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6.1: Metaphors and Meta-theories in Human Development

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  • In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a paradigm shift was taking place in developmental psychology in the United States, although most researchers were not aware of it at the time. As was true for the rest of psychology, behaviorism and experimental child psychology continued to dominate developmental psychology (Cairns & Cairns, 2006) during this decade. However, new perspectives were knocking on the doors of behaviorism. As discussed in the last chapters, ethological evolutionary perspectives were replacing social learning accounts of attachment. In 1959, Robert White published a seminal article questioning the supremacy of acquired motivation and presenting a case for intrinsic motivation, which would usher in the motivational revolution (Deci, 1975).

    Nowhere was this sea change felt more keenly than in the area of learning, which was at the core of the behaviorist agenda. With the publication of The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget in 1963, John Flavell had introduced American developmentalists to a grand European theory of cognitive development, and it was proving to be a contender to theories of learning. In fact, the late 1960s were awash in dueling studies attempting to empirically adjudicate this clash (for reviews, see Brainerd, 1972; Strauss, 1972). They took the general form in which Piagetians would assert as evidence for structural limitations in preoperational children’s cognition, their reasoning and rationales about the conservation of properties of objects over transformations in their appearance. For example, children would assert that the volume of a liquid was increased when it was poured into a taller thinner glass, or that the number of pieces of a cracker increased when the pieces were spread farther apart. In response, learning theorists would conduct studies showing that, with sufficient practice, young children could be trained not only to give the reply indicating that there had been no transformation (namely, “they are the same”) but also to provide the correct rationale (namely, “You didn’t add any or take any away, so they are still the same”).

    Although couched in more scientific terms, it is possible to see in these exchanges behaviorists’ satisfaction in disproving Piaget’s theory, an implied “So there!—now we have demonstrated that there are no structural limitations operating in children’s performance.” And the replies from Piagetians are equally instructive, basically “Pah! You have trained these children to say some words—but because you taught children to say them, they are meaningless as indictors of children’s underlying reasoning-- and so prove nothing.” And so on, back and forth. It was in this atmosphere of acrimonious and baffled exchanges that two well-respected researchers, one learning theorist, Hayne Reese, and one Piagetian, Willis Overton, joined forces to examine the basis of these claims and counter-claims, and especially to try to understand why researchers from these two areas seemed to be so successfully talking right past each other.