The Lifespan Approach on Human Development - Seven Basic Contentions

Dr. Donna L. Roberts
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Since its inception, the study of human development has focused on the many complex physical, cognitive and social/emotional patterns of growth and development that manifest at various ages and stages of childhood and adolescence with little emphasis upon the realm of adult development. The more recent life-span perspective, in contrast, expands the earlier view to encompass the developmental processes that occur throughout the adult years as well. According to developmental psychologist Paul Baltes (1987, 1997, 2000), the life-span perspective is characterized by the following underlying assumptions:

1. Development is Lifelong

2. Development is Multidimensional

3. Development is Mulitdirectional

4. Development is Plastic

5. Development is Contextual

6. Development is Studied by a Number of Disciplines

7. Development Involves Growth, Maintenance and Regulation

These basic premises form the essence of the life-span perspective and thus influence the nature of both the theoretical conclusions and the conduct of research. Further discussion of each characteristic follows.

1. Development is Lifelong – The life-span development approach emphasizes the continual nature of development and asserts that a full understanding of an individual is enhanced by taking into account the past history, the current life stage and challenges and the future developmental expectations. This contrasts with the previous notion that the most dramatic and significant changes occurred in the period from conception through adolescence and that adulthood was a predictable period of stability and eventual decline. With the life-span perspective, adulthood is viewed as comprised of its own significant changes and patterns of behaviors and thus, development represents a continuous, dynamic and lifelong process of change.

2. Development is Multidimensional – A comprehensive understanding of development requires analysis of growth and change in the many interacting aspects of human behavior and functioning. Typically, development is analyzed from the biological/physical, cognitive and socio-emotional dimensions. Biological/physical development concerns itself with physiological changes such as those in height, weight, body proportions, internal systems, sensory capabilities, disease and health. Cognitive development refers to changes in the processing of information and understanding of the world. It studies such psychological phenomena as memory, language, intelligence, reasoning, problem solving, and concept formation. Socio-emotional development considers the influences and changes that occur in personality and the interaction with other people. Additionally, the psychological functions described above are also multi-faceted and complex.

3. Development is Mutlidirectional – Among the various dimensions of development, the processes ebb and flow over time, increasing and/or decreasing in relative importance and strength. Certain developmental realms are more prominent at certain times and some are most active for a particular ‘window of opportunity’. The life-span perspective examines the often interdependent relationships between the order, timing and direction of the processes in relation to the various stages of development.
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4. Development is Plastic – Plasticity, in the psychological sense refers to, “flexibility, modifiability, malleability, adaptability, teachability” (Reber & Reber, 2001, p. 542). From the life-span development perspective, this refers to the extent to which particular characteristics and aspects of the developmental process change or remain stable over time, as well as the degree to which the individual’s overall propensity for flexibility and change persists throughout the lifetime. This is a topic of much debate and research in developmental psychology.

5. Development is Contextual – The processes involved in changes over the life span are the result of a complex interaction among multiple influences both at a macro and a micro level. In psychology, the concept of context refers to “the events and processes (physical and mental) that characterize a particular situation and have an impact on an individual’s behavior (overt and covert)” (Reber & Reber, 2001, p. 152). From the life-span development perspective, the context, which specifically can include the physiological processes occurring, the genetic/biological makeup, the physical environment, the cognitive levels and processes, the emotional state and the larger historical, societal and cultural environments, interacts to influence and be influenced by the particular developmental level and task at hand. Theorist Paul Baltes and his colleagues (Baltes, 2000) consider the following three contextual influences to be of particular importance:

  • Normative age-graded influences
  • Normative history-graded influences
  • Normative life events

6. Development is Studied by a Number of Disciplines – Because development is multidimensional and composed of many interdependent and interacting components, it is of research and practical interest to a number of fields of study, including psychology, sociology, medicine, social work, anthropology, criminal justice and law, geneticists, neuroscientists, and others. Researchers and practitioners in each of these fields will approach the questions, explanations and research methods from their own unique perspective, related to their particular orientation.

7. Development Involves Growth, Maintenance and Regulation – Before developmental theorists and researchers included the stages of adulthood in their study of human development, the focus of the field was mainly on the dramatic growth that occurs from conception to adolescence. The life-span development perspective encompasses the broader view and thus incorporates the important functions of maintenance and regulation. Rather than seeking growth in various areas, adults seek to maintain performance and/or retard deterioration.
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Baltes, P. B. (2000). Autobiographical reflections: From developmental methodology and lifespan psychology to gerontol-ogy. In J. E. Birren and J. J. F. Schroots (Eds.), A history of geropsychology in autobiography. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Baltes, P. B. (1987). Theoretical propositions of life-span develop-

mental psychology: On the dynamics between growth and decline. Developmental Psychology, 23, 611–626.

Baltes, P. B. (1997). On the incomplete architecture of human ontogeny: Selection, optimization, and compensation as foundation of developmental theory. American Psychologist, 52, 366–380.

Reber, A. S. & Reber, E. (2001). The Penguin dictionary of psychology, 3e. New York, NY: Penguin Books.

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Writer and university professor researching media psych, generational studies, addiction psychology, human and animal rights, and the intersection of art and psychology.


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