Postformal Reasoning during Adolescence and Young Adulthood: The Influence of Problem Relevancy

By Sebby, Rickard A.; Papini, Dennis R. | Adolescence, Summer 1994 | Go to article overview

Postformal Reasoning during Adolescence and Young Adulthood: The Influence of Problem Relevancy


Sebby, Rickard A., Papini, Dennis R., Adolescence


In an effort to more adequately conceptualize the nature of cognitive development following childhood and adolescence, several theorists (e.g., Arlin, 1984; Baltes, Dittmann-Kohli, & Dixon, 1985; Basseches, 1984; Labouvie-Vief, 1982; Kramer, 1989a; Perry, 1970; Sinnott, 1989) have proposed various stages or processes of thought that extend beyond Piaget's (1980) final cognitive developmental stage (formal operations). In general, these theorists posit a progression in thinking from dualistic or absolutist thought (truth vs. falsehood) to more subjectively determined modes of thinking (Kramer, 1983; Kramer, Kahlbaugh, & Goldsten, 1992; Perry, 1970) in which the relativistic and/or dialectical nature of knowledge is more thoroughly understood.

Various researchers who have tested this theoretical proposal have obtained results consistent with this view. Adams, Labouvie-Vief, Hakim-Larson, DeVoe, and Hayden (1989), for instance, report that adults demonstrated higher level reasoning (viz., they were more aware of multiple interpretations of a problem) when presented with problems that were embedded within situations typically faced by adults. By contrast, adolescent subjects performed at a lower reasoning level when presented with these same adult-relevant problems (viz., they gave solutions that were logical but exhibited little or no self-awareness of pragmatic or personal constraints).

Using a similar scoring sheme, Blanchard-Fields (1986) presented problems to subjects ranging in age from 14 to 46 years. These problems varied in emotional saliency (i.e., the degree of personal involvement subjects reported feeling for problems). Three problems (viz., war between fictional countries, a conflicted visit to grandparents by an adolescent and his parents, and the dilemma faced by a man and woman following an unintended pregnancy) were presented to each subject. Blanchard-Fields found that adolescents, relative to older individuals, were less able to engage in relativistic reasoning on problems found to be emotionally salient by the entire sample.

Following theoretical positions established by Labouvie-Vief(1982), Blanchard-Fields indicated that "an emotionally salient context may be more disruptive for younger than for older thinkers" due to younger people's inability to effectively integrate logical (cognitive) and emotional domains. For adolescents, the inability to integrate multiple domains of experience would seem to be derived from a dualistic (Perry, 1970) or an absolutist (Kramer, 1983) style of thinking in which they see people or situations as being fixed or unchanging. Other research (Kramer, 1989a, 1989b) indicates that adolescents' lack of integration may be due to their tendency to approach intimate reletionships with a sense of idealism or absolutism (e.g., this is the person for me, for always).

Two important observations are warranted at this point regarding the research conducted by Blanchard-Fields (1986). First, she presented problems to subjects that were "assumed" to be emotionally salient, and she only empirically verified the emotional saliency of the problems after they had been presented. Second, when emotional saliency was examined (post-hoc), no age-related effects or interactions were observed. That is, neither adolescents nor any other particular age group considered specific problems to be especially emotionally salient. Thus, one might argue that a more stringent test of the disruptive effect of emotional content on the logical interpretation of problems would be to utilize problems that had been determined a priori to be relevant to particular age groups. If emotional content is disruptive, then its maximal impact should be evidenced when subjects' reasoning is examined on age-specific relevant problems.

Recent research by Sebby and Papini (1991) would seem to underscore the importance of these considerations. These investigators utilized experimental problems that were developed specifically for young adults (M = 19 years), middle-aged adults (M = 31 years), and older adults (M = 68 years); the appropriateness of the problems for particular age groups was empirically established by subjects in a prior pilot study. …

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