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Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development and Its Criticisms

Jul 12, 2023 | 0 comments

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Jul 12, 2023 | Essays | 0 comments


There exist several theories of cognitive development. The most common one of all is that explained by Jean Piaget named after him. Piaget says that when a child in born they are motivated to understand the meaning of the experiences they have in life and the motivation to learn. It is for these reasons that he says that people are active learners during childhood and that the adult teachings or the influence of the environment do not dictate learning. The theory focuses on the mental growth of children and as children grow they are driven by finding solutions to problems. The theory also looks at the place of biology in the development of a child.


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Though recognized as the most important and comprehensive theory of development the theory presents several loopholes. It is for this reason that several psychologists have openly criticized Piaget’s theory. This paper shall discuss how other psychologists have responded to Piaget’s theory in the domains of imitation, attachment along with moral development. The critics view shall be expressed in the form of comparison from one critic to another.

The first domain in the theory of cognitive development explains the occurrence of imitation. According to Piaget, imitation occurs in six stages. The first stage is between birth and when an infant is one month. There is no imitation here just reflexes, when a child in a nursery cries there is a higher chance the others will cry too. Between the first and fourth month, another kind of imitation that is repetitive occurs. The third stage occurs between the fourth and eighth month, here the infant has observed the environment and behavior of people, the infant giggles when someone laughs. In the fourth stage that is between eight to twelve months, the infant has the coordination of their behavior to achieve the goal. The child does not need to see the actions to repeat or imitate them. For instance, when the mother sings the child sings along when she stops the child stops too. The fifth stage is more related to the fourth one. In the last stage, there is deferred imitation. The six stages have drawn lots of criticisms from psychologists whether children go through all the stages of development. There also have been criticisms on the age of imitation, which according to research children who are below the age of 18 months have the capability to imitate.

Play, Dreams and Imitations in childhood a book by Piaget recognizes that there is a kind of imitation takes place when infants were between 16 to 24 months old, known as differed imitation (Piaget, 1962). According to Courage and Howe, differed imitation is explained as the capability of producing past actions with no support from the current action (Courage and Howe, 2002), for instance, child nods because he saw the mother nod. It is important for children to show differed imitation since it signifies the development of cognitive processes. At this age, the infant’s mental codes are said to have developed and able to store objects or actions that are later retrieved. The ability to retain information increases with the age of the infant. Anisfeld conducted studies on infants on the tongue protruding behaviors; the behavior was common in newborns and that the infants protruded more often if there was a dangling toy before them (Anisfeld, 2005). Meltzoff and Moore in the result of their studies showed the infants imitated finger movements and pouting. The newborns also imitated head rotation and protruding the tongue to the side. Adlam et al also conducted research on one-month-old infants; the infants imitated eight out of 22 acts (Adlam et al., 2005). This meant that imitation was possible for infants unlike as explained in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development (Meltzoff and Moore, 1977). Kaczynski et al in their research showed that infants who were over the age of two years showed limitations more often than those who were sixteen months of age (Kaczynski et al 1987). Hanna and Meltzoff showed it was common for infants to imitate after delays for two weeks. Those infants who were fourteen months old could imitate actions on the television screens (Hanna and Meltzoff, 1993).

Additional research has indicated that Piaget theory has been criticized because despite showing the remembrance patterns of children. According to the research infants and newborns could not remember where objects were placed. The theory has been criticized because there was no connection between memory and location. Infants and children have been reported to have difficulties in remembering where items were placed. Newborns and infants in particular as reported by are able to remember where items were placed. Another criticism rises from the small sample used by Piaget to conduct his research.

The second domain in the Cognitive theory is that of moral development. In this theory, Piaget explains when children are able to tell the difference between right and wrong. Moral development of children is influenced by their peers, family, physical maturity, and emotional, social and cognitive development. Children accept teachings and decision of those with authority over them. They reason that rules should be obeyed unless one is ready for the consequences, for example, to avoid being punished. As the children grow, their perception of morality changes they start to obey rules for other reasons other than fear of punishment (Piaget, 1965).

According to Piaget moral development has two branches, which of obeying rules and laws and the meaning of justice. When children are told stories or given examples, they are expected to make decisions. Here we have the stage where the rules do not exist and heteronomous and autonomous morality. According to Thomas Lickona Piaget emphasized too much on controlled maturing of children by their genetics rather than on emphasizing on experience. Edwards et al believed that culture played a major role in the behavioral growth of children. Since Piaget overlooked the impact of culture, his theory holds no moral development. They characterized Piaget’s work to having no control, based on small samples, and his work lacked research statistical analysis.

Piaget also suggested that children are unable to make distinctions when an accident will occur or not occur. This was criticized by a research study by Yuill and Perner, who showed the opposite and stated that children were capable of foreseeing accidents. The study concluded that children are usually morally developed at an early age (Yuill and Perner, 1988).

In his theory there is partiality on western culture; the theory has no explanation for how it is applicable to the non-western culture. The world is made up of both of these cultures, focusing on just one is not in favor of the society. He limits his moral development to only one part of the culture. Research conducted by Hadit, Koller and Dias that was conducted in both Brazil and the United States. The results showed that people of the higher social class had higher rates of mortality incidences. Those from the lower social class based their morality principles on disrespectful acts. In this regard, they conclude that morality varies from culture to culture, and it was important for Piaget to look at both cultures (Hadit, Koller, and Dias, 1993).

Piaget theory is also criticized because it states that moral development occurs during child’s adolescence. A similar study conducted by McDonald and Stuart produced contrasting results. They conducted studies on different age sets of people, teenagers, and adults between fifty nd sixty, and adults of above sixty-five years. There was the difference in moral standing those who were young exhibited lower moral reasoning, and some adults exhibited lower moral reasoning too. This study indicated that morality does not rise with age (McDonald and Stuart, 1996).

The main research methods used by Piaget are the qualitative ones, observations, and clinical interviews. The sample used in the study is also very small. The research methods are lacking standardization. In his story of broken cups, he makes assertions that he found different views of the children understanding of right and wrong. In my opinion, this is the answers of true happenings rather than what the children think. There is also the argument in changes from realistic morals and relative morals, which he states occurs between the ages of nine and ten. In his research, found children of three years having the ability to distinguish intention from the consequences.

In the domain of attachment Piaget explained the behavior of children attaching to people. He suggested children get attached depending on their level of cognitive development. Attachment can be described as the emotional bond connecting one individual to another. For example, Bowlby explained that infant’s and newborns are usually stressed if they are separated from their mothers (Bowlby, 1969). Similarly, Dollard and Miller explain that attachment between a mother and child exists because they feed them. Piaget explains attachment exists when the infant recognizes that the person they are getting attached to be permanently there. Therefore, it is hard for children to get attached to people who are temporary in the lives. Piaget goes further to explain that attachment exists in two forms, and that attachment occurs when the infant is between twelve and eighteen months. Contrasting research studies show however attachment occurs as early as three and half months according to Baillargeon,1987) on the other hand, give the age of seven to nine months.

There is also a problem in applying Piaget’s theory of attachment with regards to the relationship between the mother and their newborns linking to child development. Ordinarily mothers express positive characteristics towards their infants. When there is no communication between the mother and the child characteristics of negative decal-rage are observed. All these observations show that there is no distinct explanation between temporary and permanent attachment.


As one of the most recognized and respected theories of cognitive development, the theory explains the development of children from infancy through adolescence. The theory presents relevant information that is relevant to the development of children in this century. The theory explains the three domains of cognitive maturity. In the theory of moral development, Piaget recognizes the impact of Western culture only on the morality of a child. Moral development relates to how children choose to respect rules and how they make decisions. For children between the ages of three and four, they do not understand the essence of rules and, therefore, cannot make moral decisions, this child he described as pre-moral. His critics put the age differently. The second stage of moral development is the autonomous morality; here is where children accept rules for fear of being punished. The attachment theory relates to how the young one gets attached to both their mothers and other caregivers. The imitation theory explains differed imitation and how children learn through the actions of others. In this theory, we understand the cognitive development process of the child.

Several critics have given counter studies to Piaget’s theory; some termed his theory as inconclusive and rigid that does not consider the experience of children. There have been critics from the small sample of children used to the research methods used in the study. In moral development theory, he has been criticized for favoring the Western culture since the theory does not provide an explanation for its applicability to the non-western culture. Piaget’s theory has been criticized for not providing the correct age of when children are capable of making moral distinctions.

Despite the criticisms of his theory of cognitive development. It is clear that Piaget opened a fulfilling debate in understanding the development of children. He properly explained the cognitive processes in both children and adults. The theory provides a further understanding of our personal cognitive abilities.


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Courage, M.L. & Howe, M.L. (2002). From infant to child: The dynamics of cognitive change in the second year of life. Psychological Bulletin.

Haidt, J., Koller, S.H. & Dias, M.G. (1993). Affect, Culture, and Morality, or Is It Wrong to Eat Your Dog? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

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Yuill, N. & Perner, J. (1988). Intentionality and Knowledge in Children’s Judgments of Actor’s Responsibility and Recipient’s Emotional Reaction. Developmental Psychology.

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