Paul Baltes devoted his research to the field of lifespan orientation and how it applied to human development. His theories on aging and how it affects the psychology of the individual have influenced numerous studies and practices that have been implemented in the 20th century to care for those in the 65+ age demographic.
Although he developed numerous theories involving aging and wisdom, the Baltes theory on lifespan development is arguably is most influential contribution.
The 7 Key Features of Human Development
Baltes argues that human development has several fundamental principles which apply to each person. Although every person has their own family of perspectives, or a system of beliefs, that influences their own perception of reality, there are certain key features of human development that apply to everyone.
Baltes identified 7 specific key features within his theory.
1. Development continues across the entire life of an individual.
2. There are multiple directions and multiple dimensions to human development.
3. Individualized development can be measured as both growth and decline.
4. Plasticity plays a role in human development.
5. Sociological, cultural, and economic influences or conditions can alter the natural path of development for certain individuals.
6. Historical development patterns can influence current development patterns, based on the individual’s perception of value and worth of those historical patterns.
7. Human development has a multidisciplinary nature.
Before Baltes’ theory on lifespan development, the general consensus of human development was that it offered a slow decline. Traditional theories on the subject focused on the intense learning period that occurs for children between the ages of 0-5 and then approached aging as a steady decline of development.
Baltes suggests that development continues during aging, but in different ways. Instead of learning a first language, the elderly will adapt to the physical challenges of aging. Each is a specific knowledge base that must follow a specific learning curve.
How Self-Regulation Affects the Human Condition
In the early years of childhood, humans explore their world with a certain innocence. There is a trial and error process involved that helps to define boundaries to maintain safety. Parents and community members may offer advice or demand compliance as part of this development process, but each child decides on their own to follow that advice or explore their boundaries on their own.
Over time, this creates an effective level of self-regulation. People make choices based on a reflection of gain and loss that may occur. Most choices involve higher gains and minimal losses when completed. This regulates personal actions.
In the Baltes theory, as children move toward adolescence, there is an ability to self-regulate, but there is also a desire to optimize. Here, humanity discovers that certain sacrifices may need to be made to optimize personal reactions. This process doesn’t always apply to the physical world either. A person may feel like they must sacrifice their creativity to be able to regulate their emotions in a way that is found to be “acceptable.”
As people age, there is also a trend toward considering the future consequences of a choice rather than proceeding with a choice without regard to what may happen. Those in the elderly age groups may proceed more logically and use the wisdom of past decisions than those in younger age groups.
It should be noted, however, that any person of any age can fit into these categories. Someone with “wisdom beyond their years” may analyze situations logically and act methodically, while someone in the elderly age groups may act spontaneously because “time is short” or they have “nothing to lose.”
Plasticity and the Baltes Theory
The brain was believed to degrade as a person begins to age. Although there is a certain truth to this, the brain also adapts to the changing circumstances of life. Cognitive declines are common, but they are also partially reversible. According to the Baltes theory, the human brain always retains the capacity to reorganize itself to maximize its efficiency.
This can be seen with the degradation of eyesight. The brain reorganizes itself to adapt to a lesser need to process visual stimuli, allowing it to put a greater focus on other needed areas. Adults who are blind, for example, can locate sounds with precision when compared to adults who are fully sighted.
The plasticity shown in this area applies to other areas of gain or loss with the brain as well. The brain reorganizes itself to maximize the potential of each person, based on their individual circumstances. At the same time, plasticity-based training programs organized around the Baltes theory have shown that age-related declines can be minimized by simply using the brain in complex and interesting ways.
How is this possible? Because there is a history embedded into the development of the brain itself. The relationships and experiences that a child has during their formative years translates into personality development. This development can change based on socioeconomic or cultural settings that surround each child.
Distinct changes don’t wait for generations. Adults just 10 years apart in age can have significant differences in how they approach life and the process of aging.
What Does the Baltes Theory Means for the Future?
The findings suggested by the Baltes theory lead us toward a system of positive youth development. Certain age groups experience specific, distinctive circumstances that may affect their lifelong development patterns. Establishing a program, such as an after-school program, can enhance the positive aspects of development and lead a person toward more adaptability over time.
It is more than being a productive member of society or being able to find a good job at some point as an adult. A positive investment into children today creates an adult that can use their wisdom to adapt to changing circumstances and maximize their happiness – at any age.
So often, we place limits on children and the elderly because there is this idea that they are incapable of being self-sufficient. The opposite may actually be true. The Baltes theory suggests that children need to learn and the elderly need to remain active and engaged. Even if there are physical challenges, these should not be transformed into mental roadblocks.
Not only does this lessen the risks of age-related decline, but it also encourages individuals to disregard certain cognitive or behavioral personalities and styles that are generally not beneficial. It allows individuals to stay engaged with society, feel like they contribute in some way, while still making decisions and offering wisdom to future generations so the world could be a better place.
Understanding the human brain at any age allows us to reduce gaps in capacities that people have experienced throughout history. With those reduced gaps, we can create specialization processes from which everyone can benefit.