Four Theories of Human Development


Although, according to the book ‘Human Development, A Life Span View”, there are three recurring themes in human development that help shape who we become (Nature and Nurture, Continuity and Discontinuity, and Universal and Context-Specific Development) I have chosen to focus on what I believe to be the theory that most accurately accounts for human development: Nature and Nurture. The nature and nurture, or nature vs. nurture, theory focuses on determining the kind of person you are based on hereditary influences (nature) or environmental influences (nurture).

This theory is shaped by both of these as they are considered “mutually interactive influences” (Kail & Cavanaugh 2015).

A few examples of biologically determined characteristics (nature) include certain genetic diseases, eye color, hair color, and skin color. Other things like life expectancy and height have a strong biological component, but they are also influenced by environmental factors and lifestyle. Is it just coincidence that Pat Mahomes, a Major League Baseball pitcher from 1992 to 2003 for the Minnesota Twins, Boston Red Sox, New York Mets, Texas Rangers, Chicago Cubs, and Pittsburgh Pirates, and his son, current Kansas City Chiefs quarterback, Patrick Mahomes, both made professional sports teams due to outstanding athleticism? Or that George Bush and son, George W.

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, rose to both become presidents of the United States? Questions like these have long plagued psychologists, geneticists and philosophers. Coined nature versus nurture, much research has focused on the relative role of genes and the environment in determining everything from athleticism to personality to a person’s predisposition to obesity or even how successful they may become in life.

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With regards to the nature point of view; researchers are identifying specific genes linked with behaviors and diseases.

Some well-known findings:

  • “Different versions of the gene CYP2A6 dictate the number of cigarettes a person will smoke. Those with one version of the gene metabolize nicotine and need to light up more often.” (Styn, M. A., Nukui, T., Romkes, M., Perkins, K. A., Land, S. R., & Weissfeld, J. L. (2013))
  • “Certain rare gene mutations guarantee that you’ll eventually develop Alzheimer’s disease, while others greatly increase the risk of having it. If you have one copy of a risk-factor gene called Apo E4, for example, you have a 25-30% lifetime risk of Alzheimer’s. Having two copies bumps your risk up to about 60%.” (Toronto Memory Program (2018))
  • “Multiple genes play a role in a person’s risk for developing Alcohol Use Disorder (AUD). There are genes that increase a person’s risk, as well as those that may decrease that risk, directly or indirectly. For instance, some people of Asian descent carry a gene variant that alters their rate of alcohol metabolism, causing them to have symptoms like flushing, nausea, and rapid heartbeat when they drink. Many people who experience these effects avoid alcohol, which helps protect them from developing AUD.” (Alcohol Research and Health (2008))

I use these as examples as they accurately reflect the role genetics plays in so many various aspects of human development and give much credence to the theory that nature is a dominating facet in said human development. With that being said, nurture plays a large role in human development on what I feel is an ever-increasing level as technology, travel, information dissemination, and economic factors weigh heavily on how an individual sees, and is seen in, the world. As a broad example, a person that is from an impoverished area will have less opportunity to succeed in life than someone that is from an affluent area, regardless of genetics. You can delve even further to something I am very personally familiar with, mental illness. Is this nature or nurture? The role of the environment on mental illness is a popular research topic. Scientists believe that these conditions not only result from genes, but also different environmental factors.

Scientists are, however, labeling the environment very broadly, as anything that is not inherited by a gene. “Pollutants and other environmental threats are considered to alter physical surroundings. Along with physical factors, the individual’s perception of the social and physical world are considered other outside influences that can enhance the possibility of mental illness. These psychosocial experiences can occur at any time and trigger the illness. Sexual abuse, being a victim of crime, and losing a significant person can produce psychosocial stress.” (Schmidt (2007). While it can be debated endlessly as to what truly shapes human development, “when trying to explain why people develop as they do, scientists usually consider four interactive forces”; Biological, Psychological, Sociocultural, and Life-Cycle. (Kail, R. V. & Cavanaugh, J.C. (2015))

Biological forces include all genetic and health-related factors that affect development. For example; I come from a long line of alcoholics and as such I have a genetic predisposition to also be an alcoholic. Therefore, I have made the conscious choice to not drink alcohol, though admittedly that choice came after I realized I had a drinking problem. Psychological forces include all internal perceptual, cognitive, emotional, and personality factors that affect development. As an example, I was an only child and considered a “latch key kid” back in the 80’s. As such I spent much of my time alone and without family interaction. Because of this I grew up not being a family type of person. Even though I have been married and have kiddos of my own I still feel more comfortable being by myself rather than in a family group environment.

Sociocultural forces include interpersonal, societal, cultural, and ethnic factors that affect development. I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone went to the same Catholic church. This societal expectation meant I, too, attended this same church. As an adult I still felt pressure to attend church even though I was able to make the decision on my own to not attend. Life-cycle forces reflect differences in how the same event affects people of different ages. On January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger broke apart 73 seconds into its flight, killing all seven crew members. I was 16 years old and watched this live in our classroom. I felt profoundly affected as a young student yet my father, a man focused mainly on putting food on the table, didn’t give it a second thought and merely dismissed it as “accidents happen”.

Of these four forces I personally feel that psychological forces best fits into the above-mentioned nature vs. nurture argument. My main reason for this is that I believe how our mind receives, perceives, experiences, learns, and even recalls psychological forces most strongly shape how we act and interact with the world around us. As I previously stated, it can be endlessly debated as to what truly does influence human development the most but even with all of that information I feel that Henry Kranzler, a professor of psychiatry at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine, said it best: “Genetic predisposition is not destiny,” We all have the power to make conscious choices that go above and beyond both nature and nurture and those choices, I believe, are what truly shapes our development.

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Four Theories of Human Development. (2021, Oct 04). Retrieved from

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