the last IQ test: Cynthia St Charles Cognitive Development
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Learning objectives
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Jean Piaget

Lev Vygotsky

Jerome Bruner

Moral Development

Lawrence Kohlberg

Nancy Eisenberg

Development of Social Cognition

Theory of Mind

Perspective Taking

Mirror Neurons


Development of thinking 


Background and introduction

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 Binet (who was 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 on.

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

Schema:  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.

Equilibrium and disequilibrium:  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. 

Disequilibrium is essential for learning!!!!

Adaptation: 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 accommodation:

·       Assimilation:  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!

·       Accommodation:  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!


Egocentricism. 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. 

Research evidence

See three mountains task in preoperational stage.

Lacks object permanence.  Child assumes that objects no longer exist if they’re not visible. 

Research evidence

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.

Evidence against

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 object.

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. 



Child remains egocentric but this now refers more to its inability to see things from other people's perspectives, as famously demonstrated by the 'Three Mountains' task.


Mind Changers: Jean Piaget and the Three Mountains


Research evidence

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.

Evidence to contradict Piaget

Hughes (1975) 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 participants. 


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!


Believing that 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.

Conservation of volume, as demonstrated by pouring liquid from small wide beakers into tall thin measuring cylinders, develops later, at the very end of the preoperational stage.



Evidence against

McGarrigle & 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.


McGarrigle & 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!

General 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:

Piaget often 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.

Piaget’s original 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 familiar format.


Concrete Operations Stage (7 to 11 years)

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.


Reversibility 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.

Conservation 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.

Transitivity is only 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 concrete examples.

Research Evidence

Piaget's own studies demonstrated that children in this age group were able to conserve successfully. 

Other studies have broadly backed Piaget’s findings for this stage, although he has been criticised for failing to consider other cultures.

·        Jahoda (1983) found that children as young as 9 years old in Zimbabwe could understand abstract economic concepts if they’d worked in their parents’ business. 

·        Price-Williams (1969) showed conservation in children as young as 6 years old who had been raised in pottery making factories.


Formal Operational stage (11 years onwards)

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.

Piaget maintained 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!


Abstract thought

The child can now think in abstract terms so no longer requires concrete examples to solve problems. 

Hypothetical thought

The child is able to consider things that it has no experience of and consider imaginary scenarios. 

Hypotheses testing

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 coursework).

Solve syllogisms

These are a form of reasoning in which a conclusion is reached from a number of statements.

For example:

            When B is larger than C, X is smaller than C.  But C is never larger than B. 

            True or false, X is never larger than B?


Other features

This level of thought also allows for an appreciation of values and ideals (necessary for more advanced moral thinking).

Research evidence

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.

Evidence against

1.      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.

2.      It seems many adults never actually reach Piaget’s description of formal thinking.

3.      Gladwin (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.



General criticisms

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.

·        Many of the stages overlap (decalage), so much so that it appears deve

Performance and ability. 

·         Piaget 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).

Other abilities. 

  • Piaget 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.


  • Hughes and 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.
  • Piaget used the clinical interview technique, which is time consuming.  As a result his sample sizes tended to be small.


Demand characteristics

  • It is 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.


General Favourable comments

Much of Piaget’s work has received widespread support.

Piaget did 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.


Few 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.

Always mention how influential Piaget’s work has been, both in influencing educational policies (although this was not Piaget’s intention) and in stimulating other research. 


Applying Piaget to Education

Each 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 school days!


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 differently.

·     Children should only be taught things that they are capable of learning

·     Children 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 individual needs.

Piaget and Education (simplified).


When to teach

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.

Rate of learning

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).

 Role of teacher (intellectual midwife)

·         adapt lessons to suit the needs of the individual child.

·         be aware of the child’s stage of development (testing).

·         provide stimulation through a variety of tasks.

·         produce/provide resources,

·         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.

Examples of 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.

Curriculum development

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.



Practical examples:

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 essays.

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 their students. 



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 afforded.

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 thinking.

Cultural influence 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.


Language is essential for the communication of knowledge and ideas and as a result is crucial to Vygotsky’s theory.

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 stages:

Ages 0 to 2 years

Language and thought develop independently of one another.  Children have pre-verbal thought and pre-intellectual speech.

Ages 2 to 7 years

Language has two functions:

1.       Monitor and direct internal thoughts (inner voice we talk to ourselves with).

2.       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.

 Age 7 onwards

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 versa.

Research evidence

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 Vygotsky predicted.

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 becomes internalised.


Social interaction

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 with others.


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.

Research evidence

Moss (1992) found that parents, particularly mothers, provide scaffolding.  Moss observed three strategies:

1.       Mother instructs the child with strategies it would not otherwise know.

2.       Mother encourages child to keep using useful strategies.

3.       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 immediate improvements.


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 cultural variations.


·         Motivation

·         Vygotsky does not consider the importance of the child’s desire to learn.

·         Vague

·         Vygotsky did not say what types of social interaction are best for encouraging learning.

·         Social interactions

·         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. 

·         Individual differences

·         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 the child.

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 situations.

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.’

Peer tutorin

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 place!!

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:

1.    The 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.

2.    A 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).

3.    Adults have developed better strategies to help memory and other important cognitive skills.


Knowledge base

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 chess.

Automatic Processe

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

1.       Children have structures (schemas or schemes) for their understanding.

2.       Children move through stages:  pre-concrete to concrete to abstract (formal).

Differences from Piaget

1.    Children 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 the problem.

2.    Cognitive 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).

Case suggested three reasons why M-space increases with age:

a.       The brain develops and myelination takes place allowing faster transmission of nerve impulses.

b.       Schemes and strategies become automatic so require less memory.  This frees up extra memory for dealing with other tasks.

c.       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

1.       Modifying existing schemes or

2.       Combining existing schemes together.

Research evidence

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 mind.

Positive comments

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.

Negative comments

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 mental capacity.

It is difficult to distinguish changes in strategies from changes in M-power.

Personal/practical note. 

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.


Applying Information-Processing theory to the classroom

Task Analysis

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 the largest

-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 carelessness.

Recognising the limited capacity of the child

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 context.


Jerome Bruner

Brief biography

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 time. 


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.

The child

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 through action. 

Constructivist theory 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 processes. 

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. 

Modes of representation

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 some tasks.

Modes of representation are the ways (or format) in which the child manipulates information.

1. Enactive (First year)

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 year)

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 solve problems.

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 symbolic modes.

A 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 biologically determined. 

Evidence for the modes

Bruner and Kenney (1966)

Aims- what age children start to use symbolic mode of representation.

Method- children 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.

Transposition test removed beakers and asked them to put them back in a mirror image of the original arrangement.



Reproduction task

Transposition task

Age 5



Age 6



Age 7



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.

The reproduction 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.

Frank (reported by Bruner 1964)

An ingenious 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. 

  1. They are shown the two measuring cylinders with equal amounts of water and the empty beaker.
  2. 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.
  3. Water is poured from one of the cylinders into the beaker (all is still hidden behind the screen)
  4. The child is now asked ‘which has more to drink or are they both the same?’

Results of this part of the test      


Results of unscreened test

Results of screened test

4 year olds



5 year olds



6 year olds




  1. 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 second test

4 year olds: revert back to their original (incorrect answer) that the tall cylinder has more water

5 and 6 year olds generally stick to the correct answer given when the beakers were hidden.


Explanation of findings

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 (1966)

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 Vygotsky.

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 process. 

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 Piaget.


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 J


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.

Basic philosophy

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 pupils.’ 

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:

Nichols (1996)

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 traditional teaching

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 development

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 cognitive development. 


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)
  • Pre-school: again 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 ‘conservation.’
  • Secondary school: introduction of abstract concepts such as formulae and the removal of concrete examples.


Modes of Representation

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 nature.

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 additional assistance. 


Moral development

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:




1. How does conscience and our feelings of guilt develop

Freud’s psychoanalytical theory through the process of Oedipus/Elektra

2.  How do we develop our knowledge of rules and moral principles?

The Cognitive developmental theories of Piaget and Kohlberg, that see cognitive development as a precursor to moral development, explain this one.

3.  How do we learn behaviours appropriate to the laws of the land and specific to our own culture?

No prizes 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 Kohlberg.

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!


Sigmund Freud

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?

Oedipus 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.




Research evidence

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 interpretation


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. 

Other issues

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!


Jean Piaget

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:


  1. 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.


Clipart: Boy and girl playing with marbles


   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 dress.

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.



Piaget’s three stages of moral development

Pre-moral* (0 to 3 years)

The child has little concept of morality or rules.   Compare to Freuds’ oral stage.

Heteronomous morality* or moral realism (4 to 10 years)

The 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.

Autonomous morality* or moral relativism (10 years onwards)

The child 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!


Heteronomous morality

Autonomous morality

Rules are fixed and cannot be changed or broken.

Rules 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.


Rules are created by older children, adults or even by God.

Rules are in fact created by people just like themselves.


Outcomes 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.


Belief in collective punishment, if one child is naughty then everyone should be punished.

Do not believe that te innocent should be punished.


Belief 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!


Realise 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 party!



Why 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

2. 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

As already 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. 

·     Colby et al (1983) disagree that the child’s moral reasoning does not mature after the age of 10.

·     Weston & 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 undeserved punishment.

Perhaps most 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!


Lawrence Kohlberg


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.

he 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. 

He 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.'

So Heinz got desperate and broke intothe man's store to steal the drug for his wife.'      



Following the story Kohlberg would ask questions:

·         Should Heinz steal the drug?

·         Why or why not?

·         Does he have a duty or obligation to steal it?

·         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 in all.

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.


Level and age


What 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 occur. 

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.


Cultural bias

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!

Gender bias

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).

Cognitive bias

Kohlberg 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 understand morality!

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 predecessor’s.  


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. 

Other factors:


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.

Role play

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 reasoning:


Age 0 to about 7 (pre-school and primary school children)

1.    Hedonistic (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 id.

2.    Needs of others orientation (some pre-school and primary school children)

The needs 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.


Age about 7 to adolescence (primary to secondary school children)

3.    Stereotyped approval-focused orientation (primary and many high school children)

The child 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.


Adolescence onwards

4.    Empathic orientation (a few high school children and most secondary school children)

The child 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.

5.    Internalised orientation (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 negative behaviours.


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 from Kohlberg.

This model 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 Kohlberg reasoning.


Cross cultural comparisons

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.

Other variables

According to Eisenberg, it isn’t only cognitive development that determines the level at which the child reasons:

1. Socilisation

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 others.


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’ development.


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.

3. Care and relationships

Women take a balanced view and consider the situation as it affects everyone, including themselves.

Gilligan proposes two distinct moral orientations:

Justice:  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.

Care:  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:

·     If Gilligan is right then girls should be more likely to use an ethic of caring in defining and deciding moral questions.

·     If 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 justice only).

Neither of these hypotheses has been supported by recent research.

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., 1985).

Tong (1992) believes that if gender affects moral reasoning then so must class and ethnicity.  Gilligan does not take these into account.

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 individual morality.

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 stories:

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 done it.

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 done it.

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 the individual.’

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:

  • Self-consistency: helps us maintain a steady view of whom we are that remains constant over time.
  • Self-evaluation: 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. 
  • Self-enhancement: 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. 

Self image involves a number of characteristics:

  • Social roles: teacher, uncle, member of CAMRA…
  • Personality characteristics: introvert, selfish, vain…
  • Physical characteristics: short, bald, kinda’ cute…

Self-ideal is the sort of person we would like to be. 

Self-esteem 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 birthday.’ 

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 cupboard.


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 and Austria.

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 returns.

The children are then asked three questions:

  1. Where is the marble really? (the naming question)
  2. Where was the marble in the beginning? (the memory question)
  3. 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 follows:


% correct answers

‘Normal’ (neither disorder)


Down’s syndrome






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 autism. 

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 attending to).

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 difficult.

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 ‘mindblindness’).

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 executive).

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 response. 


Central coherence

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?

NB (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 too.


Development of the child’s understanding of others


Perspective-taking theory (Selman)

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:

  1. Perceptual perspective taking (as tested by Piaget’s three mountains) whereby we can understand that other people see the world differently and
  2. 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:

Level 1 (2 and 3 year old): who know that others see things differently and

Level 2 (4 and 5 year olds): who can work out what others are seeing and feeling. 


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 girl who likes to climb trees. She is the best tree climber in the neighbourhood. One day while climbing a tree she falls off the bottom branch but does not hurt herself. Her father sees her fall, and is upset. He asks her to promise not to climb trees anymore, and Holly promises.

Later that day, Holly and her friends meet Sean. Sean's kitten is caught up in a tree and cannot get down. Something has to be done right away or the kitten may fall. 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 ages are presented with this situation and asked such questions as, "If Holly climbs the tree, should she be punished?" "Will her father understand if she climbs the tree?" "Will Sean understand why Holly has trouble deciding what to do?" the children will give answers relevant to their age group:

  • Level 0: Egocentric viewpoint (or undifferentiated)           Age: 3-6
    Description: Children recognize that the self and others can have different thoughts and feelings, but they frequently confuse the two.
    Response: The child predicts that Holly will save the kitten because she does not want it to get hurt and believes that Holly's father will feel just as she does about her climbing the tree: "Happy, he likes kittens."
  • Level 1: Social-informational perspective-taking                     Age: 6-8
    Description: Children understand that different perspectives may result because people have access to different information.
    Response: When asked how Holly's father will react when he finds out that she climbed the tree, the child responds, "If he didn't know anything about the kitten, he would be angry. But if Holly shows him the kitten, he might change his mind."
  • Level 2: Self-reflective perspective-taking                    Age: 8-10
    Description: Children can "step in another person's shoes" and view their own thoughts, feelings, and behaviour from the other person's perspective. They also recognize that others can do the same.
    Response: When asked whether Holly thinks she will be punished, the child says, "No. Holly knows that her father will understand why she climbed the tree." This response assumes that Holly's point of view is influenced by her father being able to "step in her shoes" and understand why she saved the kitten.
  • Level 3: Third-party perspective-taking                                Age: 10-12
    Description: Children can step outside a two-person situation and imagine how the self and other are viewed from the point of view of a third, impartial party.
    Response: When asked whether Holly should be punished, the child says, "No, because Holly thought it was important 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 tree." This response steps outside the immediate situation to view both Holly's and her father's perspectives simultaneously.
  • Level 4: Societal perspective-taking                                       Age: 12-15 onwards
    Description: Individuals understand that third-party perspective-taking can be influenced by one or more systems of larger societal values.
    Response: When asked if Holly should be punished, the individual responds, "No. The value of humane treatment of animals justifies Holly's action. Her father's appreciation of this value will lead 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

Level 0

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 different situations. 

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 successful. 

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 needed.

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 System

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 conditioning).

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 similar.

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 actions. 

  1. The experimenter is seen to reach for an item of food
  2. 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 mirror-neuron system

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. 


  1. Autistic children showed less activity in the MNS as they watched or copied the expressions
  2. The greater the autistic symptoms the lower the level of activity recorded.

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 both.

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 MNS.


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 disgusting things. 

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 observed.

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 two levels:

Cognitive understanding: we see the person being sad, disgusted etc. and have an understanding based on past experience of how this feels. 

Experiential: 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 being observed.

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 yawning. 


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 Broca’s area.  


Latest stuff

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 million neurons! 

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. 


My Brain’s a Blender (adapted from 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 interested

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 aid cooperation.

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.