Lifespan theories applied to the life of Albert Einstein: Essay

Albert Einstein is a recognized genius who changed the perception of reality and created a basis for future discoveries in physics. Every genius is of high interest to social psychologists because various theories can be applied to explain the concept of genius, especially in the nature vs. nurture debate context. Throughout Einstein’s lifespan, numerous important events contributed to his identity development and made him a great scientist. From the point of view of developmental psychology, it is important to consider all these events and experiences, especially those that happened in childhood, because humans’ experiences in early childhood shape the whole life course. (Belsky & Pluess, 2009). Interestingly, some of these events were influenced predominantly by biological factors, while others by environmental ones. Thus, numerous paradoxes make explaining Einstein’s genius quite difficult to understand. Therefore, this paper is focused on researching the influence of natural, environmental, or a combination of these factors on the formation of Einstein’s development in different domains. Though most theories combine natural and environmental factors to explain certain aspects of human development through the lifespan, they still vary in emphasis (Berk, p.7). Therefore, various theories, concepts, and constructs will reinforce research on developing Einstein’s identity throughout his lifespan to provide the whole objective picture of Einstein’s cognitive, emotional, psychological, and social development.


Albert Einstein’s Childhood

Einstein’s childhood is one of the crucial periods in his life. While discussing the childhood, it is important to mention such great social psychologists as Jean Piaget and Lev Semenovich Vygotsky. Piaget researched the cognitive development domain, and Vygotsky conducted numerous studies in cultural psychology (Keller, 2000). From the point of view of Piaget, children go through four stages of cognitive development. During the second preoperational stage, when children have certain language skills, they can communicate with each other, contributing to their further cognitive development (Berk, p. 20). Moreover, every other theory related to cognitive development in childhood emphasizes the importance of communication between children. Since childhood, Einstein was trying to separate himself from other children and solve different intellectual tasks by himself (Isaacson, p. 20). His alienation from others has fostered his individualization, observed at every stage of his life.

In a Jewish family, Einstein was born at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, March 14, 1879 (Isaacson p. 10). He didn’t show signs of high intelligence during his early childhood and even had language problems. He had severe language impairment; therefore, it was difficult for him to talk until age four. According to Harris, children aged 24-30 months can 50 words or even more. Thus Einstein indeed had serious language problems (2005). Even though his language communication skills were poor, he made memorable and funny comments, indicating that language problems were not related to bad cognitive development. When Einstein’s parents showed him their newly born daughter for the first time and told him that she looked like a wonderful toy that Einstein would enjoy, he looked at her and replied, “Yes, but where are the wheels?” (Isaacson, p. 11). Even after four years, he tried to avoid different social interactions, though according to Vygotsky’s theory, social interactions play a crucial role in forming a child’s mind and cognitive abilities (Keller, 2000). Einstein’s cognitive development was influenced not by social interactions but by a desire to avoid them and concentrate on his thoughts and ideas. Some psychologists even claimed that Einstein had certain developmental disorders during his childhood because his ability to systematize was greater than his ability to empathize, which is untypical for children (Isaacson, p. 14).

It is also important to note that some tendencies observed in Einstein’s behavior in adolescence and adulthood were formed in childhood. His highly individualistic identity manifested in his rejection of different rules, social norms, and even his cultural and religious heritage. For example, at age five, he grabbed a chair and threw it to the tutor, who never returned after this event. (Isaacson, p. 12) During other periods of his life, he faced numerous conflicts with teachers and respectable scientific community members.

One of the most important events in Einstein’s life happened to him during childhood. His father brought little Einstein a compass, and Einstein was astonished by how the magnetic needle was turning without the help of any visible forces (Isaacson, p. 14). He was literary, “trembling to the invisible order behind chaotic reality” (Isaacson, p. 13). From the point of view of the five-factor theory of personality (FFT), Einstein set a major goal for himself: to discover the “invisible order behind chaotic reality.” Thus, all other goals set by Einstein further in his life focused on making him achieve this major goal he set in childhood (Bleidorn et al., 2010). Eventually, he started to learn math, geometry, and algebra by himself, found new proofs for existing theories, wrote numerous scientific papers, and got a great education. All these midlevel goals were focused on helping him to understand invisible forces influencing our reality. Unlike midlevel goals, major goals are relatively stable and usually don’t change throughout human life (Bleidorn et al., 2010).

Moreover, it is also important to consider that Einstein’s father and uncle were somewhat related to physics. Thus, it is possible that inherited traits formed the major goal set by Einstein from his parents. According to Bleidorn et al. (2010), about 40-60% of traits are genetic. The environment also influences the formation of traits. Therefore both nature and nurture influence trait formation, which influences goal formation. It is important to mention that according to Piaget’s theory, people acquire the ability to think abstractly at the final stage of cognitive development during adolescence. They can make and systematically test each hypothesis (Harris, 2005). Einstein got this ability long before late adolescence. He could already think abstractly during school and had great cognitive abilities.

Later Einstein emphasized that the compass brought by his dad significantly influenced his desire to become a physicist. This desire to become a physicist can also be explained with the help of Vygotsky’s sociocultural theory. According to this theory, parents can transfer different values, beliefs, customs, and skills to their children through cooperative dialogues. (Berk, p. 23) When Einstein’s father showed him a compass and explained how it worked, he transferred his values to Einstein. It is also important to mention that though his father wasn’t directly related to science, he had a small company providing electrical lights to different cities.

All these facts about Einstein’s childhood clearly show that he was influenced both by biological and environmental factors. While talking about biological factors, it is important to mention that children born from mothers who suffered stress during pregnancy may have numerous problems related to their nervous system, like anxiety, anger, aggression, and overactivity (Berk, p. 94). Einstein’s mother didn’t suffer from stress during pregnancy, which can be considered a positive factor contributing to the development of Einstein as a genius. Women living in a stressful environment during pregnancy have high levels of cortisol stress hormone that negatively influence the fetus. Cortisol in a pregnant mother’s blood causes methylation of her child’s human glucocorticoid receptor gene (NR3C1), resulting in high cortisol hormone reactivity at 3 months. Therefore, children whose mothers are stressed have difficult temperaments and are prone to depression (Belsky & Pluess, 2009). According to Belsky & Pluess, a child’s development is highly affected by such environmental factors as family poverty, parental warmth, hostility, or quality of childcare (2009).

Moreover, during childhood, Einstein lived in a family belonging to the middle or even high social class. Thus he was also not subjected to stress or hunger. Since childhood, Einstein was very attached to his family and respected his mother and father. Even when he was an adult, he felt guilty for not being able to help them with money. According to Susskind (2005), Einstein’s parents’ parenting style can be demanding, responsive, and permissive. Children raised in such families show great learning abilities and great social adaptation. This friendly and comfortable environment has positively contributed to developing his identity. His close connection with his father and mother motivated him to learn to play the violin and learn more about the physical processes around him. It can be said that environmental factors were more important than natural ones in forming Einstein’s identity.

It is not less important to mention that the influence of cultural factors was minimized because Einstein was quite alienated from Jewish traditions and beliefs. His family has lived for several generations in Germany; therefore, the process of assimilation has contributed to their views on culture. At six, he went to Catholic school, though Jewish was near his house (Isaacson, p. 15). However, German children were biased toward him, often manifested in anti-Semitism. Social identity theory by Henri Tajfel claims that children evaluate their racial group more favorably, and other groups can explain this behavior less favorably or negatively (Berk, p. 338). Despite his early language development problems, Einstein was one of the best students. (Isaacson, p. 16) In the future, Einstein became a strong supporter of racial equality and an active opponent of the Nazi regime in Germany. Environmental factors possibly influenced this behavior he faced during his childhood.

Albert Einstein’s Adolescence

Some of his behavior patterns, values, and beliefs became even stronger during adolescence. His cognitive development was rapid and impressive. Einstein was great at math and proved different math theories by himself. According to Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, Einstein had logico-mathematical intelligence (Berk, p. 311). It is important to note that gifted children having different types of intelligence should be provided with relevant tasks matching their type of intelligence. This is the best way to foster the development of their intellectual capabilities. Einstein realized this by himself and focused on solving different mathematical tasks.

Moreover, according to Erikson’s theory, Einstein had an identity foreclosure status during adolescence and most adolescents. (Berk, p.404). According to this identity status, Einstein was highly influenced by authority figures and committed to their values and beliefs. His parents bought him textbooks in algebra and geometry, and his uncle, Jacob Einstein, introduced him to the joys of algebra (Isaacson, p. 17). According to Piaget’s theory, Einstein entered the formal operational stage at 12. He developed the ability to think abstractly and became able to “operate on operations .”(Berk, p. 383). His ability to solve difficult theorems and find alternative solutions indicates that his cognitive development was above average. In addition, medical student Max Talmud, who occasionally shared Thursday dinner with Einstein’s family, played a huge role in Einstein’s intellectual development. He recommended Einstein to read Kant’s philosophy, though Einstein was only 12 (Isaacson, p. 20).

Since his adolescence, Einstein strongly opposed dogmas and religion. He acquired identity and achieved status in the religious domain because scientific literature influenced his perception of religious rituals and traditions and changed it negatively. According to Isaacson, Einstein was so impressed by scientific literature that he avoided all religious rituals for the rest of his life (p. 20). This example once again proves that Einstein was able to confront established social norms and traditions because of his highly individualistic identity.

While studying at a German school, Einstein realized that this education wouldn’t help him achieve great results and reveal his scientific potential. Moreover, due to nonconformity and resistance towards received wisdom, he had numerous conflicts with teachers, who had a quite biased attitude towards him (Isaacson, p. 22). In addition, at 15, Einstein was in depression because his father’s company had lost its competitive advantage in the market, leading it to bankruptcy. Einstein’s parents and uncle had to move to Northern Italy (Isaacson, p. 23). Einstein was left in Germany because he had to finish the last three years of school. However, after constant conflicts with teachers, Einstein left Germany and shocked his parents by moving to Italy. In the context of attachment theory, this behavior may indicate that Einstein had quite a strong connection with his family, and his relationships with his parents were high quality.

Moreover, according to Susskind, children receive emotional support with the help of attachment to their parents (2005). According to Berk, teenagers remain attached to parents in well-functioning families and seek their advice in the context of greater personal freedom (p. 416). Thus, Einstein’s freedom manifested in his desire to leave German school and focus on self-education for three years. Eventually, Einstein managed to enter The Zurich Polytechnic, which proves that his cognitive abilities were great, and he managed to acquire knowledge by himself without any external help.

Albert Einstein’s Early Adulthood

In early adulthood, people focus on finishing certain tasks and acquiring personal independence from their parents. Most young adults leave their homes, finish their education, become involved in romantic relationships, and achieve economic independence and stability (Berk, p. 431). All these events can be observed during Einstein’s early adulthood, except for economic stability. Moreover, according to Perry’s theory of epistemic condition, young adults gradually change their way of thinking from dualistic to relativistic. When a person has dualistic thinking, he or she compares new information to other information considered objective and evaluates this new information depending on how it relates to different standards. Eventually, a person can acquire the ability for relativistic thinking, which means that person realizes that there is no absolute truth and that there are numerous opinions in the world (Berk, p. 451). Therefore, Einstein’s desire to challenge existing standards in physics became even more intense than before because he understood that these theories used in physics were relatively imperfect and he could easily improve them. However, the scientific community agreed that substance called “ether” exists, while Einstein strongly disagreed.

During early adulthood, Einstein faced almost the same problems. His rebellious spirit irritated polytechnic professors, though they characterized him as an “extremely clever boy” (Isaacson, p. 34). Einstein showed extraordinary abilities in solving mathematical and physical equations. He created unique methods and amazed numerous polytechnic professors. Einstein’s individualism during early adulthood was also manifested in his rejection of joining Social Democrats. However, he became interested in politics later and became a strong opponent of the Nazi regime (Isaacson, p. 39). He thought that joining any group could diffuse his identity. It is possible that Einstein considered himself too different from ordinary people due to his intellectual abilities. Therefore, it was difficult for him to become a member of different ingroups, and he preferred to stay away from social interactions.

It is also important to note that Einstein acquired his first experience in romantic relationships during early adulthood. His first love was Marie Winteler, a girl he met in Aarau, Switzerland. However, this love was platonic, and Einstein lost interest in her quickly. Moreover, his new passionate love fostered his will to break his first relationship. In the polytechnic, he met Mileva Maric, his first wife. Einstein’s romantic relationships are also highly influenced by his individuality and desire to go against the stream. Mileva Maric was older than Einstein. However, she had numerous traits that Einstein valued so much. She was interested in math, and Einstein considered her an intellectual (Isaacson, p. 45). Einstein’s parents considered Maric as not fitting Einstein because she wasn’t Jewish, was older, and had quite a weird appearance. However, their relationships were passionate, trustful, and pleasant for both of them. According to Erikson’s theory, identity achievement status positively correlates with fidelity (loyalty in relationships) (Berk, p. 468).

Moreover, it seems that the most important for Einstein was that Mileva Maric shared his values and beliefs. He loved her because Mileva helped him to achieve his major goal. He was driven by a natural desire to find a sexual partner. However, this desire was also influenced by different external factors. Einstein didn’t want to find someone to satisfy his sexual needs. He wanted to find a person who could foster his desire to challenge existing theories in physics and create a theory that would change the world. Unfortunately, during early adulthood, Einstein wasn’t adapted to family life. He spent much time on science and didn’t understand that Mileva also needed his attention. As a result, Mileva became even more depressed than before, and Einstein married his cousin, Elsa Einstein.

In 1905, known as the Miracle Year, Einstein published several articles making him famous worldwide (Isaacson). After that, he became a professor at different Universities in different countries worldwide. He acquired the possibility to work on his theory of relativity and finished it in 1915. He managed to achieve his major goal quite early. Thus, he was trying to help future generations during middle and late adulthood.


Albert Einstein’s Middle and Late Adulthood

During middle adulthood, people often become interested in caring for future generations. Therefore, they are often interested in politics and social life. According to Erikson’s theory, the desire to help future generations is called generativity. (Berk, p. 469). During middle adulthood, most males have established certain values and beliefs. Their career has achieved its peak. Therefore they have some additional time that can be spent to help people. However, Einstein’s desire to help others was predominantly influenced by the environment, not his nature. The thing is that the Nazi regime in Germany posed a huge threat to the whole world. Thus Einstein had to move from Germany and strongly support antimilitary ideas.

It is important to note that though Einstein rejected the religion of his ancestors, he still associated himself with the Jewish community. According to Miller (2005), religion is one of the most important aspects of culture. Culture is tightly connected to moral development. However, it often leads to a conventional level of moral development, which means that a person’s morality is based on religion. If religion considers some action sinful or immoral, then the person is likely to avoid this action. Such a situation can be observed in societies and ethnical groups influenced by religion, including Jewish people. Therefore, according to Kohlberg’s theory, most people living according to religious traditions are in stage 3 of moral development (Berk, p. 408). Kohlberg’s theory is based on justice and punishments in every religion (Jorgensen, 2006). Einstein was on higher levels of moral development because he followed his own universal principles based on rational thinking.

Einstein adhered to the principles of humanism and pacifism. Thus, when anti-Semitism started to grow in Germany, Einstein became very concerned about this problem and started to promote ideas of humanism and equality. In addition, Nazi Germany started to create nuclear weapons. Therefore Einstein contacted the U.S. government and warned them about the potential threat created by Nazi Germany (Isaacson, 2008). This action can be considered a bright example of generativity. Eventually, all countries started to consider Nazi Germany and its allies pure evil and united to defeat the Nazi Regime. Einstein contributed to the unification of the USSR and the U.S. during WWII, making people realize that Nazi Regime posed a global threat.

During his last years, Einstein still worked with different equations and wanted to push them closer to unified field theory (Isaacson). His major goal was to make as much as possible in physics and leave a rich heritage for future generations. Moreover, in a letter to his son Einstein wrote, “It is a joy for me to have a son who has inherited the main traits of my personality: the ability to rise above mere existence by sacrificing one’s self through the years for an impersonal goal.” (Isaacson). He was proud of his son because of his ability to sacrifice personal interests to achieve the major goal that he considered more important than any personal interest.

It is important to note that Einstein wasn’t afraid of death. He considered it a natural transition from one state to another. According to Erikson’s theory of integrity versus despair, Einstein felt integrity because he became well-known all over the Earth and achieved numerous goals (Berk, p.604). Most importantly, he challenged existing standards with the help of individualism and skepticism toward authoritative figures in science. When the doctor asked him whether Einstein wanted to live longer with the help of surgery, Einstein said, “It is tasteless to prolong life artificially .”(Isaacson) This phrase indicates that Einstein wasn’t afraid of dying because he had a great feeling of integrity. Just before his death, Einstein began writing his speech to Jewish people. He was quite concerned about the future of Israel and the conflicts within Palestine between Jews and Arabs.

Moreover, the final thing he wrote was a series of equations, which he hoped could help get him closer to creating a unified field theory (Isaacson). These final moments of Einstein’s life indicate that he was influenced both by his major goals and by generativity. He knew that he was going to die soon. However, he was still concerned about sharing his knowledge with future generations.


It is impossible to define what factors contributed to Einstein’s identity development. However, both nature and nurture were likely combined during different stages of Einstein’s life. In other words, Einstein’s goals, values, beliefs, and other aspects of his identity were influenced by holistic interactionism (Pinker, p. 2004). During childhood, he showed highly individualistic behavior, which remained constant throughout his life. Numerous pieces of evidence claim that genes can influence certain aspects of behavior and cognition. Thus his temperament and individualism are likely to be influenced by nature. (Pinker, 2004). Though he had some language problems at the beginning of his life, he became one of the world’s greatest scientists and physicists. He lived in a comfortable environment, and his parents were loving and caring. Even when he decided to marry Mileva Maric, he didn’t want to upset his parents and kept it secret. It shows that their parents were more important to Einstein than his desire for independence and individualism. Therefore, if Einstein had been born in another environment, it is possible that his parents wouldn’t have fostered his natural abilities in physics and math.

It is also important to emphasize the significance of cultural factors influencing Einstein’s life. Since childhood, he lived in a family of immigrants, though this may affect his alienation from German society. Moreover, children in his school considered him not a member of their ingroup because of his Jewish roots. Apparently, this fostered his desire to become alienated from different social groups. Moreover, he didn’t have a cultural identity because he rejected his religion and the traditions of the Jewish people. As it was mentioned above, culture influences moral development. Einstein’s moral development was on the highest, the postconventional level. He didn’t follow the rules and morals of Jewish society. Instead of it, he developed his own set of principles based on ideas of humanism.

Undoubtedly, Einstein was unique because he set his major goal during his childhood and followed this goal throughout his life. The environment influenced this major goal, particularly his father, who showed him a compass. Moreover, this major goal has influenced all aspects of his life, including his romantic relationships. This uncontrollable desire for education and high individualism have made Einstein so outstanding and prominent genius who will be remembered for the whole existence of humanity.


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