PSYCH 5: Piaget’s theories of Cognitive development

 Cognitive Development

Piaget’s theory of cognitive development:

His early work:

Piaget started working under Binet, studying how to identify children with special learning needs. Their method included asking children questions that got progressively harder, they would link the levels of difficulty of these questions with different age boundaries. The child’s mental age would be associated with the answers they got correct on a particular level of difficulty. This is how most intelligence testing is done today

Piaget was not interested in why the children got these answers wrong, but why they tend to get the answers wrong in the same manner. Their answers may have been incorrect, but from a child’s point of view they could sometimes make sense. Piaget theorised that children are not mini adults (as previously established in the 19th Century) but completely different thinkers, both quantitatively and qualitatively. 

Piaget established 5 key principles: 

  1. Constructivism – Children take an active role in their own development, (they construct themselves) pretending to be explorers or scientists as they learn about the world around them. 
  1. Children think qualitatively in a very different manner from us, they will even make very different assumptions about the world from us. 
  1. Structuralism – A schema is a cognitive structure. It can be defined as an organised set of knowledge. Schemas are how we respond to situations. At an early age they are simple reflexes e.g. sucking. Schemas become more complex as we get older. These will change/accomodate to knowledge we gain as we get older. 
  1. Biological basis development is innate, it begins with simple reflexes and these are the building blocks that help us move forward of the adaption process. This is what leads to our more complex actions.
  1. Intelligences is adaptive. This is all about how children will change their schemas alongside their ever-changing environment. Adaption is a two part process, first the children assimilate new information, then their schemas will accommodate the new information in order for them to adapt to the new situation.

-When a child encounters something that they have not yet accommodated to, they are at a point of disequilibrium, this is what encourages the accommodation and adaptation which will leave them in a state of equilibrium.

e.g. When a child encounters new information or a new experience such as seeing a horse for the first time after being used to dogs and primarily categorising dogs as four legged animals, making them classify a horse as a large dog. When told otherwise this knowledge will not fit into any pre-existing schemas they have, putting them in a state of disequilibrium. They will then accommodate this new information (dogs are not the only animals with four legs and a tail, horses are like large dogs). This new categorisation is still incredibly basic but will inevitably undergo many many repetitions of this same process.

Sequence of progression:

Piaget proposed a number of separate stages leading to the final development of ‘formal operational thought. Piaget claimed that the sequences was not going to change and that everyone would always go through them in the given particular order. Piaget also claimed that the following stages were biologically predetermined.

Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 years):

An infant will deal with the world using solely their sensory and motor skills, they will actively explore their environment while they do so. They will have no sense of being apart from other people and also no concept of object permanence. (When an object is hidden from their view they believe that it simply ceases to exist anymore) Piaget found that only at the age of four months will children show an awareness of an object still existing beyond their own point of view, but will become uninterested in it. Between 9-12 months he found that children will search where they last saw an object but do not fully understand why or even simply that an object is in the place it disappeared last.

This is known as the ‘A not B’ error.

As language development starts later on into this stage, Piaget found that children start demonstrating the ability to recognise symbolic representations as they begin make-believe play. (e.g. cardboard box as a house)

Preoperational stage (2-7 years old):

During this stage the child will be fully capable of symbolic thought. This stage was the stage most thoroughly studied by Piaget. For most of his research here he used Clinical interviews and found that there were several limitations to children’s thinking at this early stage.

Children in the early period of this stage (PRECONCEPTUAL) demonstrate animism (The belief that inanimate objects have feelings and personalities).

There is also an abundance of egocentrism during this stage. Children at this stage are often unable to see anything from another’s point of view. Piaget and Inhelder carried out the famous three mountains study. Objects were placed around a large model mountain that the child could walk around the model and see what models were placed around it. When they were standing in a single place, only able to some of the models, they were asked what they were able to see, then what someone on another side of the table was able to see:

Four year olds were almost completely unable to see from another’s point of view and would naturally assume that the other person/point of view would see the same objects as themselves.

Six year olds tended to show some awareness of another point of view.

Nine year olds realised what the correct answer and were able to describe what the other point of view would see.

Hughes and Donaldson (PEWS AND DOLLS) conducted a similar study which involved a model brick wall in the shape of a cross and three dolls which the children were asked to position into particular places so that they could or couldn’t see one another. They found that young children are able to accomplish a task which involves being able to see from the view of another, Hughes and Donaldson (PEWS AND DOLLS) claimed this was probably due to how much simpler the task was. One could argue it’s also due to how the child’s own view wasn’t involved and therefore could not influence the rest of the test.

Also at this stage a child’s ability is blocked by centration (the ability to only focus on one thing in the environment at a time). This is supported by Piaget’s experiments into conservation.

For example Piaget would present a child with two identical glasses filled with the same amount of liquid and would ask the children if they both had the same amount of liquid in. The child would inevitably say yes to which Piaget would respond by placing the liquids in different glasses (one tall and thin the other short and fat) and ask the same question. The children were often unable to understand that the amount of the liquid had not changed. This shows centrationbecause they were only able to focus on the shape of the liquid and glass while unable to understand how the amount had not changed.

Concrete operational stage:

Children at this stage will become capable of performing what is known as an operation which is a mental process such as working out a mathematical calculation in your head. Two other features of the concrete operational stage include:

  • Reversible thinking – The ability to add and subtract, understanding that subtracting is the reverse of adding.
  • Decentration – The children should now be able to perform the conservation tasks correctly, there is less of an egocentric state of mind in the children.

Piaget states that children will be able to conserve things in a particular order, number coming first and volume coming last. This stage is called concrete because of the way children need to use real objects in order to start using logic and mental processes to work things out. They are unable to have operations on something that they have not physically experienced, they cannot just imagine a new situation and then proceed to work it out at this early age.

Formal operational stage:

Children at this stage will begin to reason and perform operations without any physical representations. They will develop the ability to:

  1. Follow an argument without reference to it’s content, being able to reason and make sense of the principles.
  2. Think hypothetically about situations that they have never experienced. This supports the idea that there is further decentration present. Teens may start to think more about ideas and beliefs such as religion, or becoming a vegetarian because of not wanting to harm animals.
  3. They are able to test ideas bit by bit. Piaget gave children weights and a length of string, having them test what affects the swing of a pendulum. Children at the stage of formal operational thinking were able to test the weights then the length of the string, making sure all the possibilities have been explored.

Evaluation of Piaget:

  1. Piaget’s stage theory concept has been heavily criticised, even he himself has stated that perhaps cognitive development can be better thought of as a continuous process rather than a step by step one. Many state that given evidence does not support the stage theory, perhaps Piaget was simply influenced by other leading psychologists of the time who used stages such as Freud’s stages of Psychosexual development.
  2. The methodology of Piaget arguable relied too much on the process of the clinical interview. This was a process made up of question and answer unstructured interviews making it nigh on impossible to effectively compare data. This is due to how the questions or tasks would have been different for each child, experimenter bias was a possibility. His data was more qualitative than quantitative and not much was released regarding his sampling methods.
  1. It is also commonly believed that Piaget underestimated the cognitive abilities of children for example Bower (BOWSER: SEEK THE PRINCESS) challenged his ideas that children under the age of 8 months had no idea of object permanence. Bower (BOWSER: SEEK THE PRINCESS) showed that children as young as 6 weeks were able to show some indication that they were aware that objects did not disappear once out of their view. While a child was reaching for an object the lights were turned out and an infra red camera showed that they continued to reach for the object.

Again, Hughes and Donaldson (PEWS AND DOLLS) showed that by performing some of the tasks in a more understandable manner for the young children they were able to show more developed cognitive abilities.

Another thing to note is how all children of course develop at different rates, yet Piaget barely touched upon this, only that there is a fixed sequence of cognitive development.

Despite all of this Piaget remains one of the key figures in developmental psychology, mostly due to his emphasis on constructivist views, the views that children construct their own cognitive ability by taking parts of their environment and adding them on to their own experience.

Key points:

  • Children respond to information in a manner dependent on their stage in cognitive development.
  • Key processes include conservation, centration, egocentrism and class inclusion.
  • Key studies include sleeping cows (ARE THERE MORE BLACK COWS OR SLEEPING ONES?), three mountains and conservation.
  • Recent studies have shown that children are capable of higher cognitive abilities earlier than Piaget believed.
  • Donaldson worked to prove this.
  • Highlighted two limitations of children at a young age, egocentrism and centration.
  • Rarely discussed how social processes affect development.

PSYCH 4: Friendship

The Development of Friendship

Friendship is another vital process to the development of a child. It helps to socialise children, to teach children what is socially sought for and more importantly, acceptable. Once a child has been accepted into a group or even gang, they will strive to remain part of that group, adjusting their own fashion and personality in order to do so.

Pre-school children:

In our early years we go through a very self-isolating time of play. At the ages of 0-2 this is called Solitary play and from 2-3, parallel play. During these stages children may play near or even alongside (parallel) to other children but will take little notice of them. At the stage of such young ages children don’t tend to develop close friendships, the only other children they tend to bond with are their siblings.

Gender is not an issue at this age.

From the ages of 3-4 children begin to form real relationships with others around their age. These may be very shortliving, but intense. Piaget argued that because children are so egocentricat this stage they do not see the long term benefits of the friendship, nor do they consider the other’s feelings.

The purpose of friendship at this age is to help children learn more about relationships. Games such a ‘Mummies and Daddies’ and ‘Doctors and Nurses’ help them to learn and reinforce existing knowledge through each other. It’s also a known observation that during such games particular children use this as an opportunity to assert their dominance.

Middle Childhood:

It is around this stage that friends become more important to children, and these children tend to conform more to what is socially acceptable in order to form or hold certain friendships. They become more gender aware, and so will tend to play exclusively with others of their own gender, in a ‘sex appropriate’ manner with sex appropriate’ toys.

Michael Lamb (1979) (BE A LAMB AND PLAY WITH THE RIGHT TOYS) found that if a child picked up a toy that wasn’t ‘socially acceptable’ for their gender (e.g. if a boy picked up a doll) they would be shunned by their social group until they realised that the toy was the cause of this and put it down.

Friends are found at this stage through the same activities, as long as the two children see each other enough their friendship should continue. Right now physical appearance, race and social class won’t matter or even stand out to the children unless their parents point this out.

Older childhood:

Between the ages of 6 and 12 children will become yet even more conformist. Their social group/s will develop norms and values that the members are expected to follow in order to gain recognition from the group. But children are not mindless, they will not follow any instruction simply because another more popular child tells them to do so. At this stage children have developed a free will and know what they want in a friend.

Youniss (1994) (YOU ‘N I START SOLIDARITY?) had dozens of children (at different stages of childhood) interviewed about how another child would let them know that they liked them. The older the child becomes the more aware they are of others.

  • Between 6-8 stories are told of giving and sharing objects such as sweets. – Extent of friendship signified by quantity of goods.
  • 9-11 told stories about being fair and equal.
  • 12-14 strayed from physical objects and placed emphasis on phsychological support.

Children stray from the material and egocentric viewpoints as they mature.

These peers tend to have two effects on the children:

  1. Peers are seen as rivals for the teacher’s attention, actually being the one with the most attention can produce the most stigma against them (‘teacher’s pet’)
  2. Bandura states that children learn by modelling themselves based on others. An intelligent and successful peer can also be a positive role model despite their lack of life experience.

Other psychologists have studied the development of friendships through the different stages of childhood:

Selman and Jaquette (1977) (STILL WANT A JACKET FRIEND?) asked 225 individuals between the ages of 4 and 32 about friendship.

  • 3-7 – Playing together
  • 4-9 – Giving help without any focus or thought on reciprocation
  • 6-12 – Focus on reciprocation
  • 9-15 – Intimacy and sharing (Similar to Youniss’ discovery of emphasis on psychological support)
  • 12-adult – Interdependence

Rotenburg (1984) (RELIANT ON BOYS) found that at the age of 7 boys begin to trust other boys more than girls (and vice versa) and will no longer befriend girls until their pubescent years when an attraction for girls develops.

Sex Differences in Children’s Friendships:

Waldrop and Haverson (1975) (WE’LL GROUP) suggested that boys will tend to have extensive friendships, they will see a social group as a network of friends formed due to their similar activities. On the other hand they suggested that girls form more intensive, closer relationships.

The idea that girls tend to operate their friendships in small social groups, while boys on the other hand favour larger groups is supported by Mackoby and Jackson.

Mackoby and Jackson (PHYSICAL) found that boys tend to get themselves involved in far more aggressive play than girls. Boys will ‘test out’ each other at the start of a friendship, this is normally done through physical play. (Large groups, rough play and physical aggression of boys (to younger and lower boys in the hierarchy) supported by Rose and Rudolph (2006))

There is even a difference in the unpleasantries of friendships between boys and girls, boys will more likely display their anger through physical aggression and girls on the other hand will exhibit hostility or use a passive aggressive attitude in such situations. (R&R)

Popularity and rejection:

Parenting styles:

Some psychologists suggest that is it the type of care that has been given to us by our parents or guardians that determines our popularity or perhaps more accurately our social competence. Children with closer guardians are more likely to form closer attachments with their peers. Some evidence suggests that some children who haduninvolved or overlyharsh carers were rejected by their peers in school due to their uncooperative and aggressive nature that has developed. This rejection continues making the problem worse.

Temperamental characteristics:

Children who are irritable and impulsive are more likely to form more troublesome friendships making them more likely to be rejected, on the other hand children who are passive and slow to become involved are often left behind from the developing social groups and soon rejected.

Dodge (DODGE HIS BEHAVIOUR) found that children were rejected or neglected from the social groups in their school because they did not act appropriately socially. Their behaviour should explain why they are rejected.

Bonn and Kruger’s (BRING ON RECRUITING) study conflicts with this. Their study on a South African school found that the difference between popular children and unpopular children was not how they acted but the amount of children who helped bring them into the group. The importance was mainly their pre-existing friendships.

Cognitive skills:

From 8-13 years old, children with well developed role-taking skills are more likely to have intimate friendships, also note how popular children tend to score higher on IQ tests than unpopular children.

Physical attractiveness:

Research suggests that as early as 12 months old children will tend to show preference for the ‘attractive’. By the age of 4 children will describe their attractive peers more favourably than their unattractive ones. By 5 the ‘unattractive’ children will act more boisterously, responding aggressively to comments from their peers. It’s possible that attractive children will receive more compliments unlike the unattractive ones and each child may be experiencing a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This rejection and neglect of peers could result in the child internalising their problems (anxiety, depression) or externalisingtheir problems (aggression truancy, delinquency). Parker and Asher (REMEMBER LIKE HOT ASHES) found that children who experience rejection and neglect are more likely to experience mental difficulties in their later lives.

Xie et al. (SEE how IT ALL develops) Found that at the age of 6 children think popularity is caused by positive social behaviours, at 9 and 12 appearance was far more important. At the age of 12 deviant behaviour was mentioned more than any time before.

Sociometry would have been used (marking who is friends with who and who has more friends) to examine these characteristics.

PSYCH3: Rutter’s Study on Romanian Orphans Romanian Orphans

Rutter’s Study on Romanian Orphans

Romanian Orphans:

In 1989 the Ceausescu regime was overthrown and it was found that there were between 100 to 300 thousand school-aged children in orphanages, many of whom had suffered sever emotional and physical deprivation.

Rutter (WRONGER) did a study on these children who had been adopted by Westerners after having lived with either a sense of deprivation or privation. Initial findings showed that the children had poor health (they were malnourished and had infectious diseases). They also had behaviour issues such as temper tantrums, excessive rocking, insomnia and indiscriminate friendliness.

111 children adopted younger than 2 years old from Romania to England were compared with 52 children of similar ages adopted within England. Rutter found that the Romanian children had poor physical health and a mean IQ of 63 (when adopted). When these children were assessed again it was found that while 51% of them were below the third percentile in weight at the age of 2, at the age of four this had gone down to 2%. Their IQ’s were also assessed again and it was found that the average for those adopted before the age of 6 months had gone from 63 to 107 in the space of two years, it had only gone from 45 to 90 for those adopted after the age of 6 months.

Rutter also studied the issues relating to attachment and did not find the same positive findings. Some of the Romanian children still continued to experience serious behavioural problems both in general and when it came to the issue of forming a bond with their adoptive parents.

Another study conducted in Canada looked at similar Romanian orphans adopted by Canadian families. This study involved three separate groups of children:

  1. Canadian children who had not been adopted.
  2. A group of Romanian children whose median age was 18 ½ months
  3. And a group of Romanian children who were all adopted before they reached four months old

The researchers found no difference in the attachments formed by children in groups 1 and 3. Group 2 however had attachment difficulties although most formed attachments with their adoptive parents eventually.

The conclusion was made that the longer children are institutionalised, the harder it becomes for them to form attachments. Scribanu (SCRUB-ARE-YOU) theorised that for every three months in an orphanage, a child will lose one month of development.

Van Ijzendoorn and Kroonenberg carried out experiments on the topic of attachment all around the globe and found the results would often follow the same patter, and the same three basic patterns

Summarising attachment:

Van Ijzendoorn summarised his findings from his dozens of studies under four headings:

  • UNIVERSALITY HYPOTHESIS In all cultures, a child will bond with one or more caregivers.
  • NORMATIVITY HYPOTHESIS – Around 70% of children are ‘securely attached’ (Ainsworth), the rest are insecurely attached. Ijzendoorn also identified three typical characteristics of a child who has developed an insecure attachment:

    – Avoidant

    – Ambivalent

    – Disorganised


  • SENSITIVITY HYPOTHESIS– The degree of how secure a bond is between a child and a caregiver is all depends on how caring, sensitive and responsive said caregiver is.
  • COMPETENCE HYPOTHESIS – The different levels of attachment show correlation with the different levels of social competence in developing children.

    E.G. A child who has developed a secure bond with their caregiver is more likely to interact well with others.

(CHILD INSPECTOR) Holmes theorised a further three Hypotheses:

  • CONTINUITY HYPOTHESIS– The patterns of attachment will also have a significant impact on social sills and mental representations in adulthood. For instance a securely attached but absent carer, will have a dramatically negative impact on a child’s development.
  • MENTALISATION HYPOTHESIS – A secure attachment is based on and leads to the ability to reflect on one’s own state of mind as well as others (a securely attached child is more likely to be able to show empathy).
  • NARRATIVE COMPETENCE HYPOTHESIS– They way adults speak of relationships and mental pain often reflects the type of attachment they held with their own caregivers as a child.

PSYCH 2: Separation


Bowlby further researched separation alongside Robertson, particularly the separation during hospitalisation of the child. They established a three step process:

  1. PROTEST – Crying, anger, tantrums.
  2. DESPAIR – The child begins to believe that the separation will continue and grows depressed.
  3. DETACHMENT – The child begins to accept the situation and will interact with others again but at a very superficial level, they may reject their carer upon return.

Bowlby argued that such separation could result in an anxiety disorder, the children could be too afraid to be separated from their parents again.

Rutter (WRONGER) criticised Bowlby’s work as well as his influences such as Goldfarb. Rutter suggested that there were two other factors involved:

  • DEPRIVATION – referred to in BOWLBY’s maternal deprivation hypothesis which is really the loss, through separation, of maternal attachment
  • PRIVATION – This refers to not having any form of attachment whatsoever

Rutter stated that the children in Goldfarb’s study were in fact suffering from privation and not deprivation, they never actually had formed any bond with their mothers. He even conducted his own research and found that most 9-12 year old boys had developed normally after separation from their parents. If there was any problem with their development it was not due to the length of the separation, but how it took place.

Schafer and Emerson (1964) (SAFER AND NUMBERS) found that it is not a single bond that is formed, but multiple. The 60 children they studied developed multiple relationships for multiple purposes e.g. A father for playing. They often formed a hierarchy of these bonds. Schafer and Emerson also argued that it is not the amount of time together that determines the importance of the relationship, but the quality of the time together.

This is suported by Ainsworth who also found that the Ugandan children she studied were often looked after by other adults and had separate attachments. If Bowlby was right about the innate predisposition for children to attach to a single figure, then that would hold true across cultures.

PSYCH 1: Attachment and Separation

Attachment and separation

The importance of other people to newborns:

Much research done on newborn children suggests that they will prefer the sound, sight, and movement of ADULTS to other stimuli.


Study time!:

Messer (1994) MOTHERESE:Found that adults tend to speak in a higher pitch when talking to children. They use sing song intonations and speak in shorter utterances which newborns prefer to adult speech. Speaking in such a manner is also known as speaking in MOTHERESE.

Fantz (1961) FANCY GLASS CHAMBER: A looking glass chamber was used with newborns where Fantz found that they preferred human faces to almost any other visual stimuli. Fantz also found that they preferred to watch human movement to similar movement produced by a computer.

Decasper and Fifer (1980) BREASTFEEDING: Found that children will breastfeed from their mothers longer if they hear their mother’s voice instead of a stranger’s while they do so. This suggests pre-natal learning.


Kagan et al (1978) ATTACHMENT:Defined attachment as an intense emotional relationship specific to two people that endures over time where prolonged separation is followed by stress and sorrow.

Bowlby(1969)EYE CONTACT: We are genetically predispositioned to follow our mothers. Newborns tend to become distressed if their mothers do not return eye contact. Mothers are genetically predispositioned to be with their children. BOTH PARTIES ARE ESSENTIAL TO ATTACHMENT. Bowlby was influenced by Lorenz and claimed support from Goldfarb.

Lorenz (1935)LOVE AT FIRST SIGHT:Discovered that some species bond with the first moving object that they see. Predispositioned to follow without preference.

Goldfarb (1943) GOLD KIDS AND FARM KIDS: Studied fifteen orphanage children aged six months to three and a half years old. These children were matched up with children who had gone to foster homes. Found that the fostered group were more developed in terms of sociability and maturity. By the time the children had reached the ages of 10-14 years old the fostered children had on average an IQ of 20 points higher.

Bowlby argued that without this maternal relationship as children we will fail to develop adult relationships.

‘They are as important as Vitamins’

Klaus and Kennel (1976) CUDDLED OR IN THE KENNEL:Supported Bowlby’s argument and studied this bond from the mother’s point of view and discovered that it was critical how long the mother spent with her children. Especially during the vital first 12 hours. Mothers who spent more time with their babies were far more active in contact. (This changed hospital practices)

Bowlby also compared 44 juveniles who had not committed crimes with 44 juvenile thieves, he found that over half of the juvenile thieves ad been separated from their mothers for a week or longer when they were younger than five years old. He claimed that their delinquency was a result of the deprivation of their mothers at such a young age. This led to his creation of the maternal deprivation hypothesis.

Mary Ainsworth: Worked alongside Bowlby for a period of time, and like Bowlby she was a strong believer of the importance of the bond between a mother and her children. Using direct observation she studied the infant-mother relationships in a tribe in Uganda. She visited 28 families twice a week for 9 months. Through this she established three separate types of bonds:

  1. SECURELY ATTACHED – Cried very little.
  2. INSECURELY ATTACHED – Cried a lot of the time even when their mothers were around.
  3. NON ATTACHED – Did not seem to care whether their mothers were around or not due to the long periods that their mothers left them alone. They simply had not formed an attachment.

Ainsworth found that in the first six months of their lives most of the infants had formed a bond with their mothers and were scared of strangers.

She established the STRANGE SITUATION CLASSIFICATION (SSC) claiming it catagorised what type of mothering the child received which determined their attachment. A sensitive and responsive mother would have developed a securely attached child, thereby supporting Bowlby’s claim that only the mother could ensure an attachment was formed.