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A Comparative Analysis of Three Developmental Theories by Piaget, Kohlberg and Erikson

Updated on December 21, 2008

Across the life span of every human being, development is always a concern.


There are many theories that tend to explain different aspects in human development. According to Encarta Encyclopedia, 2006, these are system of assumptions based on limited information or knowledge, devised to analyze, predict, or otherwise explain the nature or behavior of a specified set of phenomena. In line with the definition, theories remain as conjectures explaining certain occurrences, but never will it attain the grounds earned by laws and principles as universal truths.


In Developmental Psychology, theories govern the existence of human growth. Considering the case stated earlier, does it imply that the learning gained in studying this field is not reliable? Not at all.


In medicine, when a person developed sickness, doctors try to find its root cause. There are many possible answers as to how and why it was acquired, might be through his/her family’s history, his/her lifestyle and his/her environment. If that’s the situation, would that person hesitate to seek wellness? Likewise, developmental theories offer several answers which unlock the depths of human behavior by studying the causalities of different experiences throughout the life span of a person.


            It can be quoted from Maurice Merleau-Ponty that every object is the mirror of all other objects. Correspondingly, developmental theories are rooted in different schools of thoughts such as Behaviorism, Gestalt, Humanism, Cognitivism and Psychoanalysis. Using it as their main ingredient, these schools of thoughts presented development in various ways — thus, in different perspectives.

            Jean Piaget, Erik Erikson and Lawrence Kohlberg are some of theorists who ventured in the field of Psychology, specifically in human development. Consequently, using Thomas’s standard of judgment, this paper aims to weigh, compare and evaluate the assumptions and claims of these proponents. 



Piaget, a cognitivist and pioneer of the Cognitive Development Theory, focused on the cognitive aspect of human development. He gave a detailed picture of how thinking is processed among individuals, concluding that the difference between adults' and children's thinking is qualitative and not quantitative. He asserted that development occurs in distinct, measurable, and observable stages. Additionally, he made an assumption that developmental growth is independent of experience and based on a universal characteristic. Piaget's theory assumes that development is unidirectional with all children reaching each stage at approximately at the same age.  


Kohlberg, an Ameican psychologist,  tried to expand the theory of morality that Piaget gave briefly. He assumes that there are 3 levels of morality that each individual faces — Preconventional, Conventional, Post Conventional— that are then subdivided in stages.   According to him, children in middle childhood, begin to perceive themselves as responsible to others because of the importance of getting along and of being a good citizen. They seek to act appropriately because people matter to them, not just to avoid punishment. Children’s developing psychological understanding heightens their sensitivity to human needs and contributes to empathy for others. Whereas a preschooler may sympathize with another but not know what to do, older children are more likely to assist a classmate who is attacked by a bully or to raise money to help children in a developing country.


            Erikson’s Psychosocial Theory of Development traces its roots to Freud’s Psychosexual Theory. He believes that his theory would patch what Freud was unable of discussing.   He studied groups of Native American children to help formulate his theories. These studies enabled him to correlate personality growth with parental and societal values. His first book, Childhood and Society (1950), became a classic in the field. As he continued his clinical work with young people, Erikson developed the concept of the “identity crisis,” an inevitable conflict that accompanies the growth of a sense of identity in late adolescence.


            Using case studies that were in descriptive methods, Piaget strengthened his works to cite reliable facts about the real world in children. It can be reflected upon his presentation of the mental growth—from sensorimotor stage, to preoperational stage, then to concrete operational stage and lastly, to formal operational stage— where several features and characteristics were keenly monitored and recorded.


In Kohlberg’s theory of Moral Development, he emphasized what could be the current state of morality that a person has if he/she is in that age.  In the last activity performed, it was found that the preconventional children depends their action to the possible outcome, might be, if there would be a punishment or a reward. This proves that the theory is reliable.   


Erikson different from any other theorists, he comprehensively investigated upon the development of an infant to the old age. These are the Trust vs. Mistrust, Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt, Initiative vs. Guilt, Industry vs. Inferiority, Identity vs. Role Confusion, Intimacy vs. Isolation, Generativity vs. Absorption and lastly Integrity vs. Despair. His theory explains that in every stage, a positive or a negative attitude might be developed in an individual. When used to local setting as mainframe, the result can also be the same, though there is inevitable variability among personalities.  


Most of their assumptions in development of children are simple, very tangible. As to Piaget’s findings regarding the concept of conservation, egocentrism, schema formation and some other features he had recorded, applying it in the local setting will be easy. Differently from Freud, there is no hidden element, (i.e., the id,) that would entail controversy. As to Kohlberg, his works were anchored as that of Piaget’s, therefore his works were also simple and can be clearly understandable.  Erikson although, theory is psychoanalytically founded, showed clearness among his theory as well as Kohlberg. Their theories enable many to relate easily.


However, with a belief that development is unidirectional and that the biological development drives the movement from one cognitive stage to the next, Piaget showed no proof that the thinking process expressed on a former stage would predict the cognition in the latter stage and vice versa. But perhaps, the thought of having mental growth as universal to every individual with respect to the stages that Piaget constructed may tell what the next cognitive feature a person can express.


In Kohlberg’s theory, he assumed that one might not attain the next stage remaining to show manifestations of the former. His work doesn’t predict what would happen in the future, actually, if a person would arrive or not arrive to the next level is already an uncertainty.


Different to Erikson, where he believed that the attitudes such as trust, initiative, intimacy and the like that had developed in a certain stage would have an effect in the future. For example, he asserted that if an individual has a positive outlook in life and maintains hope though facing unexpected events in life, that individual when he/she was an infant might had been taken good care of and had developed trust with the maternal person.


Furthermore, many educators and parents base their strategies with Piaget’s perspective.  In rearing a child, he contributed largely to the field of language and education. In the development of language, his assumptions of Language Acquisition Device (LAD) as innate in infancy were widely appreciated. Therefore, educational implications were fleshed out from his theory considering what could be the best possible approach in enabling children to unleash their potentials. Regarding Kohlberg, his theory is widely used as basis on how to face moral dilemmas that occur in a life span of every individual, particularly in child’s life. Erikson’s stages of ritualization are also considered on how a person would handle decisions and priorities in life.


As to the internal consistency in the theory, the mental characteristics and features manifesting on a specific stage and their gradual change are thoroughly explained. For example, the realism and animism, both occurring in the preoperational stage, he cleared out that their existence are inversely related. Consistency can also be inferred in the whole theory. Even though he compared his work to Freud’s and Spinoza’s, Piaget remained intact with the perception that he was holding. It was never mixed. These can also be observed to Kohlberg and Erikson’s theories. Their terminologies, concepts and perception didn’t shift.

Several convincing ideas can be presented by Piaget to support his theory. In relation to the last activity performed by the class which was the observation of early childhood, he asserted that preoperational children display certain characteristics such as transductive reasoning, irreversibility, artificialism and centering. When tested, it was amazing to see that the findings gained by Piaget and the findings gained by the section have great resemblance to each. Same thing happens in their findings, when Kohlberg was used as a mainframe.

Despite this occurrence,  some of Piaget’s ideas have been supported through more correlational and experimental methodologies, some portions of the theory when compared to other researches, give a result that the data from similar cross-sectional studies do not support the assertion that all individuals will automatically move to the next cognitive stage as they biologically mature. Indeed, this implies an unproven assumption that is somehow disconfirmable. As to Kohlberg and Erikson, some of their finding doesn’t match with the current researches done.

As mentioned earlier, Piaget’s perception didn’t only enrich the field of psychology but rather shared some insights in language, education and morality. His work is collaborative — it can build another and it can rebuild itself. Example of ‘building another’ is Vygotsky’s Socio-cultural Theory and Kohlberg’s Moral Development Theory. These two gained grounds in psychology by the strengths of Piaget. Vygotsky criticized Piaget’s assumptions and later on was able to make a theory and Kohlberg, because of inspiration in Piaget’s work, tried to expand some aspects that he found lacking in the Cognitive Development Theory.   As to ‘rebuilding itself’, up until now, Neo-Piagetians continually improve the theory made by their lead proponent. Although rooted from another’s works, Erikson and Kohlberg established theories on their own that may stand coequal with the others. As of today, their works are being taught and learnt by many.

Piaget led to forming a theory when he asked his two children to express their beliefs in a particular situation. Since he is the founder of Cognitivism, his work possesses novelty. As long as it is in relation to cognition and comprehension, this theory may provide the answer about the different phenomena encountered by individuals in a certain point of time. This is also true in Kohlberg’s and Erikson’s theories— as long as morality and psychosocial aspects of growth are concerned, their theories can provide the answer.      

Piaget, Erikson and Kohlberg are just some of the theorists who can provide a comprehensive outlook in human growth. These three can be easily understood yet; it can easily attract interest and instill deep learning in human development, leading to further appreciation and gratefulness to the life that was given to everyone as a gift!





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    • profile image


      4 years ago

      thanks for the info but then, it could be better if you showed the relationship, rather the link between the 3 theorists in relation to development and socialization

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      Great summary. Very specific and well explained. Reading through the theories on moral development in children, I find this more helpful.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      OK Donna, you know that question is for the midterm, and you really should think for yourself instead of skating through on other people's intelligence.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Can anybody answer this question?

      Sheryl is 12 years old and in sixth grade. Describe the developmental changes she is likely to be experiencing, according to Piaget,Kohlberg,and Erickson.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Yla Pamfilo,

      I really enjoyed reading your Hub, especially regarding Piaget's and Kohlberg's theories. I am currenting enrolled in Intro to Psychologoy and I have a paper due today in which I had to choose one of the four lifespan development areas. I actually chose Moral Development and chose to discuss Kohlberg's theory as well as Piaget's. I have had a hard time getting the information I was looking for but in your Hub you have given me more insight to Piaget's theory. Thanks!

    • Yla Pamfilo profile imageAUTHOR

      Yla Pamfilo 

      8 years ago from Philippines

      Hi mr. confradofontanilla, if we're talking of relativity here, then your latter statements can be a fact to you, an assumption for someone and an opinion for another. Please avoid making claims like, "Encarta's definition of theory is defective." You might just commit a fallacy here. Thank you.

    • conradofontanilla profile image


      8 years ago from Philippines

      Einstein said a theory consists of concepts and relationship(s) among concepts. Take the special theory of relativity which was couched in mathematical language. To provide a way to prove it, Einstein drew a statement of fact that should correspondent to experience. E = mcsquared was one statement of fact that was verified by Enrico Fermi and others and demonstrated in the atomic bombs dropped over Japan. Encarta's definition of theory is defective. In science one usually starts with a hypothesis which when proven graduates into a theory. A hypothesis is speculative. Usually, some who attempt at theory making discuss statements of facts derived from hypothesis or theory which they assume they had made explicit. A theory explains and predicts and can provide insight into yet another hypothesis that might lead to a theory. One can get immersed in the discussion of statements of fact and forget about the fundamental concepts and relationships from which statements of facts should be derived. Statements of facts can be verified true on their own account but they are not theories in themselves. I have Hubs "A Theory of How Salk Vaccine Kills Polio Virus It Marked with Antigens," and "Big Bang Theory, Origin of the Universe, What is the Mystery?"

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      good job, plz more research on differences between piaget and kolheberg regarding morality

    • Yla Pamfilo profile imageAUTHOR

      Yla Pamfilo 

      8 years ago from Philippines

      Oh mariana, sure, I'll try to discuss it in my upcoming hubs...

      Hey Shaina... with regard to that developmental stage and genetic disease, I know, there is this procedure known as newborn screening? Try to surf it in the net.

    • profile image

      shaina cherrblossm 

      9 years ago

      what development stage would be beening dignosed with a genetic disease

    • profile image

      mariana yago 

      9 years ago

      thank you for the info. i hope you coulddiscuss more on thye significance of these three to education. i need them on my research. thanks and more power

    • profile image


      10 years ago

      i am currently studying these theorys as part of an access course and need to know how these approaches relate to 'real' life , can anyone give there view on this pls !!!??

    • dr c profile image

      dr c 

      11 years ago from San Francisco Bay Area

      Nice summary of the developmental theories. I'd love to see some concrete behavioral examples - what behaviors would you expect in the Preconventional vs Conventional morality stages etc.

    • Yla Pamfilo profile imageAUTHOR

      Yla Pamfilo 

      11 years ago from Philippines

      Really? That's great Mr. Tony. Can't wait to read it! I actually formulated a theory myself a little psychodynamically oriented (it focused more on personality). But it is not tested yet,,, so I don't know how it would be recognized... I'm still an undergrad after all...

      Thanks for reading my hubs, as for a newbie... to receive comments on the hubs I write is really wonderful.

      God Bless!

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      11 years ago from South Africa

      Interesting Hub on a fascinating subject which, as an educator myself, I find very important. I have read most of these developmental theories and have over the years formulated my own which I will write about sometime soon, maybe on HubPages!

      Love and peace,



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