Developmental Psychology: Nature vs. Nurture

Read three developmental psychology case studies and learn how humans evolve and change.

old and young hands hold fledgling tree

Nature versus nurture—developmental psychology professionals hone in on this issue, trying to gain greater insight into what influences human development most, genetics or environment. Of course, that question is just the start.

Studying human development throughout the lifespan, developmental psychologists also consider the speed at which development happens (slowly and smoothly, or in stages), the influences of early childhood compared to experiences later in life, and other theories that lead to a better understanding of the biological, psychological and social aspects that shape human growth.

People Don't Change . . . or Do They?

We have all heard the saying, "People don't change." So why do we need developmental psychology?

To start, we do change, perhaps more subtly later in life than we do as young children. Our experiences—from good fortune to heartaches—can change the way we perceive others and ourselves, can change our fears and attitudes, and can change our opinions. Plus, our personalities, which form when we are fairly young, although the exact age is subject to debate, also impact our perceptions and how we respond to life's experiences.

Along with experience and personality, developmental psychology examines a number of factors that influence growth, including these:

  • Cognitive development
  • Gender development
  • Physical growth
  • Psychosexual development
  • Sexual development

Three Case Studies in Developmental Psychology

Inside those factors that influence growth are aspects such as moral understanding, problem solving, identity formation and emotional development. Based on scientific study, developmental psychology explains or theorizes reasons we react to situations in certain ways or come to particular decisions.

1. Justice is Blind—But Looks Matter?

As CBS News reports, Cornell University recently conducted a developmental psychology study focusing on the justice system. In the study, developmental psychologists found that when it comes to minor court cases, unattractive defendants are more likely to be convicted and receive harsher sentences than good-looking defendants. Essentially, when cases lack strong evidence, some jurors may reason emotionally, considering irrelevant factors such as a defendant's looks, rather than basing decisions on facts and logic.

2. Teens and the Art of Social Media

According to the Los Angeles Times, social media websites, such as MySpace and Facebook, can assist in an adolescent's psychological development. Research conducted at several universities across the country shows that well-adjusted teens use social media in positive ways, staying connected with friends they know and avoiding conversations with strangers.

Developmental psychology experts point out that the level of safety kids exercise online depends more on the kids themselves than on technology. In other words, while well-adjusted teens will most likely have safe, positive experiences online, teens who struggle with depression, aggressiveness or other serious behavioral issues are more likely to take risks in their online worlds or become vulnerable to coercive strangers.

3. Get Me That! How Young Children Respond to Ads

Young children inherently see the world as being all about them. Advertisers understand this. Anyone who's sat with a child through a 60-second commercial break during daytime cartoons knows very well that kids typically respond to ads with their own variation of "Can I have that?"

Fordham University in New York cites a study in which 6-year-olds were asked to explain the purpose of advertising, given four choices:

  • Don't know
  • For a break
  • For information
  • To persuade

The group of kids virtually split their answers among the first three choices, with not one child in the study saying that the purpose of advertising is to persuade. As such, the researcher concluded that kids see advertising as a benefit to them, the consumer, not to the seller. Further, seeing commercials as a benefit is a hard habit for kids to break as they grow into adults—a result that advertisers more than likely understand as well.