Exploring Cognition

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe Piaget’s theory of cognitive development
  • Describe information processing approaches to cognitive development

The Cognitive Perspective: The Roots of Understanding

Cognitive theories focus on how our mental processes or cognitions change over time. The theory of cognitive development is a comprehensive theory about the nature and development of human intelligence first developed by Jean Piaget. It is primarily known as a developmental stage theory, but in fact, it deals with the nature of knowledge itself and how humans come gradually to acquire it, construct it, and use it. Moreover, Piaget claims that cognitive development is at the center of the human organism and language is contingent on cognitive development. Let’s learn more about Piaget’s views about the nature of intelligence and then dive deeper into the stages that he identified as critical in the developmental process.

Piaget: Changes in thought with maturation

Jean Piaget standing, smiling, wearing a 3-piece suit and a beret.

Figure 1. Jean Piaget.

Jean Piaget (1896-1980) is one of the most influential cognitive theorists in development, inspired to explore children’s ability to think and reason by watching his own children’s development. He was one of the first to recognize and map out the ways in which children’s intelligence differs from that of adults. He became interested in this area when he was asked to test the IQ of children and began to notice that there was a pattern in their wrong answers. He believed that children’s intellectual skills change over time and that maturation rather than training brings about that change. Children of differing ages interpret the world differently.

Making sense of the world

Piaget believed that we are continuously trying to maintain cognitive equilibrium or a balance or cohesiveness in what we see and what we know. Children have much more of a challenge in maintaining this balance because they are constantly being confronted with new situations, new words, new objects, etc. When faced with something new, a child may either fit it into an existing framework (schema) and match it with something known (assimilation) such as calling all animals with four legs “doggies” because they know the word doggie, or expand the framework of knowledge to accommodate the new situation (accommodation) by learning a new word to more accurately name the animal. This is the underlying dynamic in our own cognition. Even as adults we continue to try and make sense of new situations by determining whether they fit into our old way of thinking or whether we need to modify our thoughts.

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Stages of Cognitive Development

Like Freud and Erikson, Piaget thought development unfolded in a series of stages approximately associated with age ranges. He proposed a theory of cognitive development that unfolds in four stages: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational.

Table 1. Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development
Age (years) Stage Description Developmental issues
0–2 Sensorimotor World experienced through senses and actions Object permanence
Stranger anxiety
2–7 Preoperational Use words and images to represent things but lack logical reasoning Pretend play
Language development
7–11 Concrete operational Understand concrete events and logical analogies; perform arithmetical operations Conservation
Mathematical transformations
11– Formal operational Utilize abstract reasoning and hypothetical thinking Abstract logic
Moral reasoning

The first stage is the sensorimotor stage, which lasts from birth to about 2 years old. During this stage, children learn about the world through their senses and motor behavior. Young children put objects in their mouths to see if the items are edible, and once they can grasp objects, they may shake or bang them to see if they make sounds. Between 5 and 8 months old, the child develops object permanence, which is the understanding that even if something is out of sight, it still exists (Bogartz, Shinskey, & Schilling, 2000). According to Piaget, young infants do not remember an object after it has been removed from sight. Piaget studied infants’ reactions when a toy was first shown to an infant and then hidden under a blanket. Infants who had already developed object permanence would reach for the hidden toy, indicating that they knew it still existed, whereas infants who had not developed object permanence would appear confused.

In Piaget’s view, around the same time children develop object permanence, they also begin to exhibit stranger anxiety, which is a fear of unfamiliar people. Babies may demonstrate this by crying and turning away from a stranger, by clinging to a caregiver, or by attempting to reach their arms toward familiar faces such as parents. Stranger anxiety results when a child is unable to assimilate the stranger into an existing schema; therefore, she can’t predict what her experience with that stranger will be like, which results in a fear response.

Piaget’s second stage is the preoperational stage, which is from approximately 2 to 7 years old. In this stage, children can use symbols to represent words, images, and ideas, which is why children in this stage engage in pretend play. A child’s arms might become airplane wings as he zooms around the room, or a child with a stick might become a brave knight with a sword. Children also begin to use language in the preoperational stage, but they cannot understand adult logic or mentally manipulate information (the term operational refers to logical manipulation of information, so children at this stage are considered to be pre-operational). Children’s logic is based on their own personal knowledge of the world so far, rather than on conventional knowledge. For example, dad gave a slice of pizza to 10-year-old Keiko and another slice to her 3-year-old brother, Kenny. Kenny’s pizza slice was cut into five pieces, so Kenny told his sister that he got more pizza than she did. Children in this stage cannot perform mental operations because they have not developed an understanding of conservation, which is the idea that even if you change the appearance of something, it is still equal in size as long as nothing has been removed or added.

During this stage, we also expect children to display egocentrism, which means that the child is not able to take the perspective of others. A child at this stage thinks that everyone sees, thinks, and feels just as they do. Let’s look at Kenny and Keiko again. Keiko’s birthday is coming up, so their mom takes Kenny to the toy store to choose a present for his sister. He selects an Iron Man action figure for her, thinking that if he likes the toy, his sister will too. An egocentric child is not able to infer the perspective of other people and instead attributes his own perspective. At some point during this stage and typically between 3 and 5 years old, children come to understand that people have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are different from their own. This is known as theory-of-mind (TOM).

Piaget’s third stage is the concrete operational stage, which occurs from about 7 to 11 years old. In this stage, children can think logically about real (concrete) events; they have a firm grasp on the use of numbers and start to employ memory strategies. They can perform mathematical operations and understand transformations, such as addition is the opposite of subtraction, and multiplication is the opposite of division. In this stage, children also master the concept of conservation: Even if something changes shape, its mass, volume, and number stay the same. For example, if you pour water from a tall, thin glass to a short, fat glass, you still have the same amount of water. Remember Keiko and Kenny and the pizza? How did Keiko know that Kenny was wrong when he said that he had more pizza?

Children in the concrete operational stage also understand the principle of reversibility, which means that objects can be changed and then returned back to their original form or condition. Take, for example, water that you poured into the short, fat glass: You can pour water from the fat glass back to the thin glass and still have the same amount (minus a couple of drops).

The fourth, and last, stage in Piaget’s theory is the formal operational stage, which is from about age 11 to adulthood. Whereas children in the concrete operational stage are able to think logically only about concrete events, children in the formal operational stage can also deal with abstract ideas and hypothetical situations. Children in this stage can use abstract thinking to problem solve, look at alternative solutions, and test these solutions. In adolescence, a renewed egocentrism occurs. For example, a 15-year-old with a very small pimple on her face might think it is huge and incredibly visible, under the mistaken impression that others must share her perceptions.

Criticisms of Piaget’s Theory

As with other major contributors of theories of development, several of Piaget’s ideas have come under criticism based on the results of further research. For example, several contemporary studies support a model of development that is more continuous than Piaget’s discrete stages (Courage & Howe, 2002; Siegler, 2005, 2006). Many others suggest that children reach cognitive milestones earlier than Piaget describes (Baillargeon, 2004; de Hevia & Spelke, 2010). Looking across cultures reveals considerable variation in what children are able to do at various ages, and Piaget may have underestimated what children are capable of given the right circumstances.

According to Piaget, the highest level of cognitive development is formal operational thought, which develops between 11 and 20 years old. However, many developmental psychologists disagree with Piaget, suggesting a fifth stage of cognitive development, known as the postformal stage (Basseches, 1984; Commons & Bresette, 2006; Sinnott, 1998). In postformal thinking, decisions are made based on situations and circumstances, and logic is integrated with emotion as adults develop principles that depend on contexts. One way that we can see the difference between an adult in postformal thought and an adolescent (or adult) in formal operations is in terms of how they handle emotionally charged issues or integrate systems of thought.

It seems that once we reach adulthood our problem solving abilities change: As we attempt to solve problems, we tend to think more deeply about many areas of our lives, such as relationships, work, and politics (Labouvie-Vief & Diehl, 1999). Because of this, postformal thinkers are able to draw on past experiences to help them solve new problems. Problem-solving strategies using postformal thought vary, depending on the situation. What does this mean? Adults can recognize, for example, that what seems to be an ideal solution to a problem at work involving a disagreement with a colleague may not be the best solution to a disagreement with a significant other.

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Robert Kegan explains the constructive developmental theory, which is based on, and an extension of, Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. According to Kegan, development continues into adulthood as we are able to more deeply understand ourselves and the world.

You can view the transcript for “The Further Reaches of Adult Development – Robert Kegan” here (opens in new window).

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Information-Processing Approaches to Development

Information-processing approaches have become an important alternative to Piagetian approaches. The theory is based on the idea that humans process the information they receive, rather than merely responding to stimuli. As a model, it assumes that even complex behavior such as learning, remembering, categorizing, and thinking can be broken down into a series of individual, specific steps, and as a person develops strategies for processing information, they can learn more complex information. This perspective equates the mind to a computer, which is responsible for analyzing information from the environment.

The most common information-processing model is applied to an understanding of memory and the way that information is encoded, stored, and then retrieved from the brain (Atkinson & Shiffrin, 1968), but information processing approaches also apply to cognitive processing in general. In one study, Stephanie Thornton assessed how children solved the problem of building a small bridge out of playing blocks to cross a small “river.” A single block was not wide enough to reach across the river, so the bridge could only be built by having two of the blocks meet in the middle, then by using extra blocks on the top of the sides of the bridge to serve as counterweights to hold the bridge upright. This task was relatively easy for older children (7 and 9 years old), but significantly harder for 5-year-olds (in the study, only one 5-year-old eventually completed the task by using trial and error).[1] This supports the idea that cognitive development is specific to the individual.

Psychologists who use information processing approaches examine how children tackle tasks such as the ones described above, whether it be through trial and error, building upon previous life experiences, or generalizing insights from external sources.[2]

According to the standard information-processing model for mental development, the mind’s machinery includes attention mechanisms for bringing information in, working memory for actively manipulating information, and long-term memory for passively holding information so that it can be used in the future. This theory addresses how as children grow, their brains likewise mature, leading to advances in their ability to process and respond to the information they received through their senses. The theory emphasizes a continuous pattern of development, in contrast with cognitive-developmental theorists such as Piaget who thought development occurred in stages. Developmental psychologists who adopt the information-processing perspective account for mental development in terms of maturational changes in basic components of a child’s mind. At the same time, they do not offer a complete explanation of behavior. For example, they have paid little attention to behavior such as creativity, in which the most profound ideas often are developed in a seemingly not logical, nonlinear manner. Moreover, they do not take into account the social context in which development takes place.

Neo-Piagetian Theories

Some of the information processing approaches that build upon Piaget‘s research are known as neo-Piagetian theories. In contrast to Piaget‘s original work, which identified cognition as a single system of increasingly sophisticated general cognitive abilities, neo-Piagetian theories view cognition as made up of different types of individual skills. Using the same terminology as information processing approaches, neo-Piagetian theories advance the idea that cognitive development proceeds quickly in certain areas and more slowly in others. Consider for example, our reading abilities and all the skills that are needed to recall stories. These abilities and skills may progress sooner than the abstract computational abilities used in algebra or trigonometry. Also, neo-Piagetian theorists believe that experience plays a greater role in furthering cognitive development than traditional Piagetian approaches claim. Neo-Piagetians also adopted principles from other theories, such as the social-cognitive theory that allowed them to consider how culture and interactions with others influenced cognitive development.[3][4]

Cognitive Neuroscience Approaches

The scientific interface between cognitive neuroscience and human development has evoked considerable interest in recent years, as technological advances make it possible to map in detail the changes in brain structure that take place during development. These approaches look at cognitive development at the level of brain processes. Cognitive neuroscience is the scientific field that is concerned with the study of the biological processes and aspects that underlie cognition, with a specific focus on the neural connections in the brain which are involved in mental processes.

Like other cognitive perspectives, cognitive neuroscience approaches consider internal, mental processes, but they focus specifically on the neurological activity that underlies thinking, problem-solving, and other cognitive behavior. Cognitive neuroscientists seek to identify actual locations and functions within the brain that are related to different types of cognitive activities. For example, using sophisticated brain scanning techniques, cognitive neuroscientists have demonstrated that thinking about the meaning of a word activates different areas of the brain than thinking about how the word sounds when spoken.

Also, cognitive abilities based on brain development are studied and examined under the subfield of developmental cognitive neuroscience. It examines how the mind changes as children grow up, interrelations between that and how the brain is changing, and environmental and biological influences on the developing mind and brain. This shows brain development over time, analyzing differences and concocting possible reasons for those differences.[5]

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a term developed by psychologist Jean Piaget to describe what occurs when new information or experiences cause you to modify your existing schemas
a cognitive process that manages how we take in new information and incorporate that new information into our existing knowledge
cognitive neuroscience:
the scientific field that is concerned with the study of the biological processes and aspects that underlie cognition, with a specific focus on the neural connections in the brain which are involved in mental processes
cognitive perspective:
an approach that focuses on the process that allows people to know, understand and think about the world
concrete operational stage:
the stage in which children can think logically about real (concrete) events, have a firm grasp on the use of numbers and start to employ memory strategies, lasts from about 7 to 11 years old
the idea that even if you change the appearance of something, it is still equal in size as long as nothing has been removed or added, usually develops during the concrete operational stage
the child is not able to take the perspective of others, typically observed during the preoperational stage
formal operational stage:
the fourth, and last, stage in Piaget’s theory and lasts from about age 11 to adulthood. Children in the formal operational stage can deal with abstract ideas and hypothetical situations
information-processing approach:
an alternative to Piagetian approaches, a model that seeks to identify the ways individuals take in, use, and store information
object permanence:
the understanding that even if something is out of sight it still exists, develops between 5 and 8 months old
Piaget’stheory of cognitive development:
a description of cognitive development as four distinct stages in children: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal
preoperational stage:
the stage in which children can use symbols to represent words, images, and ideas, which is why children in this stage engage in pretend play, lasts approximately 2 to 7 years old
objects can be changed and then returned back to their original form or condition, typically observed during the concrete operational stage
an existing framework for an object or concept
sensorimotor stage:
the stage in which children learn about the world through their senses and motor behavior, lasts from birth to about 2 years old
theory-of-mind (TOM):
explains how children come to understand that people have thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that are different from their own, develops during the preoperational stage

  1. Thorton, S. (1999). Creating conditions for cognitive change: The interaction between task structures and specific strategies. Child Development, 70, 588-603.
  2. Chen, Zhe and Robert Siegler (2013). Young children’s analogical problem solving: Gaining insights from video displays. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. Retrieved from http://siegler.tc.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/Chen-Sieg13.pdf.
  3. Yan, Z., & Fischer, K. W. (2002). Always under construction: Dynamic variations in adult cognitive development. Human Development, 45, 141–160. LeFevre, J.-A. (2016). Numerical cognition: Adding it up. Canadian Journal of Experimental Psychology/Revue canadienne de psychologie expérimentale, 70(1), 3-11. Loewen, Susan. (2006). Exceptional intellectual performance: A neo-Piagetian perspective. High Ability Studies - HIGH ABIL STUD. 17.
  4. Feldman, Robert (2018) Discovering the Life Span, 4th Edition. Pearson
  5. Feldman, Robert (2018) Discovering the Life Span, 4th Edition. Pearson