Theories of Psychological Development: Summary and Application

In psychology, several pivotal theoretical models of human psychological development have been introduced over the years. The diversity of prominent psychologists’ opinions concerning the stages of psychological development and the critical concepts within each of them provide a basis for substantial investigation and practical implementation. Indeed, the use of theories in the process of assessing and analyzing individuals allows for putting the life events and psychological processes in the larger context for their better understanding (Cosentino & Castro Solano, 2017). In this paper, three theories will be discussed, namely Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Cognitive Development, Maslow’s Theory of Motivation, and Erickson’s Psychosocial Theory. The models will be summarized, their main stages, and concepts discussed and applied to real-life experiences or observations. Overall, this paper is aimed at overviewing the concepts to validate their applicability to the social and psychological context.

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Cognitive Development

The development of moral and cognitive characteristics of an individual has been addressed by Lawrence Kohlberg, whose contribution to developmental psychology has significantly transformed the perception of moral development as a whole. The Moral Cognitive Development Model implies that any person undergoes six basic stages of moral development, during which the characteristics solidify. Overall, the theory holds that moral development is intertwined with cognitive advancement. Moreover, “the stages of moral development are irreversible, and the essential motivation of moral development lies in the pursuit of social acceptance and self-realization, which relies on individuals’ active participation in social culture” (Zhang & Zhao, 2017, p. 151). The six stages are subcategorized into three levels with two stages in each. In particular, the pre-conventional level consists of stage 1, obedience and punishment orientation, and stage 2, self-interest orientation. The conventional level includes stage 3, interpersonal accord and conformity, and stage 4, authority and social order orientation (Zhang & Zhao, 2017). Finally, the post-conventional level consists of stage 5, social contract orientation, and stage 6, universal ethical principles orientation.

Obedience and Punishment Orientation

At the first stage of Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Cognitive Development, children’s moral judgment is predetermined by obedience and punishment. These elements are the attributes of their upbringing, which serve as the driver of their morality advancement (Zhang & Zhao, 2017). When applying the obedience and punishment orientation to a real-life situation, one might draw on a child’s refusal to do something that is considered to be wrong. For example, when children play together in the school playground, and one child takes the other child’s toy, such behavior will be punished by the teacher. The children learn to obey unless they want to be punished. In such a manner, a child is not likely to take others’ toys because they understand that such actions will be morally wrong due to the following punishment for disobedience.

Self-Interest Orientation

Another stage that might be applied to an episode from one’s experience is the second stage of the pre-conventional level of moral development, which is self-interest orientation. According to Zhang and Zhao (2017), “children in this stage believe that right behavior is defined by whatever is in the individual’s best interest” (p. 152). To illustrate this stage, one might describe a situation when an adolescent refuses to help parents around the house because it is beyond their interest. Since there is no evident benefit for a teenager in doing laundry or washing dishes, they oppose parents’ requests or even demands help. On the other hand, when a person is promised to be paid for the work around the house, their moral judgment about the issue changes. Since there appears a personal interest in completing the work to obtain extra pocket money, the adolescent is motivated to contribute for their own benefit.

Authority and Social Order Orientation

Stage 4 in the conventional level of moral development holds that at this point, individuals’ morality is aligned with authority and social order. As a more complex and high-level stage, it implies that people “realize the importance to obey laws, dictums and social conventions because of their importance in maintaining a functioning society” (Zhang & Zhao, 2017, p. 154). For example, a student in the company of her peers observes that her friends occasionally engage in shoplifting. When asked to join them, she refuses because she understands that such behavior is illegal and it contradicts the rules of a functional society. Thus, when refusing to break the law and choosing to act legally right, this person exhibits authority and social order orientation, which exemplifies the achievement of the conventional level of moral development.

Maslow’s Theory of Motivation

The next essential theory in developmental psychology is Maslow’s Theory of Motivation or the hierarchy of needs. The author of this theory, Abraham Maslow, claimed that all people have the same needs, which are grouped into five consecutive categories with lower needs in the hierarchy enabling the satisfaction of the higher ones. According to Najjar and Fares (2017), the five sets of needs are arranged “in a hierarchical way according to their importance from the most basic at the bottom to the more complex and psychological at the top” (p. 82). These five groups of needs are physiological, safety, social, esteem, and self-actualization needs, with physiological needs being at the bottom of the pyramid and self-actualization crowning the top of the hierarchy. According to this theory, the presence of these needs predetermines human activity by means of motivation. Without satisfying the needs of a lower level, an individual is incapable of reaching higher levels, such as esteem and self-actualization.

Physiological Needs

To illustrate how Maslow’s Theory of Motivation works in real-life situations, one might first refer to the basic needs, which Maslo categorized as physiological needs. These needs include the need to have food, water, shelter, sleep, and other essential physiological elements, without which an individual cannot exist and move further across the hierarchy to satisfy other needs. A very simple example from the life of a student might illustrate how this concept applies to practice. For instance, a student needed to prepare a psychology essay to get a high grade and started working on the paper feeling hungry. The work was not productive, and the concentration was low because the student was only thinking about having something to eat.

When a person is very hungry and feels low in energy due to the urgent need to eat, they are incapable of effectively accomplishing tasks within higher levels of needs. Indeed, “the needs should be satisfied in the ascending order of the hierarchy from the lower needs to the higher ones, where no level can be reached without the fulfillment of the lower one” (Najjar and Fares, 2017, p. 82). Thus, in order to succeed at learning, which is the element of esteem needs, one should satisfy their physiological, safety, and social needs first.

Esteem Needs

Another important concept within the hierarchy of needs is esteem. In particular, it is important for people to be known and recognized as valuable members of society. The recognition, honor, and respect help them build a sense of self-esteem, which motivates their behavior and life choices. To apply this concept, one might exemplify a case of a professional choice. When selecting a career path, a person chooses between becoming a teacher or a doctor because this individual believes that these professions are recognized as respectable and reputable in society. Therefore, the individual chooses to become a doctor to obtain a social appraisal for knowledge, skill, and contribution for the greater good. In essence, recognition yields higher esteem and motivates a person to achieve better professional results.

Self-Actualization Needs

Self-actualization is the highest level of the hierarchy of needs, which implies that all the lower ranking needs must be satisfied for a person to be self-actualized. A vivid example of self-actualization might be a need to share one’s experience, creativity, knowledge, and skill to make the life of other people better and accomplish one’s goals of leading people toward the greater good (Suyono & Mudjanarko, 2017). In particular, a social worker with long-term experience of working with people and helping them deal with the psychological burden of stress develops his own program and launches a course in stress management. In such a manner, this person strives for self-actualization through making a contribution that brings him fulfillment.

Erickson’s Psychosocial Theory

An important theory in developmental psychology that pertains to the stage-by-stage advancement of human socialization through psychological growth is Erickson’s Psychosocial Theory. According to this model, people go through eight consecutive developmental stages across their lifespan. Each stage is characterized by a critical moment, a crisis from which a person exists either having obtained a necessary positive quality or acquires a negative trait due to the adverse outcome of the psychological conflict (Knight, 2017). Thus, each of the eight stages is attributed to a particular age and is characterized by a conflict.

The first stage occurs in infancy and is characterized by the opposition between basic trust and mistrust. The second stage is early childhood, characterized by autonomy vs. shame and doubt. The third stage is at play age characterized by initiative vs. guilt; stage four follows at school age and is based on the conflict between industriousness and inferiority. The fifth stage is experienced in adolescence when identity cohesion vs. role confusion is observed. Young adulthood is the sixth stage when the opposition between intimacy and isolation is noticed. The seventh stage is adulthood with generativity vs. stagnation; finally, the eighth stage is in old age, with integrity vs. despair conflict being central.

Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt

An example of the second stage in psychosocial development, according to Erickson’s theory, might be the desire of a 2-year old boy to take put on his shoes on his own and tie the laces without the help of parents. The refusal to be assisted and the desire to do everything autonomously or independently is the core of developing the sense of autonomy later in life (Erskine, 2019). If the parents do not let the child at this age do basic things independently, the child will develop shame and doubt.

Industriousness vs. Inferiority

An example of the stage of industriousness vs. inferiority is when a school student attempts to complete an extra task to master the skill in math. When the person is encouraged by teachers and parents to take the responsibility and put effort to achieve better results and complete the task better, the child develops a sense of self-worth as the result of industriousness. In cases when parents do not encourage skill improvement, the child is likely to experience inferiority due to the observed success of others and the seeming incapability to cope with difficulties.

Generativity vs. Stagnation

A man of 52 who has always been keen on fishing regularly takes his grandchildren fishing and teaches them the skills necessary for this activity. He shares his experience and transfers his knowledge to younger generations, which enables him to generate meaningful relationships and apply life-long wisdom to upbringing. If this person failed to engage in generativity, he would acquire the feeling of stagnation, which is characterized by the lack of commitment to others and the unfulfilled need to share life experiences.


To summarize, the exploration and application of the theories in developmental psychology have demonstrated that the systematic view on human development through the perspective of theoretical frameworks allows for understanding the principles of psychological growth. Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Cognitive Development, Maslow’s Theory of Motivation, and Erickson’s Psychosocial Theory all were applied to real-life situations to illustrate the particular role of moral judgment, needs and motivation, and psychosocial aspects in human life. Overall, the knowledge and application of these theories’ concepts might advance educational, upbringing, and self-fulfillment practices.


Cosentino, A. C., & Castro Solano, A. (2017). The high five: Associations of the five positive factors with the Big Five and well-being. Frontiers in Psychology, 8, 1250.

Erskine, R. G. (2019). Child development in integrative psychotherapy: Erik Erikson’s first three stages. International Journal of Integrative Psychotherapy, 10, 11-34.

Knight, Z. G. (2017). A proposed model of psychodynamic psychotherapy linked to Erik Erikson’s eight stages of psychosocial development. Clinical Psychology & Psychotherapy, 24(5), 1047-1058.

Najjar, D., & Fares, P. (2017). Managerial motivational practices and motivational differences between blue-and white-collar employees: Application of Maslow’s theory. International Journal of Innovation, Management and Technology, 8(2), 81.

Suyono, J., & Mudjanarko, S. (2017). Motivation engineering to employee by employees Abraham Maslow theory. Journal of Education, Teaching and Learning, 2(1), 27-33.

Zhang, Q., & Zhao, H. (2017). An analytical overview of Kohlberg’s theory of moral development in college moral education in mainland China. Open Journal of Social Sciences, 5(8), 151-160.

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