In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Adulthood

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Paradigms
  • General Theories
  • Research Design and Methodology
  • Ego Development
  • Emotion and Personality Development
  • Adult Learning
  • Development and Context
  • Moral Development
  • Wisdom

Psychology Adulthood
Judith Stevens-Long, Steven W. Page
  • LAST REVIEWED: 28 March 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 March 2018
  • 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 and these can still be discerned today and are apparent in this bibliography. As early as the 1960s, sociologists like 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 pushed 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. Until recently, the field could have been organized into discrete topics, such as cognition, emotion, personality, behavior, and spiritual concerns. Alternatively, one might have organized the literature in terms of the approach a researcher or theorist takes, whether emphasizing external forces, internal forces, their interaction, or the propensity of humans to construct their own meaning and shape their own environments. Perhaps the most notable difference shared by the more recent references in this revision compared to those in the last version, is how borders have blurred. Evident in many of these sources is an impetus toward integration—across disciplines, dimensions, time scales, and levels of analysis—and explanatory complexity. This seems to reflect the significant redefinition of what constitutes “good science” that is well underway across the sciences. Although the article is organized around the major subtopics of concern in the field, cross-border fertilization is a widely apparent and welcome development among them.

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: 10.1007/978-1-4615-0617-1

    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/9780199736300.001.0001

    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.

    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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