Theories of Developmental Psychology

There are numerous theories of developmental psychology. Theses theories have attempted to explain changes in human behaviours as a result of certain conditions or situations. In spite of the fact that a number of studies have focused on children’s development, there is an increasing interest in the behaviour of old people as well (Papalia, Olds & Feldman, 2007, p.2). This paper will therefore discuss the strengths and weaknesses of two theories of developmental psychology.

Attachment Theory

John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth are regarded as the authors of attachment theory. John Bowlby devised the fundamental principles of the theory by relying on ideas from cybernetics, ethology, developmental psychology and information processing. Ainsworth’s creative methodology facilitated the empirical testing of the theory of attachment. Ainsworth also invented the notion of the attachment figure as a secure pedestal which a child can use to explore the society (Bretherton, 1992, p.759).

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Attachment is perceived as a natural system that transforms itself to guarantee continued survival of a child. Children have a natural tendency to seek physical, psychological and emotional support from persons they are attached to (Bretherton, 1992, p.759). Bowlby developed his theory after serving as a voluntary worker in an institution for maladjusted children.

Bowlby was mainly influenced by his experience with two children at the institution. The first child was an extremely affectionless and detached youngster who did not have a stable mother figure. The second one was a nervous eight years old boy who followed him everywhere (Bretherton, 1992, p.760).

Bowlby’s theory relied heavily on Lorenz’s ethological theory (especially his research of imprinting). Lorenz used young ducklings in his research to demonstrate that attachment was a matter of survival. Bowlby suggested that attachment behaviours are innate and that a child is bound to feel insecure and afraid when the attachment figure is absent.

He also asserted that the fear of strangers is an inherent behavioural attribute that a child is born with. This innate behaviour enables a child to maintain close proximity with his/her attachment figure (Bowlby, 1980, p.2).

The attachment theory helps us understand the importance of an attachment figure in shaping the child’s personality. A child is likely to experience psychological and emotional disorders when the attachment system is broken (Bowlby, 1980, p.4). Pickover (2002) states that children raised in an insecure attachment system are usually unreceptive to new secure attachments patterns (p.3).

In addition, they often become emotionally withdrawn. However, when children are brought up in a secure attachment system, they are able to socialize with other people and at the same time maintain close relations with their attachment figures (Pickover, 2002, p. 3).

Limitations of the Attachment theory

Bowlby’s attachment theory has attracted criticisms from some psychologist. According to Bowlby, the personality of a child is mainly influenced by his/her attachment figure (especially the mother). For example, Bowlby asserts that a child will grow up to be an irresponsible person if his/her parents are reckless. However, Harris gives a different viewpoint. He asserts that parents are not the only people that alter their children’s actions.

He claims that environmental factors and peer pressure influence the behaviour of children (Harris, 1998, p. 5). Bowlby assumes that the mother family member (such as fathers and siblings) can also influence the behaviour of young children. Finally, Bowlby’s attachment theory lends more credence on the stressful circumstances (as opposed to the non-stressful circumstances) that a child encounters during temporary separation from his/her mother (Fraley & Spieker, 2003, p. 8).

Social Learning Theory

The social learning theory was developed by Robert Sears in an attempt to explain factors that influence human behaviours (Grusec, 1992, p.776). The social learning theory is based on “socialization processes that had a particularly strong impact on research and theory in social developmental psychology” (Grusec, 1992, p.777). In other words, this theory attempts to understand the process in which children learn the behaviours, attitudes and values practiced by other members of the society.

The social learning theory also focuses on matters such as the attainment of culturally endorsed sex-role behaviours, the control of hostility and the struggle with enticement and guilt. Sears asserts that parents play a major role in helping their children to internalize the culturally accepted behaviours. He also states that the internalization process is greatly affected by parents’ behaviour (Grusec, 1992, p.777).

The social learning theory is based on three key aspects. These are aggression, dependency and identification. Sears’ assessment of aggression relied heavily on Freud’s early concepts of aggression. Freud asserted that aggression was a by-product of frustration. According to Freud, “aggression is attributed to a drive…linked to experience with frustrating events” (Grusec, 1992, p.777). Sears asserted that aggression could be alleviated via a learning process.

Dependency is another critical element addressed by the social learning theory. According to Sears, the presence of dependency is attributed to the fact that children posses numerous drives which are reduced by their mothers. Sears argues that a child is able to imitate his/her mother’s attributes through observation (during the infant-mother pairing moments such as breast feeding).

He further states that the desire by the infant to be close to his/her mother yields dependent behaviours that are bolstered by motherly attention (Grusec, 1992, p.778). Sears’ theory also lends credence to the role of identification in personality development. When young children develop a dependency drive; they perceive actions of their mothers as vital elements of their own behaviour patterns (Grusec, 1992, p.778).

Limitations of Social Learning Theory

Sears’ social learning theory has failed to stand the test of time. The theory makes fundamental assumptions regarding human actions. For instance, the theory ignores the fundamental biological principles that are critical to the social learning process. It is obvious that Sears encountered problems as he attempted to describe the growth of drives. He ultimately discarded the notion of drives and relied on the concepts of incentive and reinforcement. Consequently, his theory lost its unique attributes (Grusec, 1992, p.779).

To sum it up, the two theories emphasize on the role of adult individuals and the socio-cultural environment in shaping up children’s behaviour. Basically, Bowlby believed that attachment system was an integral aspect that facilitated a close bond between children and their mothers. Similarly, Robert Sears’ social learning theory attempts to explain factors that influence human behaviours. Nonetheless, both theories do not give adequate explanations with respect to developmental psychology.


Bowlby, J. (1980) Loss: Sadness & Depression. Attachment and Loss (vol. 3); (International psycho-analytical library no.109). London: Hogarth Press.

Bretherton, I. (1992). The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology, 28, 759-775.

Fraley, R. C., & Spieker, S. J. (2003) Are infant attachment patterns continuously or categorically distributed? A taxometric analysis of strange situation behaviour. Developmental Psychology, 39, 387-404.

Grusec, J.E. (1992) Social Learning Theory and Developmental Psychology: The Legacies of Robert Sears and Albert Bandura. Developmental Psychology, 28, 776-786.

Harris, J. R. (1998) The Nurture Assumption: Why children turn out the way they do. York: The Free Press.

Mith, P.K., Cowie, H., & Blades, M. (2008) Understanding Children’s Development. Basic psychology (4 Ed.). Oxford, England: Blackwell Inc.

Papalia, D. E., Olds, S. W., & Feldman R. D. (2007) Human development. 10th ed. Boston: McGraw Hill.

Pickover, S. (2002) Breaking the cycle: A clinical example of disrupting an insecure attachment system. Journal of Mental Health Counselling, 24, 358-367.


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