Psychological Theories: Kohlberg’s Theory, Bandura’s Theory

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The strengths and challenges to Kohlberg’s theory

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development is a simplistic model which is based on the premise that moral development is intrinsically linked to cognitive development, thus loosely associated with age. The theory suggests that there are three stages of moral development, preconvention, conventional, and postconventional, with each having two distinct substages. Kohlberg suggests that everyone goes through the stages sequentially, with stage development occurring when an individual notices inadequacy of coping with moral questions. In simple terms, at the preconventional level morality is externally controlled by authority figures. In the conventional stage, sense of morality is also tied to external authority but in order to maintain positive personal and societal relationships. Finally, in the postconventional stage, morality is defined in personal and abstract terms, with the individual seeing that rules can be unjust and should change. Overall, Kohlberg was less concerned about the morality of a certain action but the reasoning of the individual behind it, although he did suggest moral development and behavior are tied.

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The strengths to Kohlberg’s theory are that he advances the previous Pliaget’s cognitive development theory and was the first to essentially codify development of moral reasoning in a similar fashion to Piaget with cognitive development. Despite the numerous criticisms, various studies confirm that children in various cultures do progress through the preconventional stage of selfish behavior to conventional stages of more caring and moral behavior. This is seen in the study by Sigelman and Waitzman (1991) studying distributive justice orientations in children. While young children allocated resources equally regardless of the situation because they were told to do by society, older children adapted to the context of the situation and distributed resources appropriately. It is a directly correlation to Kohlberg’s theory since morality plays an inherent part in distributive justice and related decision-making. The theory also contributed to the study of human development since Kohlberg observed the subjects’ moral reasoning over time. He was able to identify the difference that perspective contributes to questions of moral development, therefore human development is linked significantly to the advancement of moral reasoning. Kohlberg believed that the development of moral thought can aid individuals in understanding societal norms.

However, Kohlberg’s theory has also faced significant criticism, ranging from methods he used to the very nature of the theory. There is the emphasis that there is an inherent difference between moral reasoning and action, and the fact that Kohlberg overemphasizes justice in the morality of choices when a multitude of other factors are involved such as compassion and caring. It is believed that the theory overemphasizes Western values over more collectivist Eastern beliefs, and also the application of Kohlberg’s dilemma is not correct to be used with children who have no experience, or even idea of marriage and romantic love, laws, economics, and other strictly adult experiences influencing the scenario.

One of the challenges of primary challenges to Kohlberg’s theory is that it only focuses on one domain of moral reasoning which is moral judgement. This led to the rise of Turiel’s Domain Theory which suggests that there is a key difference between a child developing concepts of morality and social knowledge such as social conventions. Children as early as 5 years old can distinguish between moral imperatives, social conventions, and matters of personal choice. Therefore, Turiel presents three domains of knowledge which are the moral, the societal, and the psychological. He suggests children separate moral from conventional matters through experience by observing that people respond differently to breaking of moral rules than that of violating social conventions.

The contributions that Gilligan and Noddings made toward theories of moral development and moral psychology

Both Gilligan and Noddings criticized major theories in development psychology to be male-centric, never including females in their research samples which reflected core biases and narrow sexism. Gilligan argued that there are persistent differences between sexes when it came to moral behaviors, with males choosing abstract voice of rights and justice while females preferred a contextual voice of care. Noddings similarly believed that the approach to ethics is inherently masculine with the rational-cognitive approach, and the principles and proposition aspect is fallacious. Similarly, she suggests that ethics is based in care and memory of being cared for. While logic is important, her approach is based in concepts of receptivity, relatedness, and responsiveness. Overall, Gillian and Noddings created a branch of developmental and ethical psychology known as care-focused feminism, also known as gender feminism which is driven by ethics of care to shift the paradigm of moral theory to include relationships and emotions that are key elements of the human condition and are more likely to be displayed by females in moral dilemmas.

Gilligan presented the original Kohlberg Heinz dilemma to both a boy and girl, finding distinct differences. The male argued that it was an issue of rights, the conflict of property and life which can be decided logically by calculation that life is more important than value. Meanwhile, the female viewed the issue from a relationship perspective over time, suggesting that stealing the drug would result in a jail term that would not allow Heinz to continue taking care of his wife if she got sick again. Gilligan suggests that females see themselves in terms of relationships with others, while males view themselves as separate from others. The female perspective offers the basis of ethics of care. In ethical dilemmas, men focus primarily on justice while women on care. Gilligan presented 3 levels of care which include: 1) orientation of individual survival; 2) goodness as self-sacrifice; and 3) morality of nonviolence. It represents a transition in moral development from selfishness to responsibility (goodness) for others to moral equivalence (truth) between self and others. Gilligan’s work is a major contribution to increasing awareness that care is a vital component of moral reasoning.

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At the same time, Noddings explores deeply the principles of ethics through caring. The foundation of any ethical response according to Noddings is through caring or memory of being cared for which is ingrained in all human beings. She identifies two types of caring which are natural caring that does not require effort to motivate it, and ethical caring, which is a state of receptivity and relatedness. In an ethical situation, caring about (in other words a sense of justice) must be established so that conditions for caring for can occur. Caring is not just an emotion but a model of behavior, but it can be taught and demonstrated through dialogue and practice. In conclusion, Noddings’ contribution was the emphasis on the ethics of care, suggesting that justice and ethical decision-making is based in the context of the individual caring about, and potentially caring for others’ well-being. Nurturing this capacity is vital to the ethical ideal of both individual and society.

Bandura’s theory and its relation to moral development

As a premise, Bandura suggests that children acquire moral judgement al standards through observation of live and symbolic models through interactions with various socialization agents in a culture, including family, society, peers, and others. The child does not passively react, but consistently processes information to decide which judgmental and behavioral alternatives serve the best interest in various contexts. Bandura’s theory of moral disengagement suggests that everyone is virtuous abstractly, and it is the ease of moral disengagement in life circumstances is where morality is determined. Notably moral disengagement is built into societal, authority, and governance structures such as moral justification, diffusion and displacement of responsibility, dehumanization, comparison, blaming, and others. These are moral disengagement mechanisms which are used to justify ultimately immoral actions, they are self-exonerations. Moral standards are meant to be adopted as guides for behavior and preventing detrimental activities which violate their internal (and often societal) moral standards. However, going back to the critique of Kohlman’s theory, moral standards are not a guaranteed regulator for moral conduct. Therefore, humans utilize psychological manipulations to morally disengage to prevent from self-censure in committing the immoral conduct.

Therefore, Bandura took the concept of moral agency commonly studied in moral development and transferred it from thought to behavior. Moral development is consistently studied in abstract principles of morality according to Bandura. Those who choose to engage in delinquent conduct, including children, often share the same abstract moral values as the “good” people. However, those who engage in immoral behavior like violence and delinquency are “facile moral disengagers” – regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic influences. A study by Hyde et al. (2010) suggests that moral disengagement may represent a cognitive mediator between early risk indicators and subsequent antisocial behavior in children. Moral disengagement does not suddenly occur since after all, children are information processers, the process of occurs gradually through childhood with the social-cognitive learning model, including factors such as parenting and familial environment, to the environment in which they live in (neighborhood), to social information (cognitive) and concepts of empathy. In troubled youth, moral disengagement will occur around the age of 14-15 at which point they would accept and adopt attitudes and beliefs that are consistent with such moral agency.

Bandura, Ross, and Ross (1961) conducted what is known as the bobo doll experiment targeted at determining if social behaviors such as aggression can be acquired by observation and imitation. They tested both girls and boys aged 3-6. The children were rated on their aggression level based on everyday behavior and put into three equal groups. One group was provided with an aggressive role model, another non-aggressive role model, and another was the control group with no model. The adult models behaved differently in relation to a bobo doll toy. All children were then subjected to mild aggression arousal by upsetting them that they could not play with certain toys. The children were then taken to a separate room with aggressive and nonaggressive toys, and their behavior recorded. Results showed that children who observed the aggressive model of behavior were much more aggressive in their responses. Although the experiment was aimed at supporting Bandura’s social learning theory, it has an association with moral development under moral disengagement. It becomes evident that children seeing consistent moral disengagement in their immediate and social environment acquire similar attitudes, even once they develop a cognitive understanding of morality and social expectations regarding immorality and delinquency.

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Martin Hoffman’s conceptualization of the “empathy”

Martin Hoffman’s research focuses on the affective and emotive response in moral development in contrast to Kohlman’s cognitive reasoning approach. He argues that empathy is an evolutionary trait, with some individuals having more empathic capacity. Empathy directly correlates with the emotional side of morality and influence on moral behavior, reflective of some of the ethics of care models proposed by Gilligan and Noddings. The overview of Hoffman’s concept is not whether something is morally right and cognitively justified moral judgment, but whether it is morally good with the focus on the moral feeling and affective sources of moral motivation.

Hoffman defines empathy as a “spark of human concern for others” – a cohesive for society and the foundation of prosocial morality. It is the ability to relate to another’s emotion by feeling in, for, or with their emotional state. In the context of moral development, Hoffman argues that empathetic responsiveness develops from an early age as people resonate with basic affective states of others, and as people grow up, other factors contribute to enrich (or potentially stun) the growth of empathic predisposition.

Hoffman identifies two modes of empathic arousal – basic modes and higher modes. Basic modes are usually involuntary, on a primitive level, include mimicry, conditioning, and direct association. Higher modes are reflective of fully fledged empathy which takes the basic modes and builds on them with cognitive modes of arousal and use of language via verbally mediated association and social perspective taking. Verbal association is empathy experienced via language for a person’s affective state. Meanwhile, social perspective indicates imagining one in another’s place, thus cognitively taking upon the influencing factors that may affect their emotional state. Hoffman’s hypothesis is that the biologically pre-attuned human ability for empathic distress to feel other people’s difficulties leads to helping behavior and the subsequent positive feeling of helping.

Emphatic distress indicates of figuratively entering the position of another suffering individual. Hoffman’s theory suggests this occurs when it is associated with helping, precedes helping, and helping helps the observer feel better. Similar to how Kohlman suggested there are stages of moral development, Hoffman argues there are stages of empathy which gradually matures. As a person understands self and others, the developing arousal modes mature as well, potentially overlapping but discerning empathic emotion. Hoffman labels these stages as immature which consist of global, egocentric, and quasi-egocentric, as well as mature (expanded) stages which include veridical, beyond the situation, and distressed groups’ condition. However, he argues that empathic maturity does not directly result in prosocial behavior, rather it is a complex process involving cognitive processes and interpersonal relationships as well as the context of the situation and its perception. Hoffman also mentions some other elements that can have an effect on emphatic response including the here and now effect where a person’s immediate presence generates greater response, or habituation where repeated exposure makes an individual indifferent to a specific person’s distress. Overall, empathy plays a key role in the moral development and standing of an individual, being developed in stages alongside the cognitive side of moral reasoning.

How does Jonathan Haidt’s theory challenge rationalist models of moral reasoning that dominated in the 1980s and 1990s?

The rationalist models of moral reasoning are some of the ones discussed above, based on the foundations laid out by Kohlberg’s theory. These suggest that moral judgement is affected and driven by the controlled and slow process of cognitive reasoning. However, Haidt, driven by contemporary research and inquiry proposes a polar opposite approach suggesting that moral judgement is driven by rapid and effortless intuition, with moral judgement occurring post-hoc. Those who support this perspective argue that reasoning predominantly plays the role of providing a post-hoc and biased basis for justification of an action after it is done based on intuition.

The intuitionist model works as that a morally eliciting situation causes an intuitive response from an individual. That is then liked to moral judgement of the situation in one’s consciousness. Afterward, moral reasoning occurs, which is a more effortful process after which a moral judgement is already made, and arguments in support of the judgement are made, potentially reflecting some of the moral disengagement discussed by Bandura. Furthermore, the intuitionist model implies that there is reasoned persuasion link, where moral judgement and subsequent verbal reasoning to justify the decision is projected unto others, affecting their intuition and subsequent judgement. Finally, the reasoning and judgement of the second person will affect the first person as well. It is a cyclical model in a way but also open ended since the number of people who’s intuition may be affected may vary. This is what Haidt and colleagues label as the Social Intuitionist Model (SIM) of moral judgement. They claim most moral judgements arise in this manner, where individuals were not able to provide good and logical justification in support of their judgments, making it implausible they were generated by reason.

In the theory of moral judgment, Haidt argues that reasoning is biased for two reasons, the relatedness motives and the coherence motives. The relatedness motives is as discussed above, where people tend to motivated and agree with family, friends, and loved ones, and this influences one’s intuition and subsequent judgement of a situation. Meanwhile coherence motives represent attempts to keep one’s attitudes and beliefs in line with those that are central to one’s identity. For example, when presented with evidence supporting prior beliefs, they are accepted with less scrutiny than information that forces to change these. These motives make people act as “intuitive lawyers” (irrational and justification) not as “intuitive scientists” (rational and reasoned) according to Haidt.

It should be noted that Haidt is not attempting to portray people as completely idiotic or irrational, nor is he completely disproving the rationalist models. It is possible to use reasoned judgment by force of logic and overriding initial intuition, and it is also possible through hard-work, post-hoc cognitive reflection to realize that a judgement made was wrong, and thus, influence intuition in a way that would not repeat similar errors in the future. However, Haidt suggests that such realities are rare, requiring either considerable moral standards and a strong logical mind, or be very reflective and in-touch with oneself for honest post-hoc reasoning. Instead, most people’s intuitions shift as a result of social influence of public reasoning by others, and that may be a positive aspect just as much as a negative one in terms of moral judgement and development.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022, July 10). Psychological Theories: Kohlberg’s Theory, Bandura’s Theory.

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"Psychological Theories: Kohlberg’s Theory, Bandura’s Theory." PsychologyWriting, 10 July 2022,


PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Psychological Theories: Kohlberg’s Theory, Bandura’s Theory'. 10 July.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Psychological Theories: Kohlberg’s Theory, Bandura’s Theory." July 10, 2022.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Psychological Theories: Kohlberg’s Theory, Bandura’s Theory." July 10, 2022.


PsychologyWriting. "Psychological Theories: Kohlberg’s Theory, Bandura’s Theory." July 10, 2022.