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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.

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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.2. Multidimensionality.

Baltes believed that a person’s body, mind, emotions, and relationships all develop across the life span and all affect one another. For example, a new parent might not get very much sleep, which could cause his thoughts to become more negative. He might find that he is thinking of worst-case scenarios, which might make him feel more anxious than he’s ever been.

This might end up affecting his relationship with his baby. His biological, cognitive (or thinking), and socioemotional dimensions are all changing and all affecting one another.3. Multidirectionality. Besides just growing, Baltes recognized that sometimes development involves shrinking, too.

He understood that, at different points in our lives, some aspects of ourselves might grow and others might shrink. For example, an older adult might find that her biological dimension shrinks as her eyesight gets worse. At the same time, she might find that her socioemotional dimension grows as she finds time to bond with others her age and pursues hobbies during retirement.4. Plasticity. Baltes understood that development is possible because of plasticity, or the ability to change.

Without the ability to change, no one would develop. The traditional view of development said that plasticity was only a part of people until adulthood. After that point, well, ‘you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.’ But Baltes, and those who came after him, found that plasticity continues to be a key part of human life, even to death. An old man in a nursing home can learn to read for the first time, a good example of plasticity at work.

5. Multidisciplinary. The life span perspective recognizes that psychologists are not the only people interested in studying how people develop across the course of their lives. Psychologists, medical doctors, neuroscientists, sociologists, even politicians and philosophers are all interested in figuring out the answers to questions about how people function at different points in their lives. How do heredity and socialization influence intellectual development? How do people adapt to changes in their physical abilities? These questions, and many more, might be studied by people in many different disciplines.6.

Contextuality. People do not live in a vacuum, and they do not develop on their own. Baltes recognized that all development happens in a specific setting and at a specific time. Historical, economic, social, and cultural factors all play a part in development.

For example, sexual development is different for most modern American women than it was for American women in the eighteenth century, or than it is for modern women from other countries or cultures.

Lesson Summary

Paul Baltes was the founder of the life span perspective of development, which said that people develop at all points during their lives, not just in childhood and adolescence. There are six key components to the life span perspective, including lifelong development, multidimensionality, multidirectionality, plasticity, multidisciplinary, and contextuality.

Learning Outcomes

When this lesson is done, you should be able to:

  • Explain the Lifelong Development Theory of Paul Baltes
  • Describe what is meant by lifelong development
  • Identify and define the six major developmental characteristics

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