Cognitive Development

The psychometric approach to assessing cognitive abilities by means of specific tests has, for the most part, not adhered to any specific theory. Rather, it has been guided by the empirical results of correlational and factor-analytic studies designed to isolate the basic dimensions of intellectual functioning. Recently, more attention has been devoted to establishing certain theoretical foundations, based on research in child development, brain physiology, information-processing, and computer-oriented concepts. For example, construction of the Kaufman Adolescent and Adult Intelligence Test (KAIT) was guided by Cattell's theoretical distinction between fluid and crystallized intelligence. Certain intelligence tests are also based on neuropsychological theories such as Aleksandr Luria's conception of different brain areas as being responsible for simultaneous and successive processing of information (see Das, Naglieri, & Kirby, 1994). Of all conceptions of intelligence, however, the most influential in guiding research and practice has been Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development.

Piaget conceptualized human cognition as developing in a sequence of four successive stages: sensorimotor (from birth to 2 years), preoperational (from 2 to 6 years), concrete operations (from 7 to 11 years), and formal operations (from 11 to 15 years). Cognitive development begins with the assimilation of environmental experiences and accommodating (adapting) one's behavior and mental representations of those experiences (schemas).

The reversible mental actions (operations) by which a child accommodates his or her perceptions and thoughts to reality become increasingly more complex as the child matures, initially involving only concrete dimensions but proceeding to more abstract, formal dimensions.

By age 15, according to Piaget, the average child has reached cognitive maturity and can solve problems involving formal operations. Adolescents can employ logic and verbal reasoning and perform higher level, more abstract cognitive tasks. After age 15, knowledge continues to accumulate but intelligence, which Piaget defined as the ability to solve new problems, increases no further and may, in fact, decline. Note that this is also the age at which Cattell and Horn maintain that fluid intelligence has reached maturity.

Certain psychologists have quarreled with Piaget's conclusion that cognition stops developing at age 15 and have maintained that it continues to develop throughout early and middle adulthood. These critics assert that the thought processes of adults are qualitatively different from the more formal thought processes of logical reasoning and problem-solving characteristic of Piaget's older adolescents. For example, Riegel (1973, 1976) argued that mature adult thinking does not involve the search for a single "correct" solution. Rather, it is characterized by an understanding that, paradoxically, something may be both true and false. Following Riegel, Pascual-Leone (1983) and Basseches (1984) maintained that there is an additional reasoning stage in adulthood: dialectical thought. It involves movement or change and is made up of a continuous chain of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.

Dialectical thinking is an organized approach to analyzing and making sense of the world one experiences that differs fundamentally from formal analysis. Whereas the latter involves the effort to find fundamental fixed realities—basic elements and immutable laws—the former attempts to describe the fundamental process of change and the dynamic relationships through which this change occurs. (Basseches, 1984, p. 24).

An example of dialectical thinking is the realization that a quarrel may be nobody's "fault" and must be resolved by both opponents changing and adapting their demands to the situation. Compared to absolutist or even relativistic thinking, this type of thinking consists of understanding the merits of different viewpoints and the possibility of integrating them into a workable situation. Designated as postformal thought by Commons, Richards, and Kuhn (1982), dialectical thinking recognizes that the solution to a problem varies with the situation, must be realistic, and may also involve ambiguity and contradiction, as well as emotion and other subjective factors.

Although they accept the view that dialectical or postformal thinking is more characteristic of middle and later adulthood, Rybash, Hoyer, and Roodin (1986) question the assumption that it represents a separate stage of cognitive development. Rather than requiring a reorganization of thought, they see it as simply a style of thinking that emerges in some adults but lacks the characteristics of a unique, separate developmental stage.

Schaie and his associates (Labouvie-Vief, 1985; Schaie, 1977-1978) have also maintained that mature adult thinking, which requires the integration of emotion and logic, is different from the thought processes of childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. Schaie proposed a four-stage model that is markedly different from Piaget's conception. The four stages in Schaie's model of cognitive development are the Acquisitive Stage (during childhood and adolescence), the Achieving Stage (during young adulthood), the Responsible and Executive Stage (during middle age), and the Reintegrative Stage (during old age). The child's question, "What should I know?" gives way to the young adult's question, "How should I use what I know?", which itself is replaced in older adulthood by the question, "What should I know?" During the achieving stage of young adulthood, not only the problem but also the context in which it is to be solved is taken into account. Young adults focus more on long-term goals, such as those involving decisions about careers and marriage, and the possible consequences of their decisions. At the responsible/executive stage of midlife, the adult applies his or her cognitive skills in situations involving social responsibility, such as establishing a family and meeting the needs of one's spouse and children. During the last, or reintegrative, stage, the acquisition and application of information is guided more by one's interests, attitudes, and values than in young or middle adulthood. An older adult is less willing to expend great effort on a problem unless it is one that he or she faces in everyday life.

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