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3.7: What are the parts of a theory that focus on optimization?

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  • “Optimization” refers to the implications of the theory for prevention and intervention efforts aimed at producing the best target phenomenon possible. Most developmental theories, because they focus on progress in normative development, are pretty good at identifying “ideal” or “optimal” development trajectories (although there are often many alternative optimal pathways and end states). Sometimes the theory’s optimization implications are not stated directly, but have to be inferred from the antecedents specified by the theory—these are the intervention levers. For example, theories positing that personal attributes (e.g., cognitive level, self-efficacy, personality) are key antecedents imply that healthy development could be achieved by promoting those personal attributes, although the theory may not specify how this can be accomplished.

    Understanding Bowlby: Optimization of attachment

    Bowlby is clear on the optimal developmental outcome—a secure attachment between caregiver and infant. At the same time, because the antecedents posited by Bowlby are species-wide biobehavioral predispositions, it may seem as if there is no room for optimization. However, this theory would suggest that any infants or caregivers who do not come with these characteristics may be at-risk for difficulties in the formation of a secure attachment. So infants who do not have a reasonable amount of “baby-ness” (e.g., preterm newborns) or who cannot demonstrate their interest in caregivers (e.g., blind infants) as well as caregivers whose natural protectiveness and responsiveness have been undermined by illness or exhaustion might need supports to establish the kinds of exchanges that will lead to the formation of a secure attachment.

    Discussion of a theory’s implications for optimization are also interesting places to discover what is missing from a theory. For example, many theories posit that the antecedents to certain sets of target actions are beliefs. An illustration of this kind of conceptualization can be found in theories of academic engagement (i.e., students’ enthusiastic participation in academic activities), some of which hold that a key antecedent of students’ classroom engagement is their perceptions of the extent to which teachers respect and appreciate them. Sometimes we encourage our own students to think about whether these perceptions are the “real” antecedents in such theories, pushing them to consider whether teachers’ actual treatment of students is more relevant. Our students correctly point out that the “active ingredient” that shapes students’ engagement is not what teachers are doing but what students think teachers are doing. However, it is instructive to consider the optimization implications of such a position. Focusing on students’ perceptions as the ultimate antecedents implies that intervention efforts should be focused on students themselves, for example, by systematically attempting to persuade them that teachers really do respect and appreciate them. This is not the strategy that interventions to optimize engagement utilize, of course. Instead, they focus on working with teachers to change the ways that they interact with students, with the assumption that improved teacher-student exchanges (in which teachers are warmer, listen more closely to students points of view, and so on) will cumulatively lead students to change their minds about whether teachers like and respect them. In such cases, it becomes clear that the theory has not yet fully articulated all the strings of antecedents that are involved in generating the target phenomenon. It also suggests that sometimes the analysis of standard intervention practices can be helpful in filling out the missing pieces of a “theory of change”—as the basis for optimization. 

    What are a theory’s “meta-theoretical” assumptions?

    The endgame of this text is to help researchers articulate their own assumptions about development and to begin re-tooling their conceptual and empirical work to align more fully with those assumptions. A good first step is to begin to surface the assumptions about the nature of development that are contained in the theories we rely upon most often. Throughout the description of the understanding process in this chapter, we have tried to indicate the places in a theory where these assumptions are most apparent—for example, in the description of the nature of the development of the target phenomenon (e.g., as a quantitative trajectory or as emergence) and the location of its key antecedents (e.g., in the person, the context, or their transactions). In subsequent chapters on meta-theories, we will consider some schemes for grouping and labeling these assumptions. But the first step in this direction can be part of the “understanding” process, in which, once we analyze the theory, we start locating and discussing the assumptions it includes—assumptions that are so easy to overlook.

    Understanding Bowlby:

    Meta-theoretical assumptions. Consistent with other ethological-evolutionary theorists, Bowlby is focused on attachment as an outcome of inherent species-wide neurophysiological subsystems that have evolved as part of the human “ground plan” because they have provided an evolutionary advantage. If newborns and caregivers come with “standard biological equipment,” attachments will be formed. These assumptions (which since the introduction of Bowlby’s theory have been substantiated by research on the nature of this neurophysiological equipment) suggest the primacy of biology in the development of attachment.