By Catherine A. Sanderson, Amherst College
Jean Piaget is the most famous figure in the psychology of cognitive development. Much of what is known about children’s cognitive development is based on his work. He formed a theory of cognitive development which proposes that children move through a series of four distinct stages, and that these stages roughly correspond to particular ages.
Piaget was really limited in terms of who he studied and how he conducted his research on cognitive development. He based his theory on observations of his own children and a relatively small number of other children. And his method was simply asking them questions. He didn’t have other methods of testing what children did and did not know about the world, especially young children who couldn’t express such preferences verbally.
Subsequent research relying on more advanced methods of studying cognitive development has updated and revised his findings in various ways.
Cognitive Abilities in Infants
First, more current research tells us that very young children have more cognitive abilities than Piaget what believed. For example, researchers now believe that object permanence unfolds earlier and more gradually than Piaget realized, with even infants looking for a toy that has disappeared (although they don’t know exactly where to look).
Many studies to test infant cognition rely on looking time to measure reaction, since one can’t just ask kids to tell what they think. Infants as young as 3.5 months tend to look longer at impossible scenes, such as a ball stopping in mid-air or a car passing through a solid object, than at possible scenes. This suggests they have some knowledge about the permanence and qualities of objects, so they are surprised by seeing things that don’t seem possible, and so look longer at these things than expected things.
Egocentric Thinking and Formal Operational Thinking
It also turns out that given very simple tasks, even preschool children can gain insight into something from another’s perspective. For example, preschool children can learn to understand why someone else might be angry. In one study, children were given a box of Band-Aids and asked what they thought was inside. Naturally, all children expected the box to contain Band-Aids, so they were surprised when they opened the box and found crayons.
Then, children were asked what another child who saw the box would think it contained. Three-year-olds typically say ‘crayons’ because they can’t simultaneously hold in their minds their own perspective and someone else’s perspective. But by age four or five, far earlier than Piaget believed, children no longer show entirely egocentric thinking. Children are delighted to imagine tricking another child, who would wrongly believe the box will contain Band-Aids.
Third, Piaget believed that at around age 12, children attain the same raw cognitive abilities for formal operational thinking as adults. But beginning with work by David Elkind, we now know that some aspects of egocentrism continue even for teenagers in ways overlooked by Piaget, specifically, egocentrism about the uniqueness of their own thoughts and feelings.
This article comes directly from content in the video series Introduction to Psychology. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Egocentrism in Adolescence: Personal Fable
Egocentrism during adolescence includes two key features. First, an adolescent typically creates what Elkind in 1967 called a personal fable, meaning a belief that one is special and different from all other people. They believe their experiences are totally unique and that those around them couldn’t possibly understand them; the pain of their first heartbreak, for example, is completely different and more intense than similar feelings of loss for anyone else.
Belief in a personal fable is a very normal stage in adolescence. But it can also lead to negative consequences. It’s pretty common for teens to believe that because they are so special and unique, they just aren’t vulnerable to things that would harm other people. This belief then encourages them to engage in various forms of risky behavior: drinking and driving, using drugs, etc.
Egocentrism in Adolescence: Imaginary Audience
Second, adolescent egocentrism also leads to the belief that others are paying close attention to their every move at all times. This heightened and exaggerated belief in a so-called imaginary audience carefully observing everything they say and do helps explain why teenagers spend hours choosing the right outfit and feel mortified if they experience the slightest embarrassment.
This is why teens seem to believe that the world pretty much resolves around them, and that other people are highly focused on what they are doing and how they look at all times.
Although parents might push their tweens and teenagers to modify their behavior to appear less egocentric, expecting the thought processes to stop being so egocentric is just about as much of a stretch as telling a three-month-old baby to speak in complete sentences.
Although adolescent egocentrism is often viewed as a negative, parents and their teens can take comfort in knowing that this is a normal part of adolescent development. Egocentric thinking can help support personal development and growth and help teenagers develop their own individual identity. This process is known as individuation and is a fundamental goal of adolescence.
It’s also important to acknowledge that teenagers’ belief in their uniqueness can, at least in some circumstances, allow them to pursue and sometimes achieve lofty goals. Following the 2018 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in which 17 people died, a group of teenagers from that high school formed March for Our Lives, an organization to promote gun control efforts. Teenagers around the world have also been leading voices in other efforts to push for societal changes, including climate control efforts and LGBTQ rights.
As adolescents eventually grow out of their egocentricism, relativistic thinking becomes more common, as awareness increases that some questions lack any single right or wrong answer, and that different people can look at the same thing in different ways.
Common Questions about Cognitive Abilities and Development in Children
An adolescent typically creates what David Elkind called a personal fable; a belief that one is special and different from all other people. Adolescents believe their experiences are totally unique and that those around them couldn’t possibly understand them.
Adolescent egocentrism leads to the belief in adolescents that others are paying close attention to their every move at all times. They have heightened and exaggerated belief in a so-called imaginary audience carefully observing everything they say and do.
Egocentric thinking can help support personal development and growth and help teenagers develop their own individual identity. This process is known as individuation and is a fundamental goal of adolescence.