Beyond Formal Operational Thought: Postformal Thought
According to Piaget’s theory adolescents acquire formal operational thought. The hallmark of this type of thinking is the ability to think abstractly or to consider possibilities and ideas about circumstances never directly experienced. Thinking abstractly is only one characteristic of adult thought, however. If you compare a 15 year-old with someone in their late 30s, you would probably find that the latter considers not only what is possible, but also what is likely. Why the change? The adult has gained experience and understands why possibilities do not always become realities. They learn to base decisions on what is realistic and practical, not idealistic, and can make adaptive choices. Adults are also not as influenced by what others think. This advanced type of thinking is referred to as postformal thought (Sinnott, 1998).
In addition to moving toward more practical considerations, thinking in early adulthood may also become more flexible and balanced. Abstract ideas that the adolescent believes in firmly may become standards by which the adult evaluates reality. Adolescents tend to think in dichotomies; ideas are true or false; good or bad; and there is no middle ground. However, with experience, the adult comes to recognize that there is some right and some wrong in each position, some good or some bad in a policy or approach, some truth and some falsity in a particular idea. This ability to bring together salient aspects of two opposing viewpoints or positions is referred to as dialectical thought and is considered one of the most advanced aspects of postformal thinking (Basseches, 1984). Such thinking is more realistic because very few positions, ideas, situations, or people are completely right or wrong. So, for example, parents who were considered angels or devils by the adolescent eventually become just people with strengths and weaknesses, endearing qualities, and faults to the adult.
Does everyone reach postformal or even formal operational thought?
Formal operational thought involves being able to think abstractly; however, this ability does not apply to all situations or all adults. Formal operational thought is influenced by experience and education. Some adults lead lives in which they are not challenged to think abstractly about their world. Many adults do not receive any formal education and are not taught to think abstractly about situations they have never experienced. Further, they are also not exposed to conceptual tools used to formally analyze hypothetical situations. Those who do think abstractly, in fact, may be able to do so more easily in some subjects than others. For example, psychology majors may be able to think abstractly about psychology, but be unable to use abstract reasoning in physics or chemistry. Abstract reasoning in a particular field requires a knowledge base that we might not have in all areas. Consequently, our ability to think abstractly depends to a large extent on our experiences. We can see here the societal importance of providing quality educational opportunities across the socioeconomic spectrum and across the lifespan so that each of us maximizes the dynamism of accumulating experience and skill as we get older.
Except for the last sentence, composed by Baird, text in this chapter was taken directly from Lally & Valentine-French (2017). Glossary definitions are quoted from the APA Dictionary of Psychology (undated).
the complex ways in which adults structure their thinking based on the complicated nature of adult life. It is an extension of Jean Piaget’s concept of formal operations (see formal operational stage), which are developed in adolescence, to adult cognition and includes an understanding of the relative, nonabsolute nature of knowledge; an acceptance of contradiction as a basic aspect of reality; the ability to synthesize contradictory thoughts, feelings, and experiences into more coherent, all-encompassing wholes; and the ability to resolve both ill- and well-defined problems.
the tendency to think in terms of polar opposites—that is, in terms of the best and worst—without accepting the possibilities that lie between these two extremes. The term has been used to characterize the tendency of people with major depressive disorder to view mildly negative events as extremely negative, but the potential role of such thinking in other conditions (e.g., eating disorders, personality disorders) is also under investigation.
ability to see the strengths and weaknesses in various opposing viewpoints; developed as a result of interactions between the individual and the environment.