Longitudinal, Cross-Sectional, and Sequential Designs in Lifespan Developmental Psychology
- Susan Krauss WhitbourneSusan Krauss WhitbourneDepartment of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Research methods in lifespan development include single-factor designs that either follow a single cohort of individuals over time or compare age groups at a single time point. The two basic types of studies involving the manipulation of the single factors of age, cohort, and time of measurement are longitudinal and cross-sectional. Each of these has advantages and disadvantages, but both are characterized by limitations because they cannot definitively separate the joint influences of age, cohort, and type of measurement. The third group of designs involves manipulation of two or more levels of each factor to permit inferences to be drawn that separate personal from social aging.
The theoretical problems involved in both the single-factor and sequential designs combine with practical issues to present lifespan developmental researchers with a number of choices in approaching the variables of interest. The theoretical problems include the inevitable linking of personal with social aging, particularly evident in single-factor designs, and the fact that selective attrition leads to the differential availability of increasingly select older samples. Practical problems include the need to assign participants to appropriate age intervals and such clerical issues as the need to track participants in follow-up investigations. Researchers must also be aware of methodological issues related to task equivalence across individuals of different ages and the need to covary for potential confounds that could lead to differences across groups of participants due to such factors as education and health status.
The increasing recognition of the need to address these issues is leading to a body of literature that reflects the growing sophistication of the field along with the more widespread availability of sophisticated analytic methods. As these improvements continue to raise the level of scholarship in the field, there will be a greater understanding of both ontogenetic change as well as the influence of context on development from childhood through later life.