Adolescent Cognitive Development

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In adolescence, brain changes interact with knowledge, social demands, and experience to affect cognitive development. Generally, to explain cognitive development in humans’ developmental stages, scholars have proposed various learning theories. Jean Piaget put forward the structural cognitive-developmental theory explaining how children acquire the ability to think and reason. Similarly, Erick Erickson laid out the Psychosocial Theory of Development, a modification of Sigmund Freud’s Psychosexual theory, emphasizing human development’s social instead of sexual nature (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). This paper focuses on adolescents’ cognitive development, laying out the strengths and weaknesses of Piaget’s and Erickson’s theoretical perspectives. One can be in two different cognitive development stages and various capacities of the corresponding phases during the adolescent-young adult transition because cognition is a continuum.

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Summary of Cognitive Theorists Analysis’ Elements

Regarding cognitive development during the adolescent-young adulthood transition, Piaget’s notion of cognitive development asserts that people gain the ability to test hypotheses and think about symbolic concepts logically. Mental growth during adolescence is the foundation of Piaget’s formal operational stage. This phase begins at about age twelve and extends into adulthood. According to Piaget, adolescents start to manipulate concepts and ideas independent of concrete influence mentally; thus, adolescents can think abstractly (McLeod, 2018). Moreover, young adults can solve mathematical problems, think creatively, and envision particular actions’ outcomes. All these thinking abilities culminate in hypothetico-deductive reasoning, the capacity to think scientifically by formulating predictions about issues to answer questions.

Conversely, Erick Erickson’s Psychosocial Development Stages attributes adolescent cognitive growth to the adolescents’ search for self-identity by exploring personal values and goals. Adolescents’ cognitive development corresponds to Erickson’s Identity vs. Role Confusion stage, which begins at age twelve through to eighteen. According to Erickson’s theory, teens’ must work out the complexities of deciphering their identity (Upreti, 2017). Adolescents must take a stance on appearance, sexuality, vocational choices, interests, and personality. During adolescence, teenagers undergo a psychological moratorium, which allows them to try different identities. Thus, gaining fidelity to one’s identified sense of self through reconsidering patents’ and society’s values lead to identity achievement. Those teens who successfully establish a definite sense of self grow into confident adults who can freely associate with others.

Jean Piaget’s vs. Erick Erickson’s Approaches

Piagetian theory infers adolescents’ cognitive development as a biological and an evolutionary adaptive process, while Erickson’s notion associates adolescents’ intellectual growth with identity achievement. Piaget’s cognitive development theory provides that adolescents’ cerebral growth proceeds through the combined workings of assimilation, accommodation, and organization, which are biological processes (McLeod, 2018). Assimilation allows the relation of new data to older forms of understanding, while accommodation enables the superimposition of older apprehension structures into new ones when an external problem arises. This integration of old and new understanding forms leads to the organization of cognition into procedures, categories, and rules, leading to logical, unified operations. On the contrary, Erickson’s Psychosocial Theory considers that adolescents’ intellectual advancement results from facing the issue of Identity vs. Role Confusion. Therefore, discovering their true selves allows them to develop a strong sense of identity.

Despite the stark contrast between the cognitive mechanisms suggested by each of these theories, they share their inability to give an all-encompassing approach to adolescents’ cognitive development. Piaget’s theory fundamentally proposes that adolescents’ intellectual growth is entirely due to maturation processes (McLeod, 2018). This stand ignores the role of environmental conditions in shaping cognitive-development progression sequence. Moreover, many adults or adolescents do not always show the typical formal operational thinking; instead, they tend to think associatively rather than logically. Comparatively, Erickson’s theory declares that identity development is established by the end of adolescence but may continue to evolve in adulthood (Upreti, 2017). However, it does not specify the nature of this evolution, and also fails to recognize that identity development continues throughout adulthood. As in adolescence, ideologues, vocations, and relationships remain significant in adulthood identity development.

Adolescence vs. Early Adulthood Cognitive Development

While Piaget’s theory ascribes adolescents’ difficulties in performing Adolescent-Piagetian tasks to their limited capacity to reason, Erickson’s theory blames this inability on failure to gain fidelity to one’s identity. Piaget noted that some adolescents experienced difficulties solving the pendulum problem, an adolescent cognitive assessment task. To explain this difficulty, Piaget suggested insufficient development of inductive and deductive reasoning (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). The former requires one to start on a premise, a general idea, and apply it to the situation in question. Conversely, the latter uses a few particular assumptions to offer a broader overarching conclusion. Unlike Piaget’s notion, Erickson’s theory attributes to the difficulties adolescents experience in Piagetian-like tasks’ performance, a poor sense of self (Upreti, 2017). Therefore, failure to self-identity leads to role confusion, where the adolescent questions their essential personality characteristics and their perception of others. More scientifically grounded views attribute these adolescent difficulties to psychomotor incoordination and inadequate working memory capacity.

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While Piaget’s formal operations characterize cognitive development in adolescents, early adulthood cognitive development is defined by post-formal processes. The standard functions in adolescent cognitive development allow thinking about theoretical concepts and abstract ideas. Furthermore, the teens develop hypothetico-deductive reasoning, a type of scientific thinking whereby they form hypotheses to explain the world’s workings (McLeod, 2018). On the other hand, the post-formal operations that define early adulthood cognitive development offer an understanding of various perspectives. Post-formal thought is more practical, individualistic, and realistic than formal operational thinking (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Moreover, individuals become more logical, flexible, and willing to accept different intellectual and moral complexities. This stage of human cognitive development is amenable to Piaget’s cognitive development theory as far as thinking of abstract ideas is concerned. Some young adults go beyond relativistic thinking to develop dialectical thought, which allows for reconciling important aspects of two differing viewpoints.

Both adolescents’ and young adults’ cognitive growth demonstrate self-reflective thinking and recognize knowledge as relative. Young adults and adolescents show introspective thinking, which applies unfamiliar intellectual sophistication to the developing awareness of personal thinking processes, dispositions, cognitive biases, and metacognition. Adolescents’ cognitive development is also characterized by egocentrism, which is expressed through an imaginary audience (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). The teens believe that they are other people’s center of attention like they are themselves. Besides, they peddle a personal fable where they assume their experiences as unique from others’. In reverse, those in middle adulthood reveal crystallized and fluid intelligence forms. The former depends on accumulated experience and knowledge, while the latter depends on basic information processing techniques, which slows with increasing age.


Piaget’s cognitive development theory and Erickson’s psychosocial theory are useful in explaining cognitive development in adolescents. Paget’s formal operational stage describes adolescents’ cognitive development as characterized by abstract thinking and theoretical conceptions. Oppositely, Erickson’s identity vs. role confusion emphasizes the importance of gaining fidelity through identity achievement in producing confident adults. Furthermore, these lifespan development theories enable an understanding of different cognitive development processes in adolescents and young adults. This understanding allows the recognition and appreciation of the stark differences between adolescents’ operational stage and young adults’ post-formal operations.


McLeod, S. (2018). Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Simply Psychology.

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Mossler, R. A., & Ziegler, M. (2016). Understanding development: A lifespan perspective, B&W. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education, Inc.

Upreti, R. A. S. H. M. I. (2017). Identity construction: An important issue among adolescents. Journal of Humanities and Social Sciences, 22(6), 54-57.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Adolescent Cognitive Development'. 1 June.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Adolescent Cognitive Development." June 1, 2022.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Adolescent Cognitive Development." June 1, 2022.


PsychologyWriting. "Adolescent Cognitive Development." June 1, 2022.