Do people grow and change slowly over time, or do they make sudden steps forward into new phases in their lives? In this lesson, we'll examine the continuity and discontinuity theories of developmental psychology.
Imagine that you are standing at the base of a large mountain. You want to go from where you are standing now, all the way at the bottom, to the very top peak of the mountain. Development is a lot like going from the bottom of a mountain to the top. Development is the process of growth and change that everyone experiences.
Think about babies: when they are first born, they can't even hold their heads up; someone must support the head so it doesn't just loll back. As they grow, though, their necks become strong, and they are able to hold their heads up and even move them around.
As they continue to grow, babies learn to sit up, and then to crawl and eventually to stand and walk. Children learn to run, skip, jump and cartwheel. Teenagers might learn the steps to a complicated dance. Adults who have their own babies might learn how to move quickly to catch a child who is falling. Older adults learn how to walk with arthritis in their joints or with an artificial hip or knee.
All of these are examples of development that happen during a person's life span. And those are only some of the physical ones: there are also emotional, social and intellectual growth that can occur throughout a person's life.
But how do people develop? How can you get from the bottom of the mountain to the top? Let's look closer at two competing theories about development - continuity and discontinuity - and what they have to do with the classic 'nature versus nurture' debate in psychology.
Continuity and Discontinuity
Let's go back to that mountain that you want to climb. You're standing on the very bottom of the mountain, and you want to get to the top. But when you look closer, you notice that there are two ways up. On one side of the mountain is a path that involves walking uphill until you get to the peak. On the other side, someone has carved stairs into the side of the mountain so that you can climb up to the peak that way.
The path is a lot like the continuity view of development. Proponents of the continuity view say that development is a continuous process that is gradual and cumulative. For example, a child learns to crawl, and then to stand and then to walk. They are gradually learning how to walk. It's just like hiking up the mountain path: a slow, steady ascent that leads to the top.
On the other hand, some people see development as consisting of different stages. The discontinuity view of development believes that people pass through stages of life that are qualitatively different from each other. For example, children go from only being able to think in very literal terms to being able to think abstractly. They have moved into the 'abstract thinking' phase of their lives. As you can imagine, discontinuous development is like walking up the stairs: a series of stages, or steps, that get you to the top of the mountain.
Nature vs. Nurture
It might seem odd that psychologists can't agree on whether development is a continuous process or whether it happens in stages. To understand the continuity-discontinuity issue, it's important to understand another fundamental debate that has shaped psychology over the past 150 years. The nature versus nurture debate hinges on the following question: are people more shaped by their biology or by their environment?
Let's look at an example of how the nature versus nurture debate might play out. Imagine a boy who is very good at basketball. Is this an inherent skill that he has? Or has he just practiced basketball more than others? Is he better than others because he's taller than most people, or is he better because he's worked with some of the best coaches in the country?
As you can see, there are convincing arguments for both sides. In reality, most psychologists now acknowledge that both nature and nurture play a role. For example, did you know that a disproportionate number of professional athletes were born in the first three months of the year? Because little league teams are usually grouped by what year your birthday is in, the kids born in February of a year are on the same team as kids born in December of that same year.
The February kids are likely larger and more physically adept because they are almost a year older than the December kids. As a result, the February kids are likely to get more attention from coaches and more playing time. They will go on to become better and better through little league and school teams, and eventually are more likely to make it to the professional level in their given sport. In this example, the nature of the kids born in February (that they were bigger in little league) affects the way that they are nurtured into developing their skills (the extra attention and playing time).
What does this have to do with continuity and discontinuity in development? The psychologists who stress the continuity of development tend to view nature as more important than nurture. Just like a sapling grows into a tree and then into a giant oak, continuity theorists see nature as shaping our development in a slow, gradual process.
On the other hand, psychologists who stress the discontinuity of development often believe that nurture is more important than nature in shaping human behavior. They see distinct stages of life that are shaped and defined by the environment we grow up in. The grade a child is in, for example, shapes what they learn. Children go through distinct stages because our environment takes us through them.
Development is the process of growth and change that humans go through. There are two major theories about how people develop. On one hand, the continuity theory says that development is a gradual, continuous process. On the other hand, the discontinuity theory says that development occurs in a series of distinct stages. Many psychologists who believe in the continuity theory of development also stress nature as a driving factor behind people's psychology, while proponents of the discontinuity theory of development tend to believe that nurture (or the environment) is the most important influence on a person's psychology.
Following this lesson, you'll have the ability to:
- Define development
- Describe two major theories of development: continuity and discontinuity theories
- Explain how each theory contributes to the nature versus nurture debate