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Evaluating Theories in Developmental Psychology

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 1282 words Published: 5th Apr 2018

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  • Michelle Holding

A key area studied in developmental psychology is sex and gender. Sex is a biological term which refers to the genetics and DNA which we are born with. Females are born with XX chromosomes and males are born with XY chromosomes. (Hayes 2000, p664) states that sex is the biological quality of the individual, someone is biologically either male or female.

Gender is a psychological term which refers to the gender identity a person identifies with, such as masculine or feminine. Are gender is not determined at birth but is learned behaviour. (Hayes 2000, p664) states that gender refers to the social aspects of this distinction, to the behaviour and conduct which the individual engages in as they interact with other people.

(Hayes 2000, p18) explains the nature/ nurture debate as an example of determination in psychology. Nature and nurture are two opposing view-points concerned with what causes someone to develop. On one hand naturists see development as arising through innate factors- inherited characteristics. On the other side it is seen through development and learning.

The nature perspective explains that we are born this way, with reference to gender, our identity is chosen before we are born it is based on genetics and DNA. The nurture side of the debate argues that we learn our behaviours through the environment, with reference to gender, we learn our gender identity through our environment and social interactions.

One theory within developmental psychology is the social learning theory. Within this theory psychologists believe that we learn our behaviours through the environment we are exposed to within our lives. The social learning theory places great importance on observation and reinforcement (Gross 2010).

Bandura (1963, cited in Malim & Birch, 1998) conducted a study with the aim of seeing if the behaviours of children were reflective of behaviours they had observed. This was a lab experiment, children were separated into two groups. The experimental group was shown video footage of adults behaving aggressively towards a Bobo doll. The control group were not shown the Bobo doll. The children were then observed during play with a Bobo doll. Bandura found that the children from the experimental group displayed more aggressive behaviour towards the bobo doll than the control group. This study took place within a laboratory which means the experimenters had high control over variables, however this means it has low ecological validity as it is not very true to real life.

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Another study we looked at within the social learning theory is Smith and Lloyd (1978, cited in Hardy & Hayes, 1999). This study was to see if mothers treat a baby differently depending upon the baby being dressed as a boy or girl. A baby was dressed in either girl or boy clothes. The mothers were then asked to describe the child’s behaviour. The results showed that the mothers treated the child in a sex stereotypical way depending on how the child was dressed. This study supports the social learning theory as it shows that parents have an influence on gender roles. This study took place in a controlled environment making it easy to replicate and the experimenters had high control over variables, however this also means the study is low on ecological validity as it is not very true to life.

Other psychologists believe we learn our gender identity through the cognitive development theory. Kohlberg (1966) explains the cognitive developmental theory of gender as gender role development is a self-socialising process. This is dependent on the child’s sense of being a male or female. If a child is a boy the child will think I am a boy therefore I want to do boy things and he will gain approval for doing so and find this rewarding. The child will seek out, organise and behave in accordance with the information he has regarding gender roles. Social and cognitive factors are both important In the gender learning process. In this theory Kohlberg believes that gender development happens in three stages. Stage one is known as gender labelling, at this stage children can identify themselves and others as male or female, gender is not seen as stable over time or across superficial physical characteristics. Stage two is known as gender stability, here children recognise that gender is stable over time, boys will grow up to be daddies and girls will grow up to be mummies. However the unchanging nature of gender is not yet appreciated. Stage three is the gender constancy stage, this is when children have full appreciation of the permanence of gender over time and across situation. (Banerjee, R. 2005)

A study which supports this theory is Slaby and Frey (1975, cited in Banerjee, 2005).The aim of this study was to see if childrens’s attention to same sex models was influenced by their level of gender constancy. Fifty five, two-five year olds were assessed using a series of questions to measure the children at each stage of gender development. The children were then classified as high or low on gender constancy. Several weeks later the children then watched a film with a split screen, male on one side, female on the other, eye contact was measured to determine which model on screen the child watched. They found that the children who had high levels of gender constancy watched the same sex model on the screen. This showed that both cognitive and social factors play a part in gender role development. This study was a lab experiment making it easy to replicate and giving the experimenters high control over variables, however it lacks ecological validity as this is not very true to life. This study is praised for scientifically being able to measure the levels of gender constancy within the children. Other criticisms are that it has low time validity as it was carried out in 1975 the results may not be the same in modern society. Only fifty-five children were used during the experiment which is a relatively small sample size therefore it can be argued that the results can not be generalised to the rest of the population.

Within the two theories we have discussed the significant difference is that the social learning theory falls within the nurture approach and the cognitive developmental theory falls within the nature approach. In addition to these 2 theories, the psychodynamic theory looked into the emotional development in relation to gender. With evidence to support all theories it is difficult to determine how we develop our gender roles, however it helps teach the importance of both nature and nurture.


Gross, R. (2010). Psychology, the science of mind and behaviour. 6th Ed. Hodder & Stoughton: London.

Hayes, N. (2000). Foundations of Psychology. 3rd Ed. Thomson: London.

Hardy, M & Heyes, S. (1999). Beginning Psychology. 5th Ed. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Malim, T & Birch, A. (1998). Introductory Psychology. Palgrave:Basingstoke.

Banerjee, R. (2005). Cognition and gender development. [online] OpenLearn. Available at: http://www.open.edu/openlearn/body-mind/childhood-youth/childhood-and-youth-studies/childhood/cognition-and-gender-development [Accessed 14 Oct. 2014].

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