Adulthood: Cognitive Development

Piaget believed that formal operational thinking was the fourth and final stage of cognitive development. He argued that adults simply use formal operations in new and more complex ways, and do not develop new modes of thinking.

Other theorists proposed a fifth stage of cognitive development called postformal thought, in which people can reason logically about opposing points of view and accept contradictions and irreconcilable differences. Postformal thinkers realize that life involves many interacting factors, and, when reasoning about social problems, are more likely to acknowledge opposing points of view and see both sides of a disagreement as having legitimate arguments.

Information Processing and Memory

Information processing skills decline steadily after reaching one’s thirties.

Perceptual speed (reaction time) declines steadily after the mid-thirties, so that it takes older adults longer to visually identify and evaluate stimuli.

Memory for new factual information declines during adulthood, making it harder for older adults to remember new series of numbers, names and faces, etc.

Recall declines more strongly than recognition, because recall requires more processing resources.

Certain types of verbal memory show less of a decline with aging. The ability to repeat just-heard sentences decreases more slowly than the ability to repeat single, unrelated words. Healthy elderly adults also do well in recalling personal events and recognizing familiar stimuli from long ago.

Intellectual Changes

Fluid intelligence reflects the ability to perform mental operations (such as abstract reasoning, solving logic problems, and mentally rotating objects). Crystallized intelligence reflects the accumulation of verbal skills and factual knowledge.

Longitudinal data show that many intellectual abilities do not begin to decline reliably until late adulthood, but that certain fluid abilities (such as reasoning and spatial ability) begin to decline at a somewhat earlier age than crystallized intelligence (such as verbal abilities). Many older adults retain the intellectual capacity to learn, and the act of remaining intellectually and physically active may help slow the age decline of some cognitive functions.

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