Current Medical Diagnosis & Treatment in Psychiatry

General Developmental Theories-Organismic Theory

No one has had more influence in developmental psychology than Piaget. The coherence of behavior across diverse domains and the tendency for changes in abilities to occur simultaneously across domains form the basis of the organismic theory of Piaget and others such as Gesell, Werner, and Baldwin. This theory attempts to describe general features of human cognition and the systematic changes in thought across development. The organizing principle in organismic theory is structure, which is a closed system of transformational rules that govern thought at a particular point in development. Consider the 5-year-old girl who observes one row of nine beads placed near each other and a second row of six beads stretched across a greater distance than the first row. Even though the girl has counted the beads in each row and knows that nine is greater than six, in response to the question,"Which row has more beads?” she will answer,"The row with six beads.” Moreover, the girl will see no contradiction in her answer. According to Piaget, this nonobvious phenomenon occurs because the girl’s structural transformation law is to consider the whole of a stimulus, not each part separately. The child’s rule structure is closed; that is, it is internally consistent and not easily altered by external contradictions.

Piaget hypothesized that infants are born with a general wiring for a crude set of transformational rules common to all sensorimotor coordination. These rules are part of the evolutionary inheritance of the human organism. Development occurs over a 12- to 15-year period in nonlinear chunks, called stages. Within each stage, functioning is internally consistent and stable (called an equilibrium). Change from one stage to the next occurs as a result of interaction between the child and the realities of the environment. When contradictory realities accumulate sufficiently, change occurs rapidly and globally. As discussed earlier in this chapter, processes of change involve assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the act of interpreting environmental experiences in terms that are consistent with existing rule structure (a form of generalization), whereas accommodation is the act of altering rule structures to account for environmental experience (a form of exception noting). Children engage in both assimilation and accommodation in order to maintain coherence (and the perception of consistency), until their overgeneralizations and exceptions become so contradictory that they must create higher-level, more flexible, novel structures that account for the contradictions of earlier stages. When a novel structure (ie, a new set of rules) is achieved, equilibration consolidates the rules until contradictions accumulate to set the scene for the next stage change. Piaget’s four broad stages of cognitive development are (1) the sensorimotor period, (2) the preoperational stage, (3) the concrete-operational stage, and (4) the period of formal operations.

Applications of the Theory

Many of Piaget’s concepts continue to have heuristic value even today and to provide hypotheses relevant to psychopathology. The notions of egocentrism, the invariant sequences of skill acquisition, and increasing differentiation (ie, development rather than mere change) provide hypotheses regarding the behavior of children who have conduct problems and of adolescents who are lagging developmentally. Furthermore, Piaget’s discoveries of the limits of young children’s abilities have inspired cognitive educational strategies.

Criticisms of the Theory

Even though Piaget’s influence has been tremendous, crucial features of organismic theory have been rejected in contemporary theory. Children have repeatedly been shown to be more competent than Piaget suggested they could be at a particular age. Piaget’s proposed cross-domain universality in type of thought has been shown to be false, suggesting to some scholars that the stage concept is faulty. It has been replaced by concepts of learning strategies, information-processing patterns, and the parsing of multiple components in complex task completion.

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