Early Adulthood Cognitive Development

Table of contents

Cognition pertains to the acquisition, processing, transformation, storage, and retrieval of any information concerning the world (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998). This process affects every aspect of our personality. Cognitive processes such as perceiving, conceptualizing, reasoning, remembering, and contemplating are all necessary for us to solve everyday problems, to work and do the household chores properly, to arrive at a sound decision and perform other daily activities that make use of our minds (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998).

Thus, the development of the cognitive attributes of every individual molds his or her future for cognition is the crucial factor in meeting the challenges of life (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998).

According to Piaget, cognitive development is the product of the interaction of the individual with the environmental events (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998). The cognitive attributes of every individual is fundamentally shaped by the heredity.

Heredity dictates our physical appearances and other biological and physiological characteristics (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998). In this connection, our genetic make up spontaneously manifests in our physical appearance and personality through maturation (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998).

Even though we have different genes, human maturation is identical to all races. This means that differences in our physical appearance is dictated by our genes but all humans pass through, as a result of maturation, identical stages of development.

Early Adulthood

Early adulthood generally included individuals within the age-range of eighteen to forty years (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). After adolescence stage, individuals have attained formal and abstract reasoning and capable of solving problems by considering all possible means (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). In his theory of development, K. Warner Schaie described the transition between adolescence to adulthood stages as a cognitive change from acquisition of knowledge to knowledge application (Santrock, 2006).

He proposed that cognitive changes occur in two distinct stages. In achieving stage, the individual applies intelligence in achieving long term goals like career development. The honing of cognitive skills for behavioral regulation leads to the acquisition of the sense of independence (Santrock, 2006). On the other hand, during the early to middle adulthood, the responsibility stage commences.

The young adults in this stage start to establish and nurture their own career and recognize their social responsibility (Santrock, 2006). Also, during this stage, individuals form families, focus effort and attention on the needs of children and spouse (Santrock, 2006).

Gisela Labouvie-Vief believed that young adults undergo thought synthesis and intensive changes on thinking (Santrock, 2006). The young adults tend to look for their proper place in the society and seldom use logic in problem solving. Due to strong cognitive attributes, logical skills do not suffer a slump in the adulthood (Santrock, 2006).

Meanwhile, William Perry suggested the differences in the process of thinking between adolescents and young adults (Santrock, 2006). The view of the adolescents on the world is described as dualistic thinking wherein every object has its opposite like right or wrong and good or bad. As maturity takes it course, multiple thinking replaces dualistic thinking (Santrock, 2006).

Then, young adults tend to recognize myriad opinion and ideals of community members which leads to realization that not every problem can be resolved by the authority (Santrock, 2006). As a result, young adults start to shape their own thinking style, recognize the possible equality of opinions among the populace, and form their own opinion.

This process results to relative subordinate thinking where the knowledge assessment is practiced and one’s opinions are challenged by the other members of the community (Santrock, 2006). After the systematic evaluation of knowledge, full relativism arises which leads to the realization that knowledge is constructed, context-based, and nom-absolute; thus, one realizes that truth is relative (Santrock, 2006).

Furthermore, Jan Sinnot viewed that cognitive attributes of every individual develops as pressured by real-life problems (Santrock, 2006). As the individual strive to solve the problems at hand, he or she considers different perspectives resulting to realization that knowledge is non-absolute (Santrock, 2006).

Jean Piaget’s Formal Operations

The fourth stage, Formal Operations, of Jean Piaget’s cognitive development corresponds to adolescent period of humans and extends to the adulthood (Elliot, Kratochwill, Cook, and Travers, 2000). This is the stage of decentralization where the individual learns to thinks objectively and considers every aspect of a problem.

Although every adult develops the ability for formal operations, most may not reach the summit of formal operations; they continue to have a single-minded and ego-centered judgment (Elliot, Kratochwill, Cook, and Travers, 2000). Meanwhile, a decentrated individual has the capacity to rearrange and simplify information which in turn facilitates his or her understanding.

The individual has the ability to conceive principles or scientific law applicable to observations, formulate hypotheses and design experiments for testing, and operate on operations (Elliot, Kratochwill, Cook, and Travers, 2000).

In the stage of formal operations, individuals learn to perform formal operations by means of logical and abstract forms of thinking (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998). Individuals’ thoughts at this stage tend to shift form ideal to reality. In addition, adolescence at this period has developed hypothetico-deductive form of reasoning (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998).

They already have the ability to gather data and investigate, formulate hypotheses, and deduce generalization from the results of investigation.  Further, the satisfactory completion of formal operations leads to continuous development of knowledge’s structure and the intellect. However, in the absence of the appropriate mental stimulus, it would be an arduous task for the individual to hurdle the stage of formal operations for the mental structures required were not attained (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005).

Nevertheless, even the student s of the higher educational institutions and some professionals failed to reach the formal operations; they tend to be stagnant on the stage of concrete operations (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). For those who will successfully attain the formal thought level, further development of mental capacity and completion of process of maturation spontaneously occur (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005).

Information Processing Theory and Cognition

The information processing theory described the information processing of humans similar to computers. Perceived stimuli through our senses are encoded, transformed, and stored by our cognitive system (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998).

Then, retrieval to stored data happens as the need arises. With respect to cognitive development, the information-processing theory emphasized the changes on the perceived information during the processing (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998). For instance, the capacity to perceive stimulus varies with age while the ability to apply the process of encoding also changes with age (Louw, Van Ede, and Louw, 1998).

Research and Cognition

In 1975, Riegel postulated that our experiences serve as cognitive challenge which leads us to the discovery of opposite of dialectical forces in our immediate environment (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). He suggested that by dealing with every dialectic force in our life, intellectual ability is enhanced.

Based on research concerning postformal thought, development continuously progresses beyond Piaget’s formal operational stage (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). In a study, participants were given complex tasks like political problems, personal relationship, and problems on the economy (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). Then, they were asked to give their own views and its rationale.

It was revealed that adults exhibited different levels of reasoning (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). Similarly, according to Kramer, postformal individuals pass through absolutist, relativist, and dialectical cognitive levels (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). Most young adults are absolutists; they are able to face problems and often believe that every problem has its own solution (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005).

Relativists recognize variation on perspectives for a single issue and the rightful solution for the problem is always context-dependent (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005). In the dialectic phase, individuals tend to integrate and synthesize all possible views concerning the problem. According to Basseches, this level of reasoning can be observed among university students and professors in the higher educational institutions (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005).

In line with this, the postformal operation stage comes into the scene when the individual has a thought-provoking environment between twenty to thirty years of age. The nature of work or profession of the individual triggers his or her knowledge on concrete operations for further development (Hewston, Fincham, and Foster, 2005).

At about twenty years of age, the individual had undergone roughly two decades of changes in cognitive aspects (Fischer, Yan, and Stewart, 2003). The cognitive development beginning from the infancy stage has been becoming complex.

Along with this, as revealed by researches in developmental psychology, individuals exhibit cognitive skills at different levels of cognitive development (Fischer, Yan, and Stewart, 2003). This means that the individuals at this point can apply both basic and a considerable cognitive skills complexity in dealing with life problems.

In addition, the concept of upper limit or the set of tasks beyond which the individual can not perform is not absolutely real for appropriate scaffolding or contextual support can facilitate the attainment of goals (Fischer, Yan, and Stewart, 2003). Instead, the absence of scaffold or tasks per se is the caused why certain skills won’t be observed in an individual (Fischer, Yan, and Stewart, 2003).

Thus, the progress of cognitive development should be analyzed as a continuous process from infancy to the present state. In fact, the present cognitive skills honed by cognitive tasks are built upon the previous cognitive skills attained (Fischer, Yan, and Stewart, 2003).

The theory of Dynamic skills described the context-based development and refinement of cognitive attributes. Cognitive tasks from infancy to the present state have been building and restructuring conceptual categories and concrete skills upon the minds of individuals (Fischer, Yan, and Stewart, 2003). Both adolescent and young adult restructure tasks from representation to abstractions.

Also, the ladder of skills is not merely just a reflection of development, rather a yardstick onto which variation in cognitive tasks are assessed (Fischer, Yan, and Stewart, 2003). This permits for the comparison of every activity under optimal, scaffolded, or functional classification.


Cognition is generally defined as set of metal activities involved in the encoding, perception, storing, and retrieval of information. It is described as a set of inter-related process that guides one’s contexts of action as well as emotion. The information processing theory holds that proper allocation of attention on a task or stimulus results to efficient perception.

On the other hand, perception means recognition of stimuli; thus, successful perception entails efficient processing of information that becomes the basis of one’s volition. Meanwhile, the cognitive faculties of the individual are primarily shaped by the cognitive tasks and scaffold or contextual support provided by his or her immediate environment.

Thus, although every human has inborn capacity for cognitive advancement, environmental influences take precedence on the expression and further development of cognitive attributes. As a result, the age demarcation for any cognitive stage is just a rough estimation for some people may advance or lag far behind, on age basis, with respect to cognitive skills attainment.

Moreover, even though Piaget’s theory was extremely attacked by criticisms, it provided insights on the development of cognitive skills from infancy to adolescence. On the other hand, Lev Vygotsky proved that through proper scaffolding, a child can accomplish a task higher than associated tasks under his or her classification in Piaget’s stages of cognitive development (Elliot, Kratochwill, Cook, and Travers, 2000).

Hence, cognitive development is not made of distinct phases, but the development can proceed gradually. This means that a child at pre-operational stage by means of scaffolding can accomplish cognitive tasks under formal operations. Further, the respective theories of Schaie, Sinnot, Perry, Vief as well as of Riegel and Kramer, similarly recognized the crucial role of environmental support on the cognitive development of every individual.


  • Elliot, S.N., Kratochwill, T.R., Cook, J.L., and Travers, J.F. (2000). Educational Psychology: Effective Teaching, Effective Learning, 3rd ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
  • Fischer, K., Yan, Z., and Stewart, J. (2003). Handbook of Developmental Psychology. Valsiner, J. and Connolly, K.J. Eds. London: SAGE Publication.
  • Hewston, M., Fincham, F.D., and Foster, J. (2005). Psychology. United Kingdom: BPS Blackwell.
  • Louw, D.A., Ede, D.M., Louw, A.E. (1998). Human Development, 2nd ed. Cape Town, South Africa: Pearson Education.
  • Santrock, J. W. (2006) Life-Span Development, 10th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
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