Part 2: Developmental Theories

Learning Objectives: 

  • Define theory.
  • Explain Freud’s theory of psychosexual development.
  • Apply Erikson’s stages of psychosocial development to various examples.
  • Evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of the developmental theories set forth by Freud and Erikson.
  • Describe the principles of both classical and operant conditioning, applying the relevant concepts to various examples.
  • Explain and critique social learning- and sociocultural- theories of cognitive development.
  • Discuss the major themes in contemporary theories by Whitbourne, Carstensen, and Gilligan.


What is a theory?

Students sometimes feel intimidated by theory; even the phrase, “Now we are going to look at some theories…” is met with blank stares and other indications that the audience is now lost. But theories are valuable tools for understanding human behavior; if fact they are proposed explanations for the “how” and “whys” of development. Have you ever wondered, “Why is my 3 year old so inquisitive?” or “Why are some fifth graders rejected by their classmates?” Theories can help explain these and other occurrences. Developmental theories offer explanations about how we develop, why we change over time and the kinds of influences that impact development.

A theory guides and helps us interpret research findings as well. It provides the researcher with a blueprint or model to be used to help piece together various studies. Think of theories are guidelines much like directions that come with an appliance or other object that required assembly. The instructions can help one piece together smaller parts more easily than if trial and error are used.

Theories can be developed using induction in which a number of single cases are observed and after patterns or similarities are noted, the theorist develops ideas based on these examples. Established theories are then tested through research; however, not all theories are equally suited to scientific investigation.  Some theories are difficult to test but are still useful in stimulating debate or providing concepts that have practical application.  Keep in mind that theories are not facts; they are guidelines for investigation and practice, and they gain credibility through research that fails to disprove them.


The developmental theories we’ll discuss are major but not complete. Notice all these theorists are men. Please be aware that this reflects lack of opportunity for many women in the past to have advanced education and to rise to be widely-recognized once they entered the profession. The Powerpoint presentation is going to add the voices of 3 women who are contributing to the understanding of adult development: Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Laura Carstensen, and Carol Gilligan. There are others. Because these are recent voices, by and large they have a more extended presentation of what it means to become and be an older person.


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