Adolescence: Cognitive Development

Adolescence brings a new level of maturity that enables teens to reason abstractly and reflect more deeply on their own and others’ thoughts.

Abstract Reasoning Abilities

Piaget proposed that the final stage of cognitive development, formal operational thinking, is attained during adolescence. Adolescents can more easily contemplate abstract and hypothetical issues, including scientific problems and questions about social justice and the meaning of life. They can reason more flexibly and creatively than concrete thinkers, and use both deductive and inductive problem-solving methods. They think more systematically and know to manipulate each variable while holding the others constant in a scientific experiment.

While the capacity for abstract reasoning increases substantially during adolescence, task performance partly depends on formal schooling and exposure to scientific-abstract tasks. Even with formal education, however, many adolescents and adults still struggle at formal operational tasks. Some people rarely use abstract reasoning during their life.

Social Thinking

Particularly in their early teens, adolescents can be highly self-focused in their thinking.

David Elkind proposes that this adolescent egocentrism has two main parts:

1. Personal fable: Adolescents overestimate the uniqueness of their feelings and experiences, thinking such thoughts as, “My parents can’t possibly understand how I really feel” and “Nobody’s ever felt love as deeply as ours.”

2. Imaginary audience: Adolescents have an oversensitivity to social evaluation and feel that they are always “on stage” and that “Everybody’s going to notice” how they look and what they do.

Adolescents who think more egocentrically tend to be more depressed and are more likely to underestimate the negative consequences of risky behaviors, such as drunk driving, sex without contraception, and using drugs. Some researchers believe that adolescent egocentrism is an outgrowth of the search for individuality and independence, and may be as much a social phenomenon as a cognitive one.

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