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The Lifespan Development Perspective of Erik Erikson and Daniel Levinson

Updated on August 20, 2016
Erik Erikson
Erik Erikson

Lifespan Development Defined

Lifespan Development theory differs from other perspectives of developmental psychology in that Lifespan Development is focused on lifelong development as a whole while identifying key components of developmental stages. The lifespan development perspective is also used in disciplines outside of Psychology, such as Anthropology and certain medical fields. Lifespan Development theories identify key stages and domains of development that encompass both biological and environmental changes in a person’s life.

The Three Domains of Lifespan Development

The three domains of Lifespan Development theories include the Social, Cognitive and Physical domains. The physical domain refers to the actual physical changes that occur in life from birth to death. The physical domain, like all the domains, encompasses the changes people encounter during their lifetime, however from a physical perspective. The Cognitive domain encompasses the changes people experience in their mental abilities through life and the experiences they undergo and adjustments they have to make in response to those changes (such as loss of memory late in life and how learning occurs within the different life stages). The Social domain encapsulates the relationships people build throughout life and how they change, including family, close friends, neighbors and acquaintances. Each domain lasts throughout the lifetime of a person as they grow through each of the key stages.

The Stages of Lifespan Development

The Lifespan Development perspective identifies ten stages including Prenatal, Infancy, Toddlerhood, Early Childhood, Middle Childhood, Late Childhood, Adolescence, Early Adulthood, Middle Adulthood and Late Adulthood. Within each of these stages (also referred to as periods), a person will encounter specific changes. For example, during the Infancy stage a person learns a sense of trust or mistrust of others based upon their immediate environment (which usually involved parents and immediate family members such as siblings and grandparents).

Erik Erikson's Lifespan Development Theory
Erik Erikson's Lifespan Development Theory

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Erik Erikson's Lifespan Development Theory

Erik Erikson’s theory of lifespan development is influenced heavily by Sigmund Freud and his psychoanalytic model. Erikson believed that lifespan development occurs in stages and that at each stage a person must resolve certain crisis in order to move on to the next stage. He also believed that until the crisis of a particular stage was resolved, a person would continue to be fixated in that stage. The resolution of each stage, positive or negative, also results in noticeable changes in a person and their personality. The stages of life identified by Erikson are called “psychosocial” stages, beginning with the Oral-sensory stage where a person requires comfort without fear and resolves the stage through a sense of trust or mistrust of others. The Muscular-anal stage is characterized by recognizing one’s own will and behavior and is resolved through autonomy or a sense of shame and doubt. The Locomotor stage is characterized by one learning responsibility and is resolved by either a sense of initiative or guilt. The Latency stage is when a person learns a sense of industry or inferiority and where the focus is on cultural skills. Adolescence is characterized by experimenting with roles and identity, resolved through either identity confusion or knowing one’s identity. Young Adulthood is characterized by learning commitment to another and is resolved through either intimacy or isolation. During Middle Adulthood, working with future generations occurs and is resolved by either generativity, which is a concern for the next generation, or stagnation. Resolving the other life stages positively and accepting death characterizes the Maturity stage. The Maturity stage is resolved with either a sense of integrity or despair.

Daniel Levinson's Lifespan Development Theory

Daniel Levinson’s theory of lifespan development maps more closely to the stages presented earlier in this discussion. Levinson theorized that there are “Seasons of Life” through which each person travels, and each person resolves specific crisis within these stages. The Pre-adulthood stage is the first stage of his theory and occurs during the first 16 year of life. During that time a person learns how to conduct themselves within the family unit and society, including the cultural rules they need to learn in order be successful in the next stages. The Transition stage after Pre-adulthood occurs between the ages of 17 and 22 and is characterized by a moving to a more independent lifestyle, leaving home and exploring the world around them. During Early Adulthood (between 22 and 25) one learns to take on an adult role within society, which includes starting a family. Between the ages of 28 through 33 one transitions into the Adulthood stage, reflecting on their past life and adjusting their goals and dreams for their life. By Adulthood (ages 33 through 40), one starts focusing their goals to on the larger aspects of their lives such as family, work and their community. This stage transitions into Early Middle Age (between 40 and 45 years) and during Early Middle Age and the transition to Middle Adulthood one learns to accept aging and resolve and rebalance issues in their life that stem from mismatched priorities and in some sense identity, such as being young or old. Middle Adulthood (55 and 60 years) and the transition afterward deals with major life changes such as retiring from work and the release from certain burdens of commitment. Over 60 years of age is a life transition where we learn to accept death.

Daniel Levinson's Lifespan Development Theory
Daniel Levinson's Lifespan Development Theory

Heredity vs. Environment (Nature vs. Nurture)

Both Erik Erikson's and Daniel Levinson's theories focused on the environmental influences of lifespan development. However, it is important to understand that developmental factors which influence who we are can be either hereditary or environmental. Studies of identical twins have been instrumental in revealing to what extent heredity and environment play a role in human development. Identical twins raised in the same family have been found to exemplify many of the same traits, such as nearly identical IQ scores. However, identical twins raised apart and in different families were found to have IQ scores that closely relate to their biological parents rather than their adoptive parents. Results such as these are common, however it not necessarily mean that heredity plays a greater role. Active correlation, which occurs when a person’s genetic predisposition causes them to choose particular activities within their environments that best suit their genetic make up, may help explain why identical twins separated at birth have many of the same characteristics. Other studies showing that fraternal twins (twins that are not genetically identical) are more likely to be alike in intelligence tests than siblings reveals that environmental factors can actually influence intelligence. Since there is evidence supporting heredity as the major factor in development and evidence supporting environment as the major factor, it is most likely that individual differences are a combination of both.


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