5 Theories of Social Development – Psychology

social development theories, explained below

Social development theories are divided into two camps that would colloquially be understood as the ‘nature’ and ‘nurture’ camps.

The ‘nature’ camp sees children’s social development occurring in fixed linear stages. Stage-based theories of social development include Erikson’s psychosocial theory, Bowlby and Ainsworth’s attachment theory, and Kohlberg’s theory of moral development.

The ‘nurture’ camp sees children’s social development as more influenced by the adults and peers in a child’s life rather than by their brain development.

Theories from the nurture camp include social learning theory by Bandura and the ecological systems theory by Bronfenbrenner.

The two camps are summarized below:

Stage-based theories of social developmentSociocultural theories of social development
Attachment Theory (Bowlby and Ainsworth)Social Learning Theory (Bandura)
Psychosocial Theory (Erikson)Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner)
Moral Development Theory (Kohlberg) 

The nurture camp criticizes the fixed and linear nature of the nature camp. For these theorists, social development is a function of the social and cultural context in which a child is raised.

Children of different cultures, communities, or even families can go through social development along different trajectories depending upon what is valued within that society.

Below, I’ll outline each theory. Comment in the discussion section at the end of the article to let me know which theory you think makes most sense!

Social Development Theories

The following sociocultural psychology theories examine the social development of humans as they develop a more mature ability to navigate their social worlds.

1. Attachment Theory (Bowlby and Ainsworth)

Attachment theory focuses on social development in the early years. It explores how babies start to slowly develop independence and self-confidence in the first 2 years of life.

According to Bowlby, there are four stages of attachment. Each stage reveals the increasing social and emotional development of the child:

  • Pre-attachment (newborn to 6 weeks): Babies don’t show preferences for caregivers, but demonstrate complete reliance upon the caregivers for their wellbeing.
  • Attachment in making (6 weeks to 6-8 months): The baby and parent bond, leading to a sense of attachment between the baby and their parent.
  • Clear-cut attachment (6-8 months to 18-24 months): The parents and baby are seemingly inseparable with the baby feeling extremely strong attachment to its parents and very low levels of independence.
  • Formation of reciprocal relationships (24 months+): Separation anxiety lessens as the child starts developing relationships outside of the parent-child bond. Independence and self-efficacy are formed.

Mary Ainsworth builds upon Bowlby’s theory by looking at the ways babies and their parents handle separation. Briefly, Ainsworth argues that effective parenting can lead to stronger independence and self-confidence.

Ainsworth, for example, explores concepts like base touching, where a child with anxiety will return to its parent to ‘touch base’ for comfort, before heading back out to practice its independence some more.

2. Psychosocial Theory (Erikson)

Erikson Psychosocial Stages Development

Psychosocial theory uses Freud’s psychoanalysis framework and applies it to social and emotional development.

Erikson proposes a series of stages. In each stage, there is a social challenge and a psychological consequence (see table below).

For example, in stages 2 through 4, development of independence and self-efficacy are central features. If you can successfully pass through these phases, you’ll develop a sense of your social sense where you are a confident and capable social being.

Similarly, stage 5 is about developing a coherent social identity and stage 6 is about being able to have mature adult relationships.

Stage (And ages)ConflictDescription
1. Infancy (0 – 1 years)Trust vs. mistrustInfants need to learn to trust their parents.
2. Early Childhood (1 – 3 years)Autonomy vs. shame & doubtInfants need to develop autonomy. Without encouraging parents, they may develop shame and doubt.
3. Play Age (3 – 6 years)Initiative vs. guiltChildren need to learn to play constructively. Too much control over a child may lead to a sustained sense of guilt for their failure.
4. School Age (6 – 12)Industry vs. inferiorityChildren should be encouraged to be productive during the school age. If they are belittled for their efforts, they may develop a sense of inferiority.
5. Adolescence (12 – 19)Identity vs role confusionAdolescents attempt to create a unique individual identity for themselves. If they are successful, they are comfortable in their skin. If not, they struggle with a weak sense of self throughout their lives.
6. Early Adulthood (20 – 25)Intimacy vs isolationIf the individual is not successful in developing a secure intimate relationship, they feel a sense of isolation that follows them through their lives.
7. Adulthood (26 – 64)Generativity vs stagnationDuring adulthood, individuals focus on building things that outlast their own lives. Examples include raising children and building businesses. If adults are successful, they feel accomplished. If they fail, they feel useless.
8. Old Age (65 – death)Ego identity vs despairIn old age, we look back on our lives and assess whether we have lived a valuable life of integrity. If so, we feel a sense of wisdom, while if we have lived a shallow life, we feel a sense of despair.

3. Stages of Moral Development (Kohlberg)

Kohlberg’s stages explore how people develop morality as they grow older. These moral stages have consequences for – and messages about – people’s social development.

Kohlberg proposes 6 stages in 3 levels:

Level 1: Preconventional Morality

Stage 1: Obedience/Punishment OrientationAt very young ages children define the morality of a behavior as a direct function of its consequences. Morality is about reward and punishment.
Stage 2: Individualism and ExchangeChildren realize that rules are not absolute because there isn’t just one correct point of view. Actions in moral dilemmas are based on self-interest, not just strict adherence to external rules.

Level 2: Conventional Morality

Stage 3: Establishing Interpersonal RelationshipsMoral decisions are made based upon saving face socially. Children are highly concerned with social norms and being seen as a good group member.
Stage 4: Maintaining Social OrderMoral decisions are made based on the idea that shared rules and morality lead to maintenance of social order which is good for everyone.

Level 3: Postconventional Morality

Stage 5: Social Contract And Individual RightsPeople begin to consider the different values and beliefs of others when defining morality. If laws violate human rights, then alternatives should be devised.
Stage 6: Universal PrinciplesPeople develop their own concept of morality based on abstract reasoning and universal ethical principles.

Clearly, at each stage, different conceptions of society, social interaction, and the social contract are evident. Thus, this theory of moral development can also be used to explore how our sense of ourselves as a social being is developed through life.

4. Social Development Theory (Bandura)

Unlike the previous theorists, Bandura shows us that social development may not be as rigidly stage-based as we may have thought. Bandura’s theory of social development posits that people develop social skills primarily through observation of adults.

To test this theory, Bandura conducted the now famous bonobo doll experiment. In this experiment, he separated children into two groups:

  • The first group observed an adult playing roughly with a toy – punching it, kicking it, and showing no care for it.
  • The second group observed an adult caring for the same toy – cuddling it, brushing its hair, and carefully moving it about.

Both groups were then allowed to go and play with the toy.

The group who observed the adult being rough with the toy were also rough with it. They had learned what was the normal range of social behaviors from their mentor and they mirrored them.

The group who observed the adult being gentle with the toy treated it gently. They had also learned what was the appropriate social behavior, and they mimicked it.

Here, we have compelling evidence to show that social development in childhood isn’t universal or possibly isn’t even based on stages of cognitive development. Perhaps, social development is more to do with nurture than nature.

Related: 21 Social Development Examples

5. Ecological Systems Theory (Bronfenbrenner)

ecological systems theory

Like Bandura, Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory posits that children’s development occurs through social interaction.

But unlike Bandura, Bronfenbrenner looks at the ways social development occurs outwardly. Our social development is firstly influenced by our parents, but extends all the way out to global factors that also affect our sense of ourselves as a social being.

To Bronfenbrenner, our social and cultural identities are formed within an intersectional field of influences that can best be visualized as a series of concentric circles.

In the center is the individual. Each circle (from inside to outside) demonstrates influences on the individual that are more removed from them, but nevertheless affect their identity:

  1. Microsystem: The immediate influences that affect how a child develops their social self, such as parents, siblings, and close friends.
  2. Mesosystem: How important influences in the person’s life interact. For example, how the parents and teachers interact can affect a child’s social development if they observe the collaborative (or non-collaborative) ways the parents and school interact.
  3. Exosystem: Factors two steps removed that nonetheless affect our social self. For example, Dad’s work makes dad stressed. Dad comes home and yells at his kids out of stress, leading the kids to develop a sense that it’s normal to yell at others.
  4. Macrosystem: National and international factors that affect how our social self emerges. For example, our nation’s culture or our love of Bollywood films may affect our social development.
  5. Chronosystem: Changes that happen over time can affect our social self and how we relate to the world, such as technological changes or even parents’ divorce.

This theory can explain how people develop as first and foremost social beings situated within social and cultural contexts which affect who you are and how you interact with the world.

Are Nature and Nurture in Competition?

While there are ardent supporters of either nature or nurture perspectives, it’s possible that the two are not incompatible.

For example, it’s possible that the stages are somewhat accurate generalizations most of the time. Cognitive development opens up more complex social skills.

However, it’s also possible that social interactions are heavily impacted by social contexts. How we interact with each other may be determined by the values we’re taught in childhood.

Possibly, there is a middle ground where both nature and nurture impact social development.


Social development refers to a process of understanding and learning how to act in social situations. We can see many examples of how children work through this process throughout childhood.

Some of the earliest expressions of social development occur in the interactions between infant and mother. These interactions involve physical bonding and eye-contact, and will affect a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive development.

As the child gets older, they learn how to interact with peers in either a positive or negative manner. The way they handle these situations is largely dependent on what they have observed in their parents’ interactions and their ability to regulate their emotions.

Beginning in the early years, children also struggle with becoming independent. Although their lives are heavily intertwined with their parents, they strive to show their ability to function on their own.


Ainsworth, M. D. S., Blehar, M. C., Waters, E., & Wall, S. (1978). Patterns of attachment: A psychological study of the strange situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social Learning Theory. Prentice Hall.

Bowlby, J. (1958). The nature of the child’s tie to his mother. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 39, 350-371.

Carver, C. S., & Scheir, M. F. (2011). Perspectives on Personality. Needham Heights, MA: Allyn & Bacon.

Erikson, E. H. (1993). Childhood and Society. (2nd ed.). New York: Norton.

Forcada-Guex, M., Pierrehumbert, B., Borghini, A., Moessinger, A., & Muller-Nix, C. (2006). Early dyadic patterns of mother-infant interactions and outcomes of prematurity at 18 months. Pediatrics, 118(1), e107–e114. https://doi.org/10.1542/peds.2005-1145

MacLean, P.M, Rynes, K., Aragón, C., Caprihan, A., Phillips, J., & Lowe, J. (2014). Mother–infant mutual eye gaze supports emotion regulation in infancy during the Still-Face paradigm. Infant Behavior and Development, 37, 512–522. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.infbeh.2014.06.008

Niedźwiecka, A., Ramotowska, S., & Tomalski, P. (2018). Mutual gaze during early mother-infant interactions promotes attention control development. Child Development, 89(6), 2230–2244. https://doi.org/10.1111/cdev.12830

Strathearn, L., Iyengar, U., Fonagy, P., & Kim, S. (2012). Maternal oxytocin response during mother-infant interaction: Associations with adult temperament. Hormones and Behavior, 61(3), 429–435. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.yhbeh.2012.01.014

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Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]

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