The 6 Most Important Theories on Development

August 18, 2019

Development psychology is the study of humans over all their stages of life. It looks at how cognition develops and how behavior changes over time. It is an interesting discipline that contributes a wealth of knowledge to the field of applied psychology. We think the best way to understand it without getting confused is to take a look at the six most important theories on development.

Explaining the information that we currently have thanks to development psychology requires discussing some ideas that have since become obsolete. However, it is important to mention them because understanding is fundamental to explain the advances that scientists have made in psychology during the past few decades. These six theories about development that we will discuss from an evolutionary perspective are the Gestalt, psychoanalysis, behaviorism, cognitive psychology, Piaget, and Vygotski.

Theories on Development

Gestalt psychology

The psychology of Gestalt was one of the first scientific trends that emerged in psychology. Today, his ideas are no longer relevant, but his approach to studying perception was undoubtedly revolutionary. And though the psychologists who subscribed to his theory are not as well known in the study of development, they also stand out in this field.

people with cogs in heads

Gestalt Psychology says that human beings utilize a series of structures in order to acquire and maintain meaningful perceptions about the world. These structures have a physical base and impose their qualities on that relating to our development. We could also define them as complex totalities, products of the decomposition of the complex units. Confusing? Let’s see if we can explain it a little better.

What Gestalt Psychology is trying to say about development is that it is based on a structure of biological origin. We learn to use these structure as we grow. As a result, there is no “development” in the sense of genesis and evolutionary stages. There is only the progressive discovery of the brain’s abilities. Current research shows us that this isn’t actually true. There really is genesis and evolution of cognitive processes.


The father of psychoanalysis is easy to pinpoint. He was, of course, Sigmund Freud. This idea emphasizes the effect of subconscious impulses on our behavior. This branch of psychology employed a rather unscientific method and its theories are a bit rushed. However, it has had a significant impact on the study of development. Its theories caused a revolution in psychology of the ideas about childhood and adolescence.

Psychoanalysis asserts that development happens because the child needs to satisfy a series of needs during each stage of life. Consequently, it defines development as a series of stages defined by how they satisfy those needs. Psychoanalysis also greatly emphasized the importance of sexuality in all stages of our development, including the earliest stages.


This theory was born as a response to the rather un-scientific attitude of psychoanalysis. It is extremely positivist. Behaviorists believe that anything that can’t be directly measured is outside the realm of psychology. Consequently, they only study the relationship between perceived stimuli and the behavior they triggered. They effectively ignored any intermediate variable that they couldn’t measure.

Behaviorists believe that we can only understand development with the different types of learning that they consider in this framework. Children are born with a series of innate answers that they associate with other stimuli through experience. Through very simple processes, they produce a variety of complex behaviors. The problem with this development theory is that it errs on the side of being too reductionist.


Cognitive psychology

Cognitive psychology arose as a response to behaviorism. It is concerned with the study of the internal processes that intercede between stimuli and behavior. Cognitive psychology gave rise to the computational and connectivist perspectives about the human brain. Today, cognitive psychology is one of the most popular theories, especially in Europe.

In terms of development theory, cognitive psychology suggests that the subject produces information that builds internal representations of the world. Its proposal echoes Piaget and Vygotsky due to this constructivist principle. However, because it defines the processes as associative, it is closer in nature to behaviorism.

Jean Piaget

Piaget is one of the most important thinkers in development theory. Psychologists consider him one of the fathers of constructivism. It is based on the idea that children construct their world based on the problems that they face. Piaget’s theory about development focuses on the formation of knowledge.

Using this constructivist perspective, Piaget developed a theory that divides development into stages. These stages are universal. All subjects will go through these stages at more or less the same age. If you want to learn more about Piaget’s theory and the stages of development, click here.

child with development in brain

Lev Vygotski

Another important figure in development figure is Lev Vygotski. Like Piaget, he proposed a theory of development from a constructivist perspective. In spite of their similar perspective, they focused their attention on different aspects. Piaget focused on how the individual interacted with his or her environment. Vygotski, on the other hand, focused on the influence of cultural and social effects on development. 

For Vygotski, development was inseparable from an individual’s social environment. That’s because culture and society are what transmits forms of behavior and the organization of knowledge. So, it’s not really a copy and paste process. Each child constructs his or her reality based on what society says. We call this theory social constructivism.

This is an interesting paradigm with many possibilities. Many people believe that Vygotski and Piaget’s theories are in direct conflict with each other. However, the differences are easily reconciled. In order to see the similarities, we have to broaden our perspective and consider other levels and methods of research.