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AQA A-level Psychology Cognition and Development

This section provides revision resources for AQA A-level psychology and the Cognition and Development chapter. The revision notes cover the AQA exam board and the new specification. As part of your A-level psychology course, you need to know the following topics below within this chapter:

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Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

The A-level psychology specification states you need to know the following for the Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development:

  • Piaget’s theory of cognitive development: schemas, assimilation, accommodation, equilibration, stages of intellectual development. Characteristics of these stages, including object permanence, conservation, egocentrism and class inclusion.

Jean Piaget (1869-1980) is considered by many as one of the greatest, most influential psychologist throughout history. Piaget's greatest impact was on education, where his theories have been most applied. Piaget's initial interest in cognitive development came from working on intelligence tests and then later observing the development of his own children, upon whom he had performed numerous experiments.

After 30 years of studying and refining this led to the development of his theory of cognitive development.

This theory was different as previously people thought that the main difference between a child and an adult was that the adult simply knew more and as the child gets older they will simply acquire this information too. Piaget proposed something that was radically different at the time, claiming that adults don't just simply no more, they actually think in quite a different way.

Piaget proposed cognitive development was a result of two influences: maturation and the environment.

Maturation concerns the effects of the biological process of aging and Piaget proposed that as children get older, certain mental operations that were not previously possible, become available to them.

Also at the same time, through interacting with the environment, the individuals understanding of the world also becomes more complex. Piaget concluded that cognitive development occurred through an interaction of inborn abilities and environmental events that proceed through a series of stages of intellectual development. He therefore saw intelligence as a process with individuals learning about the world around them, how they interact with it, and intelligence being a state of balance or equilibrium achieved by an individual when they are able to deal adequately with the data before them. Humans therefore learn to adapt to their surrounding environment, constructing an understanding of the reality for them by interacting with this environment.


Schemas (or cognitive schemas) are mental structures which represent a group of related concepts.  

For example, your schema for a cat would be that it has fur, whiskers, paws, and a tail. Schemas can be behavioural or cognitive, for example behavioural schemas may exist for for grasping an object while cognitive schemas exist for classifying objects.

A good way of thinking of schemas is to think of them as mental programs that people construct for dealing with the world around them.

Once a child is born, it already has some schemas pre-programmed within them sufficient enough to interact with other people. An example of such is the gasping reflex or a recognition of the human face. From birth onwards. the infant develops new schemas as a result of interacting with the world around it.

Piaget proposed that the two processes in which our schemas become more complex are:

  1. Assimilation
  2. Accommodation.


Assimilation is a form of learning that takes place when we acquire new information or a more advanced understanding of an object, person or idea. If the new information does not significantly change our understanding of the topic, we can then incorporate it into an existing schema through assimilation.

When applying this to children, the child will initially try to understand new information in terms of their existing knowledge of the world. A baby for example, when given new toy plane may attempt to suck it the same way they grasped or sucked a dummy or rattle. Assimilation occurs when as existing schema (in this case, sucking) is used on a new object (such as a toy car). Assimilation therefore involves incorporating new information into an existing schema. 


Accommodation involves a type of learning that occurs where a child may acquire new information that changes their understanding of a topic to the extent that they need to form one or more new schemas or radically change the existing schemas in order to take on this new understanding. 

An example of this is driving a car. Having been accustomed to driving manual (stick) cars here in the UK, we develop a schema to work the three pedals and gears. If however we went to America and had to drive an automatic car without a clutch pedal, assimilation into our existing schema of driving a manual would not work, therefore accommodation must quickly occur. Accommodation would therefore change our existing schemas and when new information cannot be assimilated and new schemas are formed.


According to Piaget, the driving force beyond these adaptations or changes is our motivation to learn when our existing schemas do not allow us to make sense of something new. This causes an unpleasant sensation referred to as disequilibrium which we then strive to escape by exploring and learning what we need to know. Once we have learnt what we need to know, we achieve a state of equilibration.

Evaluating Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development

  • There is research evidence to support the existence of innate schemas, for example face schemas. Fantz (1961) demonstrated how infants as young as four days old showed a preference for a schematic face rather than the same features all jumbled up. This showed that it is the unique configuration of a face rather than a complex patterns that is preferred. These findings showing a facial preference have been replicated in a number of studies, for example Goren et al (1975), although these studies do not make it clear whether this is due to liking for things that are symmetrical. From an evolutionary perspective, an innate face preference makes sense because such a preference would have an adaptive significance because a newborn who can recognise and respond to its on species will better elicit attachment and caring.
  • A major criticism of Piaget's theory is the inability to demonstrate equilibration and the lack of research support for this concept. Piaget's co-workers Barbel Inhelder et al (1974) demonstrated that children's learning was aided when there was a slight conflict between what they expected to occur and what actually happened. Bryant (1995) argued this did not represent the type of conflict that Piaget was talking about. The main issue with Piaget's theory us that key aspects of it are not really testable as concepts such as assimilation are difficult to operationalise in an experiment.
  • There is research support for children forming individual mental representations of the world even when they have had similar learning experiences as Piaget suggested. Howe et al (1992) put children aged between 9 and 12 in groups of four to study and discuss the movement of objects down a slope with their understanding tested before and after this discussion. After their experience of working together and discussing the topic, the children were found to have increased knowledge and understanding, however, had not come to the same conclusions or determined the same facts about the movement of the object down the slope. This supported Piaget's idea that children will learn by forming their own individual mental representations.

Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Development

Jean Piaget's approach to understanding cognitive development led him to identify a series of 4 stages a child went through, each characterised by a set of particular mental abilities and a different level of reasoning ability.

Although the ages each child progressed through the stages may vary from child to child, all the children were believed to develop through the same sequence of stages according to Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Development.

Sensorimotor Stage (0-2 Years)

The sensorimotor stage occurs between the ages of 0 to 2 years and involves the infant learning to co-ordinate sensory input from what they see and feel with motor actions, for example, their hard movements and sensations experienced.

The child will develop some basic physical co-ordination and learn by trial and error that they can move their body in particular ways as well as move other objects. The child will also develop an understanding during these first 2 years that other people are separate objects and also learn some basic language skills.

The key development occurring at this stage is object permanence; this is where very young infants may lost interest in an object when it is out their line of sight or hidden behind an object because they assume it has ceased to exist. At the 8 month stage, they realise that objects out of sight may still exist and search for them where they were last seen.

Pre-operational Stage (2-7 Years)

From around the age of 2 years old, a toddler will be more mobile and able to use language skills but still lack the ability to reason correctly. While the child may have developed a sense of logic, this can't be used as a basis for understanding how the world works and will therefore rely on appearance and what they see rather than reality.

To demonstrate this, Piaget conducted his conservation tasks which showed how pre-operational children failed to see the logic that volume cannot change. The image below shows the two glasses of water (A and B) children were shown. The researcher would then pour the contents of glass B into glass C and asked where the quantity is the same. As pre-operational children can only rely on what they see, they would therefore answer 'No'.

A pre-operational child is unable to see the logic that volume does not change, i.e. they are unable to 'conserve' volume. This conservation test was also done with numbers involving counters that Piaget then spread out on one row to make it look like there were more counters, and also mass involving two cylinders of plasticine where one was rolled flat so it looked bigger.

Piaget concluded that children are therefore egocentric in their thinking and only see the world from their position and are not aware of other perspectives. Egocentric thinking was illustrated by Piaget using the 3 mountains task which is illustrated in the image below:

Children were shown the image above and asked to choose the picture that showed the dolls perspective. Children aged 4 tended to choose their own perspective rather than that of the doll.

Class inclusion was another important quality of thinking related to this stage that was demonstrated as absent in children. Young children are able to classify objects into categories but struggled when they were tasked with sub-groups within categories. For example, the category 'animal' would be easily include cats and dogs. The dogs category would then further divide into sub-species such as Rottweiler or Doberman which would be a logical line of reasoning however children struggled with such tasks. Piaget demonstrated class inclusion being absence by showing children 4 toy cows, three of which were black and one white and asked "are there more black cows or more cows?". Pre-operational children were unable to answer this and simply said more black cows. 

Concrete-operational Stage (7-11 Years)

Once children reach the concrete operational stage, they have generally acquired the ability to conserve and perform better on tasks of egocentrism as well as class inclusion. Although better reasoning ability is apparent (Piaget referred to these as operations) these are strictly concrete operations applied only to physicals objects. Children will still struggle to reason about abstract ideas or imagine objects or situations they cannot see.

Formal Operational (Stage 11+ Years)

At the formal operational stage, children are now able to solve abstract problems and are capable of formal reasoning. This means children are able to focus on the form of an argument and not be distracted by the content. They may also be able to develop hypotheses and test them to establish causal relationships with inferential reasoning as well as think about hypothetical situations and manipulate objects in their head without the objects being physically present.

For example, if a child knows that person A is taller than person B and that person B is taller than person C, they can conclude that person A is taller than person C even though persons A and C have not been compared together.

Piaget's Stages of Intellectual Evaluation

  • A criticism of Piaget's stages of intellectual development is some of his methodology has been argued to be flawed. Piaget developed a range of tasks to test the abilities of young children however a number of researchers have suggested the design of many experiments may have confused younger children, which may explain why there appeared to struggle with the tasks. McGarrigle and Donaldson (1974) argued the deliberate transformation in the conservation task was a demand characteristic that demanded an alternative response to the second question 'are they the same?'. When researchers used a 'naughty teddy' to mess up the counters and make one row longer, the children coped better as the change was explained through the naughty teddy's behaviour and eliminated the previous demand characteristic (that the change needed an explanation). Hughes (1975) demonstrated in the three mountains task that young children could perform better if the task was more realistic. For example, using a naughty boy doll who was hiding from a toy policeman which allowed children to take another perspective under more 'real' conditions. The criticism here is Piaget's method may not have actually been testing egocentricity.
  • There are issues of cultural bias also in Piaget's theories. For example, he placed considerable value on the role of logical operations in the development of thinking. This was based on his background having come from a middle-class European family and his research involved children from European academic families that valued academic ability. In other cultures and social classes, there may be greater value placed on other things, for example, a more basic level of concrete operations that involves making things rather than thinking about abstract ideas. Therefore a weakness for Piaget's theory is it not be universally applicable.
  • Piaget's theory has had important applications in educational. His theory suggests children are not biologically 'ready' to learn certain concepts until they have reached a certain age and stage of intellectual development. For example, according to his theory, pre-operational children would struggle to perform abstract mathematical calculations.  Piaget therefore proposed that learning activities should be at the appropriate level for the child's age and if the child is not mature enough, they may only acquire superficial skills. The Plowden Report (1967) drew heavily on Piaget's theory and led to major changes in primary school education within the UK. 

Vygotsky’s Theory of Cognitive Development

The AQA A-level specification states you need to know the following:

  • Vygotsky’s theory of cognitive development, including the zone of proximal development and scaffolding.

Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky agreed with Piaget that a child's thinking is qualitatively different compared to adults, however he placed a greater emphasis on the environment and learning. Vygotsky (1934) therefore believed culture, social context and interactions with others was the main determinant of an individuals cognitive development in addition to biological maturation.

The Cultural Level

Children were seen to benefit from the knowledge of previous generations, which they gained through interactions with parents that would pass cultural attitudes and beliefs from one generation to another.

Each child was seen to 'inherit' a number of cultural tools such as:

  • Technological tools (clocks, bicycles, and various physical devices)
  • Psychological tools (involving concepts and symbols such as language and theories)
  • Values (such as efficiency and power)

Vygotsky saw language as the most essential cultural tool.

Vygotsky believed children were born with elementary mental functions, such as perception and memory and were transformed into higher mental functions (such as mathematical systems) by the influence of culture. Elementary mental functions were seen as biological and the role of culture saw these transform into higher mental functions.

The Interpersonal Level

The interpersonal level is where culture and the individual meets. Cognitive development occurred first on a social level through interaction between people (inter psychological), and secondly on an individual level within the child (intrapsychological). Higher-level cognitive functions (such as the use of mathematical symbols and writing) and concepts were seen by Vygotsky as originating through interactions between individuals. 

The Zone of Proximal Development

The zone of proximal development is the region where a child's cognitive development takes place and is the distance between current and potential ability. Cultural influences and knowledgeable others 'mentor' children through the zone of proximal development through tasks beyond their current ability.

Mentors with an understanding of an area encourage children in their learning. Over time, as the child becomes more able, the mentor's role reduces with the child being given an increased opportunity to perform the task independently without support.


Scaffolding is a concept that sees cognitive development being assisted with sensitive guidance and children being given clues as to how to tackle problems, rather than them simply being given the solution. An example may be them being given advice on completing a jigsaw by completing the borders first and then attempting to complete the middle. 

Wood et al (1976) were the first to introduce the concept of scaffolding when describing the process of assisting a learner through the zone of proximal development. They described scaffolding as a "process that enables a novice to solve a problem, carry out a task, or achieve a goal which would be beyond their unassisted efforts". The expert tutor creates a temporary support (scaffold), which is gradually withdrawn as the child become more capable of working independently.

Effective scaffolding involves several processes which have been identified:

  1. Ensuring the task is easy
  2. Gaining and maintaining a child's interest in a task
  3. Demonstrating the task
  4. Keeping a child's level of frustration under control
  5. Stressing elements that will help create a solution to the task

Evaluating Vygotsky's Theory of Cognitive Development

  • There is support for concepts such as the zone of proximal development as evidence shows a gap between the level of reasoning a child can achieve on their own and what they can achieve with help from a mentor. Research support comes from a study by Antonio Roazzi and Peter Bryant (1998). In their study they gave 4-5-year-olds the task of estimating the number of sweets in a box where in one condition the children worked alone and in another condition they worked with the help of an older child. Most children working alone failed to give an accurate estimate whereas in the expert help condition, children who were offered prompts with the older children pointing to younger in the right direction successfully mastered the task. This supports Vygotsky's idea that children can develop additional reasoning abilities when working with individuals who are experts and demonstrates that the zone of proximal development is a valid concept.
  • There is also evidence that supports the role of culture in cognitive development. Vygotsky's claims have been supported in cross-cultural research, for example, Gredler (1992) highlighted the primitive counting system used in Papa New Guinea as an example of how culture can limit the cognitive development of individuals. In this culture, counting is done by starting on the thumb of one hand and going up the arm and down to the other fingers, ending at 29. This limits individuals within this culture from adding or subtracting large numbers, therefore limiting cognitive development within this culture. Research into nonhuman animals has also provided further evidence of the role of culture in cognitive development. Some psychologists have proposed that nonhuman animals possess elementary mental functions which can be transformed into higher mental functions bye surrounding an animal in human culture. For example, Savage-Rumbaugh (1991) immersed Bonobo apes to a language-rich culture with the apes spoken to at all times through the use of a lexigram. Apes have been shown to be able to communicate using a simple system which suggests that higher mental functions (such as a symbol system) may be transmitted through culture and learning.
  • Evidence supporting the role of the zone of proximal development comes from a study by McNaughton and Leyland (1990). In this study young children were observed working with their mothers on jigsaw puzzles of increasing difficulty. The mothers were seen to offer help in line with Vygotsky's predictions with little help offered if the puzzle was too easy, moderate difficulty saw the mothers focus on helping the child solve the puzzle for themselves, and high difficulty where the jigsaw was beyond the child zone of proximal development, mothers were seen to intervene significantly. This lends support that experts adjust the level of input and support to the learners zone of proximal development in line with Vygotsky's ideas.
  • Vygotsky's theory has been highly influential in education within the last decade. The idea that children may be able to learn more faster and effectively through scaffolding has raised the expectations of what they may be able to achieve. Social interaction in learning involving group work, peer tutoring and individual adult assistance from teachers has been used to scaffold children through the zones of proximal development. Evidence suggest that the strategies are effective with one study (Verhaeghe et al 2005) finding that seven year olds tutored by 10 year olds in addition to the whole-class teaching, progressed further in reading ability compared to controls who just had standard teaching involving the whole-class. Another study (Albert et al. 2009) concluded that teaching assistants were very effective at improving the rate of learning in children supporting the idea of scaffolding.

Baillargeon's Explanation of Infant Abilities

Professor Renée Baillargeon conducted extensive research into understanding how well developed cognitive abilities were in infancy. Some of her ideas challenged Piaget's theory particularly when children were thought to develop object permanence. 

Knowlege of the Physical World

Baillargeon et al (2009) suggested that infants are equipped with mechanisms to interpret and learn from experience, and referred to this as a physical reasoning system (PRS). This was different from Piaget's view as it suggests that infants are born with innate mechanisms that give them a head start. Piaget, in contrast, believed that everything was learned through interaction and there were no innate mechanisms to help with this.

Piaget believed that babies less than 8-9 months in age had a very primitive understanding of the nature of the physical world around them and claimed they were not aware that once an object left their field of view, it continued to exist. This was based on his research which showed that babies from this age would reach for an object removed from the field of view but prior to this, they would immediately lose interest once the object was out of sight.

Baillargeon proposed infants learned to reason about novel physical phenomenon and formed an all-or-none concept and later added other variables that may affect these concepts. 

For example, in tests conducted by Baillargeon, infants were shown a cover with a protuberance suggesting there was an object underneath the cover. Infants aged 9.5 months displayed surprise when the cover was removed and there was nothing underneath it. They did not show surprise if the object was revealed to be smaller than the protuberance suggested. By 12.5 months they do show surprise at the size mismatch between the protuberance and size of the object underneath.

This suggests the following developmental sequence:

  1. Infants first developed a concept that the protuberance indicated an object underneath it.
  2. They then identify a variable that affects this concept such as size.

This same process occurred for all other physical relations with the first being the concept is understood and then variations are incorporated. Baillargeon proposes that this demonstrated the application of innate learning mechanisms to available information from the physical world around them.

Violation of Expectation

The violation of expectation technique is based on the idea that infants will look for longer at things they have not experienced before. Violation of expectation works by repeatedly showing a child scenario that is new to them until they look away and demonstrate the scenario is no longer a novel (new) experience for them. At this stage, the child is shown an example of a scenario that is impossible (such as a solid object appearing to pass through another solid object without either being damaged) and the time they look at it is compared with an example of a scenario that is possible.

Other variations of this include the key study into violation of expectation conducted by Baillargeon and DeVos (1991).

Procedure: In this study, a large or small carrot is seen sliding along a track and hidden at one point by a screen with a large window. The track is arranged so that the large carrot should be visible as it passes behind the window (in fact it does not appear), whereas the small carrot which is not as tall should remain hidden. The impossible event that occurs is the large carrot not appearing behind the window. If the infant is capable of object permanence, they show surprise by way of increased looking when exposed to this.

Carrot image p122 aqa textbook

Findings: Results found that children as young as three months demonstrated object permanence when they were tested in this way compared to Piaget who found object permanence developed at around eight months. The infants looked longer at the large carrot, presumably because they expected the top of the carrot to be visible behind the window as it passed i.e. they had attained object permanence and understood the principle of occlusion and what happens when an object is obstructed behind another.

Evaluating Baillargeon's Explanation of Infant Abilities

Compared to Piaget's research, Baillargeon and DeVos used a less biased sample by using birth announcements in the local paper, thus having higher population of validity. Piaget on the other hand had participants which were all middle-class children which would make generalisation to the wider population more difficult. Additionally another confounding variable may have been the parent as the infant sat on the lap. The parent may have unconsciously communicated cues about how the baby should react. To avoid this parents were asked to keep their eyes closed and asked not to interact with their child. The final variable that was controlled was the observers knowledge of the conditions. Each trial involved two observers that noted the amount of interest shown by the child which they did without knowing whether the event was possible or impossible i.e. through a double blind design. This ensured their observations remained more objective without any influence and thus had high inter-rater reliability (consistency).

Criticism of the violation of expectation technique is whether this is actually measuring what it intends to measure (internal validity). Questions have been raised by researchers as to whether it is actually measuring surprise at the violation of expectations or whether infants may simply look longer at an impossible event not because it violates their understanding of the physical world, but because features of the impossible event are simply more interesting. Schlesinger and Casey (2003) found the infants gaze was different for the possible and impossible tasks however on the impossible tasks, interest was better explained due to greater perceptual interest. This undermines the conclusions from the violation of expectation research.

Another criticism is it is hard to judge what an infant actually understands. Children are unable to communicate their thoughts so researchers have to make assumptions on what their behaviour means and Baillargeon's research clearly shows that infants look significantly longer at some scenarios compare to others. What violation of expectation simply shows is that babies behave as we might expect them to if they understood the physical world and there are two logical problems with this:

  1. We are ultimately guessing and can never know how a baby might actually act in response to a violation of expectation as they might not actually look at impossible events for longer than possible events.
  2. The fact that infants look different length of time made merely mean they see them as different and there may be a number of reasons why they find one scenario more interesting than another.

These issues mean that the violation of expectation technique may not be entirely valid when investigating an infants understanding of the physical world.

The Development of Social Cognition

The development of social cognition breaks down into three chapters which include:

  • Selman's levels of perspective taking
  • Theory of mind
  • The mirror neutron system in social cognition

The first question to ask is what do we mean when we say social cognition? Social cognition relates to the mental processes by which individuals process and understand information regarding themselves and others and the conduct of their behaviour.

Therefore social cognition involves explaining how individuals develop the ability to make sense of their social world. A key element in this development is the ability to perspective-take and understand the viewpoint of other people. 

Selman's Levels of Perspective Taking

The first question to ask is what do we mean when we say social cognition? Social cognition relates to the mental processes by which individuals process and understand information regarding themselves and others and the conduct of their behaviour.

Therefore social cognition involves explaining how individuals develop the ability to make sense of their social world. A key element in this development is the ability to perspective-take and understand the viewpoint and feelings of other people.

Robert Selman proposed his theory of social development and believed perspective-taking was the central to this. He believed when a child learns to take someone else's perspective, this will enable them to have insight into the thoughts and feelings of others.

To test perspective taking ability, Selman conducted a study in 1976 whereby he presented children with a series of dilemmas that explored the child's reasoning when faced with conflicting feelings. The dilemmas required the children to take the perspective of others and when Selman analysed the responses from children of different ages, he realised that there was a clear pattern related to reasoning at various ages.

Robert Selman 1976 Study Dilemma Example

"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 Holly too promise not to climb trees anymore and Holly agrees and promises to stop.

Later that day, Holly and her friends meet Sean. Sean's kitten is caught up 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"

Selman subsequently developed his five-stage model on the development of perspective-taking with a key feature being the progression from being egocentric and unaware of any other peoples perspective except their own, to being mature and considering a number of perspectives, and drawing conclusions that are in line with social norms.

Stage 0 - Undifferentiated Perspective-taking

(Approx age 3-6yrs)

Children can distinguish between self and others but are largely governed by their own perspective.

Holly will believe her father would not be mad because whatever is right for Holly, will be right for others and her father will feel the same as her.

Stage 1 - Social-informational perspective-taking

Children become aware of perspectives that are different to their own however assume that this is because they have different information.

In this scenario, Holly believes her father would not be angry if Holly shows him the kitten then he would then change his mind.

Stage 2 - Self-reflective perspective-taking

Children Will now be able to view their own thoughts and feelings from another persons perspective and recognise that others are able to do the same.

Holly may believe that her father will not be mad because he will understand why Holly saved the kitten.

Stage 3 - Mutual perspective-taking

The child will now be able to step outside a two-person situation and imagine how they and others are viewed from the point of a impartial third persons perspective. The child may also be able to consider two simultaneous viewpoints.

In this scenario, Holly's father would not be mad because he can understand both their points of views.

Stage 4 - Societal perspective-taking

Personal decisions are now made with reference to what normal social conventions would be.

Holly's father will not be mad because the humane treatment of animals is important.

Evaluating Selman's Levels of Perspective Taking

  • Selman provided strong evidence of perspective-taking ability improving as children got older which is in line with his theory. In his 1971 study, Selman gave perspective-taking tasks to 30 boys and 30 girls aged 4-6 years old. A significant positive correlation was found between their age and their ability to take different perspectives in scenarios like that of Holly and the kitten from the previous spread.
  • Follow-up longitudinal studies by Gurucharri and Selman 1982, have shown that perspective taking developed with age in each individual child and demonstrates that earlier cross-sectional research by Salman was not simply the result of individual differences in social-cognitive ability. This supports Selman's theory with solid research evidence.
  • Salman's work has applications in understanding atypical development. Development of cognitive ability and seeing things from a range of perspectives appears to be important in a typical development. Research has demonstrated that children with ADHD and on the autistic spectrum have problems with being able to perspective take. Research by Marton et al (2009) found that when comparing fifty 8-12 year old children with ADHD to a control group, those with ADHD did worse on perspective-taking tasks and understanding the scenarios. They also struggled with identifying the feelings of each person involved and evaluating the consequences of different actions. This supports Selman's work because it demonstrates it's in usefulness understanding atypical development.
  • Perspective taking has real-world practical applications as a means to resolve conflict. Walker and Selman (1998) used perspective taking to reduce aggression levels by getting individuals to empathise with the feelings and viewpoints of other people. Selman's theory also has practical applications in physical education, as it can be used to ascertain the ages of which children are able to understand the viewpoints of others within competitive team sports. For example, there is little point in trying to teach team sports to children before they are less egocentric can appreciate other peoples viewpoints.

Theory of Mind

Theory of mind was first coined by Premack and Woodruff (1978) and was defined as the ability to attribute mental states, knowledge, wishes, feelings and beliefs to oneself and other people. Examples of theory of mind in humans can be seen in expressions of language where one persons mental state is referred to, such as, "I think they may be upset" by an individual.

A key concept of this theory is the understanding that other people have feelings, desires, beliefs and their own mind that may be different to our own. Research into the theory of mind suggests this ability is not present at birth and develops over time. 

Theory of mind is investigated by presenting children with false belief tasks. This involves them witnessing a scene and then being asked to interpret it from the viewpoint of one of the characters in the scene. If children are able to do this, they are seen as having developed Theory of Mind. Research indicates children from around the age of four give egocentric responses and have a false belief that shows they have not developed Theory of Mind. At the age of six years of age, most children are able to perform the task and display Theory of Mind.

Key Study: Heinz Wimmer and Joseph Perner (1983) conducted the first false belief task to test whether children can understand that people can believe something that was not true.

They told 3-4 year old children a story in which Maxi left his chocolate in a blue cupboard in the kitchen and then went to the playground. Later, maxi's mother used some of the chocolate in her cooking, placing the remainder in a green cupboard. The children were then questioned where Maxi would look for his chocolate when he came back from the playground. Most of the three-year-olds incorrectly said that Maxi would look in the green cupboard suggesting they could not see things from 'Maxi's perspective' as he would not know to look here. However, most of the 4 year old children correctly identified the blue cupboard which suggests that theory of mind goes through a shift and becomes more advanced at around the age of four.

Theory of Mind as an Explanation For Autism

One typical characteristic of individuals that have autism is that they find social interaction difficult, and this may be explained by their inability to understand the mental states of other people and predict, and adjust to, their behaviours.

Baron-Cohen adapted the Maxi study into a test that involves two dolls called the Sally-Anne Test.

Simon Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) - The Sally-Anne Test

Baron-Cohen et al (1985) tested false beliefs using a task called the Sally-Anne task. Children were told a story that involve two dolls called Sally and Anne. In the story, Sally place is a marble in her basket however when she is not looking, and moves the mobile into her box. The task for the children is then to work out where Sally will look for her mobile. In this scenario Sally does not know that and has moved her mobile and requires an understanding of Sally's fault belief about where it is.

Procedure: The study involved three groups of children: 20 children that had autism with a mean age of approx 12 years, 14 children with Down's syndrome of a similar chronological age but lower mental age, and 27 "normal" children with a mean age of approximately 4.5 years old. All the children were asked some control questions such as "where is the mobile really?" just to check that they had seen what had happened. They were then asked the 'belief' question about where Sally thought the marble was.

The Sally-Anne Test - Simon Baron-Cohen et al. (1985)

Findings: 85% of the "normal" children answered the false belief question correctly. This was also true for the children with Down syndrome, which demonstrated that theory of mine was not linked to low intelligence. Only 20% of the children with autism however, answered this question correctly.

Additional Research: Baron-Cohen et al. (1997) posed the question of whether high-functioning individuals that were on the autism spectrum might have Theory of Mind. To test this, a new task was created known as the Eyes Task. In this task, individuals were shown pictures of peoples eyes and asked to select one of the two emotions they might be expressing, such as attraction or repulsion, or interested versus disinterested. The reasoning for this test was that adults that had autism were able to pass the Sally-Anne task.

Results found that adults that were on the autistic spectrum had a mean average score of 16.3 compared to 'normal' participants who had a mean score of 20.3 out of a maximum of 25. The ranges of scores were fairly similar with the autism range being 13-23 and the 'normal' range being 16-25. This suggested that in general there was an impairment in individuals that had autism.

Theory of Mind Evaluation

  • There is research evidence that suggests that theory of mind is not completely determined by biology. Research studies show that it is evident in children from large families (Perner et al. 1994). The presence of other family members and older siblings would challenge a child to think about the feelings of others when tackling conflicts. This is in line with other research that has shown that discussion about motives and mental states promotes the development of theory of mind (Sabbath and Callanan, 1998).
  • Cross-cultural studies such as Liu et al. (2004) compared over 300 Chinese and North American children in terms of theory of mind and found a similar sequence of development across both groups, but the timing differed by as much as two years in different communities. This supports the role of both biological and environmental factors as theory of mind appeared in both cultures (supporting biological causes) and environmental because the timing appeared to differ dependent on the social environment.
  • Theory of mind as an explanation for autism has two key issues. The first is that if children with autism actually do lack a theory of mind, this should be a central aspect of the condition however this is not the case and research shows that only some individuals lack this. The second issue is whether theory of mind is a cause or effect linked to autism. Children with autism may not acquire a fully developed theory of mind potentially because their condition may prevent them communicating or engaging with others. The abnormal language development, lack of social skills and other factors linked to autism may mean they do not have the appropriate experiences that lead to theory of mine to develop rather than an inherent lack causing the poor social interaction.
  • Another criticism of theory of mind is it is hard to distinguish it from perspective-taking. Perspective taking is the cognitive ability to view social situations from another persons perspective whereas theory of mind is the ability to understand mental state in others and two appear to be similar in related cognitive abilities. The issue is many of the measures used to study theory of mind could simply be measures of perspective taking, for example, the Sally-Anne task. This task could be explained in terms of the child's ability to take Sally's perspective. Additionally, performance on theory of mind tasks helped distinguish children on the autistic spectrum however, the same is true of perspective-taking tasks to (Rehfeldt et al. 2007)

The Role of Mirror Neurons

Mirror neurons are special brain cells distributed in several sections of the brain. Mirror neurons are unique because they fire both in response to personal action and in response to action by others. These special neurons are believed to be involved in social cognition including processes such as empathy, understanding intention, perspective-taking and theory of mind as well as allowing us to interpret emotion in others.

Mirror neurons were accidentally discovered in the 1990s by Professor Giacomo Rizzolatti and colleagues from the University of Parma, Italy. They discovered that when monkeys reached for food, neurons began to fire off in the premotor cortex of monkeys that were observing this action. The same neurons were then active if the monkey imitated the action itself.

The system that had been discovered was at the most basic level, how one person imitates another. The actions of mirror neurons is such that when an individual experiences a certain emotion such as disgust for example, or views an expression of disgust on another persons face, the same motor neurons are activated. This allows an observer and person being observed to have direct experiential understanding of each other, which explains how people empathise with each other (understand one another's feelings). Before this mechanism was discovered, psychologists believed individuals used logical thought processes to interpret and predict behaviour of others, but the discovery of mirror neurons suggest the possibility that humans understand each other not by thinking but by feeling. In short, mirror neurons allow individuals to simulate the peoples behaviour, motivation and feeling behind their behaviour.

Vittoria Gallese and Alvin Goldman (1998) suggested that mirror neurons respond not just to observed actions but true intentions behind behaviour too. Rather than the commonly accepted view that we interpret peoples actions with reference to our memory, Gallese and Goldman suggested that we simulate the actions of others in our motor system and experience the intentions using our memory neurons.

Mirror neurons have also been linked to other social-cognitive functions including theory of mind and the ability to perspective-take. Mirror neurons fire in response to the actions and intentions of others and this may give us a neural mechanism for experiencing and understanding other peoples perspectives and emotional states. In the same way that we are able to simulate intention by making judgements based on our own reflected motor responses, the same mechanism may allow us to interpret what others are thinking and feeling.

Mirro neurons have also been linked to shaping human evolution. Vilayanur Ramachandran (2011) suggests the complex social interactions we have as humans require a brain system that facilitates an understanding of intention, emotion and perspective. The absence of these cognitive abilities would mean we would not be able to live in large groups with complex social rules and rules that characterise human culture. Ramachandran argues that mirror neurons are fundamentally key in understanding the way humans have developed as a social species.

Language acquisition has also been linked to mirror neurons. Language is a key part of social behaviour, and mirror neurons may play a role in its development as the use of language involves the imitation of speech sounds (Rizzolatti and Arbib, 1998). Evidence in support of a link between language and mirror neurons comes from Binkofski et al. (2000). Brain imaging techniques have found evidence of motor neurons in Broca's area which is an area of the brain involved in speech production and is the human equivalent of the same area where motor neurons were found in macaque monkeys.

Evaluating The Role of Mirror Neurons

  • There is research evidence to support the role of mirror neurons in human social cognition. Haker et al. (2012) demonstrated how an area of the brain that is rich in mirror neurons is involved in contagious yawning which is seen as a simple example of human empathy (the ability to perceive mental states in others). Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) was used to assess brain activity in participants while they were stimulated to yawn by being presented a film that showed other people yawning. When the participants yawned in response, considerable activity in the Brodmann's area, an area located in the right frontal lobe and believed to be rich in mirror neurons was activated.
  • A criticism of motor neuron research is it is difficult to study them in humans. Evidence for mirror neuron activity comes from brain scanning, which identifies activity levels in parts of the brain. Such brain scanning such as fMRI techniques do not allow us to measure activity within individual brain cells and for ethical reasons it is not appropriate to insert electrodes into the human brain to measure activity on the cellular level. This is a significant weakness of mirror neuron research as researchers are often measuring activity in a part of the brain and inferring that this is linked to activity in mirror neurons.
  • Hickok (2009) argued that if research showed increased activity in motor neurons when observing the actions of others, then damage to motor neuron areas should result in deficits in performance. Research by Tranel et al (2003) suggest this is true and found patients with damage to the left premotor area of the brain could identify pictures of motor actions but not retrieve the words for the actions. This demonstrates that destruction of the motor neuron areas of the brain does lead to action deficits.
  • There is research support for motor neurons explaining autism. Williams et al. (2001) argued that motor neuron abnormalities may underlie the fact that people with autism generally have difficulty copying actions and various studies have supported this. For example, Dapretto et al. (2006) used brain-scanning techniques to observe parts of the brain used by autistic and non-autistic children when observing faces that displayed anger, fear, happiness, sadness or no emotion. The only difference identified was that the participants with autism showed reduced activity in a portion of the inferior frontal gyrus. This is a section of the brain that has been identified as part of the motor neuron system. Slack (2007) argues this presents real-world applications as it might therefore be possible to help autistic individuals through strengthening the motor neurons using activities that require the imitation of others.
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