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Adolescence, 6/e
Laurence Steinberg, Temple University

The Fundamental Changes of Adolescence
Cognitive Transitions

Chapter Outline

  1. Changes in Cognition
    • Adolescents think in ways that are more advanced, efficient, and effective
    1. Thinking about possibilities
      • Unlike children, adolescents' thinking is not necessarily tied to concrete events.
      • For the adolescent, reality is only one aspect of "possible realities."
      • Children have fantasies and imaginations, but adolescents can manipulate their thoughts in a way that allows them to generate possibilities and compare fantasies (possibilities) with likely future scenarios.
      • Finding solutions to problems involves a more systematic mental manipulation of the pieces of the problem.
      • The ability to think logically and systematically enhances the adolescent's ability in abstract math (e.g., algebra, geometry, trigonometry), biology, chemistry, and physics.
      • This advanced reasoning capacity also allows adolescents to reason in social situations in more complex ways (e.g., teens become more argumentative with parents and peers).
      • Adolescents develop the ability to think about hypotheses and plan for future consequences of their and others' actions.
      • Teens can also suspend their own beliefs and argue from another's or an abstract point of view (e.g., playing "devil's advocate").
      • Teens develop a cognitive skill called deductive reasoning. It is the ability to draw logical conclusions based on a set of facts, or premises.
      • Deductive reasoning is different than inductive reasoning. This is the ability to draw a conclusion based on accumulated evidence. Unlike deductive reasoning solutions, inductive solutions are not necessarily correct. Inductive reasoning is used by children, adolescents, and adults.
      • Adolescence is also when hypothetical thinking emerges. This is using what one knows and anticipating an outcome based on logic.
      • This allows adolescents to suspend beliefs and argue or think about what is possible.
      • Hypothetical thinking allows the teen to take the perspective of others and think what other people might be thinking.
      • This plays an important role in decision-making skills, as it allows the teen to foresee consequences before they occur.
    2. Thinking about abstract concepts
      • Adolescents can think about things that cannot be directly experienced in a much more advanced way than children.
      • Puns, proverbs, metaphors, and analogies make sense to adolescents in ways that they do not to children.
      • Youth apply abstract thinking to social and ideological issues, such as politics, philosophy, religion, and morality, and the meaning of life, and to social interactions.
    3. Thinking about thinking
      • Thinking about one's thoughts is called metacognition.
      • It includes being aware of thinking, being aware of one's comprehension or learning, and being able to explain one's thoughts to others.
      • Adolescents also become more introspective and self-conscious, and engage in intellectualizations more often.
      • Being more introspective, youth ponder their own emotions.
      • Being more self-conscious, they think about what others might think of them.
      • Engaging in intellectualizations, they think more about their own thoughts.
      • The growth of these abilities can cause the adolescent difficulties, before he or she has gained control over them.
      • Increased introspection can lead to a self-absorbed adolescent (a form of adolescent egocentrism).
      • Adolescents can fall prey to thoughts of an imaginary audience, or thinking that everyone else is aware of and thinking about the adolescent (e.g., "everyone at the baseball stadium will notice how stupid I look in this shirt").
      • They can also experience the personal fable, thinking that one's personal experiences are completely unique ("no one could possibly understand what I'm going through, so why talk about it") or that one has extraordinary gifts and abilities ("I can take this curve faster than anyone else who ever drove").
      • Interestingly, these thought patterns may be as common among adults as they are among adolescents.
    4. Thinking in multiple dimensions
      • Adolescents can think about many different aspects of a situation at once.
      • They understand that most complicated questions or problems have complicated, multifaceted answers.
      • Youth describe themselves and others in more differentiated and complicated terms, which leads social relationships to become more sophisticated.
      • Adolescents understand sarcasm and double entendres in ways children do not.
    5. Adolescent relativism
      • While children tend to see things in "black and white," adolescents tend to see things as relative ("shades of gray").
      • Adolescents may believe that there is nothing that one can be 100% sure of; this may be a transitional mode of thinking on the way to a more sophisticated understanding of what is known versus what is unknown.
  2. Theoretical Perspectives on Adolescent Thinking
    1. The Piagetian view of adolescent thinking
      • This cognitive-developmental view of thinking states that individuals proceed through qualitatively different stages in which thinking changes dramatically from one stage to the next.
      • Piaget's four stages (sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational, and formal operational) span the ages 0-2, 2-7, 7-11, and 11 +, respectively.
      • Piaget believed that both biological maturation and experience with mental tasks influenced cognitive development.
      • The use of propositional logic is a hallmark of formal operations.
      • Propositional logic uses a set of "rules" for solving problems. For example, if A is greater than B, and B is greater than C, then A must be greater than C.
      • Adolescents do not have to be aware of using propositional logic in order to use it effectively.
      1. The growth of formal-operational thinking
        • In early adolescence, individuals may be able to use propositional logic only sporadically (emergent formal operations).
        • The adolescents who eventually develop formal operational abilities typically improve in their use of such thinking in middle to late adolescence.
        • Secure relationships with parents during childhood and receiving explicit instruction in deductive reasoning are associated with higher use of formal operational thinking in adolescence.
        • Distinctions have been made between competence and performance of such mental skills.
        • Competence means what the adolescent can do, while performance means what the adolescent actually does.
        • Performance on reasoning tasks is higher when the tasks have personal relevance to teens.
        • The characteristics of formal operations probably develop more gradually than Piaget described, rather than in a strict stage-like fashion.
      2. The scientific study of adolescence: Separating competence and performance in studies of adolescent reasoning
        • There is a difference between what adolescents can do and what they actually do.
        • Being able to solve relevant problems vs irrelevant problems was only evident for older adolescents (9th and 12th graders), not early adolescents (6th graders).
        • Therefore, there was an interaction between grade and type of task. Results indicated that one factor (task relevance) affected the outcome (performance) only for certain grade levels.
    2. The information-processing (I-P) view of adolescent thinking
      • This view has sought to determine what specific skills develop as a person matures in thinking ability.
      • I-P research breaks down an ability into separate components or steps, and studies each step as a unique skill.
      • I-P theory uses the personal computer as an analogy for how the mind works (e.g., the mind uses programs and subprograms to solve problems and store information).
      1. Changes in information-processing abilities during adolescence
        • Research has focused on five skills: attention, working memory, processing speed, organization, and metacognition.
        • Adolescents have higher abilities than do children in selective attention, or the ability to focus on one stimulus/idea and not be distracted by others.
        • Adolescents also have higher abilities in divided attention, or the ability to think about two or more things at once.
        • Adolescents also have better working memory, or the ability to hold information in one's conscious awareness for brief periods.
        • They also have better long-term memory, or the ability to store and recall information over long time periods.
        • Adolescents also outperform children in how fast they can think, called information processing speed.
        • They also can use organizational strategies better than children (e.g., the use of planful thinking or mnemonic devices to solve problems or store information).
        • They are more capable of remembering that certain mental skills are useful in solving certain kinds of problems (e.g., how to go about remembering a long list of terms).
        • Finally, adolescents are more aware of their own thinking processes than are children.
    3. New directions for theories about adolescent thinking
      • Robbie Case views cognitive changes as following a stage-like progression, but the qualitative differences between stages are better described in I-P terms and skills than in Piaget's more global terms.
      • Case has also argued that changes in mental skills are likely accounted for by physical changes in the brain during the maturation process.
      • Case points to the automatization of thinking that emerges during adolescence (adolescents don't need to consciously think about certain information in order to use it, like children do; performing a task becomes "automatic").
      • Other researchers ask, interestingly, why individual behavior is often so illogical despite the cognitive skills that have developed. It is suggested that we have the ability to switch between the use of logical thinking and "heuristic" thinking. Heuristic thinking is based on past experience, gut feelings, and unconscious processes.
    4. The adolescent brain
      • Through the use of fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) and PET scans (positron emission tomography), scientists have learned much about changes in the structures and functions of the brain during adolescence.
      • Changes in the brain are thought to importantly affect behavioral, emotional, and cognitive changes that emerge during adolescence.
      • Changes in the connections between brain cells (neurons), as well as a possible pruning of connections between brain cells (synapses), especially in the cortex, may cause more efficient and focused information processing.
      • Changes in the amount of neurotransmitters, chemicals that allow neurons to communicate, change during adolescence, especially levels of dopamine and serotonin.
      • Changes in neurotransmitters in the limbic system, a large part of the brain that strongly influences emotions, may make individuals more emotional, more responsive to stress, and less responsive to rewards.
      • Some scientists believe these changes may make adolescents seek higher levels of new, exciting experiences - risky behaviors and drug use.
      • These changes may also make adolescents more susceptible to depression, substance abuse, and mental health problems.
      • Full maturation of the prefrontal cortex is not complete until sometime between adolescence and early adulthood. This part of the brain is in control of planning, decision-making, goal-setting, and metacognition.
      • Synaptic pruning and myelination of neurons in the prefrontal cortex continues throughout adolescence. Myelination of neurons creates an insulation around the cells that allows them to function faster and more efficiently.
  3. Individual Differences in Intelligence in Adolescence
    1. Measuring intelligence
      1. The IQ test
        • Various tests have been created to measure overall intelligence (IQ), such as the Stanford-Binet, the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children, and the Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale.
        • The first widely used IQ test was constructed in 1905 by Alfred Binet in order to determine which French children would benefit from formal schooling versus "special education."
        • IQ tests typically provide scores that reflect an individual's overall ability compared to one's agemates, or cohort.
        • The number 100 is used to indicate an "average" level of intelligence on IQ tests.
        • Modern IQ tests actually provide indications of different types of abilities, such as verbal abilities and performance (non-verbal) abilities.
        • These tests are definitely focused on measuring abilities that individuals use in formal education settings, rather than contexts outside of school.
      2. Sternberg's Triarchic Theory
        • Robert Sternberg has proposed that there are three separate abilities that make up overall intelligence.
        • Componential intelligence involves our ability to acquire, store, and process information ("analytical thinking").
        • Experiential intelligence involves our ability to use insight and creativity ("artistic thinking").
        • Contextual intelligence involves our ability to think in practical terms ("street smarts").
        • All individuals have different levels of each ability.
      3. Gardner's Theory of Multiple Intelligences
        • Howard Gardner has proposed that there are seven types of intelligence: verbal, mathematical, spatial, kinesthetic, self-reflective, interpersonal, and musical.
    2. Intelligence: Test performance in adolescence
      • How stable are IQ scores across different ages?
      • How do the abilities measured by IQ tests improve at different ages?
      • Measurements of stability will always reflect one's scores in relation to agemates, and as such will not necessarily reflect improvements in ability (e.g., if the whole peer group gets "smarter," one's IQ score can basically remain the same).
      • IQ scores are relatively stable; one's overall ability compared to one's agemates is pretty stable over time.
      • However, the level of one's ability usually increases over adolescence; that is, adolescents do typically get "smarter" over time.
      • Recent research indicates that speed of information processing during the first 12 months of life is predictive of IQ scores during adolescence.
      • While most children and adolescents progress "evenly", scoring at approximately the same level relative to one's peers at different ages, others do not follow such a pattern, some rising and some falling compared to their agemates.
      • Overall, mental abilities increase at least until around age 20, when they may level off and remain high throughout early and middle adulthood.
      • These findings support the importance of formal education on intellectual ability.
      1. The SAT
        • The scholastic aptitude test measures overall academic accomplishment.
        • It is used to predict the likelihood of success in college.
        • It is a good, but not perfect, predictor of college success.
        • Colleges therefore do not rely solely on SAT scores to make acceptance decisions.
        • SAT math scores are better predictors of success in college math classes for males than for females.
        1. The sexes: Are there differences in mental abilities at adolescence (anymore)?
          • Research decades ago indicated that significant gender differences in intelligence emerged during adolescence.
          • This research claimed that females emerged with higher verbal abilities, while males emerged with higher mathematical abilities.
          • It was suggested that hormonal differences were a major influence on such discrepancies.
          • Some also argued that the faster maturation of girls hindered the development of mathematical/spatial abilities in females.
          • A third explanation, which has received the most support, states that males and females are "shaped" in different ways by people and society, so that males are encouraged in the "hard sciences" while females are encouraged in "soft sciences" or language arts (e.g., English, foreign language).
          • Recent research has shown that adolescents' abilities are related more strongly to experiences, such as course selection, rather than gender.
          • More recent gender studies have found males' and females' abilities to be more similar than were found decades ago, pointing to changes in sex roles and educational opportunities that have taken place in industrialized cultures.
          • The only remaining gender difference is in spatial ability, and even this difference seems to be diminishing in recent years.
    3. Culture and intelligence
      • Lev Vygotsky was a Russian psychologist who emphasized the broader social context in which cognitive development takes place.
      • Cultures are different with regard to the expectations and opportunities for intelligent thought.
      • Each culture demands that children and adolescents develop certain cognitive abilities.
      • Vygotsky argued that individuals progress best when the challenges they face are not too easy, not too hard, but moderately challenging - a level he called the zone of proximal development.
      • Individual instruction offered by a more experienced other to a student that leads to cognitive improvement is called scaffolding.
      • When intelligence is assessed using instruments that do not apply to the context in which individuals have been raised, those instruments may be called "culturally-biased."
      • Some argue that the differences between Caucasian and minority test scores in the U.S. reflect the fact that standardized tests have been constructed to measure the things that Caucasian individuals have had experience with.
      • Culture-fair tests have been developed in an attempt to overcome this testing bias.
  4. Adolescent Thinking in Context
    1. Changes in social cognition
      • Thinking about people, social relationships, and social institutions
      • Understanding of social relationships becomes more mature and complex
      1. Impression formation
        • Impressions of others become more differentiated (people all have different, specific qualities).
        • Impressions become less egocentric (recognizing that one's own impression of someone is just one, and one biased, view of that person).
        • Impressions become more abstract (based on attitudes and motives, rather than appearance or behaviors).
        • Adolescents make greater use of inferences (make assumptions, based on evidence, of another's internal characteristics).
        • Impressions are more highly organized (seeing connections between another's traits and their settings or experiences).
        • These gains in impression formation signal the emergence of an implicit personality theory - an idea of why people are the way they are.
      2. Social perspective taking
        • Taking the view of others
        • Adolescents are more capable of seeing things through the eyes of another.
        • During early adolescence, according to Robert Selman, individuals can engage in mutual role taking (thinking of a situation as an objective "third party," "seeing both sides of the coin").
        • In middle or late adolescence, individuals understand that everyone's perspective is very complicated, sometimes unconscious, and influenced by many factors.
      3. Conceptions of morality and social convention
        • Children tend to see moral rules as absolutes.
        • Adolescents, however, tend to question rules and believe that morals are subjective.
        • Understanding social conventions (rules that govern social behavior) changes.
        • In the adolescent's mind, conventions are merely expectations, not absolutes.
        • Adolescents often see conventions as "rules for rules' sake" which need not be obeyed.
        • Gradually, adolescents come to see the value of conventions for regulating behavior and encouraging cooperation between people.
    2. Adolescent risk taking
      • A recent study showed that 16% of high school students rarely or never use a seatbelt; 80% of boys and 60% of girls take unnecessary risks while skateboarding or riding bicycles; more than 1/3 have been passengers in cars driven by intoxicated drivers; 2/3 of sixth graders have experimented with alcohol.
      • What are the reasons adolescents engage in risky behaviors?
      • Behavioral decision theory analyzes the different elements of the decision-making process.
      • Research demonstrates that adolescents use adult-like cognitive processes when faced with a decision.
      • Adolescents do not feel more invulnerable to negative consequences of bad decisions than adults.
      • Adolescents and adults, however, may evaluate consequences differently.
      • Many adolescents may not feel that the costs of risky behavior are as serious as many adults do (e.g., contracting a STD by having unprotected sex).
      • Individuals who have higher needs for sensation seeking may be more likely to engage in risky behaviors.
      • Sensation seeking may be higher during adolescence than childhood and adulthood.
      • Adolescents are more likely to accept faulty reasoning or shaky evidence when they agree with the substance of an argument than when disagree.
      • Adolescents may also be more likely to engage in risky behavior because they spend so much time in contexts without adult supervision and the adult opinions or feedback they would receive regarding decisions.
    3. Adolescent thinking in the classroom
      • Evidence of critical thinking in the classroom does not match what developmentalists believe adolescents are capable of.
      • Critics suggest that schools rarely promote such thinking.
      • Give-and-take discussions may account for less than 10% of classroom time in school.
      • Others believe that schools should specifically aim to improve specific information processing skills (such as attention, organization, and memory).