Freud, Piaget & Vygotsky Walk into a Bar…

Dr. Jonathan Adams joined episode 5 of ConverSapiens to discuss his specialty, developmental psychology. In this excerpt from our conversation, he defines developmental psych and offers some thoughts on traditional psychoanalysis, modern therapy, and the developmental theories of Sigmund Freud, Jean Piaget, and Lev S. Vygotsky.


First off, what is developmental psychology, for those of us who have heard the term but don’t have a clear picture of what it means?

I’ll start off by defining psychology, which is the scientific study of behaviors and mental processes. When we say behaviors, we mean things that you can observe; mental processes, your thoughts, actions, feelings, etc. When we say scientific study, we mean that we’re examining these things empirically. So there’s a hypothesis, there’s a data collection process, there’s a data analysis process, and then there’s an interpretation process. That’s psychology. Developmental psychology looks at how those things evolve over the course of the lifespan. Many people think that developmental psychology focuses just on kids or just on teenagers, but it actually focuses on the entire lifespan.

A lot of people associate psychological development almost entirely with early life influences and experiences. The Freudian stages and similar ideas come to mind. Do you think that’s an accurate focal point for understanding development?

First of all, the Freudian psychosexual stages are dismissed by practically all psychologists today. There’s no empirical evidence for a lot of Freudian constructs. He was a brilliant, innovative thinker, but he simply did not have the tools at his disposal that we have today. He didn’t have the modern outlook that we have today, or that empirical foundation. So I just want to clarify that before answering your question. I will say, in regards to the issue of early life development, the importance of that has been vastly overstated. I think it was Hillary Clinton and Bill Clinton who pushed an enormous emphasis on the first three years of life recently. They’re saying that your first three years are going to change the trajectory of your life, and if you aren’t exposed to a lot of rich environmental stimulation, then you’re going to suffer cognitive deficits that will impair you for the rest of your life. All of that is based on some really sensationalized findings and really shoddy interpretations of brain science.

There are two big studies that frame this argument. The first was a study of rats. Scientists put some rats in this cage that was absolutely devoid of all stimuli. It was just a dark room with nothing for the rats to do. They put another group of rats in a cage with all these toys. There were seesaws and rat swings and hamster wheels to play in, and they had all the fun in their little rat theme park. The other poor rats had to sit in silence in the dark. As a result, those rats in the dark depressing cages unsurprisingly had cognitive deficits because they weren’t exposed to anything at all. The rats who were exposed to the enriched environment flourished, by contrast.

We misinterpret that to say that we need environmental stimuli to flourish, and that’s true, but the misinterpretation lies in the fact that most of our environments give us the stimulation that we need naturally. There was a similar study done in Romania that looked at children in orphanages that were in absolutely horrific conditions. There was very little opportunity for the children to develop and very little attention given to them. As a result, they didn’t flourish. There were cognitive deficits. But by and large, it takes a lot of environmental deprivation to make that happen. You have to intentionally deprive the environment of stimuli in order to be able to produce those deficits. As long as you are giving your child a normal amount of stimulation and a normal amount of interaction, they will more than likely grow up to be a totally wonderful, healthy, neurotypical adult.

I’m glad you point out that the Freudian stages have been debunked, because they’re so incredibly strange!

Yes! That was actually the very first lecture that I ever gave…. Conveniently my preceptor had to go out of town to a conference and she left me to teach Freud. I swear it was one of the most awkward moments of my life when I had to elaborate on all of the Freudian concepts in all their glory. I was like, “Hey everyone, how many of you have read Oedipus Rex and lived to tell the tale? Let me give you the SparkNotes version: This dude kills his dad and marries his mom. Freud apparently snorted a little bit too much coke one day and thought ‘I bet if three year olds were given the chance, they’d do the same thing!'” It was very interesting.

On a more serious note, one time a student actually came up and asked me, why do we still study this? I thought it was a really important question. For one, it is very good entertainment value for students, which if you’re a teacher, you know how important it is to have something with a bit of entertainment value in your class. But really, I think it’s important for people to understand those foundational ideas and to know that people did once subscribe to these theories because they didn’t really have any better explanations. I think 100 or 200 years from now our successors might look back at us and say, “look at all those idiots!”

Freud and the other psychoanalysts wrote such vast volumes of their observations and ideas. Are there contributions from Freud that are still useful to psychology that have not been debunked?

There are a few rare disorders that Freudian psychoanalysis is still used in an attempt to treat. I’m not an expert on those disorders, but they are beyond rare, and that was actually something that I learned from someone who is deeply trained in psychoanalysis. I think more broadly speaking, the notion of the therapist client relationship was largely built upon Freudian principles. The notion that you would come in and disclose intimate details about your life stemmed from Freud.

What’s the difference between a psychoanalyst and a modern therapist?

The main difference is that modern therapies are evidence based. Any therapy that you’re given, be it cognitive behavioral therapy, some sort of psychotropic drug treatment, etc… those are all evidence based treatments for mental illness and there is a firm duration in which those treatments are administered. With psychoanalysis, the recommendation was that you spend maybe one to three hours a day talking to your analyst, and there’s not really an end in sight. If you are a health insurance company in the United States of America, you want to spend as little as possible on giving care to your patients. So the insurance companies are not interested in the whole psychoanalysis thing. They’ll want to treat this disorder and treat it as fast as possible.

Is it fair to say that psychoanalysis is focused more on long term ideas about understanding your individual psyche, whereas modern therapy is focused more on how we can treat the problem right in the here and now?

Well, when it was used, psychoanalysis was used for treatment. It wasn’t just a mechanism for self understanding. It was used as a way of actually attempting to treat psychological disorders that really seemed to have mysterious origins or couldn’t be treated otherwise.

Childhood development has frequently been thought to occur in discrete stages, but is that really the case?

Piaget is another big name in developmental psychology. I know in education, especially in pedagogy classes, he gets brought up quite a lot. What are his major contributions and what are your thoughts on him?

Piaget proposed that our development consists of four different stages. There’s a sensorimotor stage, in which we’re exploring our environment with our senses and our motor skills, hence the uncreative name. Then there’s the preoperational stage. The preoperational stage is when we are first beginning to develop the cognitive capacities that we think of when we say the phrase cognitive capacities. That’s when we’re focused on learning, for example, that others have different ideas and beliefs than we do. That’s when we start to learn that if I took a big tall glass of water and I poured it into a wider, shorter tub, that water doesn’t actually change. We haven’t mastered that in the preoperational stage though. We’re still learning those things. Then we get into the concrete operational stage, and then the formal operational stage, and that’s when abstract thought starts to blossom. That’s Piaget’s developmental theory, in a very broad nutshell.

The issue with that theory is that development doesn’t really happen in those discrete stages. Those stages are really kind of arbitrarily dictated. There’s also a lot of other research that suggests that children actually demonstrate an understanding of certain principles that demark each stage before Piaget said they would. One example of that would be the concept of object permanence. Object permanence is this notion that just because something is out of sight doesn’t mean it’s out of existence. You can actually do some experiments with children as young as 5 months old and see that they will show surprise when objects seem to spontaneously disappear because they experience a violation of expectation. That suggests they already have this notion of object permanence, and 5 months is a lot earlier than Piaget theorized a child would understand that. So that’s one example where Piaget didn’t get the timing quite right.

But my biggest gripe with Piaget is the cultural insensitivity within his work. He did most of his work on white European kids, and he tried to derive his findings from those kids to describe the developmental trajectory of all children. Obviously, you can’t do that. A lot of the tenets that the formal operational stage of development praises reflect our Western ideals. According to Piaget, you reached your developmental apex when you’re able to think abstractly about your identity, about politics, or about religion, but for many individuals, they don’t reach that point because their environments don’t demand it. If you are in an environment that dictates that your survival is contingent on subsistence farming, or on finding clean water, that’s what your cognitive resources are going to go towards, not towards developing political or religious ideologies.

When we were talking earlier, you suggested that a developmental psychologist you are more interested in is Vygotsky, right?

Yeah, I do tend to veer towards Vygotsky, personally. His life was tragically cut short by tuberculosis at age 37, so we really didn’t get to see a lot of his thoughts fleshed out, but Vygotsky put a lot more emphasis on the role of children’s environments in sculpting their cognitive abilities. Vygotsky was a champion of this idea known as the zone of proximal development. The ZPD, which is probably familiar to all educators out there, describes the distance between what a child currently knows and what you know as the expert. To bridge that distance, you engage in something called scaffolding. You go step by step, challenging those children until they can independently reach autonomy with whatever they are learning. I really like that idea more because you don’t have that arbitrary dictation of “stages” and it’s also a bit more culturally sensitive. Of course, it’s also not as fully fleshed out an idea because of his early death.

Do you think the emphasis on “stages” and the the ideas that are related to trying to determine exact “stages” of development may be influenced by the Freudian psychosexual stages that possibly set the mold for that obsession?

That’s an interesting question. I think that there might have been some influence. In the history of psychology there have undoubtedly been different periods where certain scholars would react to the ideas of other scholars, and sometimes they would build upon them. Knowing that I’d say maybe it’s possible. But I will say to those who are listening, Piaget stages and Freud stages are like day and night. They may be stage theories, but that’s all they have in common.

Hear the full conversation and learn more about developmental psychology by checking out episode 5 on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or where ever else podcasts are played! To see a full list of links to the show on all platforms or even listen to it right here on our website, click Listen Now!

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