The Early Adulthood Stage of Development

Jean Piaget & Robert Sternberg Developmental Psychology

The Early Adulthood Stage of Development

Developmental psychology defines and explains Early Adulthood as a cognitive and physical transition from young adult. This stage of development includes physical, cognitive, social, moral, and personality development. There exists a variety of developmental theories that define these changes and the factors which affect development. While physical changes are relatively the same in most theories the cognitive and intellectual development of an individual has a wide variance of belief. Two of the more prominent theories that explain the cognitive and intellectual development in early adulthood transition were posited by Jean Piaget and Robert Sternberg. Both Piaget and Sternberg’s theories explain early adulthood in terms of intellectual and cognitive changes which occur during this time.

In general, the physical changes during young adulthood remain relatively static. Between the approximate ages of 18–40 years of age, individuals experience a variety of physical changes that affect lifestyle, longevity, and health (Feldman, 2010). During this stage of development individuals will peak in physical strength and also begin to decline in physical prowess. The senses such as eyesight and smell which were at their strongest in an individual 20’s will begin declining in strength as one gets closer to 40. The severity of these changes is dependent on the physical strength and health of the individual. For those individuals who exercise and eat healthy the changes will be less profound than in those who have poor health. There are also hereditary factors which can affect this change in health and physiology. For example, individuals prone to cancer and other diseases have increased chances of acquiring these diseases (Feldman, 2010).

Beyond physical changes, individuals experience social and personality changes. Early adulthood stage is a time of change with regard to patterns of living. During this change new life expectations are formed and the way in which people live radically changes. For example, marriage, career choices, and thoughts of having children become more important. The idea of stability becomes important as individuals begin seeking financial stability and relationship stability. For example, most women will conceive and marry between the ages of 23–29 years (Feldman, 2010).

Along with the changes in physiology, individuals will also form and consolidate new values. Young adulthood is marked by this change in values as many individuals settle down but at the same time become less apt to conform to group pressure and thinking (Feldman, 2010). The values of youth may give way to more practical notions of how life should be led. This development signifies a growth in maturity and what is thought of as wisdom.

These changes are often influenced by environmental factors. For example, economic factors such as poor job market can influence the experience gained by individuals during this period. Values such as being frugal or being conservative financially can be altered such as during prolonged periods of recession. There are a variety of these environmental factors which can affect development. These include status, class, opportunities, politics, etc… It should be noted that young adulthood changes are often affected by factors that are the result of choices made by young adults at earlier stages. For example education choices such as going to college may create different environmental factors later in the early adulthood.

Early adulthood changes are marked by cognitive development. This development underpins these changes and is theorized to be causal to change as well as being influenced by social, environmental and physiological changes. While there is definitely changes that occur in individual thinking, the methodology and cause of this change depends upon the theory to which one subscribes.

According to Piaget, cognitive development occurs as a result of maturation and experience. In young adulthood, individuals are in the Formal Operational stage of cognitive development (Feldman, 2010). In this stage, individuals develop logical and abstract thinking. Over this period of life people begin to combine objective rational and logical thinking with subjective elements of based personal experience. This combination of thinking allows them interpret the world and form changes in belief differently. In young adulthood, thoughts and beliefs may change as a result of logic combining with experience such as becoming less idealistic as one was in youth (Feldman, 2010). Other changes may include a new sense of practicality derived from the experience of having not achieved ideas or dreams in the unrealistic perceptions that once were held in youth.

Similar to Piaget, Robert Sternberg proposed that young adulthood changes are caused from experiential and contextual intelligence development. The experiential component of young adulthood causes changes through the comparison of new information with past information. Through the linking of old and new information one is able to generate new ideas and beliefs (Lautrey, 2002). However, Sternberg incorporates another aspect of development which is contextual intelligence. Contextual intelligence can be seen as the social pressures placed upon individuals during this time. For example, the beliefs that one must have a successful career or live in a nice home, are incorporated into the experiential intelligence and this forms new patterns of thought, values, and beliefs (Lautrey, 2002).

While both Piaget and Sternberg similarly profess that experience creates patterns of change in thought through early adulthood; they are fundamentally different. Piaget’s theory reflects a more independent thought development while Sternberg suggests that social pressure is far more impacting on the development of an individual. Sternberg was also less concerned with identifying cognition in stages of development but rather showing it as an ongoing process from birth. Sternberg saw cognitive development as components which some components were stronger than others and these differences would therefore alter one’s perceptions and thinking over time (University of Oregon, 2012).

Young adulthood is a long period of change in which people move from an immature state of thought to a mature perception of the world. The period is also marked by the peak and subsequent decline in physical vitality and strength. The changes experienced during this period of life profoundly determine the happiness and longevity of the individual who experiences them. Having knowledge of this stage can affect the manner in which people live and provide choices that will ultimately add values and benefit to the development of an individual.


Feldman, R.S. (2010) Psychology and your life. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Lautrey, J. (2002). Is there a general factor of cognitive development? In Sternberg, R.J. & Grigorenko, E.L. (Eds.), The general factor of intelligence: How general is it? Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

University of Oregon. (2012). A definition of intelligence. Retrieved from


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