The foundation of developmental psychology (1882-1913)

The foundation of developmental psychology (1882-1913)

In the 1880s a series of works are published that, by their meaning, are considered as the foundation of developmental psychology.

The figures that will mark this period are the German Wilhelm Preyer, the Americans Stanley Hall and James Baldwin and the French Alfred Binet.

From this moment on, a typical characteristic of developmental psychology is that follows a parallel course to that of general psychology or experimental. Finally, in the 60s there is an approach that lasts until today.

The foundation of developmental psychology (1882-1913)

During this historical period, to refer to the discipline, names such as child psychology, child psychology or child and adolescent psychology.

These denominations supposed the acceptance of the idea that general psychology should have as its object the study of the mind of the adult and normal human being.

As a consequence of such an approach, it was understood that developmental psychology should deal with the study of a stage in the life of the human being that fell outside the scope of general psychology.

That is why, at this stage of discipline development The study of the psychological characteristics of children and adolescents was addressed without a theory that will guide such studies and underestimating childhood and adolescence.

To some extent, preform conceptions were still valid: the child and adolescent considered themselves as small adults and conceived as unfinished and incomplete beings. Below is the contribution of those who can be considered parents of the discipline: Preyer, Hall, Baldwin, and Binet.

Wilhem Preyer: the foundation of developmental psychology

Wilhelm Preyer's book The mind of child (1882) is generally cited as the first scientific work of evolutionary psychology. This book was based on Preyer's observations about his own daughter, and it described his development, from birth to two and a half years, in areas such as laughter, smile, motor activity, self-awareness, cognitive development, etc.

Preyer attached great importance to inheritance to explain the sequential nature of the child's behavior

Preyer insisted on following proper scientific procedures, so that his work was an important advance in terms of the criteria of systematization and objectivity of the observations.

Thus, Preyer established the following standards:

  1. The need to mention only the observations made directly, which should be compared with those made by others
  2. All observations must be immediately noted., regardless of whether it may seem uninteresting or meaningless
  3. As far as possible, the observations must be made with discretion and all artificial stress on the child, etc. should be avoided
  4. Separate the observation from the interpretation
  5. Make interpretations derived from data, not opinions

Stanley Hall and its important role in the foundation of developmental psychology

Stanley hall, one of the most influential American psychologists of the early twentieth century, is considered as another of the founders of developmental psychology.

Hall and his well-known student Arnold Gessel, inspired by Darwin's work, they developed theories based on evolutionary ideas. These authors considered the child's development as a series of genetically determined events that appeared automatically.

Hall adopted Haeckel's biogenetic law as an explanatory mechanism, according to which ontogenesis recapitulates phylogenesis. This recapitulationist framework led him to propose an education without instruction, which allows children to follow the natural course of evolution, without interfering with it, to avoid damaging effects on their development.

This author wrote the first book on adolescence in 1904 (Adolescence). However, he did not follow Preyer's rules, speculated excessively and did not provide too much empirical data.

Hall studies in developmental psychology

Hall is remembered for his methodological contributions. This author studied in Germany with Wundt, after which he returned to the USA. in 1880 taking with him the method of the questionnaire.

Aware of the limitations of studies on the biographies of babies, Hall set out to collect a large set of objective facts about children.

This objective gave rise to the normative approximation of the children's study, in which measures of a large number of children are collected. Following this approach, developed questionnaires to evaluate very diverse topics (interests, fears, friendships, favorite toys, etc.) on which children of different ages could be interrogated.

Finally, we must recognize that Hall stimulated the movement for the study of the child, encouraging studies on children by parents and teachers and directing numerous doctoral theses.

Alfred Binet and the study of intelligence

The French psychologist Alfred Binet (1841-1911) also followed a normative approach to study child development, but his motives were different from those of Hall or Gessell.

The management of the Paris school asked Binet and Simon to find a method to identify the retarded children that should be assigned to special classes.

The instrument they developed would be the First scale to measure intelligence: The famous Binet-Simon test.

The conceptions prior to Binet, defended an atomistic conception of intelligence, reducing its analysis to simple functions such as reaction times or sensitivity to physical stimuli.

Binet and the study of intelligence and memory

Binet defended the complexity of intelligence. As regards cognitive development, he considered that this is a constructive process, that the purpose of development is adaptation to the physical and social world.

Further, Binet argued that development can occur at different rates in different individuals, due to the different rates of maturation and the different educational experiences of each one. Therefore, he emphasized the potential value of education to increase people's intelligence.

On the other hand, his studies on memory revealed that children actively reorganized the material presented to him to remember.

Binet's studies on children's memory covered topics such as prose memories, witness memory and the role of memory in mental calculation.

A feature of this author was his methodological plurality. Binet did not cling to the use of a certain method, and the use he made of them depended on the characteristics of what he had to investigate, trying to perform convergent analyzes on the same problem.

So, to the minute observations and small experiments performed on his two daughters, he joined the use of large samples of subjects, the analysis of individuals with exceptional intelligence, or with delay, etc. Even in the application of the experimental method, strictly speaking, it introduced numerous variations to deepen the analysis.

James Mark Baldwin

The contributions that this author made to the discipline were of a theoretical nature, at a historical moment with a strong tendency to value empirical facts more than theoretical constructions.

Baldwin, decisively influenced the psychology of European development and especially proposed the genetic point of view in the study of any psychological process: mental processes must be studied in their genesis.

In his work Mental development in the child and the race, published in 1894, establishes a succession of stages or epochs in cognitive development which anticipates the one that Piaget would later propose.

  • First, the child only has reflexes and physiological reactions
  • Subsequently, it progresses from a sensorimotor or ideomotor type stage to a stage of symbolic and ideational transformations
  • Then it goes through the prelogic, logical and hyperlogical stages

Baldwin as a precursor to Piaget and Vygotsky

Balwin is not only fundamental to the final Foundation of Developmental Psychology. It also formulates other ideas that would later influence and be collected by Piaget such as: accommodation, assimilation, circular reaction, or schemes.

Equally, direct antecedents of this author are found in other important evolutionary theorists such as Vygotsky. Thus, his concept of imagination, referring to personal construction or to the reorganization of knowledge, is similar to that of dialectical synthesis, which Vygotsky would use, and which allows explaining the emergence of new knowledge through internal mental activity.

As regards the personality development and social development, Baldwin (1897) considers that the development of the child's personality and self-image could not be understood without the influence of the indications that come from the behaviors of others, and by social links in which the child is integrated.

But the child is not only influenced by others, but there is a kind of mutuality. In social relations there is an interactive process, so that not only does the child learn from others, but they are also influenced by children.


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