What Is Developmental Psychology?

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on May 31, 2022
4 min read

From birth to death, people are learning, growing, and changing, and developmental psychologists try to understand the "why" and "how" behind the changes people undergo. Developmental psychology is a field of study that focuses on people's change and growth across their lifespan — how people develop physically, socially, mentally, and emotionally over time. 

Developmental psychology aims to answer questions about human development. 

Common developmental psychology questions concern:

Individual Differences

The heart of developmental psychology is understanding why people are the way they are. Developmental psychology tries to unravel the mystery of individuality, seeking answers to questions such as:

  • Why do people have so much individual variation even though 99.9% of their DNA is identical? 
  • Why do people with similar backgrounds and experiences have different habits, health outcomes, and preferences? 
  • How do our distinct personalities develop? 
  • What makes people make different choices? 

Nature vs. Nurture

Developmental psychologists study what drives human development or behavior, and much of that study is focused on the idea of nature vs. nurture, or the argument about whether human behavior is determined by genetics, environment, or both. 

Developmental psychologists try to answer the question of how our behavior and development are affected by internal and external factors. Researchers who believe nature is responsible for human actions are called nativists, and those who believe our environment is responsible are called empiricists

Modern sciences like epigenetics — the idea that behavior and environment affect how your genes express themselves — often combine the two concepts. 

Continuity vs. Discontinuity 

Developmental psychology grapples with the question of continuity — the idea that human development is a slow and steady process — or of discontinuity — the idea that humans develop in distinct stages and leap forward. 

Developmental psychologists aim to answer questions of continuity vs. discontinuity, such as:

  • Can humans contribute to their own development through practice? 
  • Is childhood more important to development than events that occur later? 
  • How much potential for change do people have? 

Developmental psychology has three goals: to describe, explain, and optimize human development. 

Developmental psychologists categorize development in two ways:

Normative Development

Normative development is the developmental pattern that is typical for most people. For example, a baby that hits developmental milestones consistently within the expected range is experiencing normative development. 

Idiographic Development

Idiographic development describes individual variations outside of the range of normative development.

Developmental psychologists aim to understand what normative development looks like for humans and how and why individual development may differ from what's typically expected. Developmental psychologists hope to use this understanding to optimize human development, helping all people reach their full potential. 

Developmental psychology is a highly research-oriented field, but developmental psychologists are employed in a wide variety of work. Developmental psychologists may:

  • Identify developmental delays in children
  • Help parents develop secure attachments with their children
  • Research how skills are acquired
  • Help elderly adults cope with biological and social changes associated with aging
  • Work with government agencies to guide the implementation of social programs

A developmental psychologist may work in a variety of settings, including:

  • Universities
  • Government agencies
  • Schools
  • Clinics
  • Assisted-living facilities

Developmental psychologists typically obtain a doctorate in developmental psychology. The most common educational path is a bachelor's degree in psychology, followed by a master's degree and then a doctorate, though intensive developmental psychology Ph.D. programs that directly follow a bachelor's degree are another option for students interested in a faster, more rigorous program.

Entry-level positions, like research assistant positions, can help you gain experience in developmental psychology while pursuing higher education. 

What Does a Developmental Psychologist Make?

The median wage for psychologists in 2021 is $81,040 annually.

Developmental psychology is a relatively new field, created after the industrial revolution emphasized the need for an educated workforce. Developmental psychology originally studied how children learned and retained information. These studies were used to improve education. 

Developmental psychology is also historically intertwined with evolutionary and biological studies. Biologist Charles Darwin published the first study of developmental psychology, a paper discussing scientific observations about his own infant son, and physiologist Wilhelm Preyer is often credited with founding developmental psychology as a distinct field of study with the publication of his book The Mind of a Child. In his book, Preyer scientifically documents the development of his own daughter from birth to age two and a half. 

Developmental psychology that focuses on how adults grow and change is an even more recent specialization, which emerged in the mid-20th century. As modern medical science has allowed more people to live to old age, researchers have observed that human development continues beyond childhood and expanded the field to study adults and the elderly. 

Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson, and John Bowlby all published theories about development during this period that continue to influence the field of developmental psychology today, including Piaget's four stages of cognitive development and Erikson's eight stages of psychosocial development