d.). Constructive Developmental Theory [Streaming Video]. Baltimore: Author.

Santrock, J. W. (2011). A topical approach to life-span development (3rd ed.). New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

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