Cognitive Development in Adolescence

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Cognitive Development in Adolescence

How did Piaget, Kohlberg, and later researchers describe adolescent cognitive and moral development?

During the early teen years, reasoning is often self-focused. Adolescents may think their private experiences are unique, something parents just could not understand: “But, Mom, you don’t really know how it feels to be in love” (Elkind, 1978). Capable of thinking about their own thinking, and about other people’s thinking, they also begin imagining what others are thinking about them. (They might worry less if they understood their peers’ similar self-absorption.) Gradually, though, most begin to reason more abstractly.

Developing Reasoning Power

When adolescents achieve the intellectual summit that Jean Piaget called formal operations, they apply their new abstract reasoning tools to the world around them. They may think about what is ideally possible and compare that with the imperfect reality of their society, their parents, and themselves. They may debate human nature, good and evil, truth and justice. Their sense of what’s fair changes from simple equality to equity—to what’s proportional to merit (Almås et al., 2010). Having left behind the concrete images of early childhood, they may now seek a deeper conception of God and existence (Boyatzis, 2012; Elkind, 1970). Reasoning hypothetically and deducing consequences also enables adolescents to detect inconsistencies and spot hypocrisy in others’ reasoning, sometimes leading to heated debates with parents and silent vows never to lose sight of their own ideals (Peterson et al., 1986).

Developing Morality

Two crucial tasks of childhood and adolescence are discerning right from wrong and developing character—the psychological muscles for controlling impulses. To be a moral person is to think morally and act accordingly. Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg proposed that moral reasoning guides moral actions. A more recent view builds on psychology’s game-changing new recognition that much of our functioning

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occurs not on the “high road” of deliberate, conscious thinking but on the “low road,” unconscious and automatic. Our morality provides another demonstration of our two- track mind.

Moral Reasoning

The point to remember A big part of moral development is the self-discipline needed to restrain one’s own impulses.

Piaget (1932) believed that children’s moral judgments build on their cognitive development. Agreeing with Piaget, Lawrence Kohlberg (1981, 1984) sought to describe the development of moral reasoning, the thinking that occurs as we consider right and wrong. Kohlberg posed moral dilemmas (for example, whether a person should steal medicine to save a loved one’s life) and asked children, adolescents, and adults whether the action was right or wrong. His analysis of their answers led him to propose three basic levels of moral thinking: preconventional, conventional, and postconventional (Table 2). Kohlberg claimed these levels form a moral ladder. As with all stage theories, the sequence is unvarying. We begin on the bottom rung and later ascend to varying heights, where we may place others’ comfort above our own (Crockett et al., 2014). Preschoolers, typically identifying with their cultural group, conform to and enforce its moral norms (Haun et al., 2014; Schmidt & Tomasello, 2012). When those norms reward kind actions, preschoolers help others (Carragan & Dweck, 2014). Kohlberg’s critics have noted that his postconventional stage is culturally limited, appearing mostly among people who prize individualism (Eckensberger, 1994; Miller & Bersoff, 1995).

Table 2

Kohlberg’s Levels of Moral Thinking Level (Approximate

Age) Focus Example

Preconventional morality (before age 9)

Self-interest; obey rules to avoid punishment or gain concrete rewards.

“If you save your dying wife, you’ll be a hero.”

Conventional morality (early adolescence)

Uphold laws and rules to gain social approval or maintain social order.

“If you steal the drug for her, everyone will think you’re a criminal.”

Postconventional morality (adolescence and beyond)

Actions reflect belief in basic rights and self-defined ethical principles.

“People have a right to live.”

Moral Action

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Our moral thinking and feeling surely affect our moral talk. But sometimes talk is cheap and emotions are fleeting. Morality involves doing the right thing, and what we do also depends on social influences. As political theorist Hannah Arendt (1963) observed, many Nazi concentration camp guards during World War II were ordinary “moral” people who were corrupted by a powerfully evil situation.

Today’s character education programs tend to focus on the whole moral package— thinking, feeling, and doing the right thing. In service-learning programs, where teens have tutored, cleaned up their neighborhoods, and assisted older adults, their sense of competence and desire to serve has increased, and their school absenteeism and drop- out rates have diminished (Andersen, 1998; Piliavin, 2003). Moral action feeds moral attitudes.

A big part of moral development is the self-discipline needed to restrain one’s own impulses—to delay small gratifications now to enable bigger rewards later. One of psychology’s best-known experiments was inspired by Walter Mischel (1988, 1989, 2014) observing his three preschool daughters’ “remarkable progression” in self- control. To explore this phenomenon, Mischel gave Stanford nursery school 4-year-olds a choice between one marshmallow now, or two marshmallows when he returned a few minutes later. The children who had the willpower to delay gratification went on to have higher college completion rates and incomes, and less often suffered addiction problems. Moreover, when a sample of Mischel’s marshmallow alums were retested on a new willpower test 40 years later, their differences persisted (Casey et al., 2011).

Our capacity to delay gratification—to decline small rewards now for bigger rewards later—is basic to our future academic, vocational, and social success. Teachers and parents rate children who delay gratification on a marshmallow-like test as more self- controlled (Duckworth et al., 2013). A preference for large-later rather than small-now rewards minimizes one’s risk of problem gambling, smoking, and delinquency (Callan et al., 2011; Ert et al., 2013; van Gelder et al., 2013). The moral of the story: Delaying gratification—living with one eye on the future—fosters flourishing.

Multiple-Choice Question

How is Mischel’s marshmallow test related to moral development?

The marshmallow test measures whether children can think logically about moral situations and act according to that logic. The marshmallow test measures whether a child can hold another person’s perspective in mind when deciding how to act.

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The marshmallow test seems to measure impulse control and the ability to delay gratification, both of which are important in moral action. The marshmallow test measures whether a child is acting based on self- defined ethical principles.

Correct. The children who were able to resist the temptation of the marshmallow went on to have greater willpower and impulse control as adults and have fewer issues with addiction or school attendance.

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