Development of thinking
Piaget is a towering
figure in psychology and widely respected by all, including those who have
criticised or adopted his theories. Contrary to popular belief Piaget
was not French (despite being called Jean), he was in fact Swiss. Nor was
he a psychologist (not at the outset anyway) but a zoologist (which should
really be spelt zooologist surely!). He had his first publication on
molluscs when he was still at High School!
Whilst working with
French) and an early pioneer of IQ tests, he became fascinated by child
development and spent the next 50 some years of his life studying the
subject. As a result Piaget was a true expert in his field, which as
we shall see later, also covered moral development.
Piaget’s theory is
sometimes described as ‘genetic epistemology.’ ‘Genetic’ because he
believed that the stages we progress through and the structures and
processes we use, are inbuilt and true for all of us regardless of
culture. ‘Epistemology’ (not a word to be uttered when in the state
suggested by the word) actually means the study of knowledge. Basically
Piaget believed that the way in which we learn about and adapt to our
World is constant across all cultures and races, and proceeds as a set
sequence in all.
Central to Piaget's
theory is how the child adapts to an ever-changing World. Piaget noticed
that even the youngest of children are inquisitive and actively explore
their world. Piaget is most famous for his stages but any description of
his theory must also include a discussion of the structures that underlie
these stages. It is tempting in an essay on Piaget to write exclusively
about his stages, since you will know them backwards in great detail by
the time the exam comes round. However, it is essential that the other
aspects of his theory are covered too. His processes (or ‘functional
invariants’ as he lovingly referred to them) are constant (as their name
suggests) throughout all stages, working to make sense of our
environment. Schemas (strictly speaking the plural should be ‘schemata’)
are the internal representations that we hang our understanding on.
Schemata were mentioned in AS memory and will crop up in other topics
later in the year. Enough waffle… lets get on with it.
I got so excited telling you about the great man that I neglected to mention the
structure of this first topic. It covers
the way our thinking develops over time, and how as we mature we become capable
of more complex methods of thinking.
A number of theories have developed (that word again) to try and explain
how this happens. The syllabus only
specifies two: Piaget and Vygotsky.
Others that you may come across include Bruner and ‘Information Processing’
which does appear in this booklet, but which you cannot be specifically tested
Left: photo of Piaget in later life.
He died in 1980 at the age of 84 (despite being a ‘sickly’ as a child).
Schemas and associated concepts
an internal representation of the world. This acts as a framework on
which the child bases its knowledge of its environment. According to
Piaget we are born with some schemata including sucking and
grasping. In the first year of life many other simple schemata
develop, for example the schema for mum very quickly develops as the child
learns to distinguish her from others as a source of food and comfort.
Later the schemata become more complex and include concepts such as
density, grammar, love, nature-nurture debate etc. Schemata
are crucial as they enable us to interpret and predict events.
Helen Bee (2000)
believes that schemata are not so much the categories themselves but the
action of categorising.
the child requires a
stable internal world. If new experience does not match existing schema
then a state of disequilibrium (or inbalance) is produced. The child
needs to accommodate to restore the balance, i.e. alter its perception of
how things work. Piaget saw this desire for equilibrium as innate and
believed that it drives or motivates us to learn. Simple examples would
be having a schema for dog and misinterpreting a cat as a dog. On being
told the mistake this causes temporary confusion and the child needs to
alter its schemata to allow for this.
is essential for learning!!!!
refers to how
a child changes over time as it makes sense of the World in which it
lives. Adaptation comes about through the processes of assimilation and
new information or experiences can be fitted into the child's existing
schema or current understanding of the world. It sees a poodle and is
able to fit this into the same schema as the family’s bull mastiff!
new information or experiences cannot be fitted into the child's current
understanding so it either has to alter existing schema or create a whole
new schema; for example cat doesn’t fit in with its schema for dog or
George W Bush doesn’t tie in with its concept of intelligent life form!
In these cases new schemata need to be constructed or changes made to
existing schemata. So the child develops a schema for cat and one for
nepotism in World Politics!
Not always mentioned
specifically in texts but nevertheless crucial, by definition, to the
stages. Operations are mental transformations or manipulations that occur
in the mind. Piaget believed that it was operations that provided the
rules by which the child is able to understand the world. While schemas
develop with experience operations only develop as the child’s brain
develops. So children in the first two stages do not possess operations,
hence ‘preoperational.’ As the brain matures the child is capable of ever
more complex understanding.
Sensori-motor (0-2 years)
The child lacks
internal schemas or representations. The child's understanding of its
world is directly through its senses from moment to moment. It is so
called because it senses its environment and carries out movement (motor)
to react to it. At this stage that is all the child can do!
The child has no concept of 'self' so is unable to distinguish itself from
its environment. Unlike some of the other concepts Piaget believed that
egocentricism gradually reduces as the child gets older.
See three mountains
task in preoperational stage.
Lacks object permanence.
that objects no longer exist if they’re not visible.
Piaget carried out
research on his own children. They would be shown an attractive object
that would then be hidden from view. Children up to the age of 8 months
don’t bother to look for it assuming it to no longer exist. After 8
months children will continue to search for hidden objects.
Bower & Wishart
(1972) showed objects to children between the ages of 1 and 4 months.
Lights were switched off so that the objects were no longer visible but
the child could be seen, by infrared camera, continuing to search for the
Baillargeon and DeVos
(1991) employed an ingenious experiment using long and short carrots.
It relies on the concept that children will
spend longer looking at events that they consider to be impossible. In
this case, even though the carrots were not visible for a crucial stage of
the experiment children as young as three months old realised that they
still existed and spent longer puzzling over the ‘impossible situation.’
|Young children glance at this one but seem to realise
there's nothing unusual about it.
||However, they spend significantly longer looking at
this one, suggesting that they realise its impossible. That is
they realise that the carrot should still be visible in the space.
Clearly this casts
doubt on Piaget’s assertion that children didn’t develop object permanence
until 8 months of age!
Pre-Operational Stage (2 to 7 years)
Child is still
dominated by the external world, rather than it's own thoughts. However,
it now forms some simple internal representations of its world (schemas)
through its increasing ability to use language. The stage is called
'pre-operational' since the child is unable to perform operations (such as
heart by-passes and key hole surgery; well you know what I mean!). An
'operation' according to Piaget, is a mental rule for manipulating objects
or ideas into new forms, and then, crucially, being able to manipulate
them back again. Since preoperational children are unable to reverse
things mentally they are unable to do this.
egocentric but this now refers more to its inability to see things from
other people's perspectives, as famously demonstrated by the 'Three
Changers: Jean Piaget and the Three Mountains
Piaget & Inhelder’s
‘Three Mountains Task.’ Children would be seated at a table with a 3D
model of three mountains in front of them. A doll would be placed in
various positions around the table and the child shown photos of various
views. They would be asked to choose the picture that best fitted the
view as seen from the doll. To complete this task successfully children
would have to imagine the view as seen by the doll. The researchers found
that children below the age of 7 had problems completing the task, tending
to choose the photo that showed their view of the mountains. Think of the
young girl in the video explaining her new toy to her grandfather on the
phone and assuming that because she could see it so could her granddad.
repeated the three mountains task using a situation he thought would be
more familiar to the child, i.e. the naughty boy hiding from the
policeman. Hughes found that 90% of children aged 3 to 5 could complete
the task successfully, concluding that it was lack of understanding rather
than egocentricism that was causing the problems for Piaget's
This is related to
egocentricism and is the tendency to attribute feelings to inanimate
objects so for example the child may apologise for hurting its teddy bear
or decide to punish one of its toys for being naughty. I’ll restrain from
any adult humour here!
psychological events, such as dreams, are real.
Lack of Conservation
The inability to
realise that some things remain unchanged despite looking different.
Piaget concentrated on conservation of number and volume. Piaget put this
down to the child's inability to pay attention to more than one
characteristic of a situation at a time and to its inability to reverse
operations in its head (e.g. to visualise the water being poured back into
the original container).
Piaget believed that
conservation of number develops first. He demonstrated this by the use of
counters. Children are shown 2 rows each with the same number of counters
and realise the 2 rows contain the same number. If the researcher
rearranges one of the rows by spacing the counters out the child believes
there are more.
volume, as demonstrated by pouring liquid from small wide beakers into
tall thin measuring cylinders, develops later, at the very end of the
Donaldson (1974) showed that children as young as 4 could conserve number
if the situation is given meaning.
It is also important
to note that Piaget concentrates almost entirely on mathematical skills
and logic. Between the ages of 7 and 11 children acquire a vast number of
other new skills that Piaget chose to ignore.
Donaldson (1974) repeated Piaget’s conservation experiment on 6-year-old
children. The child is shown 2 rows
of equal numbers of counters. The
child agrees that the 2 rows are the same.
If the researcher then messes one of the rows up, without altering the
number of counters, only 16% believe that the number of counters is still the
same. So far just as Piaget would have
predicted. However, when a naughty teddy bear messes up the row of counters 62%
of children in this age group are able to conserve!
This shows that children are better able to conserve than Piaget
proposed. M & D assume that in the
original condition it appears to the child that the researchers are intending to
alter the number of counters, or that they are asking a trick question.
In the teddy condition there is a reason for the counters just to be
messed up so the situation has meaning.
Rose & Black (1974)
believed asking the child the same question twice was confusing. ‘Are
there the same number of buttons in each row?’ The buttons would then be
rearranged and the question repeated. Perhaps the children believe this
to be a trick question. Samuel & Bryant (1984) repeated the counters
experiment but only asked the question once, after the counters had been
rearranged. This produced more correct answers!
evaluation points on this stage:
Piaget’s research has
generated lots of research into this particular stage, but it has been
inconclusive or at odds with Piaget’s original work:
under-estimated the age at which children could perform activities.
Wheldall & Poborca (1980) believe that children are unable to perform
conservation tasks because they don't understand the question.
Variations in an
experimental procedure can produce very different findings. Some studies
conclude that children are still egocentric others that they have out
grown this characteristic.
studies were often poorly thought through and for example were not suited
to the age range of the children he was studying. Instructions may have
been confusing or the tasks themselves too complex. For example ‘Three
Mountains’ task which was manageable when re-worked by Hughes in a more
Concrete Operations Stage (7 to 11
The child is now able
to carry out operations on its environment and develops logical thought.
However, it still requires concrete examples, being unable to think in
abstract terms. Less importance is attached to information from our
senses as we use thought and imagination more.
refers to the ability to mentally picture an action being carried out in
reverse. This is essential for conservation, e.g. imagining the water
being poured back into the original beaker.
made possible by the ability to decentre. Conservation of number is first
(5 to 6 years), followed by conservation of weight (7 to 8 years) and
finally conservation of volume by 11 years of age.
possible with concrete examples. For example 'Jackie is fairer than
Sarah, Jackie is darker than Nicola. Who is the darkest?' The concrete
operational child would not be able to work this one out mentally, it
would require dolls or pictures of the three girls. Similarly A > B > C.
This would not be possible since it requires abstract thought rather than
Piaget's own studies
demonstrated that children in this age group were able to conserve
Other studies have
broadly backed Piaget’s findings for this stage, although he has been
criticised for failing to consider other cultures.
(1983) found that children as young as 9 years old in Zimbabwe could
understand abstract economic concepts if they’d worked in their parents’
(1969) showed conservation in children as young as 6 years old who had
been raised in pottery making factories.
Formal Operational stage (11 years
Piaget used the term
‘formal’ since children in this stage can concentrate on the form of an
argument without being distracted by the content (Jarvis 2001). For
example if x is greater than y but less than x. The child can now work
this out without needing to know what x, y and z refer to. Smith et al
(1998) provide the following example:
‘All green birds have
two heads. I have a green bird called Charlie. How many heads does
Charlie have?’ A child in the earlier stages would be bogged down by the
content, i.e. birds have one head. Formal thinkers can concentrate on the
structure (or form) of the question in this context.
that everyone would reach this stage eventually, even if it took us until
20. However, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that this is not the
case and that certainly it tends to occur later than Piaget predicted.
Bradmetz (1999), in a
longitudinal study showed that out of 62 children tested at the age of 15,
on a series of Piagetian tasks, only one had reached formal thought!
The child can now
think in abstract terms so no longer requires concrete examples to solve
The child is able to
consider things that it has no experience of and consider imaginary
Faced with a problem
the formal thinker will approach it logically, produce a list of
possibilities and test each one systematically. (Think of GCSE science
These are a form of
reasoning in which a conclusion is reached from a number of statements.
When B is
larger than C, X is smaller than C. But C is never larger than B.
false, X is never larger than B?
This level of thought
also allows for an appreciation of values and ideals (necessary for more
advanced moral thinking).
Piaget would set
children the task of finding what determines the frequency of swing of a
pendulum. Concrete thinkers normally believe that it is the push that the
experimenter gives it. When they test possibilities they fail to control
other variables. The formal thinker on the other hand considers all
possible variables such as push, length of string, weight of bob etc.
They carefully isolate variables and control confounding variables.
Some psychologists argue that formal
operational thought is not as important to everyday life as Piaget seems
to have concluded. Since most problems we face have no one obvious right
answer, logical thought is not always necessary.
seems many adults never actually reach Piaget’s description of formal
(1970) argues that the tests Piaget used are inappropriate for testing
non-western culture. The Pulawat navigators of Polynesia demonstrate
formal thinking when navigating in their canoes but fail western tests
designed to test their formal thinking.
Ages and stages
Research often suggests that children reach the stages earlier than Piaget
suggested (e.g. Hughes).
Some psychologists believe that
only 30% of the population reach formal ops.
of the stages overlap (decalage), so much so that it appears deve
Performance and ability.
measured a child’s performance and assumed that this was a true reflection
of its underlying ability. For whatever reason children do not always
perform to the best of their ability, e.g. lack of understanding of the
problem, as highlighted by McGarrigle & Donaldson (1974).
tended to focus on logical and mathematical thought development,
neglecting other developments such as memory and social abilities etc.
These may account for the wide individual differences between children.
McGarrigle & Donaldson have shown that using different methods, children
can achieve stages at an earlier age than was predicted. They believe
Piaget’s experiments were over complex and used language that the child
was unable to relate to.
the clinical interview technique, which is time consuming. As a result
his sample sizes tended to be small.
believed that children in Piaget’s experiments may have given answers
that they thought Piaget wanted to hear rather than the answers that
they believed to be right.
Piaget’s work has received widespread support.
adapt his early theories to take account of criticisms. He also believed
that one day it could be integrated with other theories to produce a
rounded view of child development.
Psychologist, if any, have provoked as much follow up research. Over the
years this has added significantly to our understanding of child
development. For example Bruner and the Information Processing theories
both take Piaget as a starting point.
how influential Piaget’s work has been, both in influencing educational
policies (although this was not Piaget’s intention) and in stimulating
Applying Piaget to
time one prematurely teaches a child something he could have discovered
for himself, that child is kept from inventing it and consequently from
understanding it completely.’
Think of old black and white films that
you’ve seen in which children sat in rows at desks, with ink wells, would
learn by rote, all chanting in unison in response to questions set by an
authoritarian old biddy like Matilda! Children who were unable to keep up
were seen as slacking and would be punished by variations on the theme of
corporal punishment. Yes, it really did happen and in some parts of the
world still does today. Piaget is partly responsible for the change that
occurred in the 1960s and for your relatively pleasurable and pain free
In the 1960s the Plowden Committee
investigated the deficiencies in education and decided to incorporate many of
Piaget’s ideas in to its final report published in 1967, even though Piaget’s
work was not really designed for education.
The report makes three Piaget-associated recommendations:
Children should be given individual
attention and it should be realised that they need to be treated
should only be taught things that they are capable of learning
mature at different rates and the teacher needs to be aware of the stage
of development of each child so teaching can be tailored to their
Only when the child is ready. I.e.
has the child reached the appropriate stage?
How to teach
Child-centred approach. Learning must
be active (discovery learning.
The order of teaching has to be
determined by development of stages, so curricula are needed. E.g. teach
conservation of number before conservation of weight.
Stages of development are biologically
determined so the rate of learning cannot be speeded up. (Bruner believed
that increasing language ability would speed up rate of learning, but this
appears not to be true).
of teacher (intellectual midwife)
adapt lessons to suit the needs of the
be aware of the child’s stage of
provide stimulation through a variety
produce disequilibrium, i.e. a
scenario that is outside the child’s current understanding. E.g. density.
use concrete examples when describing
abstract concepts, e.g. ships floating for density, pumping water around
houses for flow of current in a circuit.
use in Education
Nuffield Maths Project is based on
Piaget’s stages and assumes that formal operations have been reached by
the age of 12. As a result concrete examples are longer required. For
example algebra can be taught.
Child (1997) points out that Piaget’s
view is ‘pessimistic’ if the teacher is expected to ‘sit back and wait’
for the child to develop. Teachers should, by the right techniques, be
able to encourage children to progress through the stages.
Curricula need to be developed that take
into account the age and stage of thinking of the child. For example
there is no point in teaching abstract concepts such as algebra or atomic
structure to children in primary school. Curricula also need to be
sufficiently flexible to allow for variations in ability of different
students of the same age. In Britain the National Curriculum and Key
Stages broadly reflect the stages that Piaget laid down.
Left: peer tutoring to solve a CASE problem
Right: National curriculum… designed for learning in stages.
Egocentricism dominates a child’s
thinking in the sensori-motor and preoperational stages. Piaget would
therefore predict that using group activities would not be appropriate
since children are not capable of understanding the views of others.
However, Smith et al (1998), point out
that some children develop earlier than Piaget predicted and that by using
group work children can learn to appreciate the views of others in
preparation for the concrete operational stage.
The national curriculum emphasises the
need for using concrete examples in the primary classroom. Shayer (1997),
reported that abstract thought was necessary for success in secondary
school (and co-developed the CASE system of teaching science). Recently
the National curriculum has been updated to encourage the teaching of some
abstract concepts towards the end of primary education, in preparation for
secondary courses. (DfEE 1999).
A few concluding comments useful for
Child-centred teaching is regarded by
some as a child of the ‘liberal sixties.’ In the 1980s the Thatcher
government introduced the National Curriculum in an attempt to move away
from this and bring more central government control into the teaching of
children. So, although the National Curriculum in some ways supports the
work of Piaget, (in that it dictates the order of teaching), it can also
be seen as prescriptive to the point where it counters Piaget’s
child-oriented approach. However, it does still allow for flexibility in
teaching methods, allowing teachers to tailor lessons to the needs of
For most of his adult life Vygotsky lived
in Communist Russia, as a result his work shows definite Marxist
influences emphasising the role of social interaction and culture.
Vygotsky died of tuberculosis at the age of 38, as a result his theory
never went through the later developments that Piaget’s and others were
Elementary mental functions.
These are present at birth and include
sensation and attention. They only show minor development by experience.
Higher mental functions.
These include problem solving and
This is required to take us from
Elementary to Higher functions. By cultural influence Vygotsky meant
books, teachers, parents, experts or anything capable of passing on the
knowledge of previous generations.
is essential for the
communication of knowledge and ideas and as a result is crucial to
To understand the theory it is important
to understand the role language plays in thinking. In fact the two are
closely linked. Try to imagine thinking without the use of words.
Vygotsky believed that thought and language develop through a number of
Ages 0 to 2 years
Language and thought develop
independently of one another. Children have pre-verbal thought and
Ages 2 to 7 years
Language has two functions:
Monitor and direct
internal thoughts (inner voice we talk to ourselves with).
Communicate thoughts to
others (talk out loud).
When children at this age talk out loud
to themselves, Vygotsky saw this as a sign that the child is unable to
distinguish between the two.
The child distinguishes between the two
functions of language. Private language is used for thinking and becomes
central to cognitive development. Vygotsky believed that language and
thinking developed in parallel to each other. As our ability to use
language improves this increase our ability to think and vice
Berk (1994) found that 6 year olds who
gave themselves verbal instructions on what needed to be done to complete
a maths problem performed better on the task. She concluded that
self-guiding speech is important in developing the child’s abilities as
In a follow up experiment it was also
shown that as 4 to 5 year olds became better at a task their speech became
increasingly internalised. This suggests that talking out loud is used by
children when learning new tasks. As they become more competent it
With language the child has the ability
to learn from those with more knowledge, especially adults. Learning
occurs by active internalisation of strategies picked up by communicating
Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD).
‘…what is the zone of proximal
development today will be the actual zone of development tomorrow. That
is, what a child can do with some assistance today she will be able to do
by herself tomorrow.’ (Vygotsky 1978).
The ZPD is the difference between what
the child can achieve on its own and what it can achieve with help from
others. For learning to occur the adult must provide a challenge that is
beyond what the child is capable of, but within its capabilities with
help, i.e. within its ZPD. Therefore the child can only reach its full
potential with help from others. The help given by adults is referred to
as scaffolding. It is important that the child is challenged
without experiencing failure.
Moss (1992) found that parents,
particularly mothers, provide scaffolding. Moss observed three
Mother instructs the
child with strategies it would not otherwise know.
Mother encourages child
to keep using useful strategies.
Mother persuades the
child to drop inappropriate strategies.
Conner et al (1997) found that fathers
are as good at scaffolding. They also found that children that have
received scaffolding show longer-term improvements in skills as well as
Vygotsky’s greatest contribution was in
recognising the importance of social interaction in the cognitive
development of children. Whereas Piaget predicts that all children,
regardless of culture, should make the same progression through his
stages, Vygotsky believed there would be significant cultural
differences. In fact both get some support from later research. Some
features of development appear universal whereas others show distinct
Vygotsky does not consider the importance
of the child’s desire to learn.
Vygotsky did not say what types of social
interaction are best for encouraging learning.
These can sometimes be
counter-productive. Not all criticisms are useful or well received!
Durkin (1995) points out that often advice from parents can serve to make
the child even more determined to do things its own way.
Some children, regardless of help given
by others, still develop at a slower rate, suggesting that other factors,
including genetic must be involved. (Genetic explanations would not have
sat comfortably in Soviet Russia!).
Again it is always credit-worthy to note
the contribution Vygotsky made to our understanding of child development,
how it has filled some of the gaps left by Piaget, and how it has been
used in educational policy in the West.
Note although Vygotsky died in 1934 his
work wasn’t translated into English until 1962.
Applying Vygotsky to Education
Vygotsky emphasises the role of social
interaction in teaching and this is where his greatest contribution has
been. Effective teachers are those with more knowledge than the child and
can include peers. Teachers need to provide scaffolding and be able to
adjust the level of assistance they provide depending upon the progress of
ZPD and Scaffolding
Tasks that are set for the child need to
be pitched at the right level. Tasks that are too difficult are outside
the child’s ZPD, and regardless of the amount of help in the form of
scaffolding, the gap can not be bridged. If the task is too easy the
child will not be motivated.
As Wood et al (1976) put it; if a child
is succeeding at a task then adult assistance can be reduced. Similarly
if the child is struggling then greater assistance needs to be provided.
Wood (1988) studied primary school classes and concluded that it is not
possible for teachers to recognise the ZPD of 30 different students.
Instead, he argues, scaffolding is more appropriate for one on one
Bliss et al (1996) looked at the ways
scaffolding was being used in the science classes of 13 London Junior
schools (ages 7-11). The results showed that scaffolding was not being
used effectively and reported what they described as ‘pseudo-scaffolding.’
One area in which scaffolding appears to
have been used successfully is in the area of peer tutoring.
Vygotsky emphasises that anyone with more
knowledge than the child can act as teacher, be it an adult, older child
or a more advanced child of the same age (peer). In the classroom
situation the more advanced child can act as tutor and since he/she is of
similar age they should have a good understanding of the tutees situation
and should also be working in the same ZPD.
Tudge (1993) found that the best peer
tutors are those who are significantly ahead of their tutees. However, if
the tutor lacks confidence or fails to provide the necessary scaffolding
then the tutoring is ineffective.
Barnier (1989) found that the performance
of 6 to 7 year olds on various spatial tasks was significantly improved
when they were tutored by 7 to 8 year olds. Ellis and Gauvain (1992)
found cross cultural support for peer tutoring when they compared native
North American Navahos with ‘Euro-American’ children. Both benefited from
peer tutoring even though the methods used by the two cultures were very
different. The ‘Euro-Americans’ tended to give more spoken instructions
and were generally less patient with their tutees.
Peer tutoring is a vital element in
Shayer and Adey’s CASE project. After being introduced to a task and
provided with cognitive dissonance (disequilibrium), the students are
asked to work in groups. The idea being that the more able will be able
to encourage the less able.
Information Processing Approach
Note, this has
been dropped from the specification this year so the examiners cannot ask
a specific question about IP theory. However, I have retained it in the
notes, partly because you may find it interesting (unlikely but you never
know) and partly because it took me bloody ages to include it in the first
It has long been a popular practice by
Psychologists and others to liken the workings of the brain to the most
advanced technology of the day. In the past this has including primitive
calculating machines and telephone exchanges. Today it is the modern
computer, and the information processing approach tries to draw analogies
between the two. For example the proponents of this approach talk of
structures such as short term and long-term memory and of processes
such as attention, storing, encoding and problem solving.
Adults seem to think differently, and
usually more effectively, than children. This difference is attributed to
more efficient processing of information. Possible reasons for this:
child has limited processing abilities. Tests on recall have shown that
adults are better at recall after only hearing stimulus material presented
to them once. This could be due to brain maturation and growth. For
example myelination occurs as we develop. This is coating of the nerve
fibres with an insulating fatty sheath that speeds up the rate of
transmission of information in the brain.
greater knowledge base and know better ways of learning, for example
adults have learned how to chunk information (remember Miller and all
that?). See Chi (1978).
have developed better strategies to help memory and other important
Adults clearly have a much greater
knowledge base than children. Chi (1978) showed that this alone can make
a difference in cognitive performance. He compared 10-year-old chess
players with adult non-chess players. Although the adults had better
overall memories the children were much better at recalling chess
positions than the adults, presumably because of their better knowledge of
As we get older and more practised at
tasks they require less effort and processing time. For example driving a
car. As a learner we have to attend carefully and concentrate on every
move. As experienced drivers we are able to drive miles with little or
no focussed attention to what we are doing. Similarly, reading, maths
etc. require far more effort by a young mind than by an adult mind. In
information processing terms this automating of processes frees up space
in memory and other structures allowing more efficient processing.
Pascal-Leone and Case
These are both referred to as neo-Piagetian
because of their similarities to the master’s theory.
Similarities with Piaget
Children have structures
(schemas or schemes) for their understanding.
Children move through
stages: pre-concrete to concrete to abstract (formal).
Differences from Piaget
don’t use just the one strategy, as Piaget suggested, when tackling a
problem. They use many, the number varying depending on the complexity of
development relies on an increase in mental power. They refer to this as
M-space. Pascal-Leone equates this to the number of schemes that a child
can work with at a time. M-space increases with age and this explains
cognitive development. M-space is often likened to working memory or,
keeping the computer analogy alive, to random access memory (RAM).
suggested three reasons why M-space increases with age:
The brain develops and
myelination takes place allowing faster transmission of nerve impulses.
Schemes and strategies
become automatic so require less memory. This frees up extra memory for
dealing with other tasks.
Once schemes are
automatic they become ‘central conceptual structures.’ These allow
children to think in more advanced ways and as a result come up with still
better strategies for solving problems.
Case’s schemes are similar to Piaget’s schemas. Children can acquire new
schemes by either
Case (1992) asked children to draw a
picture of a mother looking out of a window at her son playing peek-a-boo
with her in the park on the other side of the road! Younger children can
only draw part of the scenario whereas older children can cope with the
whole thing. Case believed that this was due to the younger children’s
limited M-space or lack of capacity to hold the entire picture in their
The IP approach has been successful in
studying adult thinking.
Many studies have shown that what Piaget
put down to lack of necessary structures can in fact be attributed to
insufficient storage capacity or M-power (space).
It is able to explain some individual
differences in development, for example research has shown that different
people have different speeds of transmission in the nervous system and
that faster conduction in neurons is correlated to higher IQ.
It is difficult to work out how many
structures or schemes are being used to solve a particular problem.
We are unable to measure a person’s
It is difficult to distinguish changes in
strategies from changes in M-power.
Compared to Piaget
and Vygotsky, this is a relatively new theory and so consequently research
evidence is scarce. Personally, although I believe the theory has merit I
still find it a little ‘wishy washy.’ Given the choice opt for one of the
other two, or if you’re asked to describe two, opt for both of the
others! Unfortunately, since the information processing
theory is specifically mentioned in the syllabus the question could in
theory, ask for a description/evaluation of this.
Information-Processing theory to the classroom
This is seen as the most important
implication for education. Since the child has a limited mental capacity
the teacher needs to ensure that the child is not overloaded. In order to
do this the information to be taught needs to be broken down into its
constituent parts. This also ensures that the information is presented in
the most effective way.
A knock on benefit of task analysis is
that if the child fails to understand the material it should be easier to
see where mistakes have been made if the task has been broken down.
(Think of maths problems: teachers typically tell their students to show
their working. This is useful to the teacher if the final answer is wrong
since they can trace the steps back to see where the error has occurred).
Examples from maths
Brown and Burton (1978)
These use the term ‘bug’ to refer to an
error in a child’s arithmetic rules for example:
625 The child always subtracts the smallest number from
-478 regardless of which is on the top line.
Brown and Burton devised games called
‘Buggy’ and ‘Debuggy’ to help teachers spot the bugs in a child’s
thinking. The important thing for teachers to realise is that such errors
are due to systematic errors that can be corrected rather than due to
Recognising the limited capacity of the
The IP approach emphasises the limited
capacity of the child’s mind. As a result it is essential that teachers
present material in manageable chunks that do not overload the child’s
mind. Teachers can also teach strategies for increasing the child’s
processing ability such as ‘chunking’, rehearsal and elaboration; think
back to AS ‘memory’ with levels of processing and multi-store models etc.
This is being aware of your own mental
processes, for example realising that ‘chunking’ can help improve STM and
that processing information at the semantic level will aid long term
recall; knowledge that you should be armed with and which you should use
in combat situations! An example of this in young children was
highlighted by Palincsar and Brown (1984). Children often have problems
understanding text because they concentrate on individual words and
sentences rather on the bigger picture. The researchers taught children
to consider the context of the text and significantly increased their
comprehension skills. (Again it is crucial for your own learning that you
see the composite elements of a topic within the overall context of that
topic. This will be particularly important for the synoptic element of
Module 5 trying to put the various strands of psychology into an overall
Was born in New York in 1915 and at time of writing is still going
strong (well still going) at the ripe old age of 94! Bruner had a
difficult childhood with early operations to correct his vision and his
father dying when he was only twelve. The rest of his education was
then interrupted by frequent changes of school. Despite this however,
Bruner studied at Duke University and went on to get his PhD in
psychology from Harvard University in 1941. Whilst there he met and
worked under Gordon Allport, one of the leading psychologists of his
Bruner’s early work on child development came at a time when thinking in
the area was dominated by the behaviourists. Behaviourism had developed
as a means of producing an objective and measurable way of explaining
the learning process, based, as it was, on scientific rigour. Bruner
was to apply similar techniques to the study of the internal mental
processes involved in learning and was therefore an early pioneer of the
cognitive approach to psychology. Bruner was heavily influenced by the
work of jean Piaget and later by the work of Lev Vygotsky. His eventual
theory shows the influence of both.
According to Bruner, the child’s cognitive structures mature with age as
a result of which the child can think and organize material in
increasingly complex ways. Here we see influence of Piaget again, but
also of the information processing model. Children are also seen as
naturally inquisitive, thirsty for knowledge and understanding. The
child naturally adapts to its environment and abstract thinking develops
of cognitive development
Like Piaget and Vygotsky, Bruner believes the child has to learn for
itself by making sense of its own environment. In fact Bruner could be
seen as an ‘extreme constructivist’ since he believes the World we
experience is a product of our mind. What we perceive and think of as
our World is constructed through our mind as a product of symbolic
Bruner rejected the idea of stages as popularized by Piaget and to a
lesser extent Vygotsky. Rather than looking at the ages of
developmental changes Bruner concentrates more on how knowledge is
represented and organized as the child develops.
This looks as though its stages but it isn’t! With stages the child
would progress from one to the next and then, crucially, leave the old
way of thinking or operating behind. For Bruner, the earlier ways of
thinking are still used later in life where they can be very useful for
Modes of representation are the ways (or format) in which the child
1. Enactive (First
This is similar to the first half of Piaget’s sensori-motor stage of
development. The child has little in the way of mental faculties so
‘thinking is a physical action.’ Knowledge is what the child can
manipulate or do with movements, for example tying knots, pointing etc.
In later life the enactive mode will allow riding a bike, swimming,
driving a car and so on. These are automatic patterns of activity that
have been ‘hard wired’ into our muscles. Thinking about how we do them
or trying to explain to others in words how to tie shoe laces or ride a
bike is practically impossible because they are enactive. As for
Piaget, the gaining of object permanence is a major qualitative change
in the child’s thinking.
2. Iconic (Second
This is similar to the second half of Piaget’s sensori-motor and
preoperational stages of development. For the first time the child has
mental images that allow it to retain pictures after the stimulus has
gone. Drawing is now possible. These icons or images are built up from
past experience and based on a number of exposures to similar objects
and events. Our image of a cup isn’t based soley on seeing one cup but
on seeing many. However, at present the child lacks the ability to
3. Symbolic (six or
seven years onwards)
This is similar to Piaget’s concrete operational stage of development.
For Bruner, symbols include words (language), music, numbers and so an.
Anything we use to symbolize something else. The precise timing of this
one depends on the child, particularly its language ability. For the
first time the child can categorise, think logically and solve problems.
Bruner’s main interest was in the child’s transition from iconic to
major implication of Bruner’s theory is that cognitive development can
be speeded up by training children in the use of symbols. Some of the
studies that follow (e.g. Frank) suggest that this is the case. Clearly
this runs counter to Piaget who believed progress through his stages was
Evidence for the modes
Bruner and Kenney
Aims- what age
children start to use symbolic mode of representation.
aged 3-7 shown a board divided into 9 squares. On each square was a
plastic beaker. Beakers of different sizes & widths, tallest at back &
widest on left, each child had to look at the beakers. There was a
reproduction test were the beakers were mixed up and the child was asked
to put them back how they were.
removed beakers and asked them to put them back in a mirror image of the
Most 5 year olds
correctly completed the reproduction test however few under 7 could
complete the transposition task, most over 7 could complete both tasks.
task was designed to use iconic representation, as the child forms a
mental picture and copies it however the transposition task could not be
done as it doesn’t look like original arrangement.
The study supports
the view that children on average begin to acquire the symbolic mode at
around 6 or 7 years of age. The task required the ability to mentally
transform the visual information and was dependent on statements such as
‘it gets fatter going one way and taller going in another’ etc. The
children were using language (symbolic mode) to guide their thinking.
(reported by Bruner 1964)
reworking of the classic Piaget water conservation study:
Frank selected a
group of 4 to 6 year olds that had been unable to successfully complete
the original Piaget test.
They are shown
the two measuring cylinders with equal amounts of water and the
A screen is
placed in front of the apparatus and a line drawn on the screen
indicating the water level in the two taller cylinders.
Water is poured
from one of the cylinders into the beaker (all is still hidden
behind the screen)
The child is
now asked ‘which has more to drink or are they both the same?’
Results of this
part of the test
4 year olds
5 year olds
6 year olds
The screen is
then removed and the child is again asked about which has the most
water, the tall thin cylinder or the smaller but wider beaker.
Results of this
4 year olds: revert
back to their original (incorrect answer) that the tall cylinder has
5 and 6 year olds
generally stick to the correct answer given when the beakers were
In the Piaget
original, children can see the whole procedure and so rely on their
iconic mode to solve the task. By screening the procedure Frank was
preventing iconic mode and by asking them to describe what was happening
was encouraging their symbolic mode. This more advanced mode of
thinking was capable of conservation whereas the lower, iconic was not.
Later, when tested
without the screen, the older children were now able to conserve.
However, the younger children generally failed, even if they had been
able to do the task when it was screened. This suggests that lessons
had not been learned by this group and they had returned to iconic
thinking. Four year olds, it would seem, are mostly unable to acquire
symbolic thinking. This last finding appears to support Piaget’s idea
of preparedness. Regardless of methods used, some children are just too
young to progress further.
Sonstroem et al
In a similar
reworking of a Piagetian conservation task, children were asked to roll
out a ball of plasticine (enactive mode) so it was longer and thinner.
They were asked to watch their own actions (iconic mode) and to describe
what they were doing (symbolic mode). By using all three modes
together, the children were far more successful in conserving amount.
But: Although the
above researchers (and Bruner) put this improved performance down to the
use of language, other research Furth (1966) on deaf children, seems to
suggest that although language helps it isn’t essential for the
development of abstract thinking
Here we have a major difference with Piaget but clear influence from
Let’s consider the transition from iconic mode to symbolic mode. For
Bruner this comes about through the mastering of language. Like
Vygotsky, Bruner thinks language accommodates cognitive development and
the two then become inextricably intertwined and over time develop side
by side each helping the development of the other. For Piaget language
is merely a tool that develops as a result of cognitive development.
Language is needed for communication with adults and older peers who can
facilitate learning. Similarly it is essential for the scaffolding
Language of course is also essential for thought!
Bruner suggests language training as a way of speeding up the cognitive
development of the child, the concept of which would be totally alien to
The ability to acquire language is common across all human cultures.
This has led to the nativist theory of language acquisition, basically
that the rules for acquiring grammar are hard wired into the human
brain. Linguist, philosopher, political activist and all-round brain
box, Noam Chomsky suggested that humans possess a LAD (Language
Acquisition Device) that allows us to learn the rules of grammar when we
are exposed to human speech.
Bruner however, believes we possess a LASS* (Language Acquisition Social
System). Simply listening to language is not sufficient. The child
needs to be exposed to the mutual eye gazing and turn taking that are
needed for conversation. Language, according to Bruner, needs to take
place in a social context.
Evidence for this is provided by the case of Jim (and other deprived
children e.g. Genie).
Jim was born to parents that were both deaf and dumb. Until the age of
three, Jim’s only exposure to language was through the television.
Although he learned speech it was noticeably odd, with him developing
his own, unique grammatical characteristics and poor articulation (Sachs
et al 1981). Bruner suggests that this was due to lack of social
interaction in the learning of speech.
However, social interaction doesn’t explain all the complexities of
acquisition. The language we hear is often incorrect, poorly defined,
incomplete and full of hesitations, mispronounciations and other errors,
yet despite this we still learn to talk! It also takes place at a very
early stage in human development, when other cognitive skills are barely
beginning and when complex thought doesn’t exist.
According to Bruner our culture determines the sort of person we
become. There ‘cannot be a self independent of one’s culture.’
Culture provides the ‘instructions’ about how humans should develop and
these are passed on from one generation to the next. Bruner clearly
disagrees with Piaget’s view of the child as isolated and learning on
its own. The child works with others to develop its framework for
thinking and this framework is culture-dependent. Again we see the
influence of Vygotsky
Applying Bruner to education
Unlike Piaget and Vygotsky, neither of whom tailored their work directly
towards education, Bruner seems to have had the education process in
mind throughout the formulation of his theory. 1960 saw the publication
of his ‘landmark’ text ‘The Process of Education’ in which he outlined
his idea that children, and learners in general, actively construct
their own knowledge.
As you would expect from a theory that has borrowed so much from the
work of Piaget and Vygotsky, Bruner’s ideas on education are very much
an amalgam of the two, and in particular the ideas of Vygotsky.
Bruner believes the child needs to grasp the basic principles of a
subject not simply acquire a list of facts. Once these are grasped, the
child is less reliant on others, and can go beyond what has been
formally taught, and progress to developing ideas of their own.
Throughout, it is important that the child learns for themselves
(influence of Piaget) but also that others, such as adults or more able
peers can assist in the learning process (influence of Vygotsky).
Unlike Piaget, Bruner believes that the process of cognitive development
can be speeded up with the aid of teachers and, like Vygotsky, believes
that scaffolding provided by the more competent is an essential part of
the teaching process. So teachers are seen as important, as is the role
of language and communication that facilitates scaffolding and language
use (symbolic mode) by the child.
Cooperative group work (similar to Vygotsky’s peer tutoring) is more
important that Piaget’s individual discovery learning. Evidence for
this is provided by Nichols:
Role of the teacher
Sutherland (1992) teachers are ‘obliged to make demands on their
Teachers are seen as essential in the Brunerian classroom. They need to
be aware of the child’s mode(s) of representation, provide scaffolding
and speed up development. See below for more detail on each of these:
Studied 81 high school students across an 18 week term.
The students were split into 3 groups:
Group 1: 18 weeks of traditional teaching
Group 2: 9 weeks of cooperative group learning followed by 9 weeks of
Group 3: 9 weeks of traditional teaching followed by 9 weeks of
cooperative group teaching
The cooperative method involved splitting the 27 students into small
groups where they worked together on solving geometry problems.
Motivation of the students was measured before the study, after 9 weeks
and 18 weeks
Cooperative group teaching significantly improved motivation with the
biggest increase being during the 9 week phase of the co-op teaching.
Cooperative group teaching is good for improving the motivation of
students which would seem to support the effectiveness of student-centred
learning, the approach favoured by both Bruner and Vygotsky.
Speeding up cognitive
Teachers, according to Bruner, should be able to speed up the rate of
cognitive development, primarily by improving language acquisition,
assisting the transition form iconic to symbolic modes of
representation. According to Bruner, the provision of stimulation by
teachers should also increase development, particularly in those from
deprived backgrounds. The thinking here is that those from poorer
backgrounds receive less mental stimulation in their home environment so
benefit more when it is provided during the education process. Evidence
suggests that children from deprived backgrounds receive less one to one
attention from parents and fewer stimulating toys. In the UK the
introduction of the National Curriculum in the 1980s was designed to
improve attainment across all groups but particularly those in the
bottom 40%. Teachers have since been expected to increase the rate of
CASE (Cognitive Acceleration through Science Education) was designed
with this in mind. Shayer and Adey that devised the program claim
success, particularly in boys but only when the program is administered
in year 8. When year 7s follow the program they show little
improvement. Here we have support for i. Bruner: development can be
speeded up, but also for ii. Piaget. Children below year 8 simply are
not ready for the progression from concrete to formal thinking
regardless of the support given.
The Spiral Curriculum
This refers to that very annoying habit that teachers have, of
constantly returning to topics each year, but teaching them in different
ways! You were probably taught ‘electricity’ in years 3, 5, 7, 9 and 11
and each time your new science teacher would say next week we’re going
start ‘electricity’ you would doubtless have moaned since you’d done it
before. However, as you’d realize if you thought back, each time you
would have been taught the topic differently, in ever more complex and
eventually in more abstract ways.
Unlike Piaget and his concept of ‘readiness’ that suggests we should
only teach abstract concepts when the child has the mental apparatus to
cope, Bruner believes any topic can be taught in a meaningful and
helpful manner to any child. Take the example of ‘volume.’
Baby: let it play
with a bucket and some water (perhaps at the beach)
play with buckets but this time introducing basic vocabulary such as
‘bucket’, ‘more’ and ‘less.’
Junior school: Now
introduce more complex terminology such as ‘volume’ and
introduction of abstract concepts such as formulae and the removal
of concrete examples.
In terms of education the influence of the modes is similar to Piaget’s
stages, in that the teacher needs to be aware of the mode(s) being used
by each child and structure their teaching, resources and activities
around these modes. So for example, early teaching will centre on the
enactive mode so activities will need to be hands on and practical in
Taking teaching about dinosaurs as an example: this could involve making
models (enactive), watching the BBC’s ‘Walking with dinosaurs (iconic)
or an internet search for information (symbolic).
Computers are very useful in the Brunerian classroom since they can
provide scaffolding. Software on a number of educational programs
provide prompts and also a range of ‘help’ menus and facilities so the
amount of scaffolding provided can be varied to suit the needs of the
developing child. Children can also work on group tasks using computers
facilitating social interaction with all the Brunerian benefits that go
with that (cooperative learning, language etc).
Computers, as any teacher will tell you, also keeps students busy. This
allows the teacher to hover and observe, provide scaffolding when
required and intervene and target students that are struggling with
Moral development is the way in which children learn the difference
between right and wrong. It may appear incongruous in a topic on
'cognitive development', but as we shall see the main theorists, most
notably Lawrence kohlberg and Jean Piaget, assume morality to arise,
Phoenix-like, from cognitive development. For each of them, the highest
levels of moral reasoning can only be achieved when the appropriate
highest levels of cognitive development have been reached.
As with most concepts in Psychology there is some disagreement about what
morality is but a perusal through any text will give you definitions a
plenty. There is no need to get bogged down with this since hopefully you
all have some concept of morality (!) and you won’t be asked to define it
in an examination.
Haste et al (1998) suggested there were four questions to ask about moral
development. These are outlined below with the theory that seeks to
answer that particular aspect of morality:
does conscience and our feelings of guilt develop
psychoanalytical theory through the process of Oedipus/Elektra
2. How do
we develop our knowledge of rules and moral principles?
Cognitive developmental theories of Piaget and Kohlberg, that see
cognitive development as a precursor to moral development, explain
3. How do
we learn behaviours appropriate to the laws of the land and specific
to our own culture?
for guessing this is the realm of the behaviourists, particularly the
neo-behaviourist approach of Bandura and SLT.
4. How do
we develop our concern for others?
Eisenberg’s theory of pro-social reasoning.
Piaget, Kohlberg and Eisenberg are specified in the specification, but
only as examples. Questions therefore cannot ask you specifically about
Piaget, Kohlberg or Eisenberg, but could ask you for a theory of moral
understanding (e.g. Piaget or Kohlberg) in which case you can choose. If
you chose Kohlberg (the sensible option) then you could use Piaget for the
purposes of evaluation and comparison.
If the question asked you for a theory of pro-social reasoning you’re
stuck with Eisenberg!
Similarly Gilligan is also mentioned in relation to gender and moral
development and would be the theory of choice and good to compare to
Freud’s theory is interesting (as always) but is not mentioned in the
specification. However, since we have eluded to it on a number of
occasions during the course I’ve thrown it in for good measure. It could
be useful for the purposes of evaluation and comparison, particularly
since it assumes, like Kohlberg and Piaget, that boys are more moral than
girls…even though it reaches this conclusion by a very different route!
Freud is at his best here! The child is born with an id (instinctive and
selfish) and develops an ego during the anal stage to deal with the
conflicts arising during potty training. The superego is the final
component to develop (during the phallic stage) and this is clearly the
part that is going to be relevant to morality since the superego is our
conscience, that part that is forever worrying about what others will
think. So how does the superego come into existence?
Complex and Elektra Conflict
During the phallic stage boys become obsessed by their willy (‘widdler’ in
Little Hans speak) and girls by their wee equivalent the clitoris! As a
result they develop an unconscious desire for their opposite sex parent;
so famously little boys fall for their mums and less famously little girls
fall for their dads (but, and you must emphasise this, according to Freud
this is an unconscious desire!).
Both sexes are worried that the same sex parent will discover their
desires and suffer anxiety as a result. Crucially, since boys gave more
to lose (their much prized Widdler), they suffer greater anxiety!
Eventually both sexes come to accept that their quest is futile and come
to the inevitable conclusion that the only way they’ll ever obtain their
object of desire is to be like their same sex parent! That is the boy
realises that the only way he get a woman like his mum is to grow up and
be like his dad.
In this way the child identifies with the same sex parent and adopts their
morals! Girls replace their love of
daddy and their penis envy with a desire to have babies of their own!
But, and it is a big butt (sorry but); because boys have more to lose they
suffer greater levels of anxiety so develop a stronger superego and as a result
reach higher levels of moral thinking!
I am not asking you to accept this, however it does make for easy evaluation
marks, since you can compare this conclusion to Piaget and Kohlberg and contrast
it with Gilligan.
Freud used his own research, for example the case of Little Hans to
support his idea of an Oedipus complex. However, this is subjective in
the extreme and each psychoanalysis carried out is very open to subjective
Freud’s theory would seem to suggest that the more anxiety (due to
punishment) that a child suffers the stronger will be its superego and
consequently the greater will be its sense of morality. However, research
evidence suggests the opposite. Hoffman (1988) found that children that
are spanked the most tend to be the most badly behaved, although there
does seem to be an issue of cause and effect here! Hoffman also rejected
Freud’s idea that boys have a stronger superego than girls. Snarey (1985)
found little evidence to support this view when studying morals in a
variety of cultures around the world.
Freud appears to have over-emphasised the role of the same sex parent
Freud did not consider the cognitive factors involved in moral
development. (Compare this to Piaget and Kohlberg who consider these
factors to the exclusion of all others).
Children seem to consider their moral development after the age of 7!
Cognitive theories (Piaget and Kohlberg) assume that cognitive development
underpins moral development. A child can only develop its moral thinking
as its ability to think improves and develops.
In his book 'The Moral Judgement of the Child' (1932), Piaget states that
'all morality consists in a system of rules.' Piaget, therefore considers
morality to be akin to justice and fair play. This is similar to
Kohlberg’s outlook but seems to be missing out on other possible types of
morality as discussed later in Gilligan!
Piaget used two methods of investigation:
Games of marbles
Piaget would watch children
between the ages of 3 and 12 playing marbles, and get them to explain the rules,
and the reasons for the rules, to him
Piaget believed that rules
were the key to moral understanding and marbles was ideal since children played
the game without adult interference.
2. Moral stories
(compare to Kohlberg's moral dilemmas)
Typically this would involve pairs of stories being
read to the child, followed by questions.
A little boy who is called John is in his room.
He is called to dinner. He goes into the dining room. But behind the door was a
chair, and on the chair there was a tray with 15 cups on it. John couldn’t have
known that there was all this behind the door. He goes in, the door knocks
against the tray, bang go the fifteen cups, and they all get broken!
One day a little boy called Henry tried to get some jam out of the cupboard when
his mother was out. He climbed onto
a chair and stretched out his arm.
The jam was too high up and he couldn’t reach it.
But while he was trying to get it he knocked over a cup.
The cup fell down and broke.
A little girl called Marie wanted to give her mum a nice surprise and so she cut
out a piece of sewing for her. But
she didn’t know how to use the scissors properly and she cut a big hole in her
A little girl called Margaret went and took her mother’s scissors one day when
her mother was out. She played with
them for a bit and then, as she didn’t know how to use them properly, she made a
hole in her dress.
stages of moral development
(0 to 3 years)
The child has
little concept of morality or rules. Compare to Freuds’ oral stage.
or moral realism (4 to 10 years)
child’s moral reasoning is governed by external rules laid down by
others. See table below for more detail. Basically they believe in
expiatory punishment, i.e. the naughtier the behaviour the greater the
punishment should be and in immanent justice, the idea that if a child is
naughty they will suffer for it somehow. An example; if a child steals
sweets on Monday, then falls and breaks their leg on Tuesday, then this
would be justice.
or moral relativism (10 years onwards)
now has a more flexible view of rules and morality. Crucial differences
include the idea that the punishment should be tailored to fit the crime
and the ideas that it is intentions rather than consequences that
determine the severity of the crime.
*Note the ages here do vary from text to text!
are fixed and cannot be changed or broken.
are more flexible and can change so long as everyone agrees to the
change. Child recognises that at times it is necessary to tell fibs
as this may prevent greater upset etc.
are created by older children, adults or even by God.
are in fact created by people just like themselves.
are seen as being more important than intentions. For example John is
seen as naughtier because he breaks more cups
Intentions are now considered more than outcomes. Older children see
Henry as being naughtier because he was misbehaving.
Consequences determine the severity of the crime, e.g. John is
naughtier than Henry because he broke more cups.
Intentions determine the severity of the crime, e.g. Henry is
naughtier than John because he was misbehaving at the time.
in collective punishment, if one child is naughty then everyone should
believe that te innocent should be punished.
in immanent justice: naughty behaviour will always be punished in some
way, e.g. if the child eats his brother’s chocoloate bar and then gets
squashed by a steamroller, this is punishment!
that the guilty often go unpunished! George W. Bush etc….
Expiatory punishment: no attempt to fit the punishment to the crime
Reciprocal punishment: attempts to fit the punishment to the crime,
e.g. buying new dress for sister if boy has torn it at a bad taste
children progress from heteronomous to autonomous
1. As I
said at the outset, Piaget believed that moral development occurs on the
back of cognitive development. One result of this is the move away from
egocentric thought. At about the age of seven years the child begins to
learn that other people see the World differently to themselves. This
allows a greater appreciation of other points of view
As children get
older they listen to the views expressed by others and begin to realise
that their own opinions can be questioned. At an earlier age children
mostly accept the views of their parents as fact. This is one reason why
racist and homophobic opinions persist for so long in a changing society.
Research evidence in support of Piaget
mentioned much of the research was carried out by Piaget himself.
Constanzo (1973) used moral stories simialr to those of
piaget with an emphasis on intentions and consequences. Similar results
were found, including simialr age ranges.
Shaffer (1993) again found that all children appear to go
through the same fixed stages.
Kruger (1992), Freddy to his friends, found that girls
paired with people their own age showed more sophisticated moral
reasoning than those paired with an adult.
Unlike with his theory of cognitive development, there was
no revision or update of Piaget’s views on moral development. Piaget, was
very much a pioneer in the area. He was the first to suggest links
between morality and cognitive development and others have built on this,
so yet again we have a Piagetian theory taht can be described as
influential! Piaget’s methods, such as stories, have also been used by
later researchers such as Kohlberg.
Many researchers disagree with the ‘ages and stages’ aspect
of the theory.
et al (1983) disagree that the child’s moral reasoning does not mature
after the age of 10.
& Turiel (1980) found that children as young as 3 are prepared to alter
the rules of a geme, providing that others agree.
As we all know, and as Weston & Turiel point out, children
of any age do not always obey rules without question, as Piaget suggests!
Nelson (1980) points out that in Piaget’s stories the
emphasis is placed on the consequences and not the intentions. It seems
that young children assume that negative outcomes must be caused by
negative intentions. However, when intentions are made clear, even to
children as young as three, they are able to separate this from outcomes.
Piaget underestimated the ability of his children because he didn’t place
as much emphasis on intentions as he did on outcomes.
Armsby (1971) found that many children as young as six are
able to judge intention as crucial in naughty behaviour. 60% judged a
child who deliberately broke a cup as being just as more naughty than a
child who accidently breaks a TV.
Irwin & Moore (1971) believe that children in the
heteronomous stage have a better understanding of punishment than Piaget
believed. Children as young as three can distinguish between deserved and
importantly, and this criticism can be made of Kohlberg too, Piaget
assumed that a child’s behaviour would match their beliefs. By simply
asking their views Piaget did not see how they behaved in practice. Again
as we all know, what we say and what we actually do in
practice can be very different!
This is the most influential theory of
moral development and, unlike Piaget's, it has undergone a number of
revisions over the years. Kohlberg sees moral development as a more
gradual process than Piaget, but still one that progresses through set
stages. Also like Piaget, he believed that it was the thinking behind
moral judgements that was crucial in determining the child's level. For
example, most children believe that it is wrong to break the law, however,
the reasons they give are indicative of their reasoning, so 'because it is
wrong' would suggest a low level of moral development. As already
mentioned in the bit on Piaget, Kohlberg sees cognitive development as a
crucial precursor to moral development.
Kohlberg developed his theory by reading
stories to children. These he referred to as moral dilemmas.
classic is the story of Heinz.
'In Europe, a woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There
was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of
radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The
drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what
the drug cost him to make. He paid $200 for the radium and charged
$2000 for a small dose of the drug. The sick woman's husband, Heinz,
went to everyone he knew to borrow the money, but he could only get
together $1000 which is half what it cost.
told the druggist that his wife was dying, and asked him to sell it
cheaper or let him pay later. But the druggist said 'No, I discovered the drug and I'm going to make money from it.'
Heinz got desperate and broke intothe man's store to steal the
drug for his wife.'
Following the story Kohlberg would ask
Should Heinz steal the drug?
Why or why not?
Does he have a duty or obligation to
Should he steal the drug if he does not
love his wife?
Should he steal for a stranger?
It is illegal, is it morally wrong?
The research was carried out on 72 boys
from Chicago, aged 10, 13 and 16. The longitudinal study began in 1955
and lasted for 26 years with the boys being tested at intervals in that
time. The final results were published by Colby et al 1n 1983.
Kohlberg concluded that there are three
levels of moral development; Preconventional, Conventional and
Postconventional. Each of thses consists of two stages, giving six stages
The table below outlines the 3 levels and
6 stages of Kohlberg’s theory. Realistically you are unlikely to remember
this in every detail however the three levels are not difficult;
conventional in the middle, ‘pre’ before it and ‘post’ after it. The last
column conatins lots of detail but try and memorise the overall pattern,
for example the first stage is basic, right and wrong depends upon what we
are punished for. Later the child tries to please others with its
behaviour and the last two stages consider much wider issues such as
personal values and moral principles.
determines right and wrong?
Up to age of 9
1. Punishment and obedience.
Right and wrong defined by what they
get punished for. If you get told off for stealing then obviously
stealing is wrong.
Similar, but right and wrong is now
determined by what we are rewarded for, and by doing what others
want. Any concern for others is motivated by selfishness.
Most adolescents and adults.
3. Interpersonal concordance.
Being good is whatever pleases
others. The child adopts a conformist attitude to morality. Right
and wrong are determined by the majority.
4. Law and order.
Being good now means doing your duty
to society. To this end we obey laws without question and show a
respect for authority. Most adults do not progress past this stage.
10 to 15% of the over 20s.
5. Social contract.
Right and wrong now determined by
personal values, although these can be over-ridden by democratically
agreed laws. When laws infringe our own sense of justice we can
choose to ignore them.
6. Universal ethical principle.
We now live in accordance with deeply
held moral principles which are seen as more important than the laws
of the land.
Research in support of Kohlberg
Kohlberg himself folowed up his original
study every 2 to 5 years and found that progression in morality does
Kohlberg (1969) carried out similar
research in other countries, Britain, Mexico, Turkey, Yucatan and Taiwan
and again found similar patterns. It was also noted that moral
development was slower in non-industrialised nations.
There is widespread support for the first
five stages of development and in the order that Kohlberg suggested.
Snarey (1987) carried out a meta analysis
of 45 studies in 27 different cultures and found 'striking support for
Kohlberg's first four stages.'
Fodor (1972) found, just as Kohlberg
would have suggested, that juvenile delinquents operate on a lower stage
of moral development than non-delinquents of the same age.
Kohlberg's theory has proved to be more
influential than Piaget's and has had the benefit of revision over the
years. Later research, for example by Gilligan and Eisenberg, although
they have criticised aspects of Kohlberg's work, particularly his
androcentric tendencies, have broadly supported his stages.
Kohlberg's theory is absed on moral
dilemmas so suffers from the same criticisms as Piaget. The theory only
considers a child's beliefs, not its actual behaviour. In practice the
two may be very different!
On a similar point, the dilemmas are
often outside the child's everyday experience so may not fully understand
the questions. Compare this to Piaget’s work on cognitive development!
If you look at stages 5 and 6 there
appears to be little separating them. In practice it has proved difficult
to distinguish the two stages, (Colby 1983).
Shaver & Strong (1976) were not convinced
that many people ever progressed beyond stage 4.
Snarey (1985) and others have argued that
the theory suffers from cultural bias, particularly in stage 5. Studies
suggest that this does not apply to non-industrialised societies, for
example Guatamala, Kenya and New Guinea.
Stage 5 emphasises the moral reasoning of
individualistic, Western societies. What Kohlberg appears to be saying in
stage 5 is that if the laws of Society conflict with your own individually
held beliefs then you have the right to ignore or alter them. This is
clearly at odds with non-Western values, particularly those of some Asian
and African Societies, that are more collectivist, seeing the group, such
as the village or extended family, as being of greater worth than the
needs of the individual. This is illustrated by a quotation from a man
living in an Israeli Kibbutz. When asked the dilemma of Heinz and whether
or not he should have stolen the drug, he replied:
'Yes… I think the community should be
responsible for controlling this type of situation. The medicine should
be made available to all in need: the druggist should not have the right
to decide on his own…the whole community or society should have control of
Rather than saying that such cultures are
morally inferior to Western cultures all that can really be concluded is
that they are different and therefore Kohlberg’s later stages are not
universal or cross-culturally valid!
As mentioned above, the theory is
androcentric, both in its methodology and its findings. Kohlberg only
studied boys (72 aged between 10 and 16) and came to the conclusion that
boys have a greater level of moral development. Later research by Carol
Gilligan sought to redress the balance and concluded that Kohlberg had
only considered one aspect of morality, justice. She suggested that boys
may indeed develop further on this aspect, but this is compensated for in
girls by their greater understanding of the concept of care. (For a
fuller discussion, see later notes).
concentrates entirely on our thinking and reasoning and does not take into
consideration emotion in moral reasoning. Kagan (1984) reported that
children feel guilt for being naughty long before they are supposed to
Nancy Eisenberg’s model of Pro-social Reasoning
Kohlberg’s and Piaget’s theories both have a number of
similarities, as already mentioned. One of these is their emphasis on
wrong doing and justice. Social psychologists in the 1970s became more
interested in the reasoning behind people’s actions, as well as the
actions themselves, and in moral development this trend was manifested by
Eisenberg’s theory of pro-social reasoning. Crucially, as implied by the
name, her theory also concentrates on positive behaviours and the
reasoning behind them, rather than focusing on negative actions.
However, Kohlberg is still the starting point, and much of
Eisenberg’s theory and her methods show overlap and similarities with her
Nancy Eisenberg and her colleagues (e.g. Eisenberg, 1986;
Eisenberg et al, 1987) have explored this type of reasoning by presenting
dilemmas to children in which they have to have to take on the role of
someone else and act either out of self-interest or in the interests of
others. For example they take on the role of Mary who is in her way to a
birthday party. On her way she comes across a child who has fallen and
suffered an injury. The dilemma being, does Mary stop and help and as a
result miss the party, or does she ignore the injured person and continue
on her way?
On the basis of children's responses to dilemmas dealing
with such pro-social behaviour, Eisenberg proposes a series of five levels
of pro-social reasoning.
Feelings are crucial to her theory. She believes that
morality develops through being able to empathise with others, being able
to understand things from their point of view and sharing their feelings.
As children develop they take on many different roles, for
example, daughter, best friend, pupil and party animal. They also become
aware of the role played by others and are able to play these roles too.
Role playing of this sort, as opposed to the orchestrated role playing of
an electron in science, helps the child to see things from the point of
view of others and helps in appreciating their feelings.
Nancy Eisenberg (left) and Carol Gilligan (right).
Proof if it were needed that they both have two X chromosomes and should be
referred to as ‘she.’
Eisenberg identified five main levels of pro-social
Age 0 to about 7
primary school children)
(self-focused) orientation (pre-school children)
Child only cares
only for itself. Any apparently altruistic behaviour is motivated by
selfishness for example 'I’ll help them because they’ll help me in future’
(reciprocity), or simply because the child likes the person they are
helping. Again compare to Freud’s id oral stage dominated by the selfish
Needs of others
orientation (some pre-school and primary school children)
of others are being recognised but only to a limited extent. The needs of
the specific situation are being addressed rather than a genuine sense of
empathy. When asked the child offers simple explanations for their
positive behaviour without referring to guilt or self reflection.
about 7 to adolescence (primary to secondary school children)
approval-focused orientation (primary and many high school children)
acts in a way that will make them liked. For example lending a helping
hand in order to impress others. When asked to explain their behaviour
they tend to use stereotyped portrayals of good and bad behaviour.
Empathic orientation (a
few high school children and most secondary school children)
now starts to show genuine empathy by putting themselves in the shoes of
others and begins to report feelings of genuine guilt when considering
their own actions.
4b. Transitional level (a few
secondary school children)
The child’s actions are
now explained in terms of wider social values and the need to
Protect the dignity and
self-esteem of others.
(rare in children)
The child now has
a full set of values and understands their responsibilities towards
others. They have self-respect that they can only maintain by behaving
with a duty of care towards others. The person’s desire to live up to
their own set of principles is also a motivating factor.
In summary, the child progresses from a level at which
reasoning is 'self-focused' or 'self-centred' ('what feels good to me is
right’) to a stance in which social approval guides both reasoning about
justice and about doing good. What is right is what other people define
as right. Much later, some young people seem to develop internalised,
individualised ideas, which then guide both types of reasoning. Eisenberg
(1983) found that empathy is not a consistent characteristic. Children
act differently towards different people. Clearly they are more likely to
help friends and family, but are also more likely to help people from
their own ethnic or religious group.
Interestingly (Eisenberg 2005) comments on the lack of
mention of reward and punishment mentioned by children in explaining their
positive actions. This is in marked contrast to Kohlberg’s findings, when
it was common for younger children to cite these as reasons for their
Comparisons with Kohlberg
Kohlberg is a truer stage theory since he believes that
once a child progresses past a stage it does not return to earlier
stages. However, Eisenberg disagrees, recognising that there are
situations in which we may adopt a lower level of morality, particularly
in cases were we decide not to help someone in a particular situation.
She also believes that some of the reasoning of the higher levels is not
always superior to that found in lower levels.
Both Eisenberg and Kohlberg (and Piaget obviously) see
cognitive development as crucial in guiding moral development. A person’s
ability to reason or make moral judgements is in part limited by their
ability to think!
Eisenberg believes that ‘primitive empathy’ is to be found
in children as young as four. This is clearly at odds with Kohlberg who
only recognises empathy much later.
Eisenberg has more recently recognised the importance of
emotion in moral development. On seeing a person in need of help a child
(and an adult) is more likely to help if the distressed person arouses
sympathy (characterised by lower heart rate) rather than distress (higher
heart rate). This is seen as a return more to Piagetian thinking and away
clearly has some parallels with Kohlberg's, however researchers have
typically found that children’s reasoning about pro-social dilemmas and
their reasoning about Kohlberg's justice and fairness dilemmas, are only
moderately correlated. The sequence of stages may be similar, but
children seem to move through these stages at different speeds. Eisenberg
has found that children’s pro-social reasoning is slightly ahead of their
Boehnke et al 1989 found that children in various Western
cultures tend to progress through Eisenberg’s stages in the order and at
the age that she suggests.
However, there do appear to be differences between
cultures. In the more collectivist Kibbutzim of Israel children as young
as primary school age show signs of stage 5 reasoning, believing that we
have a duty to help others. This is not surprising given that the
collectivist nature of the Kibbutz system places an emphasis on
responsibility for others and not just responsibility for oneself as
preached in more individualistic Western society.
According to Eisenberg, it isn’t only cognitive development
that determines the level at which the child reasons:
Children worried about their appearance and about the views
of others are more likely to operate at level 3 (approval-focused),
whereas a child with a similar cognitive ability who has been bought up to
be more empathetic, will most likely reason at level 4 (empathy-focused).
2. Situational factors
As the costs involved in helping someone increase (e.g. in
terms of time taken, expense or physical harm), the more a child is likely
to offer hedonistic explanations of their actions.
Specific situational variables may also be important, e.g.
if lots of people are watching we may act in order to gain the approval of
Carol Gilligan’s Ethic of Caring
Gilligan (1982) begins from a point of dissatisfaction with
Kohlberg's focus on a justice and fairness orientation as the defining
feature of moral reasoning. She argues that such an emphasis on justice
is a reflection of a more general male bias in both research and
theory in developmental psychology. Gilligan points out that because
Kohlberg’s theory of moral reasoning is based upon research which only
employed male participants, he may have missed out an equally important
set of developmental questions that may be more central to girls’
Gilligan (1982) interviewed 29 American women aged between
15 and 33 who were considering whether or not to have an abortion. From
her research Gilligan suggested three stages of development:
1. Survival and self-interest
Women think mainly
about their own needs, this includes behaving in a way that would make
them liked, for example keeping the baby so they would be loved by it.
2. Responsibilities and self-sacrifice
Women care about
others. For example keeping the baby because of a duty to the child, or
aborting because the father was not ready for his duties.
Care and relationships
Women take a
balanced view and consider the situation as it affects everyone, including
Gilligan proposes two distinct moral orientations:
More prominent in boys and the aspect of morality that Kohlberg and Piaget
paid most attention to. The main aspect of justice orientation is not to
treat others in an unfair manner.
More prominent in
girls and the aspect of morality studied by
Gilligan. The main aspect of care is not to ignore those in need.
Several testable hypotheses can be derived from Gilligan's
proposals. For example:
Gilligan is right then girls should be more likely to use an ethic of
caring in defining and deciding moral questions.
girls tend to respond to moral dilemmas with an ethic of caring rather
than justice, we would expect girls' morality to be less than that of boys
when measured using Kohlberg's dilemmas, (since these concentrate on
Neither of these hypotheses has been supported by recent
1. Research does not support the idea that girls operate
from an orientation of care.
2. There are no consistent sex differences in the level of
moral reasoning as measured by Kohlberg's scoring system. Walker (1984)
found that girls do not show less mature morality, as predicted by
Gilligan's argument. Further, both boys' and girls' reasoning moves
through the same stages as described by Kohlberg (e.g. Snarey et al.,
Tong (1992) believes that if gender affects moral reasoning
then so must class and ethnicity. Gilligan does not take these into
To summarise then, Gilligan seems to be wrong in the
specifics of her ideas about sex differences in moral reasoning. However,
her criticisms of the biased foundations of psychological theories (e.g.
Kohlberg's) and her ideas regarding sex differences in the way males and
females relate to situations and relationships have raised important
considerations for psychology.
Culture and Morality
This is mentioned on the syllabus so could come up. What
follows is a brief overview and will include work mentioned in greater
detail earlier in the booklet. Crucial is the idea of a collectivist
culture in Asian and African countries as opposed to an individualistic
culture in Westernised societies. (If you are unclear on these terms… ASK
or find out more about them!).
In Piaget's theory the top level is 'autonomous
relativism' (based on morality being self-governed and
independent). This is a very western concept and would be totally at
odds with more collectivist ideas of sharing responsibility and caring for
others in society.
Cultural bias in Kohlberg
(the boxed section is a copy of an earlier section)
Snarey (1985) and others have argued
that the theory suffers from cultural bias, particularly in stage 5.
Studies suggest that this does not apply to non-industrialised
societies, for example Guatamala, Kenya and New Guinea.
Stage 5 emphasises the moral
reasoning of individualistic, Western societies. What Kohlberg
appears to be saying in stage 5 is that if the laws of Society
conflict with your own individually held beliefs then you have the
right to ignore or alter them. This is clearly at odds with
non-Western values, particularly those of some Asian and African
Societies, that are more collectivist, seeing the group, such as the
village or extended family, as being of greater worth than the needs
of the individual. This is illustrated by a quotation from a man
living in an Israeli Kibbutz. When asked the dilemma of Heinz and
whether or not he should have stolen the drug, he replied:
'Yes… I think the community should be
responsible for controlling this type of situation. The medicine
should be made available to all in need: the druggist should not have
the right to decide on his own…the whole community or society should
have control of the drug.'
Rather than saying that such cultures
are morally inferior to Western cultures all that can really be
concluded is that they are different and therefore Kohlberg’s later
stages are not universal or cross-culturally valid!
In kohlberg's theory, stage 6 is 'universal ethical
principles' (based on morality being in accordance with deeply held
personal views that override the laws of the nation). Again, as
pointed out, this runs counter to Eastern and African Society where
collectivist decisions are adhered to.
In both cases, top levels of morality are only achieved
when the highest levels of cognitive development are reached. Again,
cognitive development is seen very much from a Western perspective.
Culture, by definition, is central to any discussion on
morality since it considers the norms, values and beliefs of a society.
As we saw, Kohlberg's theory is criticised for its western bias. It
emphasises individual needs typical of Western teaching and ignores
collectivist needs of Asian and African cultures. These are most apparent
in the way that Eastern culture is geared to the extended family. As a
result people from Eastern culture are unlikely to reach level 3 (post
conventional morality) with its emphasis on the individual's chosen
morality. This approach is referred to as 'West is best' and is
also apparent in Piaget's theory. In both, the top level is seen as best,
and in both cases the top levels place the emphasis on the emergence of
For Lee’s study to make any sense to the reader coming at
it from a Western perspective, it is essential to point out that in
Chinese (and other collectivist) cultures, taking the credit for a good
deed is not seen as the done thing since it runs counter to the idea that
we should all work for the social good. This is clearly in contrast to
Western individualistic ideas where we tend not to feel so ashamed or
embarassed about admitting to helping others.
Lee et al interviewed 120 Chinese children and 108
Canadians between the ages of 7 and 11 years. They were each read four
1. One of a child
who had performed a good deed and when questioned admitted to it.
2. One of a child
who had performed a good deed and when questioned said someone else had
3. One of a child
who had performed a bad deed and when questioned admitted to it.
4. One of a child
who had performed a bad deed and when questioned said someone else had
The children were then asked about their feelings towards
each of the four situations:
In situations were a bad deed had been carried out the
findings were similar. Both Canadian and Chinese children both agreed
that telling the truth was the best policy.
However, in situations were a good deed had been carried
out there were very noticeable differences. Generally speaking the
Chinese children rated the children who fibbed about their good deed more
positively than those who admitted to it.
It seems that the Collectivist emphasis on modesty when
carrying out good deeds seems, in some cases at least, to overide the need
to tell the truth in all sitautions. Lack of modesty is seen as a
character flaw and is not to be encouraged. In the West we see it as
okay to lie to cover our mistakes or bad deeds but are quite willing to
admit to and take the praise for good deeds.
Lee et al shows that cultural and social factors are
crucial in determining moral development.
Development of Social Cognition
This refers to the concept of the child developing a sense of who it is
and how it fits into society. As the child matures it develops an
increasing idea of its self identity. This topic looks at how this
comes about and the factors that shape it. Although there are many
factors involved, this part of the syllabus, ‘cognitive and
developmental’ does tend to focus on the cognitive factors involved
rather than, for example, the emotional.
Three approaches will be considered:
Theory of mind (Baron-Cohen)
Perspective Taking (Selman)
Mirror-neuron theory (medical explanation)
Definition of ‘Self’
Self in this context refers to a person’s self awareness.
Murphy (1947) puts it simply: ‘The Self is the individual as known to
Learey (2004) couches it in more complex terms: ‘a cognitive structure
that allows self-reflection and organises information about ourselves.’
In other words it’s a schema or mental representation of who we are and
what we know about ourselves. Learey also believes that the self has
inbuilt motivational features:
helps us maintain a steady view of whom we are that remains constant
a form of self-perception that ensures our perception of ourselves
is accurate. This partly determines our level of self-esteem,
the extent to which we like ourselves.
maintains a positive view of ourselves.
Greenwald (1980) offers a particularly good analogy of self-esteem,
likening it to a totalitarian regime that acts to portray only a
positive image of itself and is willing to ‘rewrite history’ in order to
maintain this favourable view.
involves a number of characteristics:
Social roles: teacher, uncle, member of CAMRA…
Personality characteristics: introvert, selfish, vain…
Physical characteristics: short, bald, kinda’ cute…
is the sort of person we would like to be.
could also be seen as the difference between what we are and what we
want to be. Put mathematically:
Self esteem = Self ideal – Self image
Testing self awareness (the rouge test)
Gallup (1970) was the first to use the following test, which has since
been used to test other species. A smudge of red (rouge) placed on the
child’s nose who is then placed in front of a mirror. If the child
touches their own nose, rather than the rouge reflected in the mirror,
it is assumed that they possess self-awareness.
Chimps and Happy the elephant
When chimps are given the rouge test fewer than 50% of those tested pass
successfully. However, in 2006 Plotnik tested a small group of
elephants from the Yerkes colony. Although most showed signs of
recognition, only one, Happy’ went all the way and touched the white
cross painted on her head. It is thought elephants, with their complex
social groupings would find self awareness a useful characteristic.
Development of the Self-concept
1. Subjective self awareness
We are born with some basic awareness such as warmth and hunger and soon
become aware that we are responsible for our own movement (personal
agency). By about five months the child can also recognize its own
face. Legerstee et al (1998) found that children of this age look
longer at photographs of others than of themselves.
2. Objective self awareness
This is usually tested using the rouge test and is seen as major
distinguishing ability of humans (although a very few other species have
been shown to have the ability). Lewis and Brooks-Gunn (1979) found
that only 19% of infants aged 15 months could successfully complete the
task. This rose to 66% by two years.
Development of objective self awareness is seen as crucial in the
development of emotions, particularly self conscious traits such as
jealousy and embarrassment.
Some research also suggests that objective self awareness develops
sooner in securely attached infants and in children who are encouraged
to be independent.
3. Psychological self
Children up to the age of four tend to describe themselves in terms of
physical characteristics such as their height and hair colour and in
terms of things they can do like play football or swim. As they get
older they start to consider more psychological characteristics and when
prompted will say whether they prefer to be on their own or with others
and whether they are shy or more outgoing. By the age of four there are
the first signs of self-esteem (their own assessment of themselves).
4. Theory of mind (distinguishing self from others)
The following pages look at this in more detail.
ToM is usually tested using a false belief task such as the Sally Anne
saga or Wimmer and Perner’s blue/green cupboard.
Theory of Mind
The term ‘theory of mind’ (ToM) is relatively new being coined by
Premack and Woodruff in (1978) whilst studying the language and social
abilities of chimpanzees.
‘The ability to attribute mental states [such as beliefs and feelings]
to oneself and to others.
For example: ‘Val seems pensive today’ and ‘Nick would like this for his
Basically a child has ToM when it can appreciate that others have
different ideas, thoughts, desires, likes and dislikes to themselves.
Consider this in terms of Piaget and loss of egocentricism.
Wimmer and Perner (1983): blue cupboard/green cupboard
Children of 4, 6 or 8 years of age watch a toy (called Maxi) place some
chocolates in a blue cupboard. Maxi leaves the room during which time
his mum moves the chocolates to a green cupboard. The children see Maxi
return and are asked ‘where will Maxi look for the chocolates?’
Most 4 year olds incorrectly expect Maxi to look in the green cupboard
Most 6 and 8 year olds correctly believe he will look in the blue
Children as young as 4 assume that Maxi will know what they know. By
the time the children are 6 years of age they realize that others don’t.
Wellman et al (2001) got similar results in a meta-analysis of previous
research. There also appears to be cross-cultural support for the
findings from the results of similar studies carried out in seven
different countries. Development of this ability was slower in Japan
Note: Professor Simon Baron-Cohen (left) is first
cousin to Sasha Baron-Cohen (middle) creator of Ali G and Borat (right
complete with mankini).
Baron-Cohen et al (1985); the Sally Anne saga
Baron-Cohen is by far the biggest contributor to our knowledge of ToM.
However, most of the information he has collected has been from his work
on children with autism.
Examination advice from AQA(A) Psychology: The board
specifies Theory of Mind (Baron-Cohen) which means that they can ask a
question specifically about his theory. Faced with this question you
will almost certainly need to discuss autism since B-C’s work has
focused largely on children and adults with this disorder. The
assumption being that people with autism lack a theory of mind.
Children watch as two dolls (Sally and Anne) act out a scenario similar
to the Wimmer and Perner cupboard experiment.
Sally places a marble in her basket and leaves the room and her basket
behind. Anne removes the marble and places it in her box. Sally
The children are then asked three questions:
Where is the marble really? (the naming question)
Where was the marble in the beginning? (the memory question)
Where will Sally look for the marble? (the belief question)
However, in this study Baron-Cohen et al’s participants comprise:
20 autistic children (average age 12)
14 children with Down’s syndrome (average age 11)
27 children with neither autism nor Downs (average age 4.5)
All the participant pass the naming question and the memory question.
However, for the belief question (testing ToM) the success rates were as
% correct answers
‘Normal’ (neither disorder)
Children with autism seem unable to appreciate that others have
different thoughts or beliefs to themselves.
This inability seems to be a very specific one since children with
Down’s syndrome who have far greater global deficiencies can complete
the task normally.
It is thought that the 20% of autistic children who can perform this
task do so by employing a very long-winded method rather than
intuitively knowing the answer.
First and second order beliefs
A first order belief is a belief the child attributes to another
person. For example in the Sally Anne procedure, ‘Sally will look for
the marble in her basket.’
A second order belief is the realization that another person can have a
belief about a third person. For example ‘I think that Anne thinks
Sally will look in her basket.’
When Baron-Cohen (1989) tested the performance of autistic children on
second order beliefs he found that none of them could perform the task
successfully compared to 90% of a younger group of children without
Shared attention mechanism
Baron-Cohen (1995) believes an important reason for this deficit in
autistic children is due to their lack of a shared attention mechanism.
Shared attention is the ability that we have to work out what others are
thinking by looking at what they’re looking at (or what they’re
For example imagine you’re watching someone who’s trying to choose
between four bars of chocolate: a twix, a snickers, a milky way and a
topic. If they’re clearly staring at the topic (my favourite) then you
can work out that’s what they want. Autistic children find this
Baron-Cohen et al (1996) gave five tests like this to 16,000 eighteen
month old children. Only twelve out of this huge sample failed every
test. By the age of 3½ nearly all of these had been diagnosed with
autism. (Unable to find how many constitutes ‘nearly all’).
General or Specific deficits
As mentioned above Baron-Cohen assumes that the problems in autistic
children are due to specific cognitive impairments (what he refers to as
However there is a large body of evidence that suggests autistic
children have more general deficits, for example inability to plan and
focus and other so-called executive functions (think of role of central
Hughes and Russell (1993) showed children a box containing a marble
which they had to remove. Although they could reach in and get it they
were told that they had to turn a knob or push a switch. Autistic
children found it almost impossible not to simply reach in and grab the
marble. As the researchers saw it, they were unable to inhibit this
Imagine I’ve just pulled you up for your lack of sartorial elegance
(i.e. made a silly and probably unkind comment about the way you’re
dressed). However, I have done so with a big grin on my face. Knowing
me as you do then hopefully you wouldn’t be too offended and see it as a
joke. You have central coherence. You can consider all the information
available… rude comment but smiley face and conclude that it was a
light-hearted quip. Autistic children appear to lack central coherence
and as a result only consider part of the message. If this is the
verbal element then chances are they will be insulted!
Evaluation of ToM
There is plenty of support for Baron-Cohen’s theory and there is no
doubting that autistic children do have problems understanding ‘their
own and other’s mind.’
However, the false belief tests are complicated. It is difficult to
ascertain whether the problems faced by the autistic are specific (mindblindness)
or are down to more general cognitive deficits, such as attention.
Baron-Cohen does not consider the child’s motivation to understand other
people’s thoughts and behaviour. Perhaps autistic children perform less
well, not because of a specific inability but because they are less well
motivated than others.
ToM theory does not account for the other symptoms of autism, most
notably savant characteristics. How does an inability to read minds
explain the language problems and obsessive behaviours of some autistic
children and how can it explain the unusual skills possessed by a
minority of children with autism?
(nota bene… meaning ‘note well’ in Latin)
In 1995 Baron-Cohen proposed the existence of ToMM (theory of mind
module). He sees this as a structure or mechanism within the brain
which develops at the age of about four years and allows us to
understand the thoughts of others. Clearly this ties in with the mirror
neuron system discussed later in the topic.
Individual differences and nurture
Biological structure cannot fully explain ToM however. Children from
larger families seem to develop ToM earlier than other children,
probably because they’re exposed to a wider range of different minds at
an early age. This would suggest an environmental influence on the
development, so we have an argument for the nurture side of the debate
of the child’s understanding of others
Put simply this is the idea that if we can understand another person’s
view we will be better able to understand people and to empathise with
them. We will be more socially competent.
Baron-Cohen (1985) distinguished between:
Perceptual perspective taking
(as tested by Piaget’s three mountains) whereby we can understand
that other people see the world differently and
Conceptual perspective taking
(as tested by Baron-Cohen’s false belief task) whereby we can go
further and attribute thoughts and feelings to other people.
Flavell et al (1990) made a similar distinction but referred to this as:
(2 and 3 year old): who know that others see things differently and
(4 and 5 year olds): who can work out what others are seeing and
Flavell (1986) painted a sponge to look like a rock. Children
were then asked:
‘What does it look like?’ and ‘what is it really?
Three year olds tended to answer the same for both questions,
either rock or sponge.
By the age of five however, they can say it looks like a rock
but it’s really a sponge.
In a follow up by Gopnik and Astington (1988) they allowed children to
feel the sponge first and then they’re told that a friend hasn’t touched
the sponge, what will they think it is?
Younger children think others will know what they know… ‘he’ll think
it’s a sponge’
Older children (5 onwards) can attribute false beliefs to other people:
‘he’ll thin it’s a rock.’
By the age of five children can take another person’s perspective.
Selman’s stages of perspective taking
Selman’s methods are similar to those of Piaget (and his moral stories)
and Kohlberg (with his dilemmas). Typically Selman reads such a story
and asks questions. One such story is that of Holly:
Holly is an 8-year old
who likes to climb
She is the best tree climber in the
One day while climbing a tree she falls off the bottom
but does not hurt herself. Her
sees her fall, and is
He asks her to
not to climb trees anymore, and Holly promises.
Later that day, Holly and her
meet Sean. Sean's
is caught up in a tree and cannot get down. Something has to be done
right away or the kitten may
Holly is the only one who climbs trees well enough to reach the kitten
and get it down, but she remembers her promise to her father.
If children of different
are presented with this
and asked such questions as, "If Holly climbs the tree, should she be
"Will her father
if she climbs the tree?" "Will Sean understand why Holly has trouble
deciding what to do?" the children will give
to their age
Level 0: Egocentric viewpoint (or undifferentiated) Age:
and feelings, but they frequently
Response: The child
that Holly will save the kitten because she does not want it to get
and believes that Holly's father will feel just as she does about
her climbing the tree: "Happy,
Social-informational perspective-taking Age:
Description: Children understand that different perspectives
may result because people have
Response: When asked how Holly's father will react when he
finds out that she climbed the tree, the child responds, "If he
anything about the kitten, he would be
But if Holly shows him the kitten, he might
Description: Children can "step
in another person's
and view their own thoughts, feelings, and
from the other person's perspective. They also recognize that others
can do the same.
Response: When asked whether Holly thinks she will be
the child says, "No. Holly knows that her father will understand why
she climbed the tree." This response assumes that Holly's point of
by her father being able to "step in her shoes" and understand why
Description: Children can step
a two-person situation and
how the self and other are viewed from the point of view of a
Response: When asked whether Holly should be punished, the
child says, "No, because Holly thought it was
to save the kitten. But she also knows that her father told her not
to climb the tree. So she'd only think she shouldn't be punished if
she could get her father to understand why she had to climb the
steps outside the
situation to view both Holly's and her father's perspectives
Age: 12-15 onwards
understand that third-party perspective-taking can be
by one or more
Response: When asked if Holly should be punished, the
individual responds, "No. The value of
Holly's action. Her father's
of this value will
him not to punish her."
Cognition and Perspective taking (chicken or egg?)
As with cognitive theories of morality (such as Kohlberg’), it would
seem logical that increases in cognitive development would need to take
place before perspective taking could improve.
Keating & Clark (1980) compared perspective taking ability with level of
Piaget’s stages of cognitive development.
Piagets’s level of cognitive development
Selman’s level of perspective taking
Sensori-motor and Preoperational
Concrete operational thought
Levels 1 and 2
Formal operational thought
Levels 3 and 4
As you can see from the table above, this seems to be the case. The
better the thinking the better the perspective taking. However, this is
correlational so all we can say with certainty is that the two are
associated. We can’t say that increases in cognitive ability are
causing the improvements in perspective taking. Importantly, however,
Walker (1980) does believe that the cognitive improvements do take place
first suggesting there may be a causal relationship.
Perspective taking can be slowed
There is plenty of research to suggest that children that are mistreated
in the home do not develop perspective taking skills as quickly as other
children. Manly (2006) found that teenagers (average age 15) that had
been mistreated at home had the average perspective taking ability of a
ten year old. This could be down to the fact that mistreated children
have fewer social interactions with parents or because they are
observing poor social behaviour in their parents.
Do the predictions made by these tests stand up in real life
situations? (Hint: think of how we could measure the validity of an IQ
test. If the test measures a person’s IQ at 130 then we would expect
that person to perform well in school tests, if it was valid).
In the case of Selman’s test, we would expect a child that scores highly
on perspective taking to communicate more effectively with others in
real life situations. This appears to be the case. Selman et al (1983)
got girls to work in small groups and make puppets and then put on
puppet shows. Those who had earlier scored well on PT were observed to
communicate better as part of the groups.
Research does tend to support many of Selman’s ideas:
Perspective taking is important in social situations
Perspective taking does seem to proceed through the stages he suggests
The lack of social skills in maltreated children may be due to their
inability to perspective take
Perspective taking does seem to be associated with improving cognitive
development and with higher intelligence.
Better developed perspective taking ability is not a guarantee of social
success! In real-life situations the child also needs to know how to
use these skills and crucially which behaviours are suitable (or not) in
Although you would expect children with better PT skills to be more
popular with peers, this is not always the case. Attempts to teach PT
skills to children to improve their social competence are not always
The theory places too great an emphasis on perspective taking as a
determinant of social interactions. Many people have very good PT
skills and high cognitive ability but for whatever reason are not good
in social situations. Motivation, not mentioned by Selman, is also
The theory is reductionist. It doesn’t consider individual differences
between children, for example in their personality. Children high in
emotionality (those who experience intense, usually negative emotions)
and low in ability to manage their emotions, tend to be less socially
competent than others, (Eisenberg et al 1997).
Biological control of social cognition including the Mirror-Neuron
This section will look at biological explanations of social cognition.
However, at the outset it is important to bear in mind that different
explanations of similar characteristics are not mutually exclusive.
Evidence for biological explanations do not mean other explanations are
wrong; they are simply viewing the behaviour at a different level.
From the point of view of the perspective; it does
say ‘including the mirror-neuron system’ and in fact this appears to be
the ONLY biological explanation worth mentioning!
The Mirror-Neuron System
Understanding the behaviour and thoughts of others is a very useful
characteristic of any social creature. All the primates fall into this
category as do a few lower species. In evolutionary terms therefore, if
an individual is socially adept then perhaps it has a greater chance of
passing on its genes. Therefore biological mechanisms underlying such a
predisposition are likely to be selected for meaning they are likely to
be widespread within the gene pool.
From a behaviourist point of view, much of our behaviour is
copied or learned from others (social learning). Individuals
that are better at interpreting the actions of others will be
better placed to copy and more likely to do so if they see
others being rewarded for their behaviour (vicarious
Gallese et al (1996)
Measured the brain activity of monkeys performing a grasping
action. Later when monkeys observed other monkeys making the
same action their brain activity was the same. This is the
basis of the mirror-neuron system. Behaviours we perform
ourselves result in very similar brain activity to those similar
behaviours we observe.
The researchers concluded that this system allows for the action
and understanding of others’ actions.
Does the mirror-neuron system exist in humans?
Rizzoletti et al (2006) got human participants to either watch the
experimenters making various hand gestures or to make the gestures
themselves. Either way the neural activity in the hands was very
PET scans identified the following brain areas as being involved:
Superior Temporal Sulcus (STS)
Responds to seeing body parts move
Inferior Parietal Lobule*(IPL)
Seems similar to the area involved in monkeys
Inferior Frontal Gyrus (IFG)
*such a sexy word!
This provides evidence for a similar system to humans but how can we be
sure it acts to help us understand the behaviour of others rather than
just copy it?
Umilta et al (2001)…
an ingenious experiemt!
The researchers got monkeys to watch experimenters carrying out various
The experimenter is seen to reach for an item of food
An item of food is hidden from view behind a screen. The researcher
then reaches for it as in condition 1, but this time cannot be seen
accessing the food.
Even when the food was hidden, more than 50% of the mirror-neurons still
fired and half of these did so as strongly was when the food was in
view. Umilta et al concluded that the monkey brains were responding to
the understanding of what the action entailed (i.e. getting food) even
though the food could not be seen.
As a further test to show that it wasn’t the action per se that
was triggering the mirror neurons, there was a third condition in which
no food was hidden and the monkeys watched the same action as in
condition 2. This time the mirror neurons did not fire. Clearly the
firing was triggered by the understanding of the action.
Dinstein et al (2007) measured the activity in five human brain areas,
known to be involved in the mirror-neuron system, while they watched or
performed an action.
Although watching and performing an action resulted in the same brain
AREAS being excited, the researchers could not say with certainty that
it was the same NEURONS that were firing each time. Scanning techniques
are simply not sufficiently sophisticated to measure at this level.
Autism and the
Baron-Cohen’s work suggests that autistic children lack a theory of
mind. If we assume that the mirror-neuron system is the basis of ToM
then we would expect autistic children to have a defective MNS.
Depretto et al (2000) compared autistic children with non-autistic
children as they either watched or attempted to imitate one of five
facial expressions. Expressions were either anger, fear, happiness,
neutrality, or sadness.
Autistic children showed less activity in the MNS as they watched or
copied the expressions
The greater the autistic symptoms the lower the level of activity
However, there are issues with cause and effect. We cannot be certain
that the autism is due to this lowered level of activity. Lowered
activity could be due to the autism or a third factor could be causing
However, some autistic children have shown signs of cortical thinning
(means exactly what it says on the tin) in areas known to be related to
Autistic children have a whole range of symptoms, only one of which is
inability to understand or interpret the actions of others. It is
difficult to see how MNS could explain symptoms such as the savant-like
abilities of some autistic children.
The MNS is not defective in all autistic children suggesting more than
one cause of the disorder.
Is the MNS involved in our ability to understand or empathize with the
emotions of those we observe?
Phillips et al (1997) measured activity in two brain structures, the
amygdale and the insula, both known to be involved in emotion and
particularly in our response to disgust! Participants were either
exposed to disgusting stimuli (in the form of unpleasant smells) or they
watched the facial expressions of other people exposed to similarly
Both brain structures responded in a similar way regardless of whether
the disgust was being experienced or observed in others.
Note: the five main emotions are usually considered to be: love,
happiness, anger, sadness, and fear. However, disgust is often
tested experimentally due to fewer ethical issues!
It is also worth mentioning that the size of the response increased in
proportion to the level of disgust evident on faces of those being
In a similar follow up study, participants had electrodes fitted to
their hands and they received painful electric shocks while activity was
measured in the limbic system. Later the participants watched as the
electrodes were attached to the hands of a loved one. When told that
they would receive the same shock as they had experienced earlier a
similar pattern of firing was noted in the same brain structure.
However, as with earlier studies it is difficult to conclude that the
very same neurons are being fired in watching and experiencing; just
similar brain areas!
Phillips suggests that our understanding of others’ emotions occurs at
we see the person being sad, disgusted etc. and have an understanding
based on past experience of how this feels.
on observing a sad or disgusted person the sensory input is mapped
directly onto a corresponding motor area that mirrors their response in
our brain. We then experience the same emotional response as the person
If this latter one is the case then we have a biological mechanism for
empathy and true appreciation of the feelings of others. It might also
partly explain certain contagious behaviours such as laughing and
Overall evaluation of the Mirror-Neuron System
The model does seem to offer a sound biological explanation of our
ability to understand others.
However there are a few issues:
Methods: the fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technique is
unable to measure specific neurons. Therefore, as already mentioned we
cannot be certain that the very same neurons are being fired when we
experience and when we observe.
Much of the research has been carried out on monkeys who have nowhere
near the same social repertoire as humans. We therefore must have a
more sophisticated MNS or have other, as yet undiscovered, biological
systems underpinning theory of mind.
Gopnik is a particularly staunch opponent to the MN theory. Apart from
its basis in animal research she is also opposed to the reductionist
nature of the theory. Can altruistic behaviour and true empathy be
reduced to activity in a set of cells? Similarly Eisenberg (2000)
believes that early understanding of another person’s distress may be
the result of MNs but a fuller appreciation and true empathy only comes
about through perspective taking which she believes involves far more
than the simple MNs.
Gopnik also questions the innate nature of mirror neurons. Since
imitation is present at birth it has led many to assume that we must be
born with a mirror-neuron system fully intact (innate). Gopnik suggests
the possibility that mirror neurons arise through experience. Hebb
suggested the theory of cell assemblies, in which neurons that fire
together, wire together. They form a connection. Mirror neurons
therefore may not be present at birth but develop through the process of
association due to experience.
Mirror neurons and language acquisition
Language development is probably the most important of all human
abilities and seems to be the one characteristic that sets us apart from
all other species. Non-human animals communicate but practically all
impartial research suggests that it is only humans that have the ability
to impart information about experiences and acquired knowledge.
The main language areas in the brain are Wernickes (concerned with the
understanding of language) and Broca’s area (concerned with language
production), both named after their respective discoverers.
Attempts to teach language to other species have generally failed,
though the Savage-Rumbaughs and others would disagree. What seems
essential to language acquisition is immersion. Rather than sitting
down and being formally taught to acquire language, humans seem to pick
it up by watching and listening to others and then imitating. Clearly
mirror neurons would be useful in this process. Binkofski et al (2000)
used brain imaging techniques to show the existence of mirror neurons in
One of the main criticisms of research into mirror neurons centres on
our inability to measure activity in specific neurons. Research simply
shows that similar regions of neurons fire when observing and
actually doing or experiencing. These regions comprising perhaps half a
However, Iacobani (reported by Slack 2007) measured the activity of
individual neurons in the brains of volunteer epileptics. The
researchers were trying to find neurons responsible for triggering
seizures. The volunteers performed simple actions and then observed
others performing similar actions. Meanwhile the activity of 286
individual neurons was recorded by the researchers. They reported 34
neurons were the same pattern of firing was triggered by both performing
an action and watching it being performed by others (mirror neurons).
Interestingly they found different types of MN including one that
becomes suppressed when we watch others perform the same action. The
researchers concluded that this might explain why we don’t blindly copy
everything that we observe and perhaps how we distinguish between our
own behaviour and that of others.
Brain’s a Blender
ScienceDaily, May 6, 2007)
Psychologists are finding that the mature adult mirror
system does indeed seem to regulate itself, particularly when it comes
to empathy. Such checks and balances occur for our own good. If,
through the mirror system, we were able to completely experience the
pain of another person, we might constantly feel distressed.
Clarifying this phenomenon might require a temporary
substitute for the term “mirror system.” A regulated mirror system acts
not as a complete mirror, merely flipping around another’s emotions, nor
as a sponge, expelling only what it soaks up. Perhaps the mind is more
like a kitchen blender: We understand the raw feelings of a friend in
pain, but instead of devouring them whole we mix, chop, and purée them
into a more digestible serving. Our blender brains enable us to
simultaneously provide support and avoid emotional paralysis.
“The best response to another’s distress may not be
distress, but efforts to soothe that distress,” (Jean Decety 2006).
“Empathy has a sharing component, but also self-other distinctions and
the capacity to regulate one’s own emotions and feelings.”
In one study, writes Decety, researchers showed subjects
a video of patients feeling pain as a result of medical treatment. Some
subjects imagined themselves in the patient’s position, whereas others
merely considered the patient’s feelings. Patients who put themselves
in the painful shoes showed stronger neural responses in regions of the
brain involved in experiencing real pain.
More primitive motivations, such as hunger, might also
govern the mirror system. In a study by Decety et two groups of
subjects were shown a video of a person grasping food. Some of the
subjects had fasted for at least 12 hours before the viewing; others had
a meal before the session. Using functional imaging, the researchers
found greater activity in the mirror systems of the hungry subjects.
When a blender brain is running on empty it reacts strongly to the site
of fresh fruit; when it’s filled to the brim with a smoothie, it’s less
The evolutionary benefits of an efficient and
well-regulated perception-action system that swings into action shortly
after birth are numerous. A glimpse into another person’s emotions might
help predict that person’s behavior. Understanding the face of pain from
an early age could keep us from touching a hot stove. At a greater
social level, a personal insight into the experiences of others could
Mirror neurons and autism:
To investigate this connection, Iacoboni et al studied
the brain activity of 20 child subjects, half of whom had autism. The
subjects saw 80 pictures of faces expressing anger, fear, happiness,
sadness, or nothing in particular. The researchers asked some subjects
to merely view the faces and others to imitate them. In the group of
autistic children asked to imitate the faces, the researchers found no
activity in brain regions associated with mirror neurons. The more
severe the condition, says Iacoboni, the less active the mirror-neuron
system seems to be.