Paul B. Baltes (June 18, 1939 – November 7, 2006) was a German psychologist whose broad scientific agenda was devoted to establishing and promoting the life-span orientation of human development. He was also a theorist in the field of the psychology of aging. He has been described by American Psychologist as one of the most influential developmental psychologists.
Life-span developmental psychology can be defined as the exploration of biological, cognitive, and psychosocial changes and constancies that occur throughout the course of life. It has been presented as a theoretical perspective, proposing several fundamental, theoretical, and methodological principles about the nature of human development. An attempt by researchers has been made to examine whether research on the nature of development suggests a specific metatheoretical worldview. Several beliefs, taken together, form the “family of perspectives” that contribute to this particular view. Baltes argues there are seven key features which impact human development across the life span, namely: (1) development occurs across one’s entire life, (2) multidirectionality and multidimensionality, (3) development as growth and decline, (4) the role plasticity plays in development, (5) the influence of socio-cultural condition on development, (6) the interactions of age-graded, history-graded, and nonnormative historical influences on development, and (7) the multidisciplinary nature of human development.
Lifelong development involves the idea that development is not completed in adulthood; it encompasses the entire life span, from conception to death. The study of development traditionally focused almost exclusively on the changes occurring from conception to adolescence and the gradual decline in old age. It was believed that the five or six decades after adolescence yielded little to no developmental change at all. The current view reflects the possibility that specific changes in development can occur later in life, without having been established at birth. The early events of one’s childhood can be transformed by later events in one’s life. This belief clearly emphasizes that all stages of the life span equally contribute in the regulation of the nature of human development; no age period holds supremacy over another. Many diverse patterns of change such as direction, timing, and order can vary among individuals and affect the ways in which they develop. As individuals move through life, they are faced with many challenges, opportunities, and situations that “give direction, force, and substance to their development”.
altes states that multidimensionality and multidirectionality are characteristics of human development. By multidimensionality, Baltes is referring to the fact that a complex interplay of factors, both endogenous and exogenous, influence development across the lifespan. Baltes argues that a dynamic interaction of these factors is what influences an individual’s development. As a result, certain factors may have a more powerful effect on a particular domain than another factor. Regardless, Baltes stresses that not one single criterion determines the development of a domain. The second part of the proposition referring to multidirectionality, Baltes states that the development of a particular domain does not occur in a strictly linear fashion that increases towards functional efficacy of a particular modality. Rather development can be characterized as having the capacity for both an increase and decrease in efficacy over the course of an individual’s life. As a result, the development of various domains is multidirectional in nature.
The developmental process occurring between childhood and adolescence known as puberty illustrates Baltes’ principle of multidimensionality and multidirectionality. Puberty is described as a period of “rapid morphological body changes; including physical growth and hormonal changes, as well as a myriad psychological and social contextual changes.” The types of morphological changes associated with puberty include the development of primary and secondary sex characteristics, alterations in height and weight, fluctuations in hormonal levels, along with several other changes. Psychological changes during adolescence involve a broad range of experiences individuals encounter over this period of dynamic changes; including the development of advanced cognitive faculties such as abstraction and other adult cognitive processes, new emotions, along with other psychosocial changes. The fact that the termpuberty encompasses such a broad range of domains illustrates the multidimensionality component of the overarching concept. The concept of puberty is also multidirectional as individual domains may both improve or decline in levels of effectiveness. Self-regulation is one domain of puberty which undergoes profound multidirectional changes during the adolescent period. During childhood, individuals have difficulty effectively regulating their actions and impulsive behaviors. Scholars have noted that this lack of effective regulation often results in children engaging in behaviors without fully considering the consequences of one’s actions. Over the course of puberty, neuronal changes attempt to deal with this unregulated behavior by increasing one’s ability to regulate emotions and impulses. Inversely, the ability for adolescents to engage in spontaneous activity and creativity, both domains commonly associated with impulse behavior, decreases over the adolescent period in response to changes in cognition. In the end, neuronal changes to the limbic system and prefrontal cortex which are associated with puberty lead to the development of self-regulation, and the ability to consider the consequences of one’s actions.
Contextualism as a paradigm is Baltes’ idea that three systems of biological and environmental influence work together to influence development: age-graded, history-graded, and nonnormative influences. Baltes wrote that these three influences operate throughout the life course, their effects accumulate with time, and, as a dynamic package, they are responsible for how lives develop. While Baltes was referring to influences over the course of a lifetime, this perspective nonetheless is highly applicable to the study of adolescent development. Age-graded influences are those biological and environmental factors that have a strong correlation with chronological age. Adolescence is a time of much “biological maturation and age-graded socialization events.” History-graded influences are biological determinants that are associated with a specific time period that define the broader bio-cultural context in which an individual develops. This is similar to the perspective of historical embeddedness, which has been shown earlier in the paper to pertain heavily to the study of adolescent development. Nonnormative influences are unpredictable and not tied to a certain developmental time, personally or historically. They are the unique experiences of an individual, whether biological or environment, that shape the development process. This certainly applies to adolescent development as these experiences could occur in the adolescent time period, however they are just as likely to occur in any other period of development. The most important aspect of the perspective of contextualism as a paradigm is that the three systems of influence work together to influence development. Concerning adolescent development, the age-graded influences would help to explain the similarities within a cohort, the history-graded influences would help to explain the differences between cohorts, and the nonnormative influences would explain the idiosyncrasies of each adolescents individual development. When all influences are considered together, it lends to a broader explanation of an adolescent’s development.