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Summary Human Development Across The Life Span (Sigelman, 7/2011)
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1. Understanding Human Development
Development is the systematic changes and continuities that an individual undergoes during his or her lifespan. There are three main types of development: physical development, cognitive development, and psychosocial development. Physical development refers to body growth, organ growth, organ function, aging, and other physical changes and changes in motor abilities. Cognitive development refers to development in perception, language, memory, problem-solving skills and other processes of the mind. Psychosocial development refers to personal and interpersonal development. Examples include personality traits, relationships and interpersonal skills. While developmentalists tend to focus their research on one of the these three categories, all aspects of human development are intertwined and changes in one aspect can affect the other aspects.
Growth is defined by biologists as the physical changes that happen during a person’s lifespan. When people consider the human lifespan, they tend to think of it in terms of biological development. Biological aging occurs when organisms deteriorate and die. Most people imagine these developments to be positive from birth until adolescence, to stay the same from adolescence through middle age, and to be negative from middle age until death. However, it is important to remember that development does not always follow the model of gain-stability-loss. There are gains and losses at each stage of development. For example while children gain cognitive abilities as they develop, they may also lose self-esteem. Aging does not happen in only biological terms. It can refer to other physical, cognitive, and psychosocial changes. Changes as we develop can be positive and negative. These changes should not be viewed in terms of improving or worsening but as resulting in people becoming different than they were.
The concept of age differs depending on the society. Age grades, also known as age stratum, are the socially defined age groups in a society. People within different age grades are given different roles, privileges, and responsibilities. Developmentalists use the following age grades. The prenatal period is from conception to birth. Infancy is the first two years of a person’s life. Preschool period is from two years of age to five or six years of age. Middle childhood is the period from six until twelve years of age (or when puberty begins). Adolescence is the period from twelve years of age to twenty years of age. Adolescence ends when a person is independent of his or her parents. Early adulthood is the period from twenty to forty years of age. Some developmentalists divide this period into two periods with people from the age of eighteen to twenty-nine as belonging to the emerging adulthood period. Middle adulthood is the period from forty to sixty-five years of age. Late adulthood is from sixty-five years of age on. Some developmentalists further divide this period into young-old, old-old, and very old based on functioning. For the purposes of utilizing this text, it is necessary to understand how developmentalists have differentiated the periods of the life span. However, keep in mind that age is a rough indicator of development and people of the same age differ in functioning and personality.
Different cultures have different age grades and differ in how important they believe age to be. The St. Lawrence Eskimo has two age grades based on gender: boys and men and girls and women. The Arusha people of East Africa on the other hand have six age grades for males. Some cultures place great importance on the transition from one age grade to the next. A rite of passage is a ritual that marks this transition. For example, Jewish culture has bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.
Age grades also define age norms. Age norms are societal expectations on how people should behave based on their age. For example, in our culture most people agree that a six year old child is at the appropriate age to attend school but is too young to drink or get married. Norms are necessary because they affect how people choose to lead their lives. Gerontologist Bernice Neugarten referred to this as the social-clock. A person can sense when things should happen and if he or she is ahead of schedule or behind schedule based on age norms. When a person does not adhere to age norms, this can affect him or her more negatively in terms of how he/she adjusts to life transitions. A thirteen year-old girl or a fifty-year old woman may find it harder to adjust to becoming a new parent than a twenty-eight year old woman. However, age norms have been weakening and it is no longer clear what is the socially appropriate age for certain events such as marriage or retirement. Additionally age norms do not only vary across cultures but vary across the subcultures of one society. American society is diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status (SES). These differences lead to different age norms and different developmental experiences. Linda Burton’s 1996 study on age norms of low-income African Americans showed that the community thought it was appropriate for a woman to become a mother at sixteen and that their mothers and grandmothers would help care for the children. Burton found that children in poorer communities had to grow up faster and take on adult responsibilities of helping to care for their siblings or prepare meals.
The definitions of terms such as childhood, adolescence, and adulthood have changed throughout history. Development should be seen in a historical and cultural (and subcultural) context. In Western culture children were not seen as different from adults, in need of protection and nurturing, until the seventeenth century. Children were treated as adults and expected to work with adults at home, in shops, and in the fields. Adolescence was not viewed as a separate phase of development until the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, at which point youths were no longer allowed to work due to child labor laws. Youths were then separated form adults by focusing their time on school. Middle age was not clearly recognized until the twentieth century when people started having smaller families and longer life expectancies. As a result, people lived long enough to see their children leave the nest. Additionally, only in the twentieth century did old age become a period of retirement. Previously, there were fewer old people, and even fewer that were in good health. The current life expectancy rate is seventy-eight years of age. Women have a higher life expectancy rate than men, and Whites have higher life expectancy rates than African Americans. While these gaps have been lessening, the gap between socioeconomic groups has been growing.
One possible explanation is that wealthier individuals are more inclined to make changes to lead healthier lives. Additionally, higher-income individuals have better health insurance coverage and access to health care. People are living longer and longer. This makes it difficult to predict changes in the aging experience in the future.
Nature Versus Nurture
The nature-nurture issue is central to the study of human development. The nature-nurture issue is the question of how biology and environment interact and shape people. Those who feel that nature is the main influence on development emphasize genetics, biologically based predispositions, and biological influences like hormones. The same people see development as a process of maturation. Maturation is a biological unfolding of an individual based on hereditary material from their parents, also called genes. The maturation process (influenced by genes) occurs at about the same time for most people. This means most people speak their first words and learn to walk around one year of age and reach sexual maturity between the ages of twelve and fourteen. On the other hand, individual hereditary endowment makes each individual’s development different from that of others. On the other side of the debate are people who emphasize nurture, or changes that occur in response to an individual’s environment. This environment includes physical environments, interpersonal relationships, and the larger social context. Instead of seeing maturation as the driving force behind development, those that focus on nurture see learning as key to development. Learning is the process where experience leads to changes in thoughts, feelings, or behavior. These changes are relatively permanent.
Nature and Nurture are both important for development and they are interrelated and affect each other. An example would be why boys tend to be more aggressive than girls. Robert Munroe studied physical aggression in Belize, Kenya, Nepal, and American Samoa to see if gender differences in physical aggression exist across different cultures. His study founds that boys were more aggressive than girls in all four cultures. However, there were differences in the amount of aggression depending on the culture. Kenya and Nepal showed the most frequent aggressive behavior. Kenya and Nepal are also the most patrilineal of all four cultures. Patrilineal cultures are cultures where families are based on male kin groups. The study suggests that both biology and environmental factors affect why men are more physically aggressive than women.
Psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner developed a conceptual model of development. He called this the bioecological model of development. He wanted to emphasize that biology and environment both lead to development.
Bronfenbrenner sees the developing person as surrounded by a series of environmental systems which interact with each other and with the person over time, thus affecting development. The first of four environmental systems is the microsystem. The microsystem consists of the immediate physical and social environment where a person interacts with others. For example, an infant’s microsystem probably consists of his or herself, the mother, and the father. As the infant grows, the microsystem may expand to the day care center. The second system is the mesosystem which links two or more microsystems. An example is if a teenager’s parents are going through a divorce at home, his or her performance at school can be affected. The third environmental system is the exosystem. This system links social settings that affect a person but is not directly experienced by the person. For example, an individual can be affected by a spouse having a bad day at work. The fourth environmental system is the macrosystem. This is the largest cultural context that the other three contexts are embedded into. Culture is the defined as the shared understandings and way of life of a people. Bronfenbrenner also developed the idea of the chronosystem to show that changes in people and in the environments they inhabit relate to a time frame and occur in patterns. All these environmental systems are constantly changing. Researchers must consider how person, context, time, and processes are related and affect human interaction.
Studying Human Development
The aim of studying development over a life-span is to describe, explain, and optimize development. Developmentalists describe normal developments and individual variations and how these change with age. Describing is the first step. The next step is to explain why humans develop they way they do. Third, developmentalists seek to optimize human development to encourage people to develop in positive ways and overcome developmental problems.
Optimization is especially important to “helping professionals” such as teachers, therapists, and counselors. Such professionals are encouraged to practice evidence-based practice. This is practice that comes out of research and treatments proven to be effective.
Scientific research on development did not occur until the late nineteenth century. Scholars started observing the development of their own children. They published their research as baby biographies. Charles Darwin is the most famous baby biographer. He recorded his son’s development daily. Darwin’s interest in development came out of his interest in evolution. He felt that understanding how children developed would aid in understanding how humans evolved. Scientifically speaking, the baby biographies were lacking. There was little commonality between which behaviors biographers chose to focus on, thus making the various biographies difficult to compare and not generalizable.
G. Stanley Hall is considered the founder of developmental psychology. He developed a questionnaire to gather more objective data with a larger sample of people. He wrote the book “Adolescence” in 1904, and described the tumultuous period of human development as a time of emotional highs and lows. He called this time storm and stress. While many of Hall’s theories are flawed and he tried to describe development instead of explain it, he encouraged research and raised questions on human development over the life span.
In the twentieth century, the study of development began dividing into specialities based on age-group such as infants, adolescence or gerontology (the study of old age and aging). Paul Baltes listed seven important assumptions of the life-span perspective. The first assumption is that development changes throughout the life span and is a lifelong process. Development in a certain period should be viewed in relation to overall development over the life span. Second, development does not only move in one direction, it is multidirectional. Different capacities exhibit different patterns of change and different functions have different paths of change. Third, gain and loss in development are interconnected in every phase of life. The fourth assumption is that a capacity to change exists in response to negative and positive experiences. This capacity is called plasticity. Development involves plasticity throughout the life span. For example, studies show that the elderly can improve or regain lost intellectual abilities through physical exercise or cognitive training. Studies conducted with animals show that improvements in cognitive ability come from neuroplasticity.
Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change and respond to experiences. Research shows that neurochemistry can be changed through physical exercise and mental stimulation. Fifth, a historical-cultural context shapes development. This relates to Bronfenbrenneer’s bioecological model. Glen Elder researched the effect of the Great depression on the lives of people who were children and adolescents during that time. The study showed that children had behavioral problems and poor grades if their fathers were unemployed, therefore more likely to be less affectionate and to provide less consistent discipline. These children grew up to have unstable careers and family lives. The study also showed that adolescents fared better than children since they were more independent of their parents. They worked to help support their families and developed a sense of responsibility.
The sixth assumption is that development is influenced by many factors and interacting causes. These causes can be internal or external to the person as well as biological and environmental. The seventh and last assumption is that in order to understand the complexity of human development many disciplines including but not limited to psychologists, biologists, neuroscientists, economists, historians, sociologists, etc. must work together.
Overview of Research Methods
It is important to understand the fundamentals of scientific research to understand the methods of describing, explaining, and optimizing development. The scientific method is utilized so that investigators rely on data or research findings. In this process, ideas are generated and tested. These initial observations lead to theories. Theories are concepts which describe and explain phenomena. Theories lead to the generation of hypotheses or predictions about specific observations. These hypotheses are tested through observed behavior. This helps researchers determine which theories should be refined and which theories should be rejected. Theories should satisfy three key requirements. First of all, theories should be internally consistent. This means that the different parts of the theory should not contradict the hypothesis. Second, theories should be falsifiable. This means the theory needs to be specific so that a hypothesis can be tested. If theories are too vague, they can lead to an unclear hypotheses which cannot help to direct research which will advance knowledge. Third, theories should be supported by research findings. This means that the observations or data should confirm the hypothesis.
Developmental studies focus on specific research samples. The sample group is a group of individuals that represent the larger population. The results of studying the sample group should be generalizable to a larger group. Ideally, random samples taken from the population of interest should be studied. Members of the larger populations should be randomly chosen. Random sampling increases the likelihood that the chosen sample group is representative of the larger population, thus increasing the likelihood that research findings will be generalizable.
Developmentalists gather data through different methods depending on the age group and their specific interests. We will discuss three main methods: verbal reports, behavioral observations, and physiological measurements. Examples of verbal reports include interviews, surveys, achievement tests, and personality scales. In all these forms, people are asked questions. These questions may be about themselves, this is known as self-report measures or they may be asked about someone else. Generally, researchers ask questions in the same order to all respondents so that results can be directly compared. While this is a popular method, there are pitfalls to keep in mind. Some individuals (such as infants or some elderly) are unable to answer questions that require a certain level of cognitive ability. People of different ages and backgrounds may also interpret the questions differently. Additionally, people may not respond to questions honestly because they do not want to be seen in a negative way.
The second method is through observing behavior. When people are observed in their everyday environment, this is called naturalistic observation. This method is used to study children since they are unable to be studied through self-report techniques. Naturalistic observation also has some limitations. Some behaviors do not occur regularly enough to be observed this way. An example would be heroic acts. Secondly, the exact cause of certain behaviors become difficult to pinpoint because many things happen at once in an everyday setting. People may also behave differently if they know they are being observed. To address these concerns, researchers use structured observation. This method involves staging or creating causes of the types of behavior they are interested in studying. Research participants are given the same stimuli so that results can be directly compared. There are also concerns associated with this method. Researchers may not be sure that participants are behaving naturally. Additionally, participants may behave differently in a natural setting. In which case, the results of a study using structured observation would not be generalizable to a real world situation.
The third method of gathering data is through physiological measurements. This includes using electrodes to measure brain activity, studying hormone changes, or measuring heart rates. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) shows how magnetic forces increase blood flow to areas of the brain which are activated. This allows researchers to observe which parts of the brain are engaged through certain cognitive activities. Studies have shown that individuals from different age groups use different parts of their brain to perform the same cognitive task. This helps researchers study how the brain develops and ages. Physiological measurement taking is a necessary method when studying groups that are unable to verbalize how they feel, infants for example. The results are difficult for people to fake. For example, while an individual may claim to not have taken drugs, a blood test would show if they had or hadn’t taken drugs. The concern with using physiological measurements is that in some cases it is not clear exactly what is being assessed. These three main methods are the most common. Keep in mind that each method has shortcomings. Therefore, it is best to use a variety of methods to study the same thing.
After developing a hypothesis, choosing a sample group, and determining what should be measured and how to measure it, developmentalists can begin to test their hypothesis. They do so in a variety of ways. The first way is through a case study. This is a detailed examination of an individual through gathering and analyzing data. This information is collected from various methods such as testing, observing, and interviewing. This method provides insights on the influences on the complex aspects of human development. Case studies are especially helpful when studying people with rare disorders. Additionally, there are other scenarios where case studies can be useful such as when it may prove challenging to find an appropriate sample group to test a hypothesis. The concern is that results based on one person’s case, or the case of a very small group of individuals will not be generalizable to the larger population.
Developmentalists more often use the second method which is the experimental method. Through experiments researchers manipulate variables within an environment to see how this change affects the behavior of research participants. The variables that are manipulated or altered so that its causal effects can be studied are known as independent variables. The dependent variable is the behavior that the researcher expects to be affected. Researchers use experimental methods to study what they hypothesize to be a cause-effect relationship with the independent variable being the cause and the dependent variable being the effect. True experiments should have three key features: random assignment, manipulation of the independent variable, and experimental control. Random assignment means that research participants should be randomly assigned to the treatment condition (the different experimental conditions). Random assignment is necessary so that the different treatment groups are similar. This allows the researcher to be sure that any perceived behavioral changes are a result of manipulation of the independent variables and not a result of inherent characteristics of the research participants. Researchers must set up situations where the different groups can undergo different experiences. Researchers can then assess and compare how the experiences affected behavior. Finally, researchers must maintain experimental control. This means that all the other factors aside from the variable that is being manipulated (the independent variable) must be held constant so they cannot be responsible for any behavioral changes. Experimental methods are key to establishing a cause and effect relationship. There are of course limitations. The results of studies conducted in a lab may not be hold true in a real life setting. There are also ethical limitations. For example, if a researcher is interested to studying how people react to traumatic experiments. It would be unethical for the researcher to create such a scenario. Researchers may conduct a quasi experiment. A quasi experiment is an experiment that studies the effects of manipulating factors without using random assignment. However, since individuals are not randomly assigned to treatment groups, there may be differences between groups that could affect the result. For this reason, quasi experiments do not show clear cause and effect relationships.
In light of the ethical concerns we’ve just discussed, researchers may use a correlational method rather than an experimental method. The correlational method is a systematic way of figuring out if two or more variables are related to each other. Instead of setting up an experiment, manipulating variables, and observing changes in behavior, researchers using the correlation method study people as they are to see if there is a correlation between their characteristics, relationships, and development. Researchers can figure out the strength of a correlation between two variables through calculating a correlation coefficient. This is an index of the extent to which a person’s scores on one variable are connected to his or her scores on another variable. The symbol for a correlation coefficient is r. The range for r is from -1.00 to +1.00. A positive correlation of r = +0.70 is a stronger relationship than r = +0.20. A correlation of r = 0.00 means that there is no correlation between two variables. A strong negative correlation would suggest that the opposite of the hypothesis is occurring. One concern of the correlation method is that a clear cause effect relationship cannot be determined since it is unclear what is the cause and what is the effect.
For example, while Huesmann’s study on how children’s TV watching correlated with their aggressive behavior as adults showed that the more violent adults also watched more violent TV as children, it is possible that children who are aggressive seek out violent TV shows. Another concern of the correlation method is that the relationship between two seemingly associated variables may actually be caused by a third variable. For example, perhaps children who were rejected by their parents are inclined to spend more time watching TV. In this case parental rejection is a third variable that is affecting the TV watching and the child’s aggression. There is then no direct relationship between watching violent TV and aggression. Essentially, correlational methods suggest at cause and effect relationships but cannot clearly establish them. However, this method is valuable. Not only does it allow researchers to study behavior that may be unethical for them to create in a laboratory setting, it also allows researchers to study how different factors in the real world interact to affect human behavior. Ideally, both experimental methods and correlational methods should be used so that a clear cause and effect relationship can be established and the research would be generalizable to the real world. The results from multiple studies can be analyzed and combined to create an overall conclusion using meta-analysis.
Developmental Research Methods
In addition to the methods previously discussed, developmental researchers rely on several other methods to study how people change or stay the same over time. These research methods are the cross-sectional design, the longitudinal design, and the sequential study. Cross-sectional designs compare the performances of different cohorts or age groups. Cohorts are groups of people born at the same time (in the same year or within a set span of years). This type of study gives information on how age groups differ. Researchers can then use this information to predict how performance will change with age. Researchers want to know how age and a specific aspect of development are connected. This relationship is known as age effects. Cohort effects are the effects from being born as a member of a specific cohort within a specific historical background. People currently in their fifties are not only older than people in their thirties, they also belong to a different cohort. They’ve had different experiences that have shaped their development. Cross-sectional designs show how different cohorts differ but do not show how people change as they age. Age effects and cohort effects are confounded. This means they are so closely connected that it is unclear what causes the resulting effect. Differences between cohorts help inform researchers about how different sociocultural environments can affect development. In situations where childhood experiences differ between cohorts, the cohort effect can be problematic to a cross-sectional study. Additionally, cross-sectional designs focus on a person at one point instead of over time. This does not allow the researcher to study how a person changes. The advantage to this approach is that such studies are conducted fairly quickly and easily. The results regarding age effects can be valid if the experiences of growing up between the different cohorts are comparable.
In order to study people over a longer span of time, researchers use longitudinal designs. In this method, researchers study the same individuals of one cohort over time. This method is useful in studying how people change as they age and can show if people tend to change in the same ways. It can help researchers understand what characteristics change over time and what characteristics tend to remain unchanged. It can also show if experiences during childhood can predict later behavior. Longitudinal designs have their own shortcomings since they focus on a specific cohort. Time-of-measurement effects may be a factor. Time-of-measurement effects are the effects of historical context during data collection. In contrast to cohort effects, time-of-measurement effects are not specific to a cohort. For example, a traumatic event like 9/11 affected people in more than one cohort. Age effects and time-of measurement effects are confounded in longitudinal studies. Researchers are unable to determine if changes related to age can be generalized to people in other socio historical contexts. Another disadvantage of longitudinal studies is that they require a lot of time and are expensive to conduct. As knowledge changes and new technology becomes available, tools and measurement methods become outdated. Finally, testing effects can be a concern. Research participants gain more practice at taking tests which can also affect their test performance.
Sequential designs combine both cross-sectional designs and longitudinal designs. Through this combination, both designs are improved. Sequential designs address age effects, cohort effects, and time-of-measurement effects by untangling them so that researchers can see what age-related trends cause developmental changes, how these trends differ between cohorts and which trends show that events within a certain period of history affected all cohorts living during that time. On the downside, sequential designs are very complex and are very expensive to conduct.
When conducting research, developmentalists face several challenges. They must be sensitive to culture differences. They must also protect the participant’s rights. Developmentalists see a need to study people from various ecological settings. One important component of such ecological settings is socioeconomic status (SES). Studies show that low-SES families deal with more stress and have fewer resources. Researchers must also be sure that surveys and questions have the same meaning for people from different economic and cultural backgrounds. This can prove especially difficult when questions need to be translated into different languages. Researchers also face the challenge of not allowing their own values to bias how they perceive others. Ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s own group is better than that of others, can affect research designs and procedures.
Research ethics are conduct standards which require researchers to protect research participants from physical and psychological dangers. Researchers have to consider many different ethical issues when conducting their research. The federal government and other agencies work together to determine the guidelines for how to research and work with human beings in an ethical way. Universities and other organizations which undertake such research have institutional review boards (IRBs). IRBs review research project proposals and only approve those proposals which conform to ethical standards. Members of IRBs must consider the benefits of research and compare those benefits to participant risk.
In order to be ethically responsible, researchers should allow participants to make an unpressured and informed choice as to if they want to take part in the research. This is called informed consent. Participants should be told what the research involves so they can make a voluntary choice. When researchers study “vulnerable” populations such young children, or people who are mentally impaired, they should gain consent form the individual and someone who can make the decision for that individual. Additionally, researchers should be sensitive to cultural differences. To do this researchers have began consulting community members when designing studies. Additionally, researchers should debrief participants after the study. This means that researches should tell participants the aim of the study if they have not already done so. Researchers must protect the participants from harm (both physical and psychological). Researchers should try to predict possible reactions during the study and be prepared to deal with the consequences. Finally, information provided by participants should be confidential. In the United States, the content of medical records is protected by the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). This information can only be shared if participants give permission or a court order requires disclosure.
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