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Theorists

John Bowlby: Attachment Theory

Excerpt from Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book

It was against this background that John Bowlby took a distinctly evolutionary perspective on early attachment. He argued that because newborn infants are completely helpless, they are genetically programed to form an attachment with their mothers in order to ensure their survival. Mothers, he believed, are also genetically programmed to bond with their babies, feeling the need to keep them in close proximity. Any conditions that threaten to separate mother and child activate instinctive attachment behaviors and feelings of insecurity and fear.

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Urie Bronfenbrenner: Ecological Systems Theory

Excerpt from Gale Encyclopedia of Children's Health: Infancy Through Adolescence

Bronfenbrenner maintained that human development is shaped by the individual's interactions with five nested environmental systems...According to Bronfenbrenner, each of the five systems contains roles, norms, and rules that can powerfully shape an individual's development, particularly if the different systems come into conflict. An example might be that of a child from a family that does not value education but goes on to succeed in school and go on to college.

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Erik Erikson: Psychosocial development

Excerpt from Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book

Erik Erikson understood human development in terms of the epigenetic principle, which states that every organism is born with a certain purpose and its successful development results in the fulfillment of this purpose. In Erikson's own words, "anything that grows has a ground plan, and out of this the parts arise." He proposed that the human personality unfolds and evolves in eight predetermined stages. According to Erikson, this growth involves the constant interaction between heredity and environmental influences.

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Lawrence Kohlberg: Moral development

Excerpt from Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book

Lawrence Kohlberg believed that morality develops gradually throughout childhood and adolescence. In 1956, he began a study involving 72 boys between the ages of 10 and 16. He presented the boys with moral dilemmas that required them to choose between two alternatives, neither of which could be considered completely acceptable, and noted their responses. One example was whether it was right or wrong for a man with no money to steal drugs that his sick wife desperately needed. Kohlberg followed up on 58 of the boys, testing them every three years over the course of 20 years, to observe how their moral inclinations changed with age. Based on the answers given by his subjects, Kohlberg identified six stages of moral development, which spanned three levels of moral reasoning: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional.

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Konrad Lorenz: Ethology

Excerpt from Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book

The Austrian zoologist and doctor Konrad Lorenz was one of the founding fathers of ethology—the comparative study of animal behavior in the natural environment. He began his work observing geese and ducks at his family's summer house in Altenberg, Austria. He noticed that the young birds rapidly made a bond with their mother after hatching, but could also form the same attachment to a foster parent if the mother was absent. This phenomenon, which Lorenz called "imprinting," had been observed before, but he was the first to study it systematically. 

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Ivan Pavlov: Classical conditioning

Excerpt from Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book

During the 1890s, Pavlov carried out a series of experiments on dogs, using various surgically implanted devices to measure the flow of saliva when these animals were being fed. He noted that the dogs salivated not only when they were actually eating, but also whenever they could just smell or see some appetizing food. The dogs would even salivate, in anticipation of food being produced, when they were simply being approached by one of their keepers.

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Jean Piaget: Genetic epistemology / Piagetian theory

Excerpt from Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book

Piaget believed that children are active and autonomous learners, using their senses to interact with the world around them as they move through the developmental stages. He also believed that it is of primary importance to nurture and guide children on this journey, giving them the freedom to experiment and explore on their own, in a very individual, trial-and-error manner. The task of a good teacher is, therefore, simply to support children on their journey through these stages, constantly encouraging their creativity and imagination, because "the goal of education is to create men and women who are capable of doing new things."

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B.F. Skinner: Radical behaviorism / operant behaviorism

Excerpt from Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book

To Skinner, it seemed that the consequences of an action were more important in shaping behavior than any stimulus that had preceded or coincided with it. He concluded from his experiments that behavior is primarily learned from the results of actions. As with so many great insights, this may appear to be self-evident, but it marked a major turning point in behaviorist psychology.

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Lev Vygotsky: Social constructivism / Constructivism / Zone of Proximal Development

Excerpt from Big Ideas Simply Explained: The Psychology Book

Vygotsky believed that children absorb the accumulated wisdom, values, and technical knowledge of previous generations through interactions with their caregivers, and use these "tools" to learn how to conduct themselves effectively in the world. But it is only through social interaction that children can experience and internalize these cultural tools. Even our ability to think and reason on an individual level stems from social activities in the course of our development that foster our innate cognitive abilities.

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Stages of Development

Theorists who wrote about developmental stages include: Piaget, Erikson, Vygotsky, and Kohlberg. Explore their theories in the boxes above.

Excerpt from "Stages of Development" from Curriculum Connections Psychology: Cognitive Development

Two of the most important theories of intellectual, or cognitive, development in children—how a child's thinking changes and develops from infancy to adulthood—were proposed by Lev Vygotsky (1896-1934) and Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Piaget's work in particular has been hugely influential.

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