Developmental Changes In Social-cognitive Reasoning
A primary process in social-cognitive development involves distinguishing oneself from others. Infants express a sense of self-recognition and a rudimentary understanding that they exist independent from their mothers (e.g., showing distress when separated) within the first year of life. Subsequently, children come to understand that people are active agents with "minds" who think, plan, have intentions, pretend, may hold erroneous beliefs, are influenced by inner desires and motives, and the like.
Considerable research on social-cognitive development has been inspired and informed by the theory of cognitive development formulated by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980). Drawing on Piagetian theory and research, John H. Flavell in 1985 identified a number of developmental trends in social cognition. One deals with a change in reasoning from surface to depth. Young children deal with social situations in a superficial, concrete fashion. They focus almost exclusively on salient, external features of others, and are easily deceived by impressions and appearances. Adolescents are better able to go beyond surface appearances and make inferences about peoples' psychological motives and states. A second theme involves the development of metacognition. "Meta" means to transcend; metacognition involves thinking about thoughts and cognitive processes. Not only does this promote introspective self-awareness and self-examination, it also enhances the ability to effectively plan, monitor, and regulate personal behavior.
Developmental improvement in abstract and hypothetical thinking enables children to begin to think in terms of general personality traits and characteristics as well as environmental factors when explaining actions. Hypothetical reasoners are able to go beyond concrete reality and consider how social situations and institutions ideally should be. A decline in egocentrism is a fourth theme identified by Flavell. Egocentrism is a failure to accommodate or adjust a cognitive structure to fit new information; the experience or information is distorted to fit an existing structure. Assume a preschool child is facing you and you raise your left hand. If asked which hand you raised, the child would say, "your right." Preschool children are able to mentally internalize and represent the relevant information—assimilate it to a cognitive schema—but they remain bound quite closely to their own perceptual perspective. Correctly answering the question, however, requires a child to "mentally rotate" the representation 180 degrees. More to the point, the relational nature of many social concepts requires children to mentally take different standpoints. The number of sisters in a family depends on whose point of view is taken: If Tommy has two sisters, Nicole and Kelly, how many sisters does Kelly have? Egocentric children have difficulty shifting their thinking from the perspective of Tommy (two) and that of Kelly (one).
David Elkind noted in a 1980 article that egocentrism may take different forms during development. Adolescents, for instance, may be tied to their own conceptual perspective. They can think about the thoughts of others as well as their own (metacognition). They may mistakenly assume, however, that others are thinking about the same ideas and concepts as they themselves are. Technically speaking, they are egocentric in that they assimilate the thoughts of others to their own cognitive structures. Imagine two teenagers preoccupied with their own feelings and anxieties. Even though they may be talking past each other in a social exchange, each may infer that the other has the same understanding as her own. Elkind explains that adolescents' egocentric thoughts about the thinking of others constitute an imaginary audience that adolescents strategically play to and become self-conscious about: Being self-constructed, it "knows" every blemish and shortcoming the adolescent frets about.
These themes provide a general summary of the major aspects of social-cognitive development. It should be mentioned that late-twentieth-century neo-Piagetian researchers, such as Robbie Case, suggested that the process may be more continuous and complex, with information-processing factors—such as cognitive resources, memory functions, and automatization of strategies—playing an influential role.