Human DevelopmentTranscending potential through academic and professional development

The organismic perspective of human development attempts to explore why people are the way they are (Goldhaber, 2000). Using the organism (Pepper, 1970) or "integrated whole" (Tsoukas, 1994) as its metaphor, the organismic theory is an extension of Gestalt psychology, which views the human being as a synergistic organism (Hall & Lindzey, 1959) that is more than just a collection of parts. Those who view human development through the organismic lens see people as living organisms that actively make choices about how they will react to and control the internal and external forces of their lives and that have inherent growth potential.

Sigmund Freud proposed a systematic theory of human development that focused on unconscious conflicts and emotional issues that form personality. Adapting a metaphor of thermodynamics to show how unconsciousness processes dynamically interact to help people adapt to the environment and cope with conflict, Freud proposed that personality develops from a person's struggle to meet needs in a world that frustrates needs attainment.

Freud theorized that there are three distinct and interacting parts in the personality: the id, the superego, and the ego. Freud believed that humans are motivated by the basic drives, which are either adaptive or maladaptive based on how the id, ego, and superego develop and interact (Freud, 1923; M. W. Watson, 2002). Freud shocked the Victorian world by asserting the core element of development is achieving sexual maturity, and that all aspects of development connect to sexual development (Goldhaber, 2000). Freud proposed a psychosexual developmental sequence to show how the pleasure-seeking energy of the id centers on different erogenous zones during different stages of life, which included oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital (Freud, 1920).

Perspectives on Freud

Wade and Tavris (2008) pointed out that many scholars consider Freud's ideas to be "nonsense", with little support from research. However, Freud's ideas still influence culture and the field of human development. Freud was one of the first to define the concept of developmental stages, which became a key feature of the organismic theories that followed (Goldhaber, 2000). Freud also introduced important concepts like the unconscious influence on behavior, the importance of previous events and relationships on the present, how defense mechanisms and conflicting desires influence mental processing and the existence of sexual desire as a motivator (M. W. Watson, 2002).

Neo-Freudian theorists attempted to align psychodynamic theory with empirical work. For example, Erik Erikson (1993) shifted from sex as a primary motivator to social and environmental influences on development and identified stages of adult development beyond adolescence. Erikson proposed eight stages through which humans experience psychological crisis as they develop from infancy to old age, including basic trust versus basic mistrust, autonomy versus shame, initiative versus guilt, industry versus inferiority, identity versus role confusion, intimacy versus isolation, generativity versus stagnation, and ego integrity versus despair (1993).

In short, though flawed, Freud introduced provocative ideas that encouraged tinkering from other theorists (Wade & Tavris, 2008), laying the foundation through which some organismic theorists would build and others would raze.


Kurt Goldstein served a fundamental role in driving a shift from mechanism to organicism starting in the early 20th century. Current texts on human development seem to ignore Goldstein; however, understanding Goldstein's theories can lay a foundation for understanding gestalt therapy, humanism, and other philosophies that emerge under the organismic lens.

While working on brain-injured patients during World War I, neuropsychologist Kurt Goldstein observed that symptoms did not explain the disease, but were "a manifestation of the total organism" (Hall & Lindzey, 1959, p. 297). In other words, the organism behaves as a whole, not as a collection of parts. Goldstein saw that the mind and body could not be separated, that they must be observed as part of a system; that which affects the mind affects the body and vice versa. This led to a basic tenet of organismic theory, that laws governing the parts of the organism govern the whole organism, and that it was necessary to discover the laws governing the whole organism to understand how the parts of the organism function.

In short, what happens in one part of the organism affects the whole organism (Hall & Lindzey, 1959). Goldstein presented three dynamic concepts that influenced human development, equalization, self-actualization, and mastering the environment, as follows:

Equalization. The organism attempts to balance itself to an average or centered state after a period of exertion.

Self-actualization. Drives like hunger, sex, power, achievement, and curiosity are means by which people become complete; the purpose of the human organism is self-actualization, which means fulfilling potential.

Mastering the environment. The organism copes with the external realities of its environment as a means of fulfilling its potential.


Human Development Perspectives

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