Jean Piaget described four stages of cognitive development: The sensorimotor, the preoperative, that of concrete operations and that of formal operations. Each of these periods is characterized by the use of increasingly complex cognitive operations.
While this author has stated that cognition reaches its final stage in adolescence, other theorists consider that postformal thought also exists, A fifth stage of cognitive development which is characterized by the capacity to relativize, to assume the contradiction and to synthesize opposing elements.
Formal thought according to Piaget
By Jean Piaget, pioneer of evolutionary psychology and author of the most popular theory of cognitive development, he reaches its peak when concrete thinking is abandoned and formal thinking is consolidated, that is, the ability to think in the abstract.
This implies that when you reach this stage, which usually occurs between ages 11 and 15, you are not only working with concrete, tangible, reality-based elements, but also with assumptions and possibilities. In addition, skills are developed that allow you to adopt perspectives that are different from your own.
Formal thought has a hypothetico-deductive character, Which overcomes the empiricism characteristic of the stage of concrete operations; in this way, reality is understood as a subset of the possible, as opposed to the previous period, in which the possible is seen as an extension of reality.
Piaget and his collaborator Bärbel Inhelder stated that formal thinking is based on verbal statements (propositional thinking), rather than concrete objects. Since the flexibility of language is much greater than that of matter, this type of thinking greatly increases cognitive and communicative possibilities.
Later, different authors questioned and qualified the concept original of formal thought. Thus, today it is believed that not everyone reaches this stage, that it can happen at any age and only in the tasks in which we specialize, and that there may be another type of reasoning even more. advanced: post-formal thinking.
Characteristics of postformal thinking
Representatives of different theoretical orientations, notably of dialectical psychology and that of the cycle of life, have proposed the existence of a postformal or dialectical thought, conceptualized as a stage subsequent to that of formal operations.
Unlike formal and post-formal thinking it would allow the integration of the subjective, the emotional and the symbolic with the logical, analytical and objective components of the previous period. As a result, there would be a complication of cognitive operations, which would work less literally and rigidly than in the case of formal thinking.
Three fundamental characteristics of postformal thought have been described: the relativism of knowledge, the acceptance of contradiction and the synthesis between discordant elements.
Formal thinking tends to be dichotomous; thus, for example, people are often classified as “good” or “bad”, and statements are understood as absolute truths or as lies, with no points in between.
However, interacting with others, taking on multiple roles and acquiring new information promotes awareness there are several truths which depend on the point of view, Strongly influenced by personal history and the context from which they are observed.
Thus, this tendency causes the attention not to be so much focused on what is supposed to be “the truth”, and the attention is focused on the type of narratives that are adopted to explain it.
Once relativistic thinking arises, it begins to accept contradiction as a natural aspect of life. Seemingly incompatible phenomena can coexist, both in the perception of reality and in living things and objects.
So anyone can be “good” and “bad” simultaneously, following the example above. The complex nature of reality is accepted and the idea that there are different overlapping ontological realities is internalized.
Several authors maintain that the acceptance of contradiction is the most characteristic feature of adult thought, and that usually develops in middle age. However, interindividual variability is high, so it can also occur sooner or later.
3. Synthesis or dialectic
Since they assume relativism and contradiction as natural aspects of human experience, people who use postformal thinking can integrate (or synthesize) conflicting mental contents, both cognitively and emotionally.
During this stage there is a continuous dialectic in thought, so that all ideas are compared and synthesized with their opposites and with other different experiences. This allows for a higher and more flexible reasoning capacity than that which characterizes formal thinking.
Stage of development or style of thinking?
Although they defend the concept of post-formal thinking, they generally define it as a stage of cognitive development which, as the name suggests, appears for the moment after the stage of formal operations. scientific research has not confirmed this hypothesis.
While it is true that the defining characteristics of postformal thinking manifest themselves more often with age, not all normally developing people reach this cognitive period. In fact, not everyone manages to move from the stage of concrete operations to the stage of formal operations.
Additionally, scientific evidence shows that some people who have not reached the formal period exhibit relativistic thinking. It has therefore been hypothesized that postformal thinking is a style of reasoning consisting of a set of metacognitive skills that can be learned after maturation, And not necessarily a development stage.