the last IQ test: Cynthia St Charles   Cognition and Development


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Introduction to Piaget
Piaget's Stages
Piaget: General Evaluation
Applying Piaget to Education
Vygotsky's Theory
Evaluation of Vygotsky
Applying Vygotsky to Education
Bruner's Theory
Applying Bruner to Education
Moral Development
Kohlberg's Theory of Morality
Eisenberg and Gilligan
Theory of Mind
Perspective Taking
Mirror Neuron System






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.

The 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 into the man's store to steal the drug for his wife.'      

Following the story Kohlberg would ask

Should Heinz steal the drug?

Why or why not?

Does he have a duty or obligation to 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.



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!

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.


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