Cognitive Development: Age 12–19

Most adolescents reach Piaget's stage of formal operations (ages 12 and older), in which they develop new tools for manipulating information. Previously, as children, they could only think concretely, but in the formal operations stage they can think abstractly and deductively. Adolescents in this stage can also consider future possibilities, search for answers, deal flexibly with problems, test hypotheses, and draw conclusions about events they have not experienced firsthand.

Cognitive maturity occurs as the brain matures and the social network expands, which offers more opportunities for experimenting with life. Because this worldly experience plays a large role in attaining formal operations, not all adolescents enter this stage of cognitive development. Studies indicate, however, that abstract and critical reasoning skills are teachable. For example, everyday reasoning improves between the first and last years of college, which suggests the value of education in cognitive maturation.

Intellectual development

According to Robert Sternberg's triarchic theory, intelligence is comprised of three aspects: componential (the critical aspect), experiential (the insightful aspect), and contextual (the practical aspect). Most intelligence tests only measure componential intelligence, although all three are needed to predict a person's eventual success in life. Ultimately, adolescents must learn to use these three types of intelligence.

Componential intelligence is the ability to use internal information‐processing strategies when identifying and thinking about solving a problem, including evaluating results. Individuals who are strong in componential intelligence do well on standardized mental tests. Also involved in componential intelligence is metacognition, which is the awareness of one's own cognitive processes—an ability some experts claim is vital to solving problems.

Experiential intelligence is the ability to transfer learning effectively to new skills. In other words, it is the ability to compare old and new information, and to put facts together in original ways. Individuals who are strong in experiential intelligence cope well with novelty and quickly learn to make new tasks automatic.

Contextual intelligence is the ability to apply intelligence practically, including taking into account social, cultural, and historical contexts. Individuals who are strong in contextual intelligence easily adapt to their environments, can change to other environments, and are willing to fix their environments when necessary.

An important part of contextual intelligence is tacit knowledge, or savvy, which is not directly taught. Tacit knowledge is the ability to work the system to one's advantage. Examples are knowing how to cut through institutional red tape and maneuvering through educational systems with the least amount of hassle. People with tacit knowledge are often thought of as street‐smart.

Moral development and judgment

Another facet of cognitive development is moral development and judgment, or the ability to reason about right and wrong. Lawrence Kohlberg proposed a theory of moral development with three levels consisting of six stages. The first level, preconventional morality, has to do with moral reasoning and behavior based on rules and fear of punishment (Stage 1) and nonempathetic self‐interest (Stage 2). The second level, conventional morality, refers to conformity and helping others (Stage 3) and obeying the law and keeping order (Stage 4). The third level, postconventional morality, is associated with accepting the relative and changeable nature of rules and laws (Stage 5) and conscience‐directed concern with human rights (Stage 6).

Moral development depends, in part, on the appearance of empathy, shame, and guilt. Internalization of morality begins with empathy, the ability to relate to others' pain and joy. Children in their first year begin to show signs of basic empathy in that they become distressed when those around them do likewise. Internalization of morality also involves shame (feelings of not living up to others' standards) and guilt (feelings of not living up to personal standards). Shame develops around age 2, and guilt develops between ages 3 and 4. As children mature cognitively, they evidence an increasing ability to weigh consequences in light of self‐interest and the interest of those around them. Teenagers typically demonstrate conventional morality as they approach their 20s, although some may take longer to gain the experience they need to make the transition.

Research tends to support much of Kohlberg's model; however, the theory has been criticized on several counts. According to some experts, the model favors educated individuals who are verbally sophisticated. People may also regress in their moral reasoning or behave differently than their moral reasoning may predict. Culture, family factors, and gender affect the attainment of the higher levels of moral judgment; hence, Kohlberg's model has been criticized as limited in terms of certain cultures, family styles, and distinction between differences in male and female moral development.

An alternative to Kohlberg's model is that of Carol Gilligan. Gilligan proposed that men and women evince moral reasoning that is equally viable but that appears in different forms. She notes that men tend to be more concerned with justice, while women lean toward compassion. The differences most often appear in circumstances where men and women make moral judgments.

Similar to moral development is religious development. The three levels are the same as Kohlberg's: preconventional (fundamentalistic black‐or‐white and egocentric thinking based on religious laws and rules); conventional (conformity to accepted religious traditions and standards); and postconventional (relativistic gray thinking; the acknowledgment of religious contradictions, human interpretations, and the changeable nature of rules). This latter stage is reached when the person has moved out of Piaget's concrete operations and into formal operations or postformal operations, both of which involve extensive use of critical thinking skills. As with moral development, teenagers often evidence conventional religious thinking as they approach their 20s. Some move on to postconventional religious thinking during college, where they are exposed to a large number of different people and viewpoints.