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Chapter 10
Cognitive Development
At the end of this Chapter you
should be able to:
Understand the steps of Physical
Understand what Cognitive
Development is
Physical Development
Obvious aspect of our growth
Longer span of time – 16 to 17 years just to
achieve full height – for physical growth than
in any other species
What influences bear on this? Why so slow?
Prenatal and Neonatal Growth
In-uterus: cell division first does not increase size of
cellular mass; then becomes an embryo
Embryo differentiates in cell types
grows to about one inch by 8 weeks of age
By 7 months: good chance of survival if born, with
many reflexes developed, including:
Growth patterns
In most ways, human infant quite helpless
Especially if compared to other species’ infants
Brain continues to show a tremendous amount of
growth in neural connectivity
Overall physical growth also continues
Growth spurts occur around ages of 2, 6, 10, and 14
Up to two decades of some degree of parental care is usual
in humans
Sensorimotor Capacities
of the Newborn
Capacity for organized interaction with own body and
with environment:
– Physical reflexes predominate at first
 Grasping reflex
 Rooting reflex
– Infantile reflexes replaced later by more
conscious control over head, arms, legs, and
– Sensory abilities more advanced
Genetic Roots of Cognitive
Cognitive capacities bear genetic imprint
When comparing adopted children to biological children:
genetics are powerful, beyond the environment in which one
was raised
Genes strongly influence intellectual development
Similar genetic background  similar intellectual
Highly verbal parents have highly verbal children...
Sensitive Periods
Also known as “critical periods”
In embryonic development of cells, early
stages have high flexibility, called “critical
periods” for that cell’s differentiation
More complex behaviors also seem to occur
during specific times of development
Attachment, language
Cognitive Development
Major figure: Jean Piaget, Swiss psychologist
(1896 - 1980)
First to propose that a child’s thinking was
qualitatively different from that of adults
Proposed a series of stages of intellectual
Sensorimotor Intelligence
Infant’s mental life: no continuity, just fleeting and
disconnected impressions and motor reactions
Child’s first task: to create distinctions between
stable and transient objects; to develop a sense of
“me” separate from “you”
Object permanence (achieved by most 2 y.o.):
Searching for objects not seen but remembered
What makes object permanence possible?
 Schemas
Mental categories around which we organize and
understand our world
2 processes that make schema development and
usage possible:
Assimilation: schemas help to act on and interpret the world
Accommodation: schemas are changed to reflect the
experiences and interactions the child has with his or her
Sensorimotor Schemas
The two-month-old has
assimilated the rattle into
her sucking schema and
has accommodated the
schema so that it now
includes the rattle as a
suckable object.
Sensorimotor Schemas
Ways of “knowing and interacting with the world”
using ones’ senses and own motion
– Grasping, sucking: one way to “know” a toy
– Combining these schemas, refining them, and
discovering more sophisticated ways to interact
with the world: use of schemas in combination,
etc. lets the child “know” the toy
– Developing the concept of object permanence
becomes possible over time
The Preoperational Period
With development of object permanence comes
representational thought
Marks end of Sensorimotor stage
Beginning of Preoperational stage
Emergence of new schemas:
– Operations
– Ability to manipulate objects according to a set of
– Emerge slowly, over several years
Failure of conservation
Child’s inability to conserve amount (mass,
quantity, etc.) indicates that child is still preoperational
Concrete and Formal operations require that
child has mastered Conservation schema
Conservation: child understands the concept of
transformation processes
Concrete and Formal Operations
Child is able to take another’s perspective:
less egocentric
Child can perform concrete operations (thus
the title) but not ability to think purely
abstractly (Formal Operations)
Embrace the “possible as well as the real” =
Formal Operations
Cognitive Starting Point: Where is
Piaget’s claims about what child does not yet
know hold up in some instances
– Increasingly clear that babies may
comprehend more than Piaget thought, as
Some of his specific claims about stages and
infant “knowledge” not supported, although
much of his work is supported, by research
Infant comprehension of
space and objects
Infants display comprehension of occlusion
– Use of habituation paradigms to test infants’
Infants demonstrate some comprehension about
notion of “support” (what is required to keep one
object from falling); what to expect if one object
strikes another; object permanence; etc.
– Again, use of habituation and observation of
gaze-length to gauge infant’s “expectations”
Knowing about objects: A 4,5 months old infant is looking at a
stage on which he sees an upright box. In front of the box is a
screen that initially lies flat and then starts to rotate upwards
(A). In the first condition (B), the screen stops rotating as
soon as it hits the box. In the second condition (C), when the
screen is high enough to hide the box, the experimenter
removes the box, so that the screen continues to move
backwards. Infants find this, surprising as he looks at it longer
than the first condition.
Developing a sense of support:
3 months old: believe any physical contact will provide support so
red block in (B) will hold it’s position
5 months old: learns a support has to be underneath the object, so
red will fall in (B), but but not in (C)
6 months old: learns the support has to be appropriately positioned;
so red block in (B) and (C) would fall, but not the one in (D).
Social Cognition in Infancy: other
Evidence for infant social awareness:
– Infants like to look at faces
 prefer faces to other stimuli
– Imitation of facial expressions quite pronounced
even in infants
– Comprehension of others’ intentions also can be
Social cognition: Much less sophisticated, but
present in rudimentary form
Face recognition in newborns: They look longer
at the pattern showing a schematic face than at a
scrambled or blank one.
Perceiving Intentions
6 month old infant watched as an actor reached to
the ball on the right. But, was the infant focused on
the behavior (reaching toward the right), or the goal
(reaching toward the ball)?
When tested, infants found a reach toward a bear on the right to
be surprising (same behavior, but a new goal); they showed no
surprise when they saw a reach toward the ball on the left (same
goal, but a new behavior). So they had understood the initial
action in terms of it’s goal.
Social Cognition: A Theory of
Theory of mind:
– Understanding actions/thoughts of other people
– Ability to predict someone else’s actions – not just
act as if all people want/do the same things that
you yourself want/do
Evidence that 18-month olds may have basic theory
of mind
Many limitations: belief systems, false beliefs, etc.:
beyond most 3 – 4 year olds
The false-belief test
The child watches as the experimenter makes
the teddy bear “hide” the ball in the red box
While the teddy bear is gone, the experpimenter
and the child move the ball to the green box
When the child is now asked “Where does the
teddy bear think the ball is?” she points to the
green box
Sequence or Stages?
Certain ages: generally associated with
certain stages
Ages do not mark transitions between
qualitative differences in thought
Children proceed in smaller, more sequential
fashion than Piaget proposed
The Causes of Cognitive Growth:
Biological Inheritance
Piaget’s emphasis: experience, interaction with the
However: role of biological influence must be
included to fully comprehend development –
Consider that…
Genetic overlap predicts similar cognitive abilities
Specific brain structures influence abilities/cognitive
Cognitive changes occur early, before much interaction with
environment has occurred
Innate capacities: role in cognitive
Genetic inheritance: may set up learning
pathways, specific processing paths for
certain types of information
– Infants’ behavior guided by principles that
were not acquired by experience