Tuesday, 9 December 2014

What do theories of psychological development need to explain?

In her book, Theories of developmental psychology, Miller notes that an ideal theory of psychological development aims at forming a coherent story from the onset of infancy to old age (Miller, 2002).  In order to form such a story, Miller argues that four key questions influence how we ‘build’ theories of human development, these are: The question concerning the basic nature of humans; whether development is a qualitative or quantitative process; how nature and nurture combine and drive development; and finally the nature of what develops itself.  This essay will compare Freud’s theory of psycho-sexual development with evolutionary theory and analyse how both theories attempt to explain psychological development in light of Miller’s four points, and will conclude with a brief evaluation of them before suggesting what need to explain further.


Freud’s central thesis of human development hinges on what he called ‘a sort of economics of nervous energy’ (Jones, 1953).  For Freud, much of the developmental process is largely determined by the desires of the libido, the energy of Eros, or sexual instinct, that constitutes part of an inherent biological drive that inadvertently cries out to our psyche for immediate satisfaction.  These inner desires form the largest part of our unconscious mind known as the Id, which form the darkest ‘inaccessible part of our personality’ (Freud, 1933a).  Since young infants have not fully developed a conscious appreciation of the world, through maturity they learn to deal with their sexual energies by controlling the Id through parental training and subsequent development of the ego.  Freud proposed a stage theory of development to show how, at various stages in a human’s life, sexual energy is directed to a certain part of our body (mouth, anus, phallic, genital), and reasoned that human development depended on how we resolve conflict within these areas.  For example, Freud proposed that the libidinal energy first invested itself during infancy in the oral erogenous zone (Miller, 2011) and claimed that fixations can occur if the preferred object such as the nipple is either absent or withdrawn early which can result in detrimental development.  How infants learn to deal with conflicts such as these therefore determines the basis of personality expressed later through the unconscious. 

Freud’s theory attempts to explain development through a series of disturbances hinged on the notion of sexual energy that targets different body parts.  Personality development will occur whether or not we have successfully passed each conflict as determined by its corresponding stage, so we can only develop in ‘degrees’ of detriment.  There is no such thing as ‘normal’ development since, according to Freud, our unconscious mind still has the ability to leak out repressed thoughts and feelings from the past even if each stage of development has been successfully passed.  Problems only occur when we have not learned to handle them sufficiently, resulting in anxiety related problems, stress, and of course Freud’s favorite, neurotic and compulsive disorders.  Thus Freud sees the nature of human beings as an organism whose spends their lifetime trying to balance out conflicting thoughts of unconscious sexual drives from an early age.

Freud’s assumption that development is stage-like implies that human development is predominately qualitative since the nature of sexual energy changes from location to location within the body.  Indeed, the notion that infants come to learn to control these impulses implies that Freud’s conception of ego and superego strengthens over time.  This indicates a quantitative change.  So Freud’s theory explains that the nature of development is both qualitative and quantitative.

Freud’s position on the question concerning nature versus nurture is very much inline with modern day theories; namely, that their exists a complex interaction between our biological predispositions and the environment.  This interaction is expressed in the notion of biological sexual energy being tamed by external factors, predominately parental rules.  The result of this interaction is expressed through degrees of anxiety related behaviour such as neurosis and obsessive compulsive disorder.  Though Freud expressed interaction taking place between biology and the environment, his theory does little to explain the intricate mechanisms of how and why this interaction takes place.  This is no fault of Freud per se, since he took no real scientific interest in this area.

The question concerning the exact nature of what is developed in Freud’s theory is largely dependent on the ‘mind’.  Freud argued that over time, humans develop the Id, ego and superego (in that order) to tackle the inherent sexual conflicts driven by the Id and the Oedipus complex (infants desire for their mother).  Thus what is primarily developed according to Freud is ones emotional states and their associated thought patterns (Miller, 2011).


The ethological view of human development, like Freud’s theory, emphasizes the importance of genetic predispositions but unlike Freud’s theory, this view takes into consideration that such genetic predispositions forms the basis of behaviour that are a product of thousands of years worth of evolution.  As a result, certain behavioral traits observed in humans, as well as in many other animal species, are selected because such behaviours are assumed to promote the chances of that species survival.  In terms of development then, the theory aims to explain that behavioral traits, such as the attachment process between infant and mother, carries an intrinsic value that not only sets the groundwork for healthy development later, but suggests that such behaviours will increase the chances of survival and hence reproduction of the genes.  In light of the ethological approach, attachment theory (Bowlby, 1969) suggests that infants are wired, or pre-programmed, to seek out a secure attachment to their primary carer for general protection food and comfort.  The mother, in theory at least, is also programmed to respond to the child’s needs which results in a harmonious attachment between infant and mother that aides future development and promotes the infants chances of survival.

How the theory attempts to explain the basic nature of human beings is largely dependent on what aspect of evolutionary theory one approaches.  For example, if one takes Bowlby’s idea that humans are animals that constantly seeks a parent or mate, then this view implies that humans are an organismic entity (similar to Freud’s theory).  Where as on the other hand, Lorenz saw the basic nature of humans as more of an automatic response to stimuli as seen in his study of imprinting with goslings.  Despite these contrasting views, any evolutionary theory of human development must take into account the importance of our ancestral past.  Since what we are is the result of thousands or even millions of years of constant adaptation to our environment, one can conclude that our basic nature of humans is no different to the basic nature of other animals.

Whereas Freud postulated that human development rests on the successful completion of stages, evolutionary theory rejects any form of stage development.  But this doesn't imply that development is not a qualitative process, since one can argue that from our ancestral past to modern day man behaviours have certainly changed.  Whether this change is continuous in the sense of making progress, however, is impossible to answer.  Regardless of this, behavioral changes, in one sense or another, appears to have occurred for better or worse. 

As with Freud’s theory, evolutionary theory also explains behavioral development in terms of complex interactions between genetic predispositions and environmental stimuli.  What appears to be a complex issue, however, is how this theory explains such an intricate interaction.  Is it the case that environmental stimuli somehow select and dictate how genetic mutations occur?  Or does the theory place emphasis on the genotype as the entity that predominately uses the environment to create such change?  One might conclude that behavioral changes constitute an equal share of the variance between genotype and the environment, but the theory would still need to explain in detail how this share of the variance explains subsequent development.  However this interaction takes place, the result seems to indicate that change in both behaviour and thought has taken place over thousands of years.

There is great difficulty in determining what exactly develops according the evolutionary theory.  On the one hand, one can suggest that it is the genotype, with its propensity for interacting with the environment, that is the thing that develops.  This view would give us a very general view of development since it would account for all species (Miller, 2002).  However, on the other hand it would explain near enough nothing when it comes to specie-specific development.  In which case the question posed is: what develops in terms of the human species alone?  This can be a hard question to answer since the theory would need to take into account important individual differences within humans of all societies and cultural backgrounds.  Perhaps a rough answer is to suggest that what develops isn’t resolved to a single entity or thing, but rather a whole range of things that encompass our evolutionary past, our current environment, as well as genetic predispositions.

To conclude, both theories share a number of similarities – for example the genetic predispositions and view that nature and nurture is one of interaction.  Indeed, with Freud’s theory of biological drives and sex, one can argue that he too borrowed heavily from evolutionary theory.  However, if one is to ask what does Freud’s theory need to explain, the answer is that the theory needs a proper explanation how and why our so called primitive thoughts clash with social norms and parental teachings, and indeed, why this leads on to obsessive, neurotic, or anxious behaviour.  On the other hand, what evolutionary theory needs to explain is how and why such small intricate steps over thousands of years seem to generate behavioral change in the first place.  Indeed, one answer suggests an interaction between nature and nurture.  But, as previously mentioned, the theory would need to explain coherently the degree of variance between our genotypes and the environment.


Bowlby. J (1969). Attachment. Attachment and Loss. Vol. I. London: Hogarth

Sigmund Freud, New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis[1933] (Penguin Freud Library 2) p. 105-6

Jones, E. (1953). The life and work of Sigmund Freud. Vol I, the formative years and the great discoveries 1856-1900. New York: Basic books

Miller, P. (2002).  Theories of developmental psychology. New York: Worth Publishers

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