Theoretical perspectives and approaches to the study of ISD

As should become evident, the concept of intentional development does not imply that persons are the sole producers of their development. But which are the relevant factors that contribute to ISD? What are the explaining factors about how individuals develop across the lifespan? These rather general questions may be of interest for many people, and if we pose the questions more precisely, of importance for empirical research too. Several arguments and perhaps causes have been in part passionately and controversially discussed in search of the appropriate paradigm for human development. Merely two questions should present us with the basic problems, which have haunted the minds of philosophers and scientists for many generations, though strictly speaking, they pose problems which are still unsolved.

The first is on the inside and outside perspective (Figure 1.3a). Concerned is the role of our private subjective experience or personal goals compared to the underlying natural processes such as brain activities and neuronal signals. Does the phenomenal awareness of intentions, the private perspective of a person, cause behaviour or is this rather a matter of the related physical and physiological processes? The second question is to what extent do physical development and also mental states follow an innate, genetic structure? Or have they been acquired b) Developmental prerequisites

a) Components of mental representations (e.g., intentions, values)

Components and prerequisites of ISD

FIGURE 1.3 Components and prerequisites of ISD.

by (social) learning (Figure 1.3b). The classical nature-nurture discussion negotiates the status of both poles as a source of human development. This discussion refers to the question as well of the degree to which development can be modified through social or societal interventions too.

Both questions are important because they touch upon the general issue of to what extent we are free to wish, to choose, and to act in order to shape our development according to our wishes, or to what extent we must accept social forces. Are we able to learn, or do we have to accept the dictates of our genetic structure? In the following, I describe perspectives or paradigms that have been used, on the one hand, to illustrate central prerequisites of intentions and the self or the identity of a person and, on the other hand, to pertain to the interplay of socio-cultural, biological, or biographic-historical factors.

Mechanistic models: The will as epiphenomenon and the steam-whistle hypothesis

In accordance with the ISD perspective (Brandtstiidter & Lerner, 1999; Greve & Leipold, 2018), I have argued that individuals are, at least in part, creative constructors of their development. Within this theoretical framework, development is assumed to be mediated to a certain degree through subjective representations (e.g. decisions, goals, beliefs about best means, or expectations about desired or feared states). But is it plausible to assume that mental states can actually serve as causes for how individuals behave or develop? Some authors have doubts as to whether or not they can (Dennett, 2007; Prinz, 2012; for an overview Baumeister, Masicampo, & Vohs, 2011). The British biologist Thomas Huxley conceives of animals as conscious machines and used the steam whistle as a basis for a comparison. The current so-called steam-whistle hypothesis says that conscious thoughts are a collateral product of the working mechanism, without any modifying power, and their volition is indicative of, but not a cause of, physical changes. The steam whistle accompanies the work of the locomotive’s engine without influencing its machinery (Huxley, 1874). The root metaphor from a mechanistic perspective is of a machine composed of several components. Thus, by the constitution of his body is man a microcosm of biological processes.

More recently, partly similar but more nuanced views on the role of social origins have been submitted in accordance with a naturalistic mechanistic world view. According to Prinz (2012), mental states (e.g. intentions, volitions) will enable us to set and keep goals active, suppress distractors and competing actions, and evaluate outcomes. They denote a set of mental functions that play a crucial role in our understanding of how the mind works in a social context. Human behaviour is guided by representations of goals, but such mental states are a matter of social construction rather than an unfolding of natural endowment. Several difficulties lead to the reservations about mental states being causes (Prinz, 2012, p. 102): if intentional processes are conceived of as private mental experiences (e.g. certain desires of individuals), they can hardly be observed or studied on the basis of scientific standards, for instance, in terms of their general observable inducibility and predictability. In addition, goals are subsumed into the category of teleological explanations that provide a description of how persons act rather than a causal explanation of why specific actions and outcomes result.

When these reservations are taken seriously, differences in mental states and actions need to be explained by variables other than mental states. Mental states are developed and influenced by social rules and internalized values on the basis of a memory system (Prinz, 2012). Intentions can be explained by social attributions and are construed through the perception of foreign actions. Sharing communities and communication result in a control system, and we can use social skills for informative and strategic purposes (Dennett, 2007). The brain and mind thus make contributions to their owner’s fitness and chances ofsurvival. Social artefacts such as societal ideals influence human behaviour (insofar as they are real) — but we are not completely free to act but rather are controlled by social and situational factors.

According to the ISD perspective, intentional and causal factors are intertwined when individuals become older. The causal dynamics unfold in time and humans develop within physical constraints. It has been argued that human development is not only shaped by physical changes (e.g. age-related declines in health, changes in brain functioning), but that these changes can serve as action resources and shape the intentional strivings of individuals (Brandtstiidter, 2006). Intentional processes are not reduced to epiphenomena but qualify the physical and mechanical processes, because they refer to life planning: losses in physical health and a reduced lifetime perspective contribute to the intentional strivings and life projects through which subjects invest time and other resources to compensate for age-related declines. In this sense, one can describe the development over the life course as a self-referential process: ‘Development creates and shapes intentionality and intentional strivings, and developing intentionality in turn shapes the course of development.’ (Brandtstiidter & Rothermund, 2003, p. 106).

That intentions are related to phenomenological or personal aspects is not beside the point but rather has been elaborated as a key characteristic of ISD and human actions (Greve, 1994). Subjective representations of anticipated states imply the awareness or perceived importance of wishes, fears, or values individuals have but could have disappeared in a mechanistic world view. I will provide evidence, however, that not everything concerned with consciousness is entirely subjective and excludes the use of objective standards. Mechanistic models focus especially on external regulation and the doctrine that all natural events have physical causes, and a key assumption of this position is that the events can be understood by the same set of laws (of physics, chemistry).

Although the ISD approach pays tribute to the natural basis of brain functioning and mind, the reducibility to simple natural laws is not without difficulties. As a consequence, we should describe the situation, for example, of the short-term goals and long-term life projects ofMichael, Linda, and Mary (see Box 1.1) applying the vocabulary of natural sciences. Anderson (1972; p. 393) emphasized this problem, ‘that the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature, the less relevance they seem to have to the very real problems of the rest of science, much less to those of society’. Anderson’s article title ‘More is different’ refers to the problem he sees: at each level of complexity, qualitative different characteristics emerge. The difficulty arises, for example, if one tries to make the mediating links between different levels of analyses (e.g. neuronal activities, muscular moves) and the decision to cross a street in order to take out health insurance for the family members).

Still unresolved in this debate is the role of teleological explanations. The assumption that nature is determined by causes or antecedents is well-accepted in the natural sciences, but is this also true for the final cause in action? Do the ends that we anticipate (e.g. expectations, hopes, worries) initiate behaviour? This kind of explanation is considered to be an action explanation and can be attributed to Aristotle (causa jinalis; Physics, II, 3; Aristotle, 1980). Are intentions and goals mighty enough to govern development in a specific way? Whether the search for appropriate goals, reasons, or ends to predict actions is a successful way to predict specific physical processes (e.g. motoric behaviour) by causes is a crucial question that has been discussed in contemporary psychology several times (Greve, 1994; Lewin, 1931).

However one evaluates the possible qualitative gap between physical and mental states (apart from saying that the analysis of mental representations is similar to the search for the locomotive’s steam - in other words, worthless in explaining and understanding later developmental states), a simple terminology or language allowing the transition from physical antecedents to the intentional and valued representations to be described seems still to remain out of sight. A remaining challenge is to understand what it means when we say that intentional states can influence behaviour but, on the other hand, cannot be understood as causes. According to contemporary models of contextual human development, the complex interplay among neuronal architecture, genetic dispositions, and socio-cultural changes is important when we try to explain what subjects do when they intentionally strive in order to play a role in their lives.

Contextual models, dynamic interactionism, and developmental systems

The ISD approach emphasizes both the social influences shaping the development of individuals as well as individuals’ creative powers to influence social relations. Contextual models and developmental system theories (Lerner & Schmid Gallina, 2013; Magnusson & Stattin, 2006; Overton, 2015; Thelen & Smith, 1994) remind us that developing individuals are embedded in ecological, social, and institutional contexts. This means that planning and acting individuals are influenced by social factors (e.g. social expectations, societal norms) but at the same time influence their environment (e.g. by breaking rules or by currying favour in order to gain recognition).

Many ecological approaches (e.g. Tinajero & Páramo, 2012) refer to the ecological systems theory of Urie Bronfenbrenner (Bronfenbrenner & Morris, 2006). Bronfenbrenner distinguished several levels of environmental systems within which an individual interacts, for example, proximal levels (i.e. an individual’s relationships with members of the nuclear family or significant others) or sociocultural levels (i.e. relations within the larger social institutions of policy and economic systems). The ecological approach thus demonstrates that interdependent socio-cultural factors contribute to the individual development. Similarly, the interactionist approach of Magnusson and Stattin (2006) highlights the psychobiological-contextual continuum and discusses the interdependence among social context, biological (hormonal, neuronal) processes, and psychological (cognitive, affective) processes. The age-related changes in biological maturation and decline are conceptualized within their contextual prerequisites. A central component of developmental system theories is that ecological settings are in flux. These theories note the dynamic nature of theoretical concepts in interdependence with the context (e.g. the concepts of complexity, organization, globalism, diversity, nonlinearity). Relativism and holism lead to a perspective ‘which accepts novelty as a possibility and denies pre-determinism’ (Tinajero & Páramo, 2012, p. 460). Given that individuals are influenced by experiences (e.g. through learning and internalized habits) too, the question arises as to what pre-determinism exactly means.

According to temporal developmental system theories, traditional splits between ‘nature’ and ‘culture’ become obsolete (Lerner & Walls, 1999; Overton, 2015). They refer to modifying relationships (‘Dynamic interactions, unlike the previous versions, would mean the chance of real change in the different related elements for all of the others.’; Tinajero & Páramo, 2012; p. 459). One aspect of the nature versus nurture debate leads to the question of which of the two sides is more important for human development, the presumably given side (inherited genes) or the manageable side which stresses that we have the power to influence later developmental states by interventions. This dichotomy is toned down by the concept of interactions, which require, per definition, that both sides be important.

Common features of developmental systems theories are that they focus on embeddedness, complexity and integration, integrated coactions, and they emphasize the fused influence of the context on the development of the individual that is influencing his surroundings. By focusing on the complex nature of interdependent influences, system theories tend to relativize the possible developmental determinants to a high degree and to use an abstract terminology so that one asks for the centre of gravity. In any case, it seems fruitful to understand the diversity and the similarity of development. This leads to the challenges of how to adequately describe the interacting social and biological forces and how to provide convincing empirical support.


In psychology, the term constructivism includes many schools of thought and applied fields that share assumptions about human knowledge. Constructionist approaches conceive of knowledge and scientific progress as process of construction: what we know is more a matter of social construction than a reflection of natural facts that exist independently of our constructions. To illustrate the interconnection with intentional self-regulation, I briefly focus on three different psychological perspectives. George Kelly emphasized the client’s record of personal experience. He developed a psychotherapy approach and a technique (repertory grid interview) that helps patients to analyze their schemas or ways of seeing the world (Kelly, 1955). He drew attention to interindividual differences (personal constructs). Social constructivism (e.g. Gergen, 1985), on the other hand, emphasizes that human knowledge is constructed through interaction with others. Piaget’s theory of constructivism addresses, from a developmental point of view, how learning occurs. Thus, people produce knowledge and form meaning by constructing their own understanding on the basis of their experiences. The human mind actively gives meaning and order to that reality to which it is responding. Constructionist and ISD approaches emphasize that individuals’ knowledge structures develop through interaction. Many would probably agree that agents are actively involved in the subjective and social constructions. From an ISD standpoint, the question arises whether our intentions, if they are (based on) subjective constructions, can be objective, true, or real. Or more generally, how accurately can our knowledge describe or represent (i.e. correspond with) the world or reality (and not just be constructed)? These and other questions have been controversially discussed (see Hacking, 1999; Putnam, 1988, for further arguments). The criterion of truth served as a bone of contention in several debates. From an ISD perspective, one needs not to deny the concept of truth and replace it with an epistemology of subjective experience and adaptive or collective viability (e.g. Greve, 1994). Intention can shape or determine a developmental outcome and its objects of inquiry (e.g. mental, physiological processes), which in turn shape the constructive processes and intentions.

Biocultural co-construction

During the last three decades, several authors emphasized the role of social interaction and biological factors for ISD. The emergence of intentionality in human evolution and the capacity to share attention (Tomasello, 2014) or the inherently social nature of self and other understanding (Gergely, 2002) are examples of avenues to the development of the self with a strong focus on social motivation. According to these models, social interactions are important factors for the early construction of a reflective and intentional self in childhood development (for an overview, see Mack & Reuter, 2009). The meta-theoretical framework of biocultural co-constructivism (Baltes, Rosier, & Reuter-Lorenz, 2006) is similar to the interactionist approach of lifespan development in many respects, but has led to empirical studies and hypotheses examining the results of brain science and biological maturation in more detail than social scientists are usually interested in. Within biocultural co-constructivism, researchers have used cognitive neuroscience methodology during the last decade to investigate the interactive systems that shape the human mind and its development. Empirical studies in this approach followed the often-formulated desiderata ofinterdisciplinary research and provided evidence for the plasticity of the brain. The rapid growth of neuroimaging and techniques to measure brain functioning in vivo have led to many studies combining brain-science methods and the techniques of psychological approaches (e.g. social or learned paradigms) in combination.

The concept of developmental plasticity (Lôvdén et al., 2010) denotes that the human organism is open to change. The potential for change lies in several domains of cognition and personality as well in the anatomy and neurochemistry of the brain, all of which can be altered by experience and trainings (e.g. activity, task demands, learning). Thus, the brain is an adaptive system, an organ that is co-shaped by culture and exercise techniques. In the domains of learning and memory, evidence from cognitive (neuro)science has demonstrated that the developing brain in adulthood can be trained and influenced by cultural factors (Li, 2006). Cultural influences on psychiatric disorders have also been identified and it has been argued that psychopathology cannot be reduced to brain functioning (Choudhury & Kirmayer, 2009). What was obviously often overlooked in the empirical research is that the brain itself can be conceived of as a dependent variable too (Baltes, Rosier, & Reuter-Lorenz, 2006), and experimental interventions using memory training offer possibilities to investigate the potential of developmental neuronal plasticity in advanced age.

Both the social dynamic (see the contextual models) and the related biological processes (see the biocultural co-constructivism) are closely related to ISD; the latter one, however, focuses more explicitly on the mediating and constructive function of human actions in relating causal (e.g. contextual, biological, and developmental) and intentional factors. The ISD approach anchors the creative dynamic in mental processes (e.g. of intentions, expectations, goals) that enables ageing individuals to influence the developmental course.


Intentional self-development (ISD) denotes an action-theoretical approach to human development that emphasizes the potential (and limits) of individuals as producers of their own development. This first chapter introduced the concept of ISD and described current psychological concepts related to ISD to provide a theoretical background. Although mainly genuine psychological approaches to ISD have been introduced, relations to social factors and neuronal processes were briefly mentioned. It should become evident that individuals, in principle, have many ways to shape their development intentionally; however, if one tries to describe more precisely what individuals actually do when they act and try to influence their situation, a fascinating, but mixed, picture of biological processes, social interactions, and mental phenomena emerges. Development through intentions depends on a bundle of self-regulating processes such expectations, memories, and evaluations. We have to understand and delineate the optimizing factors and constraints, especially if we want to provide affordances (trainings, interventions) that enable the ageing individuals to manage the challenges of life.

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