Theories of Human Development

What happens to us in childhood plays a key role in who we are and how our relationships unfold as adults. Professor Malcolm W. Watson introduces you to six theories that have had the greatest influence on the study of human development.
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Almost from the moment of birth, we are faced with the need to reorganize our ways of thinking as life's challenges arise. What happens to us in childhood plays a key role in who we are and how our relationships unfold as adults. Professor Malcolm W. Watson introduces you to six theories that have had the greatest influence on the study of human development.


Malcolm W. Watson
Malcolm W. Watson

Pick the narrative that allows your own life to make the greatest sense or the greater sense.


Brandeis University

Dr. Malcolm W. Watson is George and Frances Levin Professor of Psychology at Brandeis University, where he has been teaching for over 25 years. He earned his B.A. in psychology from the University of Utah and pursued his graduate education in developmental psychology at the University of Denver, where he earned his PhD.  Professor Watson was the recipient of the first Michael Laban Walzer Award for Excellence in Teaching at Brandeis. He also taught at Boston College and was a member of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Network for the study of transitions in early child development.  Dr. Watson is an active researcher. His research has been funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. His areas of interest include the development of symbolic play in children, the development of drawing and art in children, children's understanding of family roles and family conflicts, and the causes of aggression and violence in children and adolescents.   He has published numerous articles in journals and edited several books. 

By This Professor

Introduction—The Value of Theories

01: Introduction—The Value of Theories

This lecture introduces the major objectives of the course. It allows students to assess where they stand on major issues regarding human development. The lecture then discusses the value of scientific theories for understanding development, and the criteria for judging whether a theory is valuable.

33 min
The Early History of Child Study

02: The Early History of Child Study

Prior to and during the Industrial Revolution in Europe and America, people often showed a lack of humane concern for children. This translated into an absence of systematic study of child development. Concern for, and evaluation of, children resulted in part from the influence of a few physicians and religious leaders.

28 min
Two Worldviews—Locke vs. Rousseau

03: Two Worldviews—Locke vs. Rousseau

Two major philosophers, both concerned with humane child rearing and education, changed the prevailing perception of children. John Locke espoused the "mechanistic" worldview: children are neutral ("blank slates") and function like machines. Jean-Jacques Rousseau proposed the "organismic" worldview: children are good, and function like organisms.

31 min
Later History—Becoming Scientific

04: Later History—Becoming Scientific

This lecture traces the application of scientific method and theory to the study of human development. The first scientists to study children functioned like naturalists, simply observing and describing children's development.

30 min
Freud's Psychodynamic Theory

05: Freud's Psychodynamic Theory

Freud's psychodynamic theory caused a revolution in thinking about human development. We discuss his history, theory, and his reliance on such concepts as psychic energy.

31 min
How We Gain Contact with Reality—The Ego

06: How We Gain Contact with Reality—The Ego

Our discussion of Freud's theory continues by focusing on the nonadaptive nature of the unconscious id, the development of the ego and its accompanying secondary process thinking, and the subsequent development of the superego.

30 min
Freud's Psycho-Sexual Stages

07: Freud's Psycho-Sexual Stages

This final lecture on Freud discusses his concept of erogenous zones, the five psychosexual stages—oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital—and the fixations that may occur during each, and the Oedipus complex and its resolution.

31 min
Erikson's Psycho-Social Theory

08: Erikson's Psycho-Social Theory

We first discuss neo-Freudian revisions in Freud's theory. We then discuss Erikson's history, including his experience with his own identity crisis, and describe how his stages of development are based on the need to develop mastery and personal identity through a series of crises in one's life cycle.

30 min
Erikson's Early Stages

09: Erikson's Early Stages

The first four stages of Erikson's theory provide the foundation of development for the child: developing trust versus mistrust, autonomy versus shame and doubt, initiative versus guilt, and industry versus inferiority.

31 min
Identity and Intimacy

10: Identity and Intimacy

Erikson was the first to propose two pivotal stages of development after childhood. During adolescence, Stage 5 is a crisis of developing identity versus role confusion. Stage 6, in young adulthood, is a crisis of developing intimacy versus isolation. The lecture concludes with differences between women and men in developing identity and intimacy.

31 min
Erikson's Later Stages—Adult Development

11: Erikson's Later Stages—Adult Development

Erikson's last two stages occur in adulthood and old age. Stage 7 is a crisis of developing generativity versus stagnation, and Stage 8 is a crisis of developing ego integrity versus despair. The last stage connects all the issues with which a person has already dealt.

31 min
Bowlby and Ainsworth's Attachment Theory

12: Bowlby and Ainsworth's Attachment Theory

This lecture introduces attachment theory by describing the personal histories and research of its creators. We continue with a "secure base," for which the theory was famous, and an attachment system for the adaptation of the species.

31 min
How Nature Ensures That Attachment Will Occur

13: How Nature Ensures That Attachment Will Occur

Bowlby rejected Freudian psychodynamic theory as inadequate to explain attachment. He turned instead to ethology theory, and its concept of innate releasing mechanisms. We discuss the allure of babyish features and their role in attachment, and attachment in the first year of life.

31 min
Development of Secure and Insecure Attachments

14: Development of Secure and Insecure Attachments

This lecture describes the normal development of a secure attachment, and Ainsworth's "strange situation" task—the most popular assessment for secure attachment. We examine insecure attachments: what they are, how they may predict several psychopathological problems in development, and causes.

31 min
Early Attachments and Adult Relationships

15: Early Attachments and Adult Relationships

Our discussion concludes with relations between early attachment and later relationships. Bowlby developed the "internal working model" of a child's attachment, which provides constant security, and influences subsequent attachments. Early attachments influence adult romantic relationships.

31 min
Bandura's Social Learning Theory

16: Bandura's Social Learning Theory

A fourth major theory, Albert Bandura's social learning theory, added a cognitive focus to learning theory. It showed how the influence of what one expects to happen is more important than what does happen. This focus led to the concept of "vicarious reinforcement."

31 min
Bandura's Self-Efficacy Theory

17: Bandura's Self-Efficacy Theory

Bandura extended the cognitive focus of his theory by arguing that a person's development of self-efficacy (or belief that one can have an effect on one's environment) determines the tasks one attempts and the skills one develops.

31 min
Piaget's Cognitive-Developmental Theory

18: Piaget's Cognitive-Developmental Theory

This lecture introduces the most important theorist in the field of child development, Jean Piaget. It describes Piaget's history and his attempt to combine naturalist biology and philosophy to create a field called genetic epistemology (how we come to know what we know).

31 min
Piaget's Early Stages

19: Piaget's Early Stages

Piaget's sequence of four major stages describes how we progress from infant to adult intelligence. Symbol use emerges by the end of infancy, the sensory-motor period. Preschoolers master symbolic skills in the pre-operational period.

31 min
Concrete Operations

20: Concrete Operations

The discussion of Piaget's theory continues by focusing on what preschoolers can and can't do, and how the five-to-seven year shift is a pivotal transition to Piaget's third stage, the concrete-operational period.

31 min
Piaget's Last Stage

21: Piaget's Last Stage

This lecture begins with a description of Piaget's Stage 4, the formal-operational period. This is a time of "idealistic" thinking. We consider examples of formal-operational logic, abstraction, and hypothetical thinking.

31 min
Vygotsky's Cognitive-Mediation Theory

22: Vygotsky's Cognitive-Mediation Theory

Lev Vygotsky was practically unknown to Western thinkers until recently, but his theoretical influence on development and education is constantly increasing. As a Russian theorist he believed that Marxism could provide a foundation for a better theory of psychological development.

31 min
Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

23: Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development

Vygotsky argued that a person's level of development is not a specific point but a range or zone. This "zone of proximal development" shifts over time. We examine examples of "scaffolding," an important notion in education.

31 min
Conclusion—Our Nature and Development

24: Conclusion—Our Nature and Development

This concluding lecture uses the allegory of blind men describing an elephant to illustrate how different theories might give a partial or even false understanding of human nature and development. We discuss ways to integrate the major theories, using the example of gender role development. We end with a reprise: Where does the student now stand regarding major issues of human development?

31 min