Beyond Formal Thought

Beyond Formal Thought

Perry’s students indeed moved from seeing a world marked by absolute standards and values to one where diverse societies, cultures, and val- ues could be endorsed equally. How- ever, it is difficult to discern whether changes are due to natural maturation or, because Perry studied college stu- dents, if the environment specifically prescribed the changes he identified. His conclusions may not apply to a broader population, but it could also be argued that his college students were indeed more cognitively sophisticated.

Reflective Judgment Model Like Perry’s findings, the reflective judgment model proposes that there are distinct stages of postformal cogni- tive development. According to this model, reasoning goes beyond logic and occurs in three graduated levels, each with two or three substages (King & Kitchener, 2004). In the first stage of prereflective thinking, knowledge can be gleaned with certainty. A statement that charac- terizes this level is, “As long as information is heard from a respected professor or a popular news site, it must be true.” At this level, there is usually an inability to recognize that two points of view may be equally logical.

Next comes quasireflective thinking. At this level, knowledge is not always certain, but that is because there is missing evidence. In education, students are commonly taught that knowl- edge is subjective. Therefore people are entitled to their own views and judgments should be withheld. Statements that are typical of this level include, “I would embrace Erikson’s theory more completely if you could show me concrete evidence.” A higher stage of this level might be, “Perhaps both Freud and the behaviorists were correct about phobias, but they just use different evidence.”

During the last level of reflective thinking, knowledge may be uncertain, but reasonable judg- ments can still be made with critical inquiry and synthesis of ideas. There are “degrees of sureness.” People gather evidence and opinion and take a reasoned, personal stance. A typical example is, “There is substantial evidence to support the view that sexuality is determined at birth. Therefore, society should treat sexual orientation as a continuum of behavior, with all orientations equally respected.” Like the first level, students hold firm convictions, but they are based on sound reflection.

Although not universally accepted, evidence indicates that qualitative changes in cognition do begin sometime during early adulthood (Sinnot, 1998). Students generally move from a posi- tion of absolutes to non-judgmental acceptance of multiple solutions. Various studies have found that as educational level increases, so does this kind of reflective judgment (Brabeck, 1984; Friedman, 2004; King & Kitchener, 1994; King, Kitchener, Davison, Parker, & Wood,


The ability of individuals to consider complex issues with multiple perspectives, like whether minors who commit a violent crime should be tried as adults, shows relativistic thinking.

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Section 7.3 Beyond Formal Thought

1983). These teaching standards are increasingly incorporated into classroom education (Friedman & Schoen, 2009).

Evaluation of Reflective and Relativistic Thought While the ability to engage in reflective thought might signify cognitive sophistication, college students are often encouraged to engage only in quasireflective thought. For instance, to sug- gest that one culture is “better” than another is often met with gasps in a college community, especially among experienced students. We are often taught that passing judgment on a cul- ture is bad protocol and that a goal of a college education is to view every culture with equal respect.

Though college graduates are theoretically more sophisticated in their thinking, not passing judgments is actually more indicative of quasireflective thinking than of the more advanced reflective thought. To be able to see the good and bad of all cultures is only the beginning of nuanced decision making. Reflective thought allows us to pass judgments on cultures in which women are subordinated and children are exploited and where education, social move- ment, and independence are restricted. It is safe to say from an academic standpoint that a culture that supports equality for everyone is inherently better than those that are racist, sex- ist, or engage in other forms of institutionalized discrimination or oppression. Yet students are not routinely encouraged to consider judgments in this way.

Another example concerns values in college education. Professors generally have a reputation for espousing specific political beliefs (in both directions), a finding that has remained rela- tively consistent for many decades (e.g., Allgood, Bosshardt, van der Klaauw, & Watts, 2010; Eitzen & Maranell, 1968; Guimond & Palmer, 1996). Positions are supported both implicitly and explicitly when, according to the reflective judgment model, young adults are particu- larly vulnerable to manipulation. Whereas increasing education should be associated with an appreciation for both sides of the political spectrum, instead students’ views become more polarized (Hastie, 2007). A more narrow outcome is less indicative of reflective thinking and more consistent with quasireflective and prereflective thinking.

Logic and Emotion In addition to understanding multiple points of view, adult thinking is characterized by the gradual integration of emotion and pragmatism in the place of strict rules of logic, as in the juvenile offender example earlier in this section (Labouvie-Vief, Grühn, & Studer, 2010). Fur- thermore, there is an increased tolerance for ambiguity and potential compromise. Mature thinkers tend to analyze situations and make decisions on the basis of realistic and emotional grounds, recognizing that the most practical solutions often involve compromise and a will- ingness to accept different thinking in different situations (Jain & Labouvie-Vief, 2010).

These cognitive shifts are apparent when researchers study how people of different ages manage social dilemmas. In one study, high school students, college students, and middle- aged adults were each presented with three different dilemmas. The first was about a past conflict between two fictitious countries and had little emotional charge. The second con- cerned a family disagreement about a visit to the grandparent’s house and was more strongly

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Livia task “Visit” story Pregnancy dilemma

Adolescents Young adults Middle adults


Section 7.3 Beyond Formal Thought

charged. The last, strongly charged dilemma involved an unwanted pregnancy between a couple that had opposing views on abortion (Blanchard-Fields, 1986). In the first scenario, when there was not much emotional content, the level of reasoning between adolescents and young adults was similar. However, in the other two more emotionally charged situations, both groups of adults used better reasoning processes than the adolescent group (see Figure 7.5). This study famously demonstrated that maturity of emotions affects level of reasoning. Postformal adults gradually integrate emotions with cognition, supporting the idea that adult cognition goes through qualitative change.

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