PSYCHOLOGY AS A PROFESSION
June 20, 2002
1. Human development, as a profession,
offers substantial promise for new and more effective ways of dealing with seemingly intractable human problems.
theoretical advances in the field of human development psychology have revealed a new perspective on many of the
individual and social problems of our day, but these insights remain, at this time, academic. We have at least a
beginning understanding of the course of intellectual, moral, and emotional development across the life span,
and the time has come to seek the dissemination and application of that knowledge to the larger problems of
Granting that human development
psychology still has much to learn, it also has much to contribute even in the present state of the field. With
insights from human development knowledge, the approach to many social problems including delinquency, drug use,
crime, health care, and management systems would differ from current practice. Moreover, and most importantly,
human development may be an avenue for approaching the major challenges of our time: overpopulation and
These claims may
seem extravagant, but once human development concepts become part of conventional wisdom, as elementary economic
concepts are now, a different view of human problems will be inevitable.
2. The professionalization of the
discipline is overdue.
Professionalization describes an
attitude shift from an academic focus, where the object is the increase of knowledge, to a service orientation,
where the practical application of specialized knowledge and training for the benefit of individuals or
communities is the goal. Human development psychology, as a discipline of applied knowledge, belongs with the
professions of medicine, education, political science, management and sociology.
The general professional
dissemination and cross-pollination of developmental psychology would have broad benefits. Many professionals
who could gain from knowledge of human development, including health workers and teachers, have never been
exposed to developmental theory and research. Even psychiatrists remain relatively untutored in the
contributions that knowledge of human developmental processes might make to the success of their endeavors.
dissemination of information gleaned from the study of human development has lagged behind the growth of that
knowledge. Because funding sources, academic institutes, and professional journals have emphasized the
importance of basic research rather than the application or dissemination of theory, those involved in the
development of this knowledge have had little incentive to move beyond the sphere of the university.
We are currently in a position to
make some fairly confident statements about the direction and tempo of human psychological development,
including in the adult years, and to begin to speculate about the conditions that support or impede such growth.
The implications of this work for the development of the human species as a whole and for the possibility of
taking part in the unfolding of the future are immense.
We now know, for
example, that the ability to grasp and manipulate abstract problems (formal operations, in Piaget's term) is a
product of adolescence and is most likely to appear in the presence of conventional secondary education in
developed nations. It rarely occurs in social settings that do not offer structured secondary education, or
where trade and barter are more central to everyday life than the abstract monetary systems that characterize
the developed nations. Formal operations are requisite to rational, scientific thought, and to the ability to
take the point of view of another in a systematic way.
Most of the larger
problems of human life, from war and violence to overpopulation and famine, are problems greatly exacerbated, if
not wholly created, by human beings. In order to grasp the implications of such problems for the future
well-being of the species as a whole, formal operations, at a minimum, are necessary. Yet formal operations are
not prevalent among many third world populations, and are not the norm even in most industrialized countries.
The developed world
has, generally, taken macro-economic approaches to interventions in less developed countries. It has tried to
support the growth of third world economies, the development of free trade, and the democratization of political
processes. It has provided medical and subsistence aid to countries in crisis. There has never been a consistent
application of psychological or human developmental principles to the problems of development on the national
and international scale.
Yet the development
and survival of the species depend upon the development and survival of individual members. Furthermore, these
macro-economic / social programs have not always been successful. By failing to value human development as
dearly as economic development, interventions frequently exacerbate the problems they are meant to treat.
Theories of human
development would suggest that some of these failures have to do with the imposition of ideals and programs that
are either too far ahead of the intellectual and social development of individuals within a society, or are not
sufficiently embedded in the conditions of everyday life to affect individual development. The development of
societies is an iterative process, from this viewpoint. It entails parallel advancement of individuals and the
organizations in which they learn and work, and by which they are governed. Moreover, the interaction between
the individual and the collective can be structured so that both are stimulated to grow and progress.
Theory in the field
of human development is now advanced enough for us to begin a systematic program of research and action that
might move beyond the individual level, taken alone, to address the systemic problems of creating
growth-enhancing environments in which society can function. Individual, economic, social and political
development can be viewed as interrelated variables, each impacting on the other. Advancement along all four
fronts is desirable, but no single element of the process can be promoted without consideration of the impact on
the other three. For example, the use of the terms "human capital" and "social capital," currently in vogue,
gives an economic slant to concepts which are much more profound than their attributes as factors of production.
A program to
enhance the usefulness of human development theory would include support for continuing research on the
variables that create the potential for intellectual, moral, and emotional growth. We know, for example, that
the opportunity to take varied social roles is critical to the development of empathy and, therefore, higher
stages of moral judgment. We also know that the use of reasoning and judgment at precisely one level above the
current function of an individual is most likely to create the potential for growth from a lower to a higher
stage. What might a systematic program based on these two principles produce in a setting where social
opportunities are now limited and where little attention is currently paid to the level of reasoning in use?
These are the larger, more programmatic issues that must now be addressed.
and application of knowledge in this field would affect professionals in many fields. In addition to fostering a
new level of awareness of the importance of human development for methodologies, it could stimulate recognition
of the value of organizing human efforts in all fields so as to encourage and not depress human development.
Certainly, the involvement of developmental psychologists in evaluating program strategies could improve the
effectiveness of attempts to improve women's and children's health, to design effective elementary education, to
organize and manage production facilities, and to train managers, social workers, teachers, and policy makers.
Why do these kinds
of work typically go forward uninformed by human developmental theory and research? Part of the answer lies in
the institutional infrastructure in which developmental study is embedded. Because we have focused our efforts
on the building of theory and the testing of that theory in controlled laboratory and quasi-experimental
research, it has been very difficult to find funding sources. This is particularly true of the study of
adolescent development and adult life. While infants and the elderly are considered critical populations,
development in the greater part of the life-span has been largely ignored, with the exception of
"problem-centered" studies like juvenile delinquency, adolescent drug use, and the like. Certainly, the study of
normal, positive development has never been a priority.
Only as we begin to
face the limits of our survivability as a species does it seem critical to expend our efforts on understanding
who we are as human beings, and how quickly we might expand our general understandings of ourselves and the
world around us. If we do not turn our attention to everyday development, we are likely to succumb to the
problems we create every day, from overpopulation to toxic waste and the depletion of non-renewable resources.
How do people
understand and react to these problems? This is the kind of question developmental psychology has sought to
answer. How can we change the understandings and reactions people have? This is where developmental psychology
leads. The study of human development has always focused on these questions and possesses some fascinating, if
relatively untried answers. With stronger support for application, these answers can be tested and modified to
treat the most pressing problems of our time.