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Cognitive & Moral Development Theories


The intention of this paper is to provide an overview of the psychological theories of Jean Piaget and Lawrence Kohlberg. While Piaget’s perspective was psychological, Kholberg’s viewpoint was psychological with emphasis placed on moral development and both theories will be compared and contrasted in this paper. Furthermore, the implications of these theories for counselling will be examined.



Jean Piaget, Swiss biologist, philosopher, and behavioral scientist, was born on August 9, 1896 (Piaget, 2001).

One of his most significant achievements was his research in developmental psychology and the resultant theory in cognitive development. Although many of the principles developed by Piaget have been criticized, the impact he has made in the field of cognitive development cannot be exaggerated. According to Morris and Maisto (2008), Piaget is the most influential cognitive development theorist.

Piaget’s segue into cognitive development started while developing French versions of questions on English intelligence tests at the Binet Institute, Paris, in the 1920s.

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He became fascinated with the reasons children gave for answering incorrectly on questions requiring logical thinking. He believed that the incorrect answers showed significant qualitative variances between the way older children and younger children think. Hence, he made a systematic study of children, including his own, by observing and studying them playing, solving problems, and participating in everyday activities. He asked them questions and tested them in order to learn how they thought.

His observations and studies led him to believe that children were not only receiving knowledge from their parents and teachers, but they were also creating ideas and cognitive development is a way of adapting to the environment.

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Paiget found that the differences were not attributed to the younger children being less intelligent than their older counterparts, as was the general assumption in psychology at the time. Neither did they think at a slower pace than adults. Rather, they just think very differently.

His interest in how knowledge develops in humans during different stages of development led to what is popularly known as the stages theory or stage theory of cognitive development. The name is derived from Piaget’s description of cognitive development as four distinct stages in children, ranging from sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete, and formal, beginning in a logical manner in childhood and ending in adulthood. This four-stage model shows how the mind processes new information encountered. Children are born with a mental structure that is genetically inherited and which evolves over time. This mental structure forms the foundation for all subsequent learning and knowledge. Cognitive development, therefore, is a “progressive reorganization of mental processes resulting from maturation and experience” (Singer & Revenson, 1997).

According to Singer and Revenson (1997) all children will pass through these stages, which unfold over time, in order to achieve an intellectual functioning at the adult level. The sequence of the stages is fixed and unchangeable and children cannot skip a stage but must go through the stages in the same order, although at different rates. Later stages evolve from and are built on earlier stages, with the child acquiring more complex motor and cognitive skills, moving between stages in a very gradual and subtle transition. The main elements of Piaget’s cognitive development theory are schema, the four processes that enable the transition from one stage to another, and the four stages of cognitive development.

Piaget was interested in how an organism adapts to its environment and hypothesized that human behaviours are controlled through mental organizations called schemata, also called schema or schemes, which humans use to represent the world and designate action. Humans also have a biological drive to obtain balance or equilibrium between the schemes and the environment and this is what drives the adaptation. Infants are born with schema operating at birth, which are called “reflexes,” which are used to adapt to the environment. These reflexes are soon replaced with constructed schemata, which are used throughout life as the person adapts to the environment.

Piaget’s first stage is the sensorimotor stage, which lasts from birth to about two years. Intelligence at this point is based on physical and motor activity without the use of symbols. Hence the child uses mobility, crawling, and walking to facilitate knowledge. The child’s progress is visible through the modification of reflexes in response to the environment. It is at this stage that the child learns object permanence, understanding that objects continue to exist even though they cannot be seen. The end of the stage is manifested in the immature use of symbols and language development that signals the transition to the second stage (Morris and Maisto, 2008).

The preoperational stage is the second stage and lasts from age two to about age seven. Intelligence is demonstrated at this stage through the use of symbols, particularly the development of language. Memory and imagination are developed and children are able to mentally represent objects and events. Children are now able to think and process information in a one-dimensional fashion, having the ability to do monological, nonreversible thinking (Coon, 2006). They are very egocentric and find it difficult to see things from another person’s point of view, failing to recognize any duality in conversations. The end of this stage is signaled by the child’s ability to conserve number (Piaget, 2001).

Piaget’s third stage, the concrete operational stage, is shown by the child demonstrating logically integrated thought. This stage spans from age seven to eleven as the child’s exposure to, and integration of knowledge has matured and the child is able to use all three types of knowledge to interact with the environment to a relatively high degree. Operational thinking develops as the child is now able to interact with the environment from more than one perspective. Egocentric thought diminishes.

Formal operational stage is Piaget’s fourth stage. This is from eleven years onward or preadolescent to adulthood. Intelligence at this stage is demonstrated through the logical use of symbols related to abstract concepts. Early in the period there is a return to egocentric thinking, however, the individual is moved to a much broader perspective and thinking beyond self (Siegler, 1991). At this stage individuals are able to think abstractly about various issues such as morality, justice, truth, and the nature of existence. They are also able to provide alternative, competing beliefs about these issues. Therefore, cognitive development becomes a pre-requisite for acquiring morality based upon abstract principles.


Lawrence Kohlberg (1927-1987) is considered by some to be the most distinguished psychologist of recent time in the field of moral development. Expanding upon Piaget’s stages theory, Kohlberg began his lifelong work in studying cognitive moral development (CMD) in 1958 with his dissertation at the University of Chicago (Kohlberg, 1981)

Kohlberg suggested that moral judgment develops through six stages divided into sequences of three levels. His stage theory implies that moral changes will always move in an upward direction and individuals must progress through each stage as there is no skipping of stages. Furthermore, varying social, cultural, or religious conditions do no significantly affect the nature of our sequence and only impact the rate at which an individual will progress through this sequence. The three levels are preconventional – the first level of morality, conventional – the second level of morality, and postconventional – the highest level of morality.

The preconventional level is open to the cultural norms and labels of right or wrong. However, these labels are interpreted in terms of physical or hedonistic consequences to the individual or in terms of the authority or physical power of the enforcers of the rules. This level is divided into two stages: obedience and punishment and individualism and exchange or instrumental relativist orientation. Stage 1 uses punishment to dissuade the individual from doing the action and continuing to obey the rules. That is, action is motivated by a desire to avoid punishment. In Stage 2, the morality of the action is judged by how it satisfies the needs of the person doing it. Actions are motivated by the rewards or benefits to the individual.

At the conventional level the individual’s moves into adolescence and the shift to formal operation thought. The focus is on maintaining the expectations of society and societal roles such as the family, group, or culture, regardless of the consequences. This attitude is one of conformity and loyalty, and level is divided into two stages: Stage 3 – Interpersonal Concordance or “Good Boy-Nice Girl” Orientation and Stage 4: Society Maintaining or “Law and Order” Orientation. Moral behavior at Stage 3 is based upon what is approved by others and what pleases or helps others. There is a further shift around mid-adolescence, and the child moves towards respecting the authorities and following the rules, as well as being a “good citizen”. Both stages require the ability to think about abstract values such as “social order” and “duty” and to consider the motives behind the behaviour (Morris and Maisto, 2008) 0063.

Finally, the postconventional level, referred to as the “autonomous” or “principled” level, involves Stages 5 and 6 of moral development and is mainly concerned with universal principles that relate to the action done. The individual tries to define moral values that are valid apart from the authority of groups. This level also has two stages, Stage 5 – Social Contract Orientation and Stage 6 – Universal Ethical Principles Orientation. In Stage 5 existing laws which are created to protect individual rights define moral actions and the individual examines various values and opinions of different people before deciding on the morality of the action.

At this stage the individual may consider the possibility of changing the law for reasons of social utility. In Stage 6, the final stage of moral reasoning, the individual’s conscience, in harmony with the individual’s chosen ethical principles defines moral action. These ethical principles include equality of human rights, justice, reciprocity, and respect for human dignity. As the individual becomes attached to his or her own ethical principles, the judgement may become innate and there is a high possibility that the judgement may violate the laws and rules.


There are obvious correlations and differences between the theories of Piaget and Kohlberg. As stage theorists, Piaget is the first to propose that cognitive development occurs over stages. He hypothesized that intellectual development in children occur in a hierarchical manner, in four stages from infancy to adolescence. Kohlberg hypothesized moral development occurring over five hierarchical stages. However, unlike Piaget who specifies age ranges and limits his development to adolescence, Kohlberg’s theory does not specify age ranges and occurs throughout the life span. Furthermore, Piaget’s theory proposes that cognitive development occurs in conjunction with biological development, whereas Kohlberg believed that moral development and the understanding of what is morally right or wrong stems from socialization with parents, teachers, and peers.

Both theorists believed that cognitive development is influenced by the individual’s social environment. Based on Piaget’s theory, moral development occurs in two distinct stages. Children initially believes that their parents or God dictates rules and as such, their moral judgements are based on the consequences of their actions rather than their intentions. Around age eleven, this way of thinking about morality changes as children begin to understand that morals are based on their own judgements and intentions. Essentially, children transition from a more concrete understanding of morality to a more abstract understanding. They now realize that rules are not absolute and really just ways that human beings to cooperate and coexist.

Kholberg did not dismiss Piaget’s theory, but built upon them, offering a more refined and deeper understanding of moral development in children in a six-stage model. Like Piaget, Kohlberg believed that children’s first understanding of morality is based on rules and the consequences of their actions. He also believed that children struggled with similar issues such as relationships, individual rights, social orders, and universality over a period of time. However, his theory provides a more detailed and in-depth understanding of the moral development of humans than Piaget’s theory.


Counselling professionals need to have a grasp of the basic theory and concepts of the growth periods in human development. This is not only important for the client, but the counsellor as well, who must be self-aware and knowledgeable about any development issues in his or her past that may benefit from a review of the theories. Since many of the psychotherapy methods and approaches reference incidents and issues in the client’s past, an astute counsellor will mentally reference the developmental stages in order to determine how the client’s level of development at the time may have influenced a particular trauma. According to Colin Feltham (2006), a counsellor who is knowledgeable about common age-specific characteristics is better able to provide help in assessment and the planning of and referral for therapy.

For example, Piaget believed that children ages zero to seven years, who have not transitioned into the operational period, do not process the concepts of death and loss in the same way adults do. There is a lack of maturity of understanding in this area and a counsellor who is ignorant of this could transpose adult emotions such as loss, grief or anger to a young child, resulting in the child being confused. In the same way, adolescence can be a distressing period as teens and young adults’ transition into the Formal Operations period. They may be experiencing pressure to fit in and conform, while processing significant physical, emotional and moral changes at the time. The effective counsellor who is both informed and empathetic will be better able to support and guide his or her client.

In conclusion, significant links have been identified between cognitive and moral development theories and counselling behaviours. There are links between cognitive complexity and empathy; moral development and empathic response. Counsellors who are at higher stages of moral and cognitive development are more empathetic, usually more able to define themselves and clients in positive terms, are more likely to analyse their reactions to client in an objective manner, and are more aware of the interactive nature of the counselling relationship. That is, counsellors at higher stages of cognitive and moral development are better equipped to handle the complex problem-solving and social interaction that is required in the counselling process.


Cognitive and Moral Development 3






Behaviour Therapy

Preconventional Level (Stages 1 & 2)

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Cognitive & Moral Development Theories. (2016, Aug 12). Retrieved from

Cognitive & Moral Development Theories

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