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Module 10: Motivation across the Lifespan

Module Overview

Welcome to Module 10 and our discussion… that is, our brief discussion or overview, of developmental psychology. I must state brief because this is by far my favorite area in psychology, and I could write a book on the topic. There are also so many issues to cover within each developmental period that we cannot reasonably cover them all. These periods include: infancy, preschool years, middle childhood, adolescence, and adulthood. Bear in mind that adulthood is broken down into early, middle, and late and each has its own issues to discuss. Our focus in each period will be on physical, cognitive, and social/personality changes. Again, this is an overview of what you would cover in a developmental course, and I am focusing on topics related to motivation. With that said, let’s discuss changes in motivated behavior across the lifespan.


Note to WSU Students: The topic of this module overviews what you would learn in PSYCH 361: Developmental Psychology and PSYCH 363: Psychology of Aging at Washington State University.


Module Outline


Module Learning Outcomes

  • Clarify what developmental psychology is and how we investigate it.
  • Describe changes in physical, cognitive, and social/personality development during infancy.
  • Describe changes in physical, cognitive, and social/personality development during the preschool years.
  • Describe changes in physical, cognitive, and social/personality development during middle childhood.
  • Describe changes in physical, cognitive, and social/personality development during adolescence.
  • Describe changes in physical, cognitive, and social/personality development during adulthood.


10.1. Brief Overview


Section Learning Objectives

  • Define developmental psychology.
  • Differentiate primary and secondary aging.
  • List the eight developmental periods.
  • List and describe the types of development.
  • Outline the four principles of development.


10.1.1. Defining Terms

Developmental psychology studies patterns of growth, stability, and change that occur during the life span. Let’s break this down. Growth indicates movement from simple to complex or maturing. As you will see, most growth occurs early in life. This is followed by a brief period of stability in early adulthood in which we have fully matured, and our growth is complete. Our abilities are at their peak and stability represents a relatively quiet time developmentally, at least compared to other periods. Change occurs later in life and in this context means decline. Beginning in the later part of early adulthood and through late adulthood our body shows signs of wear and tear. These signs are not always clear but are there, nonetheless, and many occur naturally, called primary aging. An example is declines in our reaction time as we age, stiffness in our joints, or loss of near vision. Of course, we can willingly engage in behaviors to improve or hasten our decline, called secondary aging. This includes using drugs and alcohol, working out, reading for pleasure, adhering to doctor’s orders, or going for a walk after dinner.

And finally, these patterns are seen across the entire life span. For a long time, it was believed that everything you were going to be was determined in childhood. This perspective basically says that very little development occurs after childhood and adolescence. We now know this is not true; the work of individuals such as Erik Erikson show how development continues long past childhood.


10.1.2. Developmental Periods

Human development occurs over 8 main periods as follows:

  • Prenatal Development – Lasts from fertilization of the egg cell up to the birth of the neonate or newborn.
  • Infancy/Toddlerhood – From birth to about age 3
  • Preschool Years – From age 3 to 6 years
  • Middle Childhood – From 6 to 12 years
  • Adolescence – From 12 to 20 years
  • Early or Young Adulthood – From 20 to 40 years
  • Middle Adulthood – From 40 to 65(ish – retirement) years
  • Late Adulthood – From 65(ish – retirement) to death

For our purposes, prenatal development will not be discussed, and all adulthood periods will be discussed together, resulting in 5 main periods.


10.1.3. Types of Development

Our discussion will focus on the three main types of development – physical, cognitive, and social/personality. Physical development includes changes in the body’s size and shape and how the body’s composition determines behavior. Topics related to this type of development include growth and change in our sensory systems, muscles, brain, use of depth perception, nervous system, and sleep patterns.

Cognitive development focuses on changes in intellectual development and how they affect behavior. Topics for study include language, memory, decision making, intelligence, creativity, and learning.

Social/personality development examines our social interactions with others, social skills, how our relationships grow and change, and changes in personality throughout the life span. We might study the sensation seeking behavior of adolescents, attachment to parent and potential moderators of it, finding a career, establishing romantic relationships, challenges that could alter our personality, how to age successfully, and the act of reviewing the life we have lived so far and trying to leave something behind once we die.


10.1.4. Principles of Development

The types of development can be conceptualized as occurring in one of four ways to include:

  • Cephalocaudal principle – States that development proceeds from head (cephalo) to toe or tail (caudal). For example, your nervous system develops before you can walk or run.
  • Proximodistal principle – States that development proceeds from near (proximo) to far (distal). We used these two terms when we talked about goals so you should know what they mean already. An example in the context of development is gross and fine motor skills. The former represents whole body movements centered on your trunk, and develop before the latter, which can be represented by learning to write (using the hands which are far away from your trunk, or distant).
  • Hierarchical integration –States that development goes from simple to complex. For example, before you can pick up objects with your hands, you must learn to control individual fingers. And as you will see in Section 10.2, play goes from simple (solitary) to complex (cooperative) with a few other types in the middle.
  • Independence of systems – States that different systems in the body develop at different rates. For instance, your nervous system develops before your reproductive system, which also represents cephalocaudal principle too.

It is important to understand that though these four principles represent different trajectories for development, they are complementary to one another and not in competition. Development proceeds simple to complex, all while moving from top to bottom and from near to far, and our different bodily systems are the center of growth at different times.

10.2. Infancy


Section Learning Objectives

  • Clarify measures the body takes to maintain the efficiency of the nervous system.
  • Describe how reflexes aid in our survival.
  • Outline the status of the five sensory systems at birth and how their development proceeds.
  • Define depth perception and describe the seminal experiment that elucidated it.
  • Describe how infants explore the world around them.
  • Describe how infants learn about the world and clarify key components of Piaget’s theory.
  • Explain the development of language as a way infants are motivated to communicate with others.
  • Describe changes in sociability and how they affect how we interact with others in our world.
  • Outline the development of personality during infancy.


10.2.1. Physical Changes Changes in the brain: Motivated to maintain efficiency. At birth, infants have 100 to 200 billion neurons. There are a lot of neurons but not many neural connections called synapses. Over the first two years of life the child will develop billions of new connections through a process called synaptogenesis, especially if in an enriched environment and not an impoverished one (Krech, Rosenzweig, & Bennett, 1962). This is quite a few new neural connections and so to maintain the efficiency of the nervous system, the body must take certain steps. First, neurons, or nerve cells not interconnected with other neurons become unnecessary and die out. Second, neural connections that are used are expanded while those not used are eliminated. The latter is called synaptic pruning (Huttenlocher, 1994). This may seem a bit extreme, but we take similar measures within our social institutions to maintain efficiency. Underperforming employees are let go (like the individual neuron) and if a company can make its operations more efficient by combining different units/divisions (like the synapses) it will do so. All of this leads to a better use of limited resources and is the same in a company or governmental organization as it is in the nervous system.

Recall our earlier discussion of the principles of development. The cephalocaudal principle states that our development goes from top to bottom, or head to toe. The greatest gains we experience early on in life occur in the nervous system, as well as our sensory systems, which we will discuss in a bit. Since our sensory systems are primarily located in our head, and the central nervous system is located there as well, we can see evidence for this principle. Reflexes: Motivated by survival. Neonates are born with a repertoire of behaviors aimed at helping it survive, called reflexes. These reflexes are adaptive in nature and indicate how well developed the nervous system is. If a reflex is absent or weak, this may suggest that the brain is not functioning correctly. Many stay with us throughout life while some disappear in infancy or later in childhood. Examples for the latter include the rooting reflex or when the baby turns his or her head in the direction of a stimulation near its mouth. Hence, if you touch the baby on the left cheek, it will turn its head to the left. If something is placed on the baby’s lips and she begins to suck, the sucking reflex was just activated. The grasping reflex occurs when an object is placed in a baby’s palm and she closes her hand in a grasping motion. Finally, the startle or Moro reflex occurs when an infant hears a loud sound or sees a movement, it will flex its thighs and knees, throw its arms out and then bring them together as if embracing someone, and briefly cry. Other reflexes include gagging, swallowing, sneezing, coughing, blinking, and yawning; all of which last into adulthood.

Babies also imitate, or copy, the facial expressions of their caregivers. This appears to be a primitive reflex and helps them learn about their world. Imitation is an early form of communication before infants can utter words and form sentences. An example is when a father sticks out his tongue and the baby does the same. Motivated to detect the world. Human beings use their sensory systems – vision, hearing, taste, touch, and smell to detect stimuli in their world. Once this information has been processed and meaning added, they act. This process works the same across time, though the sensory systems of infants are not equally developed. Some take years to fully develop while some are fairly developed at birth. This fact is an example of the principle of independence of systems discussed in Section 10.1.4. So how functional are the five systems at birth?

In terms of touch, the rooting reflex gives us an indication that infants do respond to touch. Consider that a reflex is inborn and does not have to be learned. If our sense of touch was not well-developed this reflex would not be possible. Also consider that infants respond to changes in temperature and pain. Infants, like many other species, prefer sweet foods which are calorie dense and help with adding on needed weight, and have clear likes and dislikes. The facial expression of a baby who has eaten something he/she does not like could not be a better example of this, as well as the fact that many times, a baby will spit out disliked foods. In terms of smell, infants can locate the direction an odor is arising from and shows clear dislike for unpleasant smells.

Hearing is a relatively well-developed sensory system as evidenced by the fact that babies can echolocate easily or find the direction a sound came from. They also prefer complex to simple sounds. And finally, vision, which is the least developed of all the sensory systems. Infants have limited visual acuity, falling in the range of 20/200 to 20/400 with 20/20 being perfect vision (i.e., the higher the number in the denominator the worst vision is), but despite this, are able to track objects as they move in their visual field by 6 to 10 weeks. Contrary to the bleak picture painted so far for vision, color vision almost is at the adult functioning level.

So, as you can see, different sensory systems develop at different rates. Vision is the least developed at birth while hearing is the most developed and requires little additional growth. The others fall between these two.

This leads us to one final discussion point in terms of being motivated to detect the world – depth perception, which is the ability to perceive the world in three dimensions and to use this information to determine how much distance is between two objects. How well can infants do this? Gibson and Walk (1960) developed an apparatus and procedure to assess depth perception called the visual cliff.  They divided a table into 3 parts. The center was a solid runway, raised above the rest of the table by approximately one inch. On one side was a solid surface decorated in a checkerboard pattern and covered with a sheet of clear glass. The other side was also covered with a thick sheet of clear glass, but the checkerboard surface was not directly under the glass. It was 40 inches below instead. The infant was placed on the center runway and the mother stood on one side or the other, encouraging the infant to crawl to her. The results showed that all 6- to 10- month-old infants refused to crawl across the visual cliff or “deep” side even though they were willing to cross the “shallow” side of the table. They concluded that infants younger than four months could not perceive depth, but that sometime between 6 and 12 months the ability develops. Motivated to explore the world. To be able to explore the world, an infant must have strong enough muscles and bones. Our bones harden through a process called ossification, from the end of prenatal development and through puberty. As well, we are born with all the muscle fibers we need but an infant’s muscle is composed mostly of water and fat. Muscle composition changes over the first year of life and the gains in strength allow infants to explore their world by walking, running, jumping, crawling, and climbing.

Motor skills represent another area ripe for growth. In terms of gross motor skills, or large body movements, children can sit alone, stand alone, and crawl by 11 months; walk by 12 months; walk backwards by 18 months; and jump in place or walk up and down stairs by 24 months. In terms of fine motor skills, or small body movements which give the ability to manipulate objects, a 3-month-old can coordinate the movement of their limbs to some degree, pick up objects from off the ground such as marbles by 11 months, shows the first signs of a hand preference by 12 months, and uses a spoon to feed him or herself by 24 months.

As noted earlier, gross and fine motor skills represent the proximodistal principle with development going from near (gross motor skills) to far (fine motor skills). We can also see evidence of the cephalocaudal principle as infants use their arms to pull themselves up, roll over, and can crawl before they can walk, run, or jump.


10.2.2. Cognitive Changes Motivated to learn about the world. Swiss psychologist, Jean Piaget (1896-1980), proposed a stage theory of how cognitive development proceeds. Before we get into it, it’s important to explain a few key concepts he proposed. First, schemas are organized ways of making sense of experience. We have a schema for dog which includes the ideas of four legs, tail, and being furry. Piaget said that these schemas change due to direct experience with our environment; a process he called adaptation. This change occurs in one of two ways. First, assimilation is when new information is made to fit into existing schemas. Notice the word similar within assimilation. We interpret the world in terms of our current schemas and understand anything novel similar to this existing way of understanding experience. Second, we could use the process of accommodation. Simply, when novel information is obtained, we could update an existing schema or create a brand new one. Let’s say a child meets a cat for the first time. We might expect him/her to call the animal a dog. Why is that? The cat has four legs, a tail, and is furry. But cats and dogs are not the same and have one major difference – cats say ‘Meow’ and dogs say ‘Woof.’ So, the child will update his/her schema for dog to now include Woof and creates a new schema for cat which includes four legs, tail, furry, and Meow.

Piaget’s theory consists of four main stages which we will cover fully in due time. For now, we start with the sensorimotor stage, which is when infants focus on developing sensory abilities and learning to get around in their environment. You might say they think with their bodies and this stage lasts from birth to age 2. Have you ever noticed how young babies take genuine delight in putting everything in their mouth, but to the horror of their parents? This is evidence of the sensorimotor stage and thinking consists of coordinating sensory information with the movement of the body.

The sensorimotor stage has six substages. Occurring during the first month, the first substage focuses on schemas the infant is born with, or as we called them in Section, reflexes. These schemas are beginning to be changed via accommodation. The second stage Piaget called primary circular reactions and lasts to about 4 months of age. The child practices these basic schemas constantly and even shows the first signs of coordinating schemas from different sensory systems. The third stage is called secondary circular reactions and involves trial-and-error learning. It attempts to make events happening outside their body occur again.  This substage occurs from 4-8 months.

Substage four, occurring from 8-12 months, is called coordination of secondary schemas and involves the child trying to get what he/she wants and involves the combination of schemas to do so. This leads to tertiary circular reactions lasting from 12-18 months and is when the child begins experimenting or finding new ways of exploring their world and manipulating objects. The final stage is the beginning of mental representation, lasting up to 24 months and involves the use of symbols to represent objects. The child may use a block to represent a cell phone and have a conversation much like his father does. This involves imitation, though the behavior does not have to occur in the presence of the model, which is called deferred imitation. The child may use the block as a cell phone in the middle of the day when the father is at work, remembering what he saw the night before.

Piaget also said that during the sensorimotor stage infants acquire object permanence or knowing that an object continues to exist even though we cannot see it. During the first few months, it is basically “out of sight, out of mind” and around 2 months of age or substage 2, infants demonstrate a rudimentary understanding of an object’s permanency. The skill really shows signs of developing by 6 months of age or substage 3 and continues to grow after this, particularly up to about 12 months or substage 4. Motivated to communicate with the world. Our last topic in this section concerns language development and the infant’s desire to communicate with the world. Unfortunately, communicating in a more adultlike manner takes some time to occur and infants first display what is called prelinguistic communication, or the type of communication that occurs before language is possible. This includes sounds, facial expressions, gestures, and imitation. Children are also able to understand language before they can produce it. For example, they can follow a parent’s command before they can hold a meaningful conversation or ask ‘why’ the million times they will in childhood. The earliest form of language they demonstrate is called babbling or speechlike, but meaningless, sounds. Starting around 2-3 months of age and continuing to around one year of age, speech proceeds from simple, or saying ba ba ba ba, to complex, or saying ba da ma fa. This exemplifies hierarchical integration.

Babbling ends as first words are spoken, around 10-14 months of age, though early vocabulary is quite small and reaching up to about 400 words at 16-24 months. Children use holophrases or one word meant to represent a whole phrase such as saying ‘Up’ instead of ‘Pick me up.’ The word is often accompanied by a gesture such as lifting the arms up, to illustrate the child’s desire. First sentences are spoken around 18 months of age as vocabulary expands and children move from holophrases to telegraphic speech or when a sentence is created with the fewest number of words necessary to convey the same meaning, such as if the child says, ‘I read book’ and not ‘I read the book’ (Brown & Bellugi, 1964).

Parents are motivated to communicate with their infants in a unique way too. Using simple sentences and repetition the parent may say to the child, “You are so cute. Yes, you are. Yes, you are pretty baby. This is called motherese or can be defined as infant-directed speech.


10.2.3. Social/Personality Changes

The domain of social/personality changes is quite large, and I could write 20 pages on this alone. No worries. I will not be doing that but will focus your attention on a few developments.    Motivated by attachment. First, note that a discussion of attachment and parenting styles is critical to any coverage of social and personality development during infancy and beyond. That said, I have already discussed it in Module 9 and specifically in Section 9.6.1. for parenting styles and 9.6.2. for attachment. Please review the information on the four parenting styles Baumrind (1966) proposed and the attachment styles put forth by Ainsworth (1978) before proceeding. Motivated to be sociable. As early as 6-9 weeks after birth, children smile reliably at things that please them. These first smiles are indiscriminate, smiling at almost anything that they find amusing. This may include a favorite toy, mobile over their crib, or even another person. Smiles directed at other people are called social smiles. Like smiles directed at inanimate objects, they too are indiscriminate at first, but as the infant gets older, come to be reserved for specific people. These smiles fade away if the adult is unresponsive. Smiling is also used to communicate positive emotion and children become sensitive to the emotional expressions of others.

This indiscriminateness of their smiling ties in with how they perceive strangers. Before 6 months of age, they are not upset about the presence of people they do not know. As they learn to anticipate and predict events, strangers cause anxiety and fear. This is called stranger anxiety. Not all infants respond to strangers in the same way though. Infants with more experience show lower levels of anxiety than infants with little experience. Also, infants are less concerned about strangers who are female and those who are children. The latter probably has something to do with size as adults may seem imposing to children.

Important to stranger anxiety is the fact that children begin to figure people out or learn to detect emotion in others. They come to discern vocal expressions of emotion before visual ones, mostly due to their limited visual abilities early on. As vision improves and they get better at figuring people out, social referencing emerges around 8-9 months. When a child is faced with an uncertain circumstance or event, such as the presence of a stranger, he/she will intentionally search for information about how to act from a caregiver. So, if a stranger enters the room, an infant will look to its mother to see what her emotional reaction is. If the mother is happy or neutral, the infant will not become anxious. However, if the mother becomes distressed, the infant will respond in kind. Outside of dealing with strangers, infants will also socially reference a parent if they are given an unusual toy to play with. If the parent is pleased with the toy, the child will play with it longer than if the parent is displeased or disgusted.

Children are also motivated to engage in play. Up to about 1.5 years of age, children play alone, called solitary play. Between 1 ½ and 2 years of age, children play side-by-side, doing the same thing or similar things, but not interacting with each other. This is called parallel play. Associative play occurs next and is when two or more children interact with one another by sharing or borrowing toys or materials. They do not do the same thing though. Around 3 years of age, children engage in cooperative play which includes games that involve group imagination such as “playing house.” Finally, onlooker play is an important way for children to participate in games or activities they are not already engaged in. They simply wait for the right moment to jump in and then do so. Though play develops across time, or becomes more complex in keeping with the principle of hierarchical integration, solitary play and onlooker play do remain options children reserve for themselves. Sometimes we just want to play a game by ourselves and not have a friend split the screen with us, as in the case of video games and if they are on the couch next to you. Personality changes. Across the life span, personality undergoes numerous changes linked to key events at that developmental period. Neo-Freudian, Erik Erikson, proposed eight stages of personality development with trust vs. mistrust being the first and occurring up to 18 months. The child develops a sense of trust or mistrust based on how well their needs are met by their parents. If met, they develop a sense of hope but if not, they come to see the world as harsh and unfriendly and may have difficulties forming close bonds with others later in life (Erikson, 1963). Keep this in mind for when we talk about interpersonal attraction and relationships in Module 12.

From 18 to 36 months, Erikson said the focus was on autonomy vs. shame and doubt. The child develops independence and autonomy if parents encourage exploration and freedom. If children are restricted and overly protected, they will feel shame, self-doubt, and unhappiness (Erikson, 1964).

10.3. Preschool Years


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe physical changes during the preschool years.
  • Clarify what occurs during the preoperational stage of cognitive development.
  • Outline changes in language development during the preschool years.
  • Describe Erikson’s initiative vs. guilt stage of personality development.
  • Describe changes in the use of aggression during the preschool years.
  • Describe the development of prosocial behavior over time.


10.3.1. Physical Changes

During the preschool years, we continue growing and developing our gross and fine motor skills. Our bones become sturdier, our muscles strengthen, and our arms and legs lengthen. This allows children to run around, throw, catch, play games, hop, skip, and so on. We also see continued improvement in our sensory systems and burn off some of the baby fat from infancy.

In term of gross motor skills, a three- year-old can walk up stairs one foot at a time, can skip, and hop on one foot. Changes in fine motor skills include throwing small balls at age 3 and catching large ones by age 4. Children can also use scissors, eat with a fork and spoon, and tie one’s shoelaces.


10.3.2. Cognitive Changes Motivated to learn about the world. Piaget’s stage of cognitive development prevalent from about age 2-7 is called the preoperational stage and is characterized by acquisition of the symbolic function. There is less dependence on sensorimotor activity to learn about the world and mental reasoning emerges. Piaget said children at this stage show centration or the tendency to focus only on one aspect of a situation at the exclusion of others. Related to this, Piaget believed that children could not take another person’s point of view because they see the world only from their frame of reference, which he called egocentrism (Piaget, 1954). Children also show animistic thinking or assigning lifelike qualities to inanimate objects and have trouble with reversibility or reversing the order of operations such as they understand that 3 times 5 equals 15 but do not realize that 15 divided by 5 equals 3.

Preoperational children have also not developed conservation or understanding that an object is fundamentally the same despite changing its properties. For instance, if two glasses are filled with exactly the same amount of liquid and children confirm they are the same, and we take one glass and pour it into a flat container which stands much lower than the glass, children will choose the glass if asked which one they want. When asked why, they say that the glass has more liquid than the container. Motivated to communicate with the world. Children continue to make great gains in language during the preschool years. By age 3 they can use plurals, possessive forms of nouns, past tense, and can ask and answer complex questions. In terms of vocabulary, by the age of 6 or about first grade, they have a vocabulary of about 15,000 words (Anglin, Miller, & Wakefield, 1995). This rapid increase in vocabulary occurs courtesy of what is called fast mapping or when children ascertain the meaning of a word from how it’s used in a sentence (its context), what word it is contrasted with, and previous knowledge of words and word categories. Thus, the child can hypothesize the meaning of the word and then tests the hypothesis by immediately using it and seeing what response he/she gets for doing so. This feedback helps them determine if their hypothesis was accurate or not.


10.3.3. Social/Personality Changes Personality changes. To continue with our discussion of Erikson’s stages of personality development, initiative vs. guilt is the stage that has relevance during the preschool years. Children’s views of themselves change as they face conflicts between their desire to act independent of their parents and do things on their own, and the guilt that comes from failure when they do not succeed. They see themselves as persons in their own right and make decisions on their own (Erikson, 1968b). Motivated to be aggress. Aggression is any behavior with the intent to harm another person or damage an object. It can be physical or verbal in form and in the case of the former, declines throughout the preschool years, while the latter increases. This is of course linked to the rapid advances in vocabulary discussed in Section  The goal of aggression also changes, moving from being instrumental or gaining or causing damage to an object, to hostile  and an attempt to harm someone and/or gain an advantage. Finally, aggression moves from occurring after a conflict with parents to occurring after a conflict with one’s peers. Motivated to help others. As a child, most of us learn that we should help an old lady across the street. First responders feverishly work to free trapped miners. Soldiers risk their own safety to pull a wounded comrade off the battlefield. Firefighters and police officers rush inside a burning building to help rescue trapped residents, all while cognizant of the building’s likelihood to collapse on them. People pull over to help a stranded motorist or one involved in a car accident. These are all examples of what is called prosocial behavior. Simply put, prosocial behavior is any act we willingly make that is meant to help others, whether the ‘others’ are a group of people or just one person. The key is that these acts are voluntary and not forced upon the helper.

Prosocial behaviors can be performed for several reasons, many of which are linked to our acquisition of social norms from an early age. First, they may be performed for the reasons of perceived self-interest. A man may offer a ride to his boss not because he really wants to help the individual, but because he knows his annual review is fast approaching and is hoping to obtain a favorable critique from his boss. Or maybe the act is performed from purely altruistic intent. In this case, the boss is offered a ride because it is the right thing to do. This links to the norm of social responsibility. A final reason ties into altruism but really derives itself from selfish intent. Called reciprocal altruism, you offer the ride with the expectation that at some future time if you need help, this person will be there to help you. This is consistent with the norm of reciprocity. Philosophers might ask whether the action was an end in itself (altruism) or a means to an end (perceived self-interest or reciprocal altruism). Whatever the reason behind our decision to act, someone was helped in their time of need.

This behavior first appears between 2-3 years of age. Penner, Dovidio, Pilaiavin, & Schroder (2005) noted that temperament is an influence on the development of prosocial behavior. The authors state that children who are inclined toward positive emotionality tend to be more prosocial. The relationship for negative emotionality is not so clear cut and depends on the specific kind of negative emotions children are feeling and their ability to regulate their emotions.

Brownell, Svetloa, and Nichols (2009) presented 18- and 25-month-old children with a sharing task in which they could deliver food to themselves only or to both themselves and someone else. This made it possible for them to share without personal sacrifice as they received a snack no matter what. The recipient was a friendly adult who was either silent or vocal about her needs. Results showed that when the adult was silent, both younger and older toddlers chose randomly. When the adult was vocal about her needs, older children shared while younger ones did not. The authors conclude that children voluntarily share with others by two years of age, but this decision depends on explicit cues about another’s need or desire.

Utilizing a cohort longitudinal design to study early social relationships in children, Hay, Castle, Davies, Demertriou, and Stimson (1999) evaluated children at either 18, 24, or 30 months of age and then again 6 months later. Five key findings emerged. First, the youngest cohort of girls showed the greatest decline in sharing over time while the oldest cohort of girls showed the greatest increase. In contrast, a decline in sharing was found for the oldest cohort of boys but sharing also declined somewhat from 18-24 months of age. Second, boys seemed to use the display rule of reciprocity more often than girls. Third, girls developed a preference for same sex interaction and were more likely to share with other girls in the second session. Boys were about equally as likely to share with boys and girls. Fourth, there was a positive association between the rate of sharing and mother’s ratings of more negative personality traits. This effect was stronger for boys. Finally, two-year olds showed moderate stability in the rate of sharing and there was some consistency across domains of prosocial action. In other words, children who were found to share with peers were also likely to react to a peer’s distress with sensitivity. The authors also note that children with older siblings were less likely to share with peers six month later, possibly because a history of struggles with these siblings has caused them to be protective of their own possessions.

A child’s understanding of emotions is an important aspect of early social and moral development. To examine this further, Sy, DeMeis, and Scheinfield (2003) compared 4- and 5-year-old children’s assessment of the emotional consequences of failures to act prosocially (FAP) with their assessment of the emotional consequences for prosocial and victimization scenarios. Children listened to stories illustrating each of the social-moral situations and then rated the emotional consequences for the actor, recipient, and observing teacher and provided justification for these ratings. They found that a child’s emotion ratings for failures to act prosocially are different from their ratings of the other two situations, especially when a teacher is present or absent in the story. Specifically, children’s emotion ratings for the FAP actor were not affected by the teacher’s presence or absence, but children thought both prosocial and victimization actors would feel happier if the teacher was there. In fact, there was a general lack of agreement among preschool children regarding a teacher’s emotional response to a FAP. Children may believe it is difficult for teachers to detect a failure to act prosocially, especially if the actor fails to perform a spontaneous, compared to a requested, prosocial behavior. Hence, preschool children may not have a clear understanding of the teacher’s emotional reaction in this type of situation.

Outside of understanding emotion, it is important to examine the relationship between prosocial and aggressive motives in preschooler’s peer interactions. Persson (2005) hypothesized that prosocial altruistic behavior was inversely related to aggression, whereas prosocial nonaltruistic behavior would show a nonsignificant or positive relation to aggression. The results confirmed the first hypothesis and showed that for the second, prosocial nonaltruistic behavior was sometimes positively related to aggression. In another study, Hawley (2002) suggested that prosocial behavior may serve as a resource control strategy (through reciprocation, alliance formation, and cooperation) and found that children who were engaging in prosocial behaviors such as suggesting, offering, and helping were also the same ones engaging in taking, thwarting, and insulting. It is suggested that prosocial and coercive strategies are not separate entities in preschoolers.

How do these findings relate in other cultures? Three- to four-year-old Japanese children’s rates of reciprocity were examined during free play time and yielded several interesting findings (Fujisawa, Kutsukake, and Hasegawa, 2008). First, it was found that preschool aged children do not simply direct prosocial behavior toward those with whom they play often, but to those for whom they perceive prosocial behavior. Second, when children did reciprocate their partner’s prosocial behavior, they sometimes used a different behavior which may be more appropriate for the partner facing a different situation. Third, they reciprocated with their friends in a more balanced fashion than they did with nonfriends. Fourth, there was no difference between friends and nonfriends in helping behavior, indicating that children may help peers regardless of friendship status.

Trommsdorff, Friedlemier, and Mayer (2007) tested the relationships between sympathy/distress and prosocial behavior with 212 five-year-old children from two Western (Israel and Germany) and two non-Western (Malaysia and Indonesia) cultures. The former two represented individualistic-oriented and the latter two social-oriented cultures. Children played a “balloon game” in which two colored balloons were changed into balloon dolls. During the interaction, their play partner secretly popped the balloon, expressed sadness about her balloon popping, and placed her hands in her face. The play partner remained in this state for approximately 2 minutes. Raters coded the child’s emotional reactions and prosocial behavior to the play partner from the time of the balloon’s popping to when the sadness period ended.  Three emotional reactions were assessed – sympathy, other-focused distress, and self-focused distress.

Children from the two Western cultures expressed more prosocial behavior compared to their counterparts from the non-Western cultures. It may be that children from Indonesia and Malaysia are raised to respect hierarchical relations and so refrain from initiating prosocial behavior, especially when face saving values are implied. The authors note that ignoring the mishap of another person may be more valued than helping the person and risking them losing face. Though this may be a plausible explanation, they further note that it is unclear whether face saving strategies have been developed by this age.

As for other-focused distress, it was relatively high among all samples with no apparent cultural differences. Most children felt uneasy and did not shift their attention away from the adult victim. Cross-cultural differences did emerge for self-focused distress with the children from the two social-oriented cultures showing higher rates than children from two individual-oriented cultures. Finally, sympathy proved to be the best predictor of prosocial behavior with self-focused distress having a weak, negative relation and other-focused distress having no significant effect at all.

10.4. Middle Childhood


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe physical changes during middle childhood.
  • Clarify what gains the child makes in terms of their cognitive development.
  • Clarify what gains the child makes in terms of their language development.
  • Describe changes in memory in middle childhood.
  • Describe changes in personality in middle childhood.
  • Outline changes in self-concept in middle childhood.
  • Describe how aggression is expressed in middle childhood.


10.4.1. Physical Changes

During middle childhood children continue to make gains in their gross motor skills. They become better at riding a bike, ice skating, swimming, and skipping. In terms of fine motor skills, they can write, draw, tie their shoes, and fasten buttons.

Though children are typically healthy at this time, they are at risk for certain conditions that can affect their health and wellness. These include developmental and behavioral disorders, maltreatment, asthma, unintentional injuries, and obesity (See www.healthypeople.gov for more information). Obesity, defined as having a body mass index or BMI of 30 or higher, is a growing problem for both adults and children. Obesity is contrasted with overweight which is defined as a BMI of 25-29.9, and a healthy weight is having a BMI of 18.5-29.9. Obesity can adversely affect every system in the child’s body and hormones controlling blood sugar and puberty. Maybe more important, it can have a heavy emotional and social toll. The likelihood of being overweight or obese in adulthood is greater when the child is overweight or obese and this raises the risk for disease and disability at later stages of life (See  https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/obesity-prevention-source/obesity-trends/global-obesity-trends-in-children/ for more details).


10.4.2. Cognitive Changes Motivated to learn about the world. Piaget’s third stage of cognitive development is concrete operations. Children now understand conservation, reversibility, and cause and effect but their thinking is still grounded in concrete experiences and concepts. They can now decenter or take multiple aspects of a situation into account due to them being less egocentric. Motivated to communicate with the world. A child’s vocabulary grows to almost 60,000 words by the end of fifth grade. They also begin to use passive voice and conditional sentences with greater frequency. Children can tell stories, give directions, and stick to a topic when involved in a conversation. Motivated to make efficient use of memory. Children in middle childhood show great gains in their short-term memory but also show an understanding about the processes that underlie memory, allowing them to exert some control. This is called metamemory and leads to the development of control strategies or tactics used to improve memory. Examples  include, using rote rehearsal or saying something repeatedly to commit it to long term memory. Also, elaborative rehearsal is when we link new knowledge to existing knowledge. Chunking is the process of grouping together related items so that long lists are reduced to something more manageable. Finally, mnemonics are memory aides that could include a phrase or short song to help us remember something difficult. For instance, to remember the order of the planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto) I was taught the following: Mary Very Early Made Joe Some Unusually Nice Pie. Each of the first letters in the phrase indicated which planet came next. It works. I still remember the order some 30 years after learning it in elementary school.

We also begin to engage in metacognition or thinking about our thinking. We attempt to assess our understanding and performance which makes us better students. How so? We figure out what our strengths and weaknesses are and determine what the limits of our knowledge are.


10.4.3. Social/Personality Changes Personality changes. Erikson’s fourth stage of development occurring during middle childhood is industry vs. inferiority. At this time, children undergo a major change in their life – they start school. They are trying to meet the demands placed on them by more than just parents – by teachers, school administrators, and their peers. This is maybe the first major time in the child’s life that environmental forces take on a prominent role and exert demands on them. Children try to master what they are presented in school and make a place for themselves in their social world. Success at this stage brings about feelings of mastery and proficiency and fosters a sense of competence;  failure leads to feelings of failure and inadequacy and kids may withdraw from both academic pursuits and interactions with peers. Motivated by the self. Self-concept undergoes three major changes during middle childhood. First, in terms of their self-understanding, children come to realize they can be good at some things and bad at others. Children begin to see themselves less in terms of physical attributes, such as being a fast runner or good at catching, and more in terms of psychological traits such as dependable, trustworthy, smart, and funny. Their view becomes less simple and more complex, in keeping with the principle of hierarchical integration.

Their self-concept also differentiates. Instead of a general self-concept, it breaks down to four subtypes – academic, social, emotional, and physical. Their academic self-concept may be high but physical low if they are not athletically inclined. Also, their overall academic self-concept may be positive, and they may feel good about themselves in history, math, and science, but have a poor self-concept in English. Or maybe they like their physical ability but not their physical appearance which will affect their physical self-concept. It is important to note that general self-concept is still there and our overall view of ourselves is based on the four subtypes.

Finally, we begin to make a social comparison (Festinger, 1954). Children now realize they are good at some things and bad at others. But how do they know what they are good or bad at? Simply, children evaluate whether their behavior, abilities, expertise, and opinions are appropriate or meet certain standards by comparing them to those of others. Children look to others who are like them when they cannot objectively evaluate their ability. When self-esteem is at stake, they tend to compare themselves to others who are obviously less competent or successful, called a downward social comparison. As such, the child comes out on top and preserve the image of ourselves as successful. It should be noted we maintain this tendency throughout life. Motivated to engage in moral behavior. Another major development across childhood, from infancy to adolescence, is the desire to act morally and in keeping with the standards of our society. Hence, a discussion of moral development is relevant here, but was previously discussed in Module 9, Section 9.4.2. Be sure you review the stage theory presented by Lawrence Kohlberg (1964). Motivated to aggress. It was generally believed that boys are more aggressive than girls; recent research has shown that this is true, but in relation to physical aggression only. Girls, on the other hand, tend to use relational aggression or any acts which attempt to hurt another person’s self-esteem or relationships with others. As humans are social beings and express a need for affiliation, ostracism is an effective tool and even the mere threat of it can cause emotional pain. Gossip is another effective tool used under relational aggression. Retaliatory aggression, or getting back at someone for an indiscretion committed against you, also increases during middle childhood and for both boys and girls.

10.5. Adolescence


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe physical changes and puberty during adolescence.
  • Explain changes in cognitive development during adolescence.
  • List and explain changes in social and personality development during adolescence.


10.5.1. Physical Changes Puberty. Adolescence is the period when the sexual organs mature. Consider the independence of systems principle of development. As we have seen, the nervous system gains are the greatest early in childhood, and in particular the first two years of life. In terms of the reproductive system, most of the development does not occur until adolescence, lasting from about age 12 to 20. So, these two systems develop at different rates and puberty is the term we use for when a person gains reproductive capability. Possibly the earliest sign of puberty is the growth spurt that begins around age 11 and peaks at age 13 or 14 for boys and begins around age 9 and peaks at 11.5 years for girls. Puberty officially begins when the pituitary gland signals other glands in the endocrine system to begin secreting the sex hormones androgen for males and estrogen for females.

We classify the changes during puberty as either primary or secondary sex characteristics. Primary sex characteristics involve structures needed for reproduction to include the vagina, penis, uterus, ovaries, and testes. Secondary sex characteristics aid in distinguishing males from females but are not directly needed for reproduction. They include changes in a boy’s voice pitch, growth of facial and pubic hair, and the enlargement of breasts. In girls, the first menstruation is called menarche and occurs between 11 and 15 years of age; boys experience spermarche, or the first ejaculation, which occurs around age 13.

What might be the consequences of early or late maturation for boys and girls? First, the onset of puberty has become earlier over the past three decades and obesity in children may be a major contributor to the timing of puberty (Kaplowitz, 2008). Earlier menarche in girls has been linked to physical issues to include increased risk of adult obesity, breast cancer, and type 2 diabetes (Ahmded, Ong, Dungler, 2009) and getting in trouble in school, higher rates of depression (Hamlat et al., 2014), being at higher risk for adolescent dating abuse (Chen, Rothman, & Jaffee, 2017), and involvement with delinquent peer groups. For boys, earlier development has been found to be associated with a more positive body image and greater success with establishing friendships and school performance. Interestingly, one study found that harsh parenting was positively associated with aggressive behavior for early maturing teens than for average or late maturing teens. For early maturing teens only, positive parenting was inversely related to aggressive behavior (Chen & Raine, 2018). Motivated to be thin. Eating disorders are very serious, yet relatively common mental health disorders, particularly in the Western society where there is a heavy emphasis on thinness and physical appearance. In fact, 13% of adolescents will be diagnosed with at least one eating disorder by their 20th birthday (Stice, Marti, & Rohde, 2013). Furthermore, a large number of adolescents will engage in significant disordered eating behaviors just below the clinical threshold (Culbert, Burt, McGue, Iacono & Klump, 2009). Eating disorders take on two main forms during adolescence – anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa.

Anorexia nervosa typically presents in mid-teenage years; however, there is a noticeable trend of younger girls- as young as 8 years old- who exhibit extreme dietary restrictive behaviors. While males are not immune from this disorder, the number of females diagnosed each year is overwhelmingly larger than that of males. The onset of disorder typically begins with mild dietary restrictions- eliminating carbs, or specific fatty foods. As weight gain is prevented, the dietary restrictions progress to more severe restrictions-e.g., under 500 calories/day.  The rapid drop in weight often comes with psychological disturbances such as irritability, lability of mood, impaired concentration, and anxiety symptoms to name a few.

Bulimia nervosa typically presents later in development- late adolescence or early adulthood. Like anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa initially presents with mild restrictive dietary behaviors; however, episodes of binge eating interrupt the dietary restriction, causing body weight to rise around normal levels. In response to weight gain, patients then begin to engage in compensatory behaviors or purging episodes to reduce body weight. This cycle of restriction, binge eating, and caloric reduction often occurs for years prior to seeking help.

For more information on eating disorders, please visit the following websites:


10.5.2. Cognitive Changes Motivated to learn about the world. Piaget’s fourth and final stage of cognitive development is formal operations which begins in adolescence and lasts into adulthood. Teens become capable of abstract thinking and understand that ideas can be compared and classified, just as objects can. They search systematically for answers to questions/problems that they experience. Piaget said there are two major developments at this time. First, propositional thought is when teens gain the ability to examine the logic of verbal statements without referring to real world situations. This leads to many debates with their parents over the morality of rules and curfews. Second, hypothetico-deductive reasoning is the use of the scientific method to test theories with hypotheses. It begins with a general theory of all possible factors that could affect the outcome and from them, deduces specific hypotheses about what may happen. These hypotheses are then tested in an orderly fashion to see which ones hold up in the real world. Motivated by erroneous reasoning. Elkind (1967) stated that there were two fallacies adolescents make when reasoning which were linked to a re-emergence of egocentric thought at this time. The first fallacy is the imaginary audience which is the tendency of teenagers to feel that they are constantly being observed by others or that people are always judging them on appearance and behavior. This leads to self-consciousness, concern about personal appearance, and showing off. The second fallacy is the personal fable or a teen’s unrealistic sense of their own uniqueness. A teenager may feel that others couldn’t possibly understand the love that the teenager feels toward their boy or girlfriend because their love is so unique and special. The personal fable also leads to a feeling of invulnerability which can cause impulsive and dangerous behaviors such as unprotected sex, consuming excessive amounts of alcohol, illicit drug use, and reckless driving.


10.5.3. Social/Personality Changes Personality changes. Erikson’s fifth stage is identity vs. role confusion (Erikson, 1963, 1964, 1968a). During this time teens try and figure out what is unique and distinct about themselves and what their strengths and weaknesses are. They do this by narrowing and making choices about their personal, occupational, sexual, and political commitments. If successful, teens learn what their unique capabilities are and believe in them and develop an accurate sense of who they are. If they fail, teens may adopt socially unacceptable ways of expressing what they do not want to be and may have difficulty forming and maintaining long-lasting close personal relationships.

James Marcia (1980) saw identity as a combination of crisis and commitment. He said that the identity crisis is a period when teens choose between various alternatives presented to them such as where to go to college, which religion they will follow, or which political party they will support. They are committed when they settle on a course of action and invest resources into it. He said four possible outcomes of the identity crisis are possible. First, identity achievement is when the person goes through the crisis and comes to a commitment. Second, identity foreclosure is when the teen does not go through a crisis but comes out with a commitment. These are teens who prematurely settle on an identity that others provide for them, such as when the family pushes the teen into the family business or into the military since many family members before them had served proudly. Third is what Marcia called the moratorium or going through a crisis but not arriving at a commitment. These teens are actively exploring various role options but have not committed to any of them. Finally, identity diffusion occurs when there is no crisis or commitment. These teens avoid considering role options in any conscious way and undergo no crisis and form no commitment. They may take time off before dealing with the realities of adulthood. Motivated by a need for autonomy. As teens become older, they feel more like separate individuals, and strive to achieve autonomy and an egalitarian relationship. Autonomy is defined as independence and a sense of control over one’s life. Their relationship with parents becomes more balanced in terms of power and influence, or it becomes egalitarian. They come to see their parents in less idealized terms. Think about the quote from the movie, Silent Hill: “Mother is god in the eyes of the child.”  This is true early on but changes during adolescence as teens recognize their parent’s faults. They may hold similar attitudes about social and political issues, but they often hold different views on matters of personal taste (i.e., music, clothes, etc.). Despite their request for autonomy and independence, most teens have deep love, affection, and respect for their parents. They also spend about the same amount of time with their parents that they did during childhood. Motivated by a need for affiliation. The social world of an adolescent is relatively complex. A teen’s popularity can fall into one of four categories, depending on the opinions of his or her peers. Popularity is related to differences in status, behavior and adjustment. Popular teens are liked by most other teens while controversial teens are like by some and disliked by others. Rejected teens are uniformly disliked by all while neglected teens are neither liked nor disliked but mostly ignored by their peers.

In addition to the categories, popularity is viewed as a teen having high or low status. High status teens have more close friends, disclose more personal details to others, are aware of their popularity, are involved in more extracurricular activities, and participate in activities with their peers more often. By comparison, low status teens are the opposite, having fewer friends, seeing themselves as less popular, feel lonely more often, and engage in less social activities and have less contact with the opposite sex. In terms of the four categories, popular and controversial are regarded to be high status while rejected and neglected are low status.

10.6. Adulthood


Section Learning Objectives

  • Describe physical changes across adulthood.
  • Describe changes in our cognitive abilities across adulthood.
  • Outline major developments in personality and social development in adulthood.


Though we are covering adulthood in one section, please be advised that it occurs in three stages: early adulthood from 20-40, middle adulthood from 40-retirement, and late adulthood from retirement to death.


10.6.1. Physical Changes Early adulthood. Early adulthood is the only period of development in which there is growth, stability, and change. Physical maturation is generally completed by early adulthood and young adults tend to be healthy, vigorous, and energetic. Age related changes, called senescence, occur later in early adulthood but are not obvious and usually do not impact performance. They occur naturally, representing primary aging, or are affected by our environment, health-related behaviors, and disease, called secondary aging. Middle adulthood. As we enter middle adulthood, we become more aware of the changes our body is going through, though most are not that serious and generally do not affect our day-to-day affairs. For some though, the changes are impactful. Consider individuals whose self-image is tied to their physical attributes such as athletes who rely on their physical abilities and models who rely on their looks for their careers. Changes typically involve a decrease in strength, presbyopia or the loss of near vision, decline in visual acuity due to changes in the shape of the lens and loss of elasticity, increase in reaction time due to changes in how fast the nervous system processes nerve impulses, and presbycusis or not being able to hear high-pitched, high-frequency sounds. Women also experience menopause, or the cessation of monthly menstrual cycles. Late adulthood. The declines that started in late early adulthood (i.e. the 30s) continue into late adulthood. One noticeable change occurs in taste and smell as the number of taste buds decrease and the olfactory bulb which processes smells begins to shrivel. This results in a decline in the quality of life for many elderly people as food they once enjoyed no longer tastes good.


10.6.2. Cognitive Changes Postformal thought. Although Piaget stated that formal operations ran from adolescence through adulthood, other researchers have proposed that his final stage missed out on other types of thinking that adults do. First, Sinnott (1998) proposed postformal thought or realizing that more than one answer can be correct. What works for one person, may not work for another. Second, Basseches (2005, 1989, 1975) proposed what he called dialectical reasoning or when an adult considers the validity of conflicting viewpoints by examining the evidence in support of and against each argument. From this analysis, the individual would make a decision but also realize that the answer may not be the best one in the future or for another person. Motivated to remember. Memory is relatively stable from adolescence into early adulthood but one change that does occur is a steady decline in working memory capacity in the 20s. Middle-aged adults are aware of this change and use cues to help remind themselves what they need to do. In late adulthood, short-term memory remains stable but working memory continues to decline. Prospective memory, or remembering to do tasks in the future, such as taking medications, also shows a decline. What accounts for such trends? The use of prescription drugs could hinder memory, especially if there are unseen interactions between various medications. Also, when we retire from our jobs we are not faced with as many intellectual challenges such as problem solving, resolving conflicts, or learning new skills, and are not using our memory as much by accessing semantic and procedural memories. Our motivation may also be lower, especially if we do not have grandkids who express interest in our stories about the good old days. And finally, brain and body deterioration play their role.


10.6.3. Social/Personality Changes Early adulthood. The highlight of early adulthood is forming a stable romantic relationship, and this led Erikson to identify intimacy vs. isolation as our personality challenge at this time. He said intimacy was composed of three parts: selflessness or sacrificing our needs for another, sexuality or the experience of joint pleasure, and deep devotion or fusing our identity with that of another. If we are successful at this stage, we are able to form relationships with others on physical, emotional, and intellectual levels but if we are not, we may feel lonely and isolated and be fearful of relationships with others.

We also have children during this time. Having children helps us to be seen as mature and responsible, is stimulating, provides us with someone to carry on our name after death, gives a sense of accomplishment as we help our children grow, and provides us a way to both give and receive love and affection. The cons of having children include the loss of sleep, loss of freedom, financial strain, loss of privacy, reduced time to spend with our significant other, interfering with employment opportunities for both mother and father, and of course, changing diapers.

Finally, we choose a job during this time. Ginzberg (1972) said that people move through a sequence of three stages as they choose their career. The fantasy period lasts until about age 11 and is when we make our choice based on what sounds appealing. We might want to become an astronaut, dragon slayer, or police officer. The tentative period occurs during adolescence and is when we think more practically about the requirements of various jobs and how compatible our own interests and abilities are with them. Finally, the realistic period occurs in early adulthood, and we now experience career options either through actual experience or training. Our choices are narrowed down at this point too. Our career/job is very important as part of our personal identity is linked to it. Our friends, social activities, and even mating partners can come from the pool of people we work with. If we enjoy going to work because we really enjoy our job and see it as rewarding, then we have an intrinsic motivation for working. If we work simply for a paycheck or to fulfill our power need (see Module 8) then we have extrinsic motivation for working. Please note that work will be important in late adulthood as we discuss retirement. Middle adulthood. Erikson’s 7th stage of personality development is generativity vs. stagnation. As we begin to experience additional and more pronounced physical declines, we realize that we will not live forever. As such, we want to leave something behind, and parenthood is the most common route to generativity. If we become parents, we experience creativity and renewal but if we do not, we may sink into complacency and selfishness.

Levinson (1986) proposed his seasons of life theory to account for changes at home, work, and other locations in adulthood. First, he said that we experience a midlife transition or when we assess the past and create new goals for the future. Second, he proposed a midlife crisis which is when an individual may discover he or she no longer obtains satisfaction from their job or personal life and attempts to make drastic changes. So, does research support the existence of a midlife crisis? In general, research does not support such a development (Lawrence, 1980) though Hollywood has really enjoyed portraying it in movies, hence my need to address the issue.

A few changes in family life need to be mentioned too. First, many parents have what are called boomerang children or children who leave home and come back due to an inability to make ends meet or find a job. Some individuals in middle adulthood also discover that they must care for their aging parents, all while having children at home still. As such, they have been termed the sandwich generation.

Finally, middle adults become grandparents at some point; a clear sign of aging. This is met with excitement, especially if they had difficulty dealing with their child(ren) leaving home, called the empty nest syndrome. As there are parenting styles, there are grandparenting styles. First, the involved style is actively engaged in grandparenting and has influence over their grandchildren’s lives. The companionate style is more relaxed and acts as supporters or buddies to their grandchildren. Finally, the remote style is marked by being detached and distant,  showing little interest in their grandchildren. Late adulthood. In late adulthood we undergo a life review and prepare for death. Erikson called this ego integrity vs. despair. We look back over our life, evaluate it, and come to terms with the decisions we made. We also strive for wisdom, spiritual tranquility, and acceptance of our life. If the person is successful at this stage, he/she will experience a sense of satisfaction and accomplishment called integrity, feel that they have realized and fulfilled the possibilities that have come their way in life, and have few regrets. If unsuccessful, they may feel dissatisfied with life; believe they had missed opportunities and not accomplished what they wanted; and become unhappy, depressed, angry, or despondent over what they have failed to do with their life. In other words, the person will despair.

Peck (1968) suggested that personality development in late adulthood is affected by three developmental tasks or challenges. First, redefinition of self vs. preoccupation with work-role says that we must redefine ourselves in a way not related to our job/career. This challenge accounts for the fact that those who were intrinsically motivated by their job may have problems adapting to retirement. Second, body transcendence vs. body preoccupation says that we must cope with the physical changes associated with aging. Finally, ego transcendence vs. ego preoccupation states that we must come to grips with our death by realizing that it is inevitable and that we have made positive contributions to society.

So how do we successfully age? Activity theory says that those who stay active in their social world will age better than those who disengage or withdraw. Selective optimization says that we should concentrate on particular skill areas to compensate for losses in other areas. So, instead of running three miles every day, we may be able to ride a bike, swim, or walk on a track instead. Finally, continuity theory says that people need to maintain their desired level of involvement in society to maximize their sense of well-being and self-esteem. Instead of going to Bingo five nights a week now, we might go three nights instead.

Death and dying are a reality no matter what. Kubler-Ross (1969) said we go through five stages beginning with denial or refusing to believe that death is approaching. Next comes anger or when we express resentment toward those who will live and can fulfill their dreams. Bargaining involves trying to buy time from doctors, family members, clergy members, or God. Depression is the fourth stage and occurs when the person realizes their time is running out. Finally, is acceptance or coming to terms with their fate.

Module Recap

That’s it. I provided you with a brief overview of developments that occur during the life span and how they affect motivated behavior. We will return to some of these issues later in the book and have discussed others earlier. For instance, in Module 12 we will discuss interpersonal attraction which relates to issues concerning intimacy vs. isolation. I provided a relatively thorough overview of prosocial behavior which will come up in Module 15. Module 13 covers cognition and memory, which was discussed in relation to each period of development. Biological issues discussed in this module will come up again in Module 14. We also discussed personality issues (covered in Module 7), psychological needs (discussed in Module 8 and again in 12), health issues during life (Module 11), and the effect of stress (Module 6). As you can see, there is quite a lot of overlap in what we covered in Module 10 and what we will cover, or have covered, in other places in this book. And there are other connections that can be made. I hope you are seeing how what you learned in one class relates to content from other classes. Psychology really is a giant puzzle, and each content area represents one piece. To fully understand people, you have to take something from each area.

Our discussion in Part IV now turns to health and wellness and then group processes.

2nd edition


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Module 10: Motivation across the Lifespan by Lee William Daffin Jr. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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