What Are the Stages of Cognitive Development in Adolescence?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Images By: Stillkost, n/a, Michaeljung, Slasnyi, Vesna Cvorovic
  • Last Modified Date: 17 September 2019
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Human growth and development occurs on many levels, and cognitive development encompasses the processes an individual experiences as he or she develops mentally and intellectually. Views on cognitive development in adolescence may differ by region, with some regions not even recognizing a transitional growth period called adolescence. For the purposes of discussion, adolescence will be considered the period between roughly 12 and 18 years of age. One of the primary focal areas in cognitive development in adolescence is the rise of abstract reasoning: a progression from a concrete stage of development to a formal operational stage of development. Other paths of cognitive development include the lessening of egocentrism and the search for self-identity.

One of the most renowned theories of cognitive development was put forth by Jean Piaget. This child psychologist characterized four stages of intellectual development from childhood through adolescence. The final two stages, concrete and formal operational, concern cognitive development in adolescence. In the concrete portion of early adolescence, the child can think in abstract terms and question ideas about what is seen and experienced, whereas before he or she only thought of the world in terms of what could directly be experienced by the senses. During the formal operational stage — which adolescents and even the adults may not eventually reach — abstract reasoning and imagination extends to concepts and ideas that are not readily visible or part of the individual’s common knowledge, such as philosophical questions.


Another main component of cognitive development in adolescence is the evolution of how the adolescent views himself or herself in relation to the world. When individuals begin adolescence, they often carry with them the egocentricism of childhood. In other words, the early adolescent is highly self-centered and filters most interactions and ideas through a lens of how information affects him or her personally. As the adolescent progresses to adulthood, he or she could undergo a full transformation into a worldview that largely considers the impact of thoughts and actions on others. Most adolescents will experience some movement away from full egocentricism, even if they retain much of this trait.

Concurrent physical, psychosocial, and emotional development will also likely influence the stages of cognitive development in adolescence. Hormonal changes may have an impact on brain development, causing emotional outbursts and the questioning of traditional ideas, particularly if those ideas come from parents or other authority figures. As they pull away from parental influence, many adolescents turn to peers for validation, so the adolescent’s social circle will often play a large role in shaping ideas and beliefs. Psychologist Erik Erikson characterized the adolescence stage of development as an unstable period of identity vs. role confusion, where the individual tries new experiences and assumes different attitudes in the search for an independent and true adult identity.


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