According to Piaget (1970, 1980), intellectual devel­opment is adaptation through activity. We create the very ways in which our knowledge is organized and, ultimately, how we think. Piaget believed that the development of intelligence stems from the emer­gence of increasingly complex cognitive structures. He organized his ideas into a theory of cognitive development that changed the way psychologists conceptualize intellectual development.

Basic Concepts. For Piaget, thought is governed by the principles of adaptation and organization. Adaptation is the process of adjusting thinking to the environment. Just as animals living in a forest feed differently from the way animals living in a desert feed, how we think changes from one devel­opmental context to another. Adaptation occurs through organization, which is how the organism is put together. Each component part has its own specialized function, which is coordinated into the whole. In Piaget’s theory, the organization of thought is reflected in cognitive structures that change over the life span. Cognitive structures determine how we think. It is the change in cognitive structures, the change in the fundamental ways in which we think, that Piaget tried to describe.

What processes underlie intellectual adapta­tion? Piaget defined two: assimilation and accom­modation. Assimilation is the use of currently
available knowledge to make sense out of incom­ing information. It is the application of cognitive structures to the world of experience that makes the world understandable. For example, a child who only knows the word dog may use it for every animal she encounters. So, when the child sees a cat and calls it a dog, she is using available knowledge, the word dog, to make sense out of the world—in this case the cat that is walking across the living room. The process of assimilation some­times leads to considerable distortion of incoming information, because we may have to force-fit it into our knowledge base. This is apparent in our tendency to forget information about a person that violates a stereotype.

Accommodation involves changing one’s thought to make it a better approximation of the world of experience. The child in our example who thought that cats were dogs eventually learns that cats are cats. When this happens, she has accommodated her knowledge to incorporate a new category of animal.

The processes of assimilation and accommo­dation serve to link the structure of thought to observable behavior. Piaget believed that most changes during development involved cognitive structures. His research led him to conclude that there were four structures (i. e., four stages) in the development of mature thought: sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational. We will consider the major charac­teristics of each stage briefly. Because we are most interested in Piaget’s description of adult thought, we will emphasize it.

Sensorimotor Period. In this first stage of cognitive development, intelligence is seen in infants’ actions. Babies and infants gain knowledge by using their sensory and motor skills, beginning with basic reflexes (sucking and grasping) and eventually mov­ing to purposeful, planned sequences of behavior (such as looking for a hidden toy). The most impor­tant thing that infants learn during the sensorimo­tor period is that objects continue to exist even when they are out of sight; this ability is called object permanence.

Preoperational Period. Young children’s thinking is best described as egocentric. This means that young children believe all people and all inanimate objects experience the world just as they do. For example, young children believe dolls feel pain. Although young children can sometimes reason through situ­ations, their thinking is not based on logic. For example, a young child may believe his father’s shaving causes the tap water to be turned on, because the two events always happen together.

Concrete Operational Period. Logical reasoning emerges in the concrete operational period. Children become capable of classifying objects into groups, such as fruits or vegetables, based on a logical prin­ciple; mentally reversing a series of events; realizing that when changes occur in one perceptual dimen­sion and they are compensated for in another, no net change occurs (termed conservation); and under­standing the concept of transitivity (for instance, if A > B and B > C, then A > C). However, children are still unable to deal with abstract concepts such as love; for example, to children love is a set of concrete actions and not an ill-defined abstract concept.

Formal Operational Period. For Piaget, the acquisi­tion of formal operational thought during ado­lescence marks the end of cognitive development. Because he argues that formal operational think­ing characterizes adult thought, we will consider this level in some detail. Several theorists have commented on the characteristics of formal oper­ational thought (Basseches, 1984; Kramer, 1989; Labouvie-Vief, 1980, 1981, 1984; Sinnott, 1984). We will use these commentaries to focus on four aspects of formal operational thought: (1) It takes a hypothesis-testing approach (termed hypothetico – deductive) to problem solving; (2) thinking is done in one framework at a time; (3) the goal is to arrive at one correct solution; and (4) it is unconstrained by reality.

Piaget describes the essence of formal operational thought as a way of conceiving abstract concepts and thinking about them in a very systematic, step-by-step way. Formal operational thought is governed by a generalized logical structure that provides solutions to problems that people have
never seen and may never encounter. Hypothetico – deductive thought is similar to using the scientific method, in that it involves forming a hypothesis and testing it until it is either confirmed or rejected. Just as scientists are very systematic in testing experi­mental hypotheses, formal operational thinking allows people to approach problem solving in a logical, methodical way.

Consider the situation when your car breaks down. When you take it for repairs, the mechanic forms hypotheses about what may be wrong, based on a description of the trouble. The mechanic then begins to test each hypothesis systematically. For example, the compression of each cylinder may be checked, one cylinder at a time. This ability to hold other factors constant while testing a particular component is one of the hallmarks of formal opera­tional thought. By isolating potential causes of the problem, the mechanic very efficiently arrives at a correct solution.

When we use hypothetico-deductive thought, we do so to arrive at one unambiguous solu­tion to the problem (Kramer & Woodruff, 1986; Labouvie-Vief, 1980, 1984, 1992). Formal opera­tional thought is aimed at resolving ambiguity; one and only one answer is the goal. When more than one solution occurs, there is a feeling of uneasiness, and people begin a search for clari­fication. This situation can be observed in high school classes when students press their teacher to identify the right theory (from among several equally good ones) or the right way to view a social issue (such as abortion). Moreover, when people arrive at an answer, they are quite certain about it, because it was arrived at through the use of logic. When answers are checked, the same logic and assumptions are typically used, which sometimes means that the same mistake is made several times in a row. For example, a person may repeat a simple subtraction error time after time when try­ing to figure out why his or her checkbook failed to balance.

Formal operational thinking knows no con­straints (Labouvie-Vief, 1984; Piaget, 1970, 1980). It can be applied just as easily to real or to imaginary situations. It is not bound by the limits of reality

(Labouvie-Vief, 1980). Whether one can implement a solution is irrelevant; what matters is that one can think about it. This is how people arrive at solutions to disarmament, for example, such as getting rid of all nuclear warheads tomorrow. To the formal opera­tional thinker, that this solution is logistically impos­sible is no excuse. The lack of reality constraints is not all bad, however. Reasoning from a “Why not?” per­spective may lead to the discovery of completely new ways to approach a problem or even to the invention of new solutions.

One serious problem for Piaget’s theory is that many adults apparently do not attain formal opera­tions. Several studies report that only 60 to 75% of American adolescents can solve any formal operational problems (Neimark, 1975), and some researchers estimate that no more than 30% of adults ever complete the transition to the high­est levels of formal operational thought (Kuhn,

1992) . Piaget (1972) himself admitted that formal operations were probably not universal but, rather, tended to appear only in those areas in which indi­viduals were highly trained or specialized. This has inspired a number of researchers to look beyond formal operations in determining pathways of adult cognitive development.


Going Beyond Piaget: Post-Formal Thought

Consider the following problem (Adams et al., 1988):

John is known to be a heavy drinker, especially when he goes to parties. Mary, John’s wife, warns him that if he gets drunk one more time, she will leave him and take the children. Tonight John is out late at an office party. John comes home drunk. Does Mary leave John?

How certain are you of your answer? (p. 13)

When this and similar problems are presented to people of different ages, interesting differences emerge. Formal operational adolescents’ responses clearly showed the ambiguity of the situation but also clearly reflected the need to search for the right answer. The ambiguity was considered a problem rather than an acceptable state of affairs. This is evi­dent in the following answer (Adams et al., 1988):

It’s a good chance that she would leave him because she warns him that she will leave him and take the children, but warning isn’t an absolute thing. . . . And, I’d be absolutely sure that, well let’s see. . . I’m trying to go all the way. I’m trying to think of putting everything
[together] so I can be absolutely certain of an answer. . . . It’s hard to be absolutely certain.

“If he gets drunk, then she’ll leave and take the children" I want to say yes “cause everything”s in that favor, in that direction, but I don’t know how I can conclude that she does leave John. (pp. 17-18)

When adults were given the same problem, they handled it differently, for the most part. Their responses showed a combination of logic, emotion, and tolerance for ambiguity, as can be seen in the following example (Adams et al., 1988):

There was no right or wrong answer. You could get logically to both answers [yes or no]. . . . It depends on the steps they take to their answer. If they base it on what they feel, what they know, and they have certain steps to get an answer, it can be logical. (p. 41)

Based on a strict interpretation of formal opera­tional thought, the adults who made responses like the second example showed little evidence of for­mal operational thinking. Thus it could be argued that Adams and colleagues’ research supports the data described earlier that point to declines in for­mal operational thought across adulthood. But not everyone agrees that the research examining formal operational thinking across adulthood points to loss. Rather than concluding that differences in perfor­mance reflect declines in ability, the results are seen as indicative of another, qualitatively different, style of thinking. This latter interpretation implies that Piaget’s theory may need modification. Specifically, some researchers have proposed that these perfor­mance differences on Piagetian tasks reflect cogni­tive development beyond formal operations.

Developmental Progressions in Adult Thought. By the

1970s, it was clear that Piaget’s contention that formal operations was the end point of cognitive develop­ment had serious problems. One of the first to for­mally propose an alternative model was Riegel (1973, 1976), who argued that formal operations was quite limited in its applicability. By the mid-1980s many other authors agreed (Basseches, 1984; Cavanaugh et al., 1985; Commons et al., 1982; Labouvie-Vief, 1980, 1992; Sinnott, 1984).

Riegel and other writers point out that Piaget is concerned with describing logical, hypothetico – deductive thinking in his stage of formal operations but that this is not the only kind of thinking that adults do. In addition, they argue that Piaget’s stage of formal operations is primarily limited to explain­ing how people arrive at one correct solution. How adults discover or generate new problems and how they sometimes appear to accept several possible solutions are not explained. Finally, that adults often limit their thinking in response to social or other realistic constraints appears to conflict with the unconstrained generation of ideas characteristic of formal operations.

For these reasons some researchers have pro­posed that cognitive growth continues beyond for­mal operations (Commons et al., 1984; Commons et al., 1989; Sinnott, 1996). Post-formal thought, as it is called, is characterized by a recognition that truth (the correct answer) varies from situation to situa­tion, that solutions must be realistic to be reasonable, that ambiguity and contradiction are the rule rather than the exception, and that emotion and subjective factors usually play a role in thinking.

In one of the first investigations of cognitive growth beyond adolescence, Perry (1970) traced the development of thinking across the undergraduate years. He found that adolescents relied heavily on the expertise of authorities to determine what was right and wrong. At this point thinking is tightly bound by the rules of logic, and the only legitimate conclu­sions are those that are logically derived. For Perry, the continued development of thinking involves the development of increased cognitive flexibility. The first step in the process is a shift toward relativism. Relativism in thought entails realizing that more than one explanation of a set of facts could be right, depending on one’s point of view. Although relativ­ism frees the individual from the constraints of a sin­gle framework, it also leads to skepticism. Because one can never be sure if one is right or wrong, the skeptic may not try to develop knowledge further, which may lead to feeling confused or adrift. Perry points out that the price of freeing oneself from the influence of authority is the loss of the certainty that came from relying on logic for all the answers.

To develop beyond skepticism, Perry showed, adults develop commitments to particular view­points. In Perry’s later stages, adults recognize that they are their own source of authority, that they must make a commitment to a position, and that others may hold different positions to which they will be equally committed. In other words, mature thinkers can understand many perspectives on an issue, choose one, and still allow others the right to hold differing viewpoints. Thinking in this mature way is different from thinking in formal operational terms.

Reflective Judgment. Perry’s landmark research opened the door to documenting systematic changes in thinking beyond formal operations. One of the best approaches to emerge is King and Kitchener’s (1994) refined descriptions of the development of reasoning in young adults. On the basis of nearly two decades of research, they mapped the develop­ment of reflective judgment, which involves how people reason through dilemmas involving current affairs, religion, science, and the like. On the basis of well-designed longitudinal studies of young adults, they identified a systematic progression of thinking, which is described in Table 7.2.

The first three stages in the model represent prereflective thought. People at this stage do not acknowledge, and may not even perceive, that knowledge is uncertain. Consequently, they do not understand that some problems exist for which there is not a clear and absolutely correct answer. Stages 4 and 5 represent quasi-reflective thinking, as people recognize that some problems contain an element of uncertainty. However, although people at this level use evidence, they are not adept at how to use evidence to draw a conclusion. Stages 6 and 7 represent true reflective judgment. People at this level realize that knowledge must be constructed, that claims about knowledge must be evaluated within the context in which they were generated, and that conclusions, though based on data, are open to reevaluation.

More recent research has found that reflective judgment increases over 10 years in a sample of 24- to 50-year-olds (Pirttilae-Backman & Kajanne,

2001) . In addition, education, profession, exposure to diversity, and an exploratory orientation were related to this developmental trend.

How does a person move from prereflective judgment to reflective judgment? Is the progression gradual? Does it involve qualitative shifts? Kitch­ener and Fischer (1990) argue that the progression involves both, depending on which aspect of devel­opment one emphasizes. Their view is based on the distinction between optimal level and skill acquisi­tion aspects of development. The optimal level of development is the highest level of information­processing capacity of which a person is capable. The optimal level increases with age and is marked by relatively abrupt changes (“growth spurts”) followed by periods of relative stability. Each spurt represents the emergence of a new developmental level (“stage”) of thinking; the period of stability reflects the time needed by the individual to become proficient at using the newly acquired skills. Skill acquisition describes the gradual, and somewhat haphazard, pro­cess by which people learn new abilities. People prog­ress through many small steps in acquiring skills before they are ready for the next growth spurt.

The optimal level provides an indication of the highest stage a person has achieved in cognitive development but probably does not indicate the level he or she will use most of the time (King & Kitchener, 1994). Why? Mostly, it is because the environment does not provide the supports neces­sary for high-level performance, especially for issues concerning knowledge. Consequently, people will, if pushed and if provided the necessary supports, demonstrate a level of thinking and performance far higher than they typically show on a daily basis. This discrepancy may provide an explanation of why fewer people are found at each successively more complex level of thinking who consistently use it.

Absolutist, Relativistic, and Dialectical Thinking. A

growth in reflective judgment is not the only aspect of post-formal thought that researchers have exam­ined. For example, Kramer, Kahlbaugh, and Goldston (1992) identified three distinct styles of thinking: absolutist, relativistic, and dialectical. Absolutist thinking involves firmly believing that there is only


Table 7.2

Description of the Stages of Reflective Judgment

Stage 1

View of knowledge Knowledge is assumed to exist absolutely and concretely. It can be obtained with absolute certainty through direct observation.

Concept of justification Beliefs need no justification because there is assumed to be an absolute correspondence between what is believed and what is true. There are no alternatives.

Stage 2

View of knowledge Knowledge is absolutely certain, or certain but not immediately available. Knowledge can be obtained via direct observation or via authorities.

Concept of justification Beliefs are justified via authority, such as a teacher or a parent, or are unexamined and unjustified. Most issues are assumed to have a right answer, so there is little or no conflict in making decisions about disputed issues.

Stage 3

View of knowledge Knowledge is assumed to be absolutely certain or temporarily uncertain. In areas of temporary uncertainty, we can know only via intuition and bias until absolute knowledge is obtained.

Concept of justification In areas in which answers exist, beliefs are justified via authorities. In areas in which answers do not exist, because there is no rational way to justify beliefs, they are justified arationally or intuitively.

Stage 4

View of knowledge Knowledge is uncertain and idiosyncratic because situational variables (e. g., incorrect reporting of data, data lost over time) dictate that we cannot know with certainty. Therefore we can only know our own beliefs about the world.

Concept of justification Beliefs often are justified by reference to evidence but still are based on idiosyncratic reasons, such as choosing evidence that fits an established belief.

Stage 5

View of knowledge Knowledge is contextual and subjective. Because what is known is known via perceptual filters, we cannot know directly. We may know only interpretations of the material world.

Concept of justification Beliefs are justified within a particular context via the rules of inquiry for that context. Justifications are assumed to be context-specific or are balanced against each other, delaying conclusions.

Stage 6

View of knowledge Knowledge is personally constructed via evaluations of evidence, opinions of others, and so forth across contexts. Thus we may know only interpretations of the material world.

Concept of justification Beliefs are justified by comparing evidence and opinion on different sides of an issue or across contexts and by constructing solutions that are evaluated by personal criteria, such as one’s personal values or the pragmatic need for action.

Stage 7

View of knowledge Knowledge is constructed via the process of reasonable inquiry into generalizable conjectures about the material world of solutions for the problem at hand, such as what is most probable based on the current evidence or how far it is along the continuum of how things seem to be.

Concept of justification Beliefs are justified probabilistically via evidence and argument or as the most complete or compelling understanding of an issue.

Source: King, P. M., & Kitchener, K. S. (1994). Developing Reflective Judgment: Understanding and Promoting Intellectual Growth and Critical Thinking in Adolescents and Adults. Copyright © 1994. Reprinted with permission from Jossey-Bass, Inc., a subsidiary of John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Intelligence 261

one correct solution to problems and that personal experience provides truth. Adolescents and young adults typically think this way. Relativistic think­ing involves realizing that there are many sides to any issue and that the right answer depends on the circumstances. Young and early middle-aged adults often think relativistically. One potential danger here is that relativistic thinking can lead to cynicism or an “I’ll do my thing, and you do yours” approach to life. Because relativistic thinkers reason things out on a case-by-case basis, based on the situation, they are not likely to be strongly committed to any one posi­tion. The final step, dialectical thinking, clears up this problem. Dialectical thinkers see the merits in the different viewpoints but can synthesize them into a workable solution. This synthesis often produces strong commitment and a definite plan of action.

Notice that there is considerable agreement between the first two styles in Kramer’s model and the progression described in the reflective judgment model. Both talk about moving from an “I’m right, because I’ve experienced it” position to an “I’m not so sure, because your experience is different from mine” position. Both also provide insight into how young adults are likely to approach life problems. The abso­lutist, relativistic, and dialectical framework has been adopted widely in the study of post-formal thought. However, assessments of older adults seem to show an increase in dualistic reasoning (Hood & Deopere,

2002) , although less dualistic thinking and more rela­tivistic thinking were related to higher levels of educa­tion. Sinnott (1994a, 1994c) applied this framework to understanding how adults learn and how they should be taught. In this regard, teachers need to recognize that relativistic thought marks the point at which learning processes become inherently social.

Integrating Emotion and Logic. A theme in descrip­tions of the first set of qualitative changes in post­formal thinking is a movement from “I’m right, because I’ve experienced it” to an “I’m not so sure who’s right, because your experience is different than mine” position. These differences in think­ing provide insights into how thinking styles have major implications for dealing with life problems. For example, couples who can understand and

262 CHAPTER 7 synthesize each other’s point of view are much more likely to resolve conflicts; couples not able to do so are more likely to feel resentful, drift apart, or even break up (Kramer, 1989). How can people avoid conflicts and become more able to deal with life problems?

Labouvie-Vief (1992, 1997, 2003, 2004) proposes that the answer lies in adults’ gaining the ability to integrate emotion with logic in their thinking. She sees the main goal of adult thought as effectiveness in handling everyday life, rather than as the gen­eration of all possible solutions. To her, adults make choices not so much on logical grounds but on pragmatic, emotional, and social grounds. Mature thinkers realize that thinking is a social phenom­enon that demands making compromises and toler­ating ambiguity and contradiction.

Consider the evidence that despite the possibility of pregnancy or of contracting AIDS or other sexu­ally transmitted diseases, adolescents still tend not to use contraceptives when they have sexual rela­tions. Why? Labouvie-Vief would argue that sexu­ality is too emotionally charged for adolescents to deal with intellectually. But is this a reasonable interpretation?

It may be. In a very provocative study, Blanchard – Fields (1986) asked high school students, college students, and middle-aged adults to resolve three fictitious dilemmas. One dilemma had low emo­tional involvement: conflicting accounts of a war between two fictitious countries, North and South Livia, each written by a supporter of one country. The other two dilemmas had high emotional involvement: a visit to the grandparents in which the parents and their adolescent son disagreed about going (the son did not want to go), and a pregnancy dilemma in which a man and a woman had to resolve their unintentional pregnancy (the man was antiabortion, the woman was pro-choice).

Results are shown in Figure 7.6. Two i mportant findings emerged. First, there were clear developmen­tal trends in reasoning level, with the middle-aged adults scoring highest. Second, the high school and college students were equivalent on the fictitious war dilemma, but the high school students scored signif­icantly lower on the grandparents and the pregnancy


Adolescents Young Middle

adults adults

Age group

Figure 7.6 Level of reasoning as a function of age group and socioemotional task.

Source: Blanchard-Fields, F. (1986). Reasoning on social dilemmas varying in emotional saliency: An adult developmental study. Psychology and Aging 1, 325-333. Copyright © 1986 Reprinted with permission from the American Psychological Association.

dilemmas. These findings suggest that high school students tend to think at a lower developmental level when confronted with problems that are especially emotionally salient to them. Although more evi­dence is certainly needed, Blanchard-Fields’s find­ings provide support for the idea that emotion and logic are brought together in adulthood.

Whether the findings from research examining relativistic or other forms of post-formal thought document qualitative cognitive growth has been a topic of debate. Overall, Cavanaugh and Stafford (1989) point out that because the roles of experience and education are not understood and because the measures of post-formal thought vary considerably from study to study, firm conclusions on the nature of adult cognitive development may be premature.

Gender Issues and Post-Formal Thought. The evidence of differences between adolescents’ and adults’ think­ing is clearly substantial. However, the research that
has produced this evidence is typically grounded in the assumption that men and women think in essen­tially similar ways. Is this a reasonable assumption?

Some researchers do not think so; they argue that men and women use different thinking styles. Within this critique, researchers argue that the styles of thinking that we have discussed so far reflect a male bias and do not describe how women know the world. The most prominent of these critiques was Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger, and Tarule’s (1986) identification of five ways of know­ing in women: silent, received, subjective, pro­cedural, and constructed. Silent knowing reflects the passive acceptance of others’ knowledge and one’s own incompetence. Received knowing involves accepting from authorities ideas that are concrete, absolute, and dualistic (i. e., represent­ing dichotomies such as good versus bad, with no gray areas). Subjective knowing involves using personal and private intuitions as the major source of understanding and authority. Procedural know­ing involves adopting the dominant viewpoint and using a systematic and deliberate process of analy­sis in two ways. One way of accomplishing proce­dural knowing is using impersonal strategies based on the criteria of justice and fairness to establish what is “right.” The second way is using interde­pendence and caring as the basis for establishing truth. Finally, constructed knowing includes being articulate about the self, reflecting one’s own per­sonal point of view, while tolerating contradiction and ambiguity.

These descriptions are certainly reminiscent of the styles of thinking considered earlier. For example, relativistic thinking has much in common with constructed knowing. Moreover, Belenky et al.’s description has an implicit developmental progression, in that each way of knowing appears to reflect a higher level of complexity. Thus important questions are whether the proposed women’s ways of knowing indeed reflect a developmental pro­gression, are indeed more typical of women, and are related to other descriptions of post-formal thinking.

Orr and Luszcz (1994) decided to address these issues by assessing the ways of knowing and

© Image Source / CORBIS

In numerous settings, individuals must clearly articulate their points of view while at the same time acknowledging the point of view of others.

relativistic thinking in a sample of male and female undergraduate and graduate students. They found that education, but not age, predicted relativistic thinking but not constructed knowing. Women used subjective knowing more than men, but men used procedural knowing more than women. No gender differences were observed for either con­structed knowing or relativistic thinking, but the degree to which traditional notions of femininity was endorsed was positively related to both. Finally, procedural knowing decreased whereas constructed knowing increased with increasing evidence of rel­ativistic thinking. Overall, these results point to minimal differences between men’s and women’s thinking; Belenky et al.’s (1986) ways of knowing do not appear unique to women. However, the ways of knowing do seem to reflect a developmental progression of increasingly complex thought. Still, differences do exist between constructed knowing and relativistic thinking that need to be pursued in additional studies.

The possibility of stages of cognitive development beyond formal operations is intriguing and has focused our attention on the existence of different
styles of thinking across adulthood. It has certainly presented a counter to the stereotype of inevitable decline. The evidence supporting a separate stage of cognitive development beyond formal operations is growing, and its applicability has extended to solving practical problems, which we will explore a little later in this chapter. At this point, though, the existence of different styles of thinking in adulthood may help us understand why people sometimes have difficulty understanding each other.

Concept Checks

1. What are the four stages of cognitive development and their respective characteristics in Piaget’s theory?

2. What are the major styles of thinking that have been identified beyond formal operations?

3. What role does emotion play in post-formal thinking?