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Paul Baltes and the Lifelong Development Theory of Psychology

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  • 0:03 Paul Baltes
  • 1:44 Lifelong Development
  • 3:59 Developmental Characteristics
  • 7:40 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Do people stop growing when they reach adulthood? Psychologist Paul Baltes didn't think so. In this lesson, we'll look at Baltes' life span perspective of development, how it changed psychology, and its key components.

Paul Baltes

Have you ever heard the riddle of the Sphinx? According to Greek legend, the cruel, mythical Sphinx would ask travelers, 'What walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three legs in the evening?'

Many travelers were stumped by the Sphinx's riddle, until the Greek hero Oedipus produced the answer: man. We crawl as babies in the morning of our lives, walk on our two legs as adults in the midday of our lives, and hobble around with a cane as the elderly in the evening of our lives.

The riddle of the Sphinx highlights what many people have understood since the beginning of human history: we, as humans, are always growing and developing. However, for many years, psychologists didn't seem to understand that idea. Developmental psychology, which is the study of how humans grow and change, was confined to the years from birth through adolescence. By the time people reach adulthood, psychologists believed, they are through developing.

Paul Baltes disagreed. He was a psychologist who was born and raised in Germany during the 20th century. Like the Sphinx, Baltes saw the way that people changed throughout the entirety of their lives. To challenge the traditional view of development, he established the life span perspective of development, which views growth and change as occurring at all points in a person's life, as well as in many different directions at once.

Let's look closer at the life span perspective of development, including the key idea of lifelong development and some of the other characteristics of development according to the life span perspective.

Lifelong Development

Anyone who has ever been around a small child will intuitively understand what psychologists have known for centuries: children learn and develop very quickly! Think about a baby: she is unable to feed herself; she cannot control when she is going to go to the bathroom; she can't talk; she can't even sit up on her own or hold her own head up.

After less than a year, that same baby can hold her own head up and sit up. She still can't talk, but she might be babbling and making nonsense sounds. She's 'pre-talking.' By the time she's a year and a half, she can not only sit up but also can crawl or even take a few steps. She can feed herself if given a bottle or some baby food and a spoon, and she can probably say a few short words. Around age three, she's probably talking in short but full sentences; she can walk and run around; and she's probably even potty trained. In only three years, she's learned how to do all of these things!

Contrast that to an adult or even an adolescent: what have you learned in the past three years? Probably some interesting things, like algebra or how to play basketball. But compared to the huge milestones of the first few years of life, your most recent accomplishments might seem a little pale in comparison.

This is why psychologists used to believe that people only developed through adolescence. By the time they reached adulthood, the changes that occurred were more subtle than those that occurred in childhood and adolescence. For example, many older adults gain wisdom as they age, which allows them to cope with stressful situations better. But that might not be as easy to observe as a child who has learned to transition from diapers to using a potty.

Lifelong development is the central tenet of Baltes' life span perspective. It says that people continue to develop throughout their lives, and that no age period dominates development. Rather, development occurs throughout all periods of life. Whether a child is learning to feed himself or a new parent is learning how to make decisions based on more than their own selfish interests, people are always growing and changing.

Developmental Characteristics

Though lifelong development is the central tenet of Baltes' theory of development, it is not the only tenet. Baltes saw learning and development as a much more complex process than those who came before him. As such, he observed several key characteristics of development.

1. Lifelong Development. We've already discussed this one as the central tenet of the life span perspective. Essentially, this is the idea that people continue to develop as they age, from birth all the way to death.

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