Hot Topic Symposium
Chair: Alexandra M. Freund | University of Zurich
Few attempts have been made to formulate a developmental theory specifying general and basic processes of development. It is doubtless a daunting task to attempt the identification and elaboration of such general developmental processes cutting across different psychological functions (e.g., cognition, emotion, motivation), phases in the lifespan, and cultures. This symposium addresses the question is if such an endeavor is (a) possible, and (b) useful to describe and explain development. The participants of this symposium take different perspectives in exploring the usefulness of a general theory of development: a lifespan perspective (Werner Greve), a cultural perspective (Heidi Keller), a comparative perspective (Katja Liebal), a cognitive perspective (Hannes Rakoczy), and a contextual perspective (Alexandra Freund & Ute Kunzmann). The symposium hopes to spark a constructive discussion that will help to clarify the role of theory in developmental psychology.
Towards a General Theory of Human Ontogeny – Conditions and Cornerstones for a Quest beyond the Horizon
Werner Greve | University of Hildesheim, Germany
The present talk cannot prove that the quest for a general theory of human development will be successful. I will argue, however, that the search for it is not futile from the beginning. Although we understand that almost everything in human development depends on the circumstances, this does not entail that a general theory is impossible. Rather, the processual turn in developmental psychology (in the last decades of the 20th century) offers a promising perspective to look for general processes and mechanism that respond to varying actual circumstances and conditions. The theory of evolution provides an inspiring model for a “theory of processes of becoming” that does not fail with the obstacle of ever changing circumstances and conditions. The envisioned theory of human development, however, will certainly be more than a mere application of evolutionary theory on human ontogeny, since processes of ontogeny have to include cultural influences and processes of self-regulation. Nevertheless, a general theory of ontogeny will surely have to consider the restrictions and implications of the general theory of evolution. Moreover, several cornerstones and building blocks can be identified, in particular the combination of a developmental systems approach and a dynamic systems approach. The crucial question, however, is whether such a general theory of ontogeny will entail empirically testable hypotheses. Unfortunately, some doubts in this respect are justifiable.
Is there some such thing as a general theory of cognitive development?
Hannes Rakoczy | University of Göttingen, Germany
No one knows what a general theory of higher cognition would look like, says Fodor’s “First Law of the Nonexistence of Cognitive Science: […] the more global […] a cognitive process is, the less anybody understands it” (Fodor, 1983, p. 107). It is thus all the more unlikely, according to Fodor, that there is some such thing as a general theory detailing how that which no one understand develops.
Against the background of this principled pessimism, in my contribution to the symposium I will first discuss prospects of less ambitious theories (or perhaps “theorettes”, as we may want to call them to qualify their more restricted scope), of particular phenomena and domains of cognitive development that help to elucidate lower and more restricted forms of cognitive development. And I will briefly discuss the perspective of more ambitious theories that –despite not solving the mysteries of higher cognitive development- still may replace them by smaller mysteries.
Comparative approaches to human development: What can we learn from other apes?
Katja Liebal | Freie Universität Berlin, Germany
Daniel Haun | Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig, Germany
Over the last few decades, there was a significant increase in research investigating the cognitive and communicative skills of humans’ closest relatives, the non-human primates. The main attempt of such comparisons with other primates is to isolate those skills that are uniquely human and thus separate humankind from other animals. The common methodological approach is to compare children of different ages with adult great apes, often chimpanzees, to investigate at which age an apparently human skill emerges in human ontogeny, and if this skill is also found in the ape species. If only children, but not great apes succeed in a given task, the general conclusion is that already young children, but not great apes possess a specific cognitive skill. While many studies use this comparative approach to study the presence (or absence) of cognitive and communicative skills in humans and other primates, and the corresponding onset of these behaviors in human children, systematic comparisons across of the developmental pathways of humans and other primates are virtually non-existent. Therefore, this presentation has two aims: First, I will discuss the benefits of studying the developmental patterns of different cognitive skills in nonhuman primates to better understand human development. I will present some exemplary studies to demonstrate the benefits of systematic comparisons of young children and apes and relate these findings to different potential developmental pathways within and across species. Second, I will point to some of the methodological and ethical issues of comparative research, such as the difficulties of conducting behavioral studies with very young apes and the concerns of comparing ape behavior to that of humans, particularly indigenous communities or clinical populations. Despite these challenges, I will propose a framework based on systematic comparisons of the developmental pathways of cognition and communication in human children and young nonhuman primates.
A plea for substituting monocultural theories in (developmental) psychology.
Heidi Keller | University of Osnabrück, Germany
Theories are important. They guide our perception and direct our attention regarding the psychological processes, that we want to describe, explain and predict. A general theory of human development has to define what drives developmental processes and what facilitates and what constraints them. However, theories of human development are always built on particular models of men, i.e. grounded in philosophical traditions. These assumptions are rarely explicitly incorporated in developmental – and more generally, psychological theories. Existing theories are largely monocultural, built on the Western model of men as a self contained, self sufficient and self determined individual. This model of men is based in Western philosophical roots going back to the ancient Greek philosophers. During the last decades, a growing awareness has manifested, that other models of men existing around the globe influence human psychology in general and developmental processes in particular. There is evidence that timing, dynamics and outcomes of developmental achievements vary across cultures. What we therefore need is a developmental theory that takes the contextual parameters systematically into account. In order to do so, we first need empirically based models of developmental pathways in different cultures. These models can serve as the basis to derive more general principles. With increasing knowledge, the principles can be adapted and modified. Theories therefore must necessarily be dynamic and changing. These thoughts will be developed and exemplified in my talk.
The case against a general developmental theory: Development is context-bound
Alexandra M. Freund | University of Zurich, Switzerland
Ute Kunzmann | University of Leipzig, Germany
In this talk, we will stress the importance of taking context seriously in developmental theories. Following the seminal work of Egon Brunswik, we view the development of psychological functions as prototypical adaptions to contexts. Accordingly, the task of developmental theories is the specification of the interaction of organisms (in the case of human development: humans) with their contexts across the lifespan. The principles of this interactions are likely function specific as they have evolved to productively manage the demands of the organism and the context in and with which it develops. Moreover, given that both contexts and organisms change systematically across the lifespan, psychological functions do not only evolve phylogenetically as prototypical adaptations to contexts but their ontogenetic development across the lifespan can be viewed as the product of continued adaptations to age-related changes in the organism and the environment. In other words: We maintain that lifespan development is necessarily domain specific and can only be understood as continued adapations to changes in the organism and age-related contexts. We will illustrate the main idea of this argument with research examples from emotional development in adulthood. We will present a research example from Ute Kunzmann’s lab in the area of emotional aging to highlight the importance of considering context when investigating developmental processes.