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Positive adult development

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Positive adult development is a subfield of developmental psychology that studies positive development during adulthood. It is one of four major forms of adult developmental study that can be identified, according to Michael Commons; the other three forms are directionless change, stasis, and decline.[1] Commons divided positive adult developmental processes into at least six areas of study: hierarchical complexity (i.e., orders or stages), knowledge, experience, expertise, wisdom, and spirituality.

The development of people has focused on children and adolescence with several theories as proposed by Freud, Piaget, and Binet. Research in positive adult development supports the theory that development occurs during adulthood.[2] Recent studies indicate that such development is useful in predicting things such as an individual's health, life satisfaction, and degree of contribution to society.[3] One other benefit is allowing for changes in social policy's to create effective, efficient interventions to help optimize the aging process to as many of our aging generation as possible.[4] In these studies, adults that were older rated higher than these categories then those that were younger, thus supporting that there is indeed a positive development that occurs in adulthood.

Development of the field[edit]

Origins of the field[edit]

This field stems originally from several threads of work within psychology. Erik Erikson[5] proposed a number of adult periods. Daniel Levinson[6] also had described a number of "seasons of life." Abraham Maslow proposed an adults hierarchy of needs. And Jean Piaget came to agree there were adult postformal stages beyond the stage of formal operations, his earlier theory had located an endpoint to the development of cognitive structures, and wherein came to a conclusions at the adolescent's acquisition of formal operations.[7] John L. Horn[8] found that crystallized intelligence, represented by such things as vocabulary size, increased in adulthood. Robert Kegan[9] combined a Piagetian and an existential-phenomenological approach to create what he called constructive-developmental psychology. Lawrence Kohlberg[10] found that in early adulthood, some people come to think of moral, ethical and societal issues in multivariate terms (Systematic stage 11, the first postformal stage). They use multiple relations. During middle adulthood some become principled reasoners about moral issues; for instance, by using abstract principles to relate systems of rights to systems of duties (Meta systematic stage 12, the second postformal stage). Likewise, Cheryl Armon[11] found that by middle adulthood, some people could reason about interpersonal relationships at an order of complexity similar to that described by Lawrence Kohlberg.

Research on positive adult development have grown and expanded upon these early threads and theory's in a number of directions. Summaries of some of the initial positive adult development research can be found in the works of Commons, Richards, and Armon,[12] as well as in Alexander and Langer.[13] Four postformal adult stages of development beyond the formal stage have been discovered in a wide variety of domains. The total number of stages across the life span now stands at 15. Periods and Seasons have been described.[note 1]

A number of edited books were written on the topic of positive adult development in the 1990s[note 2] and more recently.[note 3] In the past decade, researchers have turned to investigating methods to foster positive development in educational as well as in organizational settings. Rather than by just describing it and/or measuring it. These methods are used in organizational and educational setting. Some use developmentally-designed, structured public discourse to address complex public issues.[15]

Directions of change in positive adult development[edit]

To determine whether a particular development in adulthood is positive or not, a value-judgment must be made about what kind of change in adult life is optimal or beneficial, and correspondingly what changes in adulthood are negative or deleterious. There are several competing standards for what constitutes positive development in adulthood, which can be broadly grouped into five directions;[16] orthogenetic (becoming more hierarchically complex), selective/adaptive (becoming more likely to pass on your genes and for offspring to survive and thrive), veridical (becoming less biased in your view of the world), eudemonic (becoming happier and healthier) and virtuous (becoming a better person from a particular moral or ethical standpoint).[17]

Studies have been conducted on various components of adult development. One such focused on the relationship between life experiences and optimism.[17] Another study (Helson, 2001),[18] presented three positive "paths"[18] a third followed the effects of attitudes of caring for others, which started in adolescence, and then continues into adulthood.[19] Each of the adult individual follows a path through adult development. These three paths were created using Environmental Mastery (EM) and Personal Growth (PG) scales developed by Carol D. Ryff. The three paths, identified as "Achievers", "Conservers", and "Seekers", were formulated from the patterns that resulted when Ryff's EM and PG tests were administered in the study. The Achievers scored high on both scales. The Conservers scored high on EM and low of PG. The Seekers scored low of EM and high on PG. All three paths were unique but all equally positive. This distinction was concluded to be the result of individual skill and motivation, with each individual's personal action creating personal strengths and personality features. The attributes of emotionality (both positive and negative), processes of identity, and the alterations in self-control across the adulthood years predicted the path classifications. Additionally, each path consisted of a strength profile on the "four criteria of maturity",[18] being competence, generativity, ego development, and wisdom.

Measurements in positive adult development[edit]

Assessment of positive adult development can measure quantitative (something that can be counted or measured) or qualitative (things described and cannot be measured in a numerical fashion) change.[16] Measurements of quantitative change assess change on a defined continuous variable, these variables would include such measures as IQ, reaction time, or indicators of personal maturity, authenticity or self-actualization. Quantitative change can be discontinuous, if a sudden step-change is in value, or continuous when changes occur gradually and incrementally.[1]

Qualitative change is evidenced by a change in kind, rather than a change in amount, as exemplified by the switch from caterpillar to butterfly. Assessments of qualitative change in adulthood involve assigning written or numerical data to a stage within a defined stage model, according to defined assessment criteria. Researchers have developed a number of such instruments and methods to measure adult development stages, such as the moral judgment interview of Kohlberg, the Berlin Wisdom Interview, the Washington University Sentence Completion Test, the Subject-Object Interview,[20] and the model of hierarchical complexity.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ For critical discussion of the term "postformal thinking", see Kallio.[14] She claims that the highest forms of adult cognitive development (as part of adult positive development) can be called "integrative thinking" (i.e. integrating several different psychological domains as emotions, cognition etc.)
  2. ^ Edited books written in the 1990s include:
    • Commons, M.L.; Richards, F.A.; Armon, C., eds. (1984). Beyond formal operations: Vol. I. Late adolescent and adult cognitive development. New York: Praeger. ISBN 978-0-03-062559-6. Retrieved 2022-01-09.
    • Commons, M. L., Armon, C., Kohlberg, L., Richards, F. A., Grotzer, T. A., & Sinnott, J. D. (Eds.). (1990). Adult development: Vol. 2. Models and methods in the study of adolescent and adult thought. New York: Praeger.
  3. ^ Edited books written in the 2000s include:
    • Demick, J., & Andreoletti (Eds.).(2003). Handbook of adult development. New Jersey, Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
    • Hoare, C. (Ed.). (2006). Handbook of adult development and learning. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.


  1. ^ Commons, Michael Lamport (2002). "Introduction: Attaining a New Stage". Journal of Adult Development. 9 (3). Springer Science and Business Media LLC: 155–157. doi:10.1023/a:1016099908688. ISSN 1068-0667. S2CID 140996925.
  2. ^ Staudinger, Ursula M. (May 2020). "The positive plasticity of adult development: Potential for the 21st century". American Psychologist. 75 (4): 540–553. doi:10.1037/amp0000612. ISSN 1935-990X. PMID 32378948. S2CID 218534430.
  3. ^ Bidzan-Bluma, Ilona; Bidzan, Monika; Jurek, Paweł; Bidzan, Leszek; Knietzsch, Jessica; Stueck, Marcus; Bidzan, Mariola (2020-11-17). "A Polish and German Population Study of Quality of Life, Well-Being, and Life Satisfaction in Older Adults During the COVID-19 Pandemic". Frontiers in Psychiatry. 11: 585813. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2020.585813. ISSN 1664-0640. PMC 7705096. PMID 33281646.
  4. ^ [Staudinger, U. M. (2020). The positive plasticity of adult development: Potential for the 21st century. American Psychologist, 75(4), 540–553. https://doi.org/10.1037/amp0000612 "The Positive Plasticity of Adult Development: Potential for the 21st Century"]. American Psychologist. {{cite journal}}: Check |url= value (help)
  5. ^ Erikson, Erik H. (1978). Adulthood. W.W. Norton. ISBN 0-393-09086-8. OCLC 471636572.
  6. ^ Levinson, D. J. (1978). Seasons of a man's life. New York: Knopf.
  7. ^ Vuyk, R. (1981). Overview and critique of Piaget's Genetic Epistemology. 1965-1980, 2. Volumes, Academic, New York.
  8. ^ Horn, J. L. (1970). Organization of data on life-span development of human abilities. In L. R. Goulet & P. B. Baltes (Eds.), Life-span developmental psychology: Research and theory (pp. 423–466). New York: Academic Press.
  9. ^ Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self: problem and process in human development. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  10. ^ Kohlberg, L. (1984). The psychology of moral development: Essays on moral development. San Francisco: Harper & Row
  11. ^ Armon, C. (1984). "Ideals of the good life and moral judgment: Ethical reasoning across the lifespan". In Commons, M.L.; Richards, F.A.; Armon, C. (eds.). Beyond formal operations: Vol. I. Late adolescent and adult cognitive development. New York: Praeger. ISBN 978-0-03-062559-6. Retrieved 2022-01-09.
  12. ^ Commons, M.L.; Richards, F.A.; Armon, C., eds. (1984). Beyond formal operations: Vol. I. Late adolescent and adult cognitive development. New York: Praeger. ISBN 978-0-03-062559-6. Retrieved 2022-01-09.
  13. ^ Alexander, C., & Langer, E. (Eds.). (1990). Higher stages of human development: Perspectives on adult growth. New York: Oxford University Press.
  14. ^ Kallio, Eeva (2011-11-02). "Integrative thinking is the key: An evaluation of current research into the development of adult thinking". Theory & Psychology. 21 (6). SAGE Publications: 785–801. doi:10.1177/0959354310388344. ISSN 0959-3543. S2CID 143140546.
  15. ^ Ross, S. N. (2007). Effects of a structured public issues discourse method on the complexity of citizens' reasoning and local political development. Dissertation Abstracts International B, 68 (02). (UMI No. 3251492).
  16. ^ a b Robinson, O.C. (2012). Development through adulthood: An integrative sourcebook. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
  17. ^ a b Schwaba, Ted; Robins, Richard W.; Sanghavi, Priyanka H.; Bleidorn, Wiebke (November 2019). "Optimism Development Across Adulthood and Associations With Positive and Negative Life Events". Social Psychological and Personality Science. 10 (8): 1092–1101. doi:10.1177/1948550619832023. ISSN 1948-5506. S2CID 150892197.
  18. ^ a b c Helson, Ravenna; Srivastava, Sanjay (2001). "Three paths of adult development: Conservers, seekers, and achievers". Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 80 (6): 995–1010. doi:10.1037/0022-3514.80.6.995. ISSN 1939-1315. PMID 11414379.
  19. ^ Hutchinson, Delyse; Youssef, George J.; Buhagiar, Adrienne; Teague, Samantha; Macdonald, Jacqui A; Letcher, Primrose; Greenwood, Chris; McIntosh, Jennifer; Toumbourou, John W.; Hallam, Bill W.T.; Skouteris, Helen; Sanson, Ann; Olsson, Craig A. (January 2019). "Adolescent Care-Orientation and Positive Development in Young Adulthood". Journal of Adolescent HealthJournal of Adolescent Health. 63–69. (64(1): 63–69. doi:10.1016/j.jadohealth.2018.07.024. PMID 30579438. S2CID 58662739 – via Science Direct.
  20. ^ Lahey, L., Souvaine, E., Kegan, R., Goodman, R. & Felix, S. (2011). A guide to the subject-object interview: Its administration and interpretation. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform.