Psychology Adulthood
Judith Stevens-Long, Michael Lewis
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 February 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0125


As an independent field of study, adult development emerged from psychology, sociology, and gerontology in the early 1970s. Several important streams contributed to its growth. These can still be discerned today and are apparent in this article. As early as the 1960s, sociologists such as Bernice Neugarten began to look at middle age as a distinct phase of life, and several books that described a “midlife” crisis excited public interest. Sociologists were also beginning to make a distinction between the old/old and the young/old. For years before these works, of course, gerontologists had been looking at the psychology, physiology, and sociology of aging. Most of this work was guided by the experimental model and was directed at measuring and combating the decline associated with age. Aspects of this work remain in the important references in this article. In fact, early and influential work on the course of intellectual function over age and speed of reaction time, as well as work on compensation for the problems of age, still inspire substantial amounts of research, some of which is noted in this article. Psychology, especially research by Erik Erikson and Abraham Maslow and the human potential movement of the 1970s, drove the interest of developmental psychologists toward a more life-span approach, with a particular focus on what positive developments might arise in adulthood. Developmental thinkers who had been influenced by Piaget began to push the boundaries of his theory past formal operations. Those interested in ego development began to see that adulthood might hold some promise for understanding maturity and wisdom as well as aging well. Rather than divide the field into phases, such as young adulthood, middle age, and old age, the field offers rich possibilities along dimensions that might be studied across adulthood, and so this article emphasizes topics and subtopics as well as approaches to various subtopics. The field might be organized with regard to topics—such as cognition, emotion, personality, behavior, and spiritual concerns—often called “lines of development.” Alternatively, one might organize the literature in terms based on the approach a researcher or theorist takes, whether emphasizing external forces, internal forces, the interaction between the two, or the propensity of humans to construct their own meaning and shape their own environments. The article is organized around the major subtopics, and the annotations often refer to an author’s position on the significance of external versus internal forces. It also focuses on adult development and learning rather than on aging.

General Overviews

In this section, handbooks that are devoted to research and theory specifically in adult development are reviewed. There are no integrative overviews, perhaps because the field is so new. A perusal of the topics covered in the references listed should give the reader an idea of how the field has taken shape. Nemiroff and Colarusso 1990 was one of the first handbooks that specifically covered the adult years. The authors teach psychiatry, however, and so the emphasis was on the adult as a patient and on the psychological challenges of adult life. Demick and Andreoletti 2003 is more in tune with the current research on adult development. It emphasizes a systems-oriented perspective, including several lines of development from cognition and moral reasoning to values, as well as a variety of contexts from biology to social role to contexts such as work and eldercare. Hoare 2011 reflects the growing acceptance of the deep interaction between intrapersonal life in adulthood and the social and historical context in which it unfolds. It emphasizes the interface between experience and construction of the world by the individual, and it offers chapters that focus on a variety of developmental lines, including cognition, emotion, and spiritual experience, as well as work on context, from family life and work to death and dying. It also offers a set of chapters on measurement and application.

  • Demick, J., and C. Andreoletti, eds. 2003. Handbook of adult development. Plenum Series in Adult Development and Aging. New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-4615-0617-1E-mail Citation »

    The only volume ever to claim this title, this work was inspired by its association with the Society for Research in Adult Development and the Journal of Adult Development, of which Jack Demick is the editor. Sections in this volume cover theory and research, biocognitive development, and social development in adulthood.

  • Hoare, C., ed. 2011. The Oxford handbook of reciprocal adult development and learning. 2d ed. Oxford Library of Psychology. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780199736300.001.0001E-mail Citation »

    Along with the first edition of this handbook (2006), Hoare has brought together contributions both from the study of adult development and adult learning. This volume emphasizes the reciprocity between development and learning and includes theory, research, and practical application. Many of the authors in this volume have found their way into this article.

  • Nemiroff, R. A., and C. A. Colarusso, eds. 1990. New dimensions in adult development. New York: Basic Books.

    E-mail Citation »

    Taking a more clinical point of view than later compendiums, the authors provide the first handbook dedicated exclusively to adult development. They emphasize the social and cultural meaning of adult development, clinical problems in treating adult patients, gender roles, illness, and aging.

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