“No two individuals are the same,” was Richard Lerner’s, PhD, ostensibly banal statement on the first day of class during the fall semester of our PhD program. Everyone in the class believed in the veracity of the statement, without a doubt. However, Lerner’s following question challenged the way we had been thinking about development. “Then why do we look mainly at averages to study development?” This question altered our theoretical and methodological understanding of the study of human development as more multifaceted and complex than previously believed.
As doctoral students in the Child Study and Human Development program at Tufts University, we began graduate school with a background in psychology and with an interest in identity development. During our undergraduate training, courses on research methods provided us with plenty of practice computing means from numerical data sets to arrive at what is considered as the “average” or the “norm.” For instance, computations on how first-year students feel about entering college would rely on an average score from all responses, ranging from “feeling extremely excited” to “feeling extremely terrified,” which would indicate that those who are outside of the average are abnormal, anomalous or deviant. We entered graduate school with questions about the normal trajectory of identity development, such as the critical experiences for identity achievement or contextual factors that make youth deviate from the ideal path of identity development. However, Lerner made it evident that such a way of thinking contradicts our belief that everyone is unique and develops in their own individual way.