Jean Piaget, the famous Swiss developmental psychologist, began his career as a biologist - specifically, a malacologist, someone who studies molluscs! But his interest in science and the history of science soon overtook his interest in snails and clams. As he delved deeper into the thought-processes of doing science, he became interested in the nature of thought itself, especially in the development of thinking. Finding relatively little work done in the area, he had the opportunity to give it a label. He called it genetic epistemology, meaning the study of the development of knowledge.
He noticed, for example, that even infants have certain skills in regard to objects in their environment. These skills were certainly simple ones, sensori-motor skills, but they directed the way in which the infant explored his or her environment and so how they gained more knowledge of the world and more sophisticated exploratory skills. These skills he called schemas.
For example, an infant knows how to grab his favorite rattle and thrust it into his mouth. He’s got that schema down pat. When he comes across some other object - say daddy’s expensive watch, he easily learns to transfer his “grab and thrust” schema to the new object. This Piaget called assimilation, specifically assimilating a new object into an old schema.
When our infant comes across another object again - say a beach ball - he will try his old schema of grab and thrust. This of course works poorly with the new object. So the schema will adapt to the new object: Perhaps, in this example, “squeeze and drool” would be an appropriate title for the new schema. This is called accommodation, specifically accomodating an old schema to a new object.Assimilation and accommodation are the two sides of adaptation, Piaget’s term for what most of us would call learning. Piaget saw adaptation, however, as a good deal broader than the kind of learning that Behaviorists in the US and Russia were talking about. He saw it as a fundamentally biological process. Even one’s grip has to accommodate to a stone, while clay is assimilated into our grip. All living things adapt, even without a nervous system or brain.
All learning ultimately boils down to association and
These are the two basic mechanisms of learning (and memory) that have
proposed over the centuries. Association is learning that two
go together. for example, we learn that spoons go with knives, cups go
with saucers, thunder follows lightning, pain follows injury, and so
on. Ivan Pavlov's famous classical conditioning is a simple
example: When a dog hears a bell each time he is fed, he will
begin to sallivate just upon hearing the bell, because food (and the
salivation it reflexively evokes) has become associated with the sound
of the bell.
Differentiation is learning to distinguish one something from
another, or pulling a figure out of a background. We learn that green,
not red, means go, that cats, not dogs,
sharp claws, that soft speech, not yelling, is approved of by one’s
that birds have feathers but reptiles don’t. Differentiation is a
of improving the quality of one's phenomenal field by extracting some
from the confusion, because that detail is important, is meaningful, to
This is, of course, the same thing as George Kelly's idea of
As a child, the color of someone's skin may be irrelevant; later,
show the child that color is important. Color comes out of the
black is differentiated from white; the contrast is learned.
Not, in this case, because the child has been shown a connection
between color and the quality of someone's character, but because a
cannot afford to ignore the differentiations his or her
It is clear that association and differentiation are two sides of the same coin, but sometimes one is more obvious, and sometimes the it’s the other.
We learn from our environment simply by being in it. This is
what E. C.
Tolman labelled latent
learning. But there are several
things that help us to retain associations and
The first is obvious: Repetition
or rehearsal. Practice
perfect! Then there are things like vividness
more likely to remember someone's name if they are loud and colorful
if they are quiet and ordinary. And finally we have conditioning,
that is, associating the whole association or differentiation
something that motivates
us, whether it be food, companionship, money, a sense of pride, a fear
of pain, or whatever.
Learning is also enhanced when the differentiations or associations involved have direct relevance to the individual's needs, that is, when learning is meaningful to that individual. As long as teachers insist on forcing material that, from the students' perspective, has no relevance to them or their lives, education will be a arduous process. It is curious that a boy who can't remember the times tables can remember baseball statistics back to the stone age, or a girl who can't write a coherent paragraph can tell stories that would make Chaucer proud. If calculus or Shakespeare or any number of subjects we feel children should learn seem to be so difficult for them, it is not necessarily because the children are dumb. It is because they don't see any reason for learning them. Teachers must get to know their students, because the motivation to learn is "inside" them, in their phenomenal fields and phenomenal selves.
The simplest kind of learning, which we share with all animals, we
call environmental: On the
basis of your present understanding
knowledge, you anticipate certain things or act in a certain way - but
the world doesn't meet with your expectations. So, after various other
anticipations and actions, you adapt, develop a new understanding, gain
new knowledge. Environmental
conditioning adds a positive or
consequence to the learning that stamps it in: You run, expecting
a 100 yards of open field, when you suddenly smack into a tree you
hadn't noticed. You will be more careful in the future!
For a social animal, much of this learning comes from others -- i.e. it is social conditioning, also known as rewards and punishments. So, instead of learning not to run across streets by getting run-over, you learn by getting punished as you begin to run across the street. Or, instead of learning sex roles by accident (!), you are gently shaped by signs of social approval: “My, aren’t you pretty!” or “Here’s my little man!"
Social learning includes vicarious learning (noticing and recalling the kinds of environmental feedback and social conditioning other people get) and imitation (or what Abert Bandura called modeling). This kind of learning is probably the most significant for the development of personality. It can be either conscious, as when we are watching an artist to learn their technique, or unconscious, as when we grow up to be disconcertingly like our parents.
Of the hundreds of studies Albert Bandura was responsible for, one group stands out above the others -- the bobo doll studies. He made of film of one of his students, a young woman, essentially beating up a bobo doll. In case you don’t know, a bobo doll is an inflatable, egg-shape balloon creature with a weight in the bottom that makes it bob back up when you knock him down. Nowadays, it might have Darth Vader painted on it, but back then it was simply “Bobo” the clown.
The woman punched the clown, shouting “sockeroo!” She kicked it, sat on it, hit with a little hammer, and so on, shouting various aggressive phrases. Bandura showed his film to groups of kindergartners who, as you might predict, liked it a lot. They then were let out to play. In the play room, of course, were several observers with pens and clipboards in hand, a brand new bobo doll, and a few little hammers.
And you might predict as well what the observers recorded: A lot of little kids beating the daylights out of the bobo doll. They punched it and shouted “sockeroo,” kicked it, sat on it, hit it with the little hammers, and so on. In other words, they imitated the young lady in the film, and quite precisely at that.
Finally, there’s verbal learning
- learning not from the
or the behavior of others, but from words. Culturally, this is,
course, a highly significant form of learning. Most of the
we do in our many many years of schooling is verbal. And yet we
know that much about it at all!
Remembering (often called retrieval in research literature) comes in two forms: recall and recognition. Recognition is the easier one: We recognize our friend when we see him coming down the road. Recall is more effortful, and involves mentally rebuilding the experience. It is a myth that we have everything in our heads like a motion picture. Really, we only have a certain amount of “information” in the form of neural connections, which we use to reconstruct our memories.
There is a degree to which we tend to forget things as we get older,
and there is some loss of neurons as we age. And there are drugs (such
as alcohol) and diseases (such as Alzheimer's) that can
that loss along. Amnesia is
what we call the more sudden loses of memory, whether temporary or
permanent. The most dramatic examples occur after serious trauma
to the head such as sometimes occur with car accidents or gun shots to
the head. The usual kind of amnesia is called retrograde amnesia,
where you can't
remember past events. It is usually episodic memory (memories of
events in your life, or even of your identity). We seem to retain
things like our skills, the ability to speak, definitions of words, and
Anterograde amnesia, on the
other hand, means you can't make new memories. This is a rare
condition and is due to damage to the hippocampus, a part of the limbic
system that is found on both sides of the thalamus, underneath the
temporal lobes of the cerebrum. A person with
anterograde amnesia remembers their past, but will lose his or her
experience of all new events in a matter of minutes. If you
introduce yourself and have a nice conversation with such a person,
then leave and come back ten minutes later, they will act as if they
had never met you. In their minds, they never have! A good
movie that plays on this is Memento.
But there is nothing amusing about this disorder. Most of these
people wind up in an institution, living each day as if it were the
first since their accident.
Most of our day-to-day forgetting seems to be a matter of interference. In other words, there is so much stuff in your head that it is hard to separate one thing from another. It's like trying to find something in a particularly messy attic: It's not that the stuff isn't there somewhere, it's just that you can't access it, sort of like how its hard to find things when your hard-drive is stuffed full of files, or your room is filled with junk.
One of the biggest controversies in psychology today concerns repression. Repression is the idea, promoted by Sigmund Freud, that we push painful memories out of our awareness and into a deep, dark place called "the unconscious mind." This is why traditionally we talk about going to a therapist to try to recover these traumatic memories so we can deal with them. There have even been some therapists who use hypnosis to recover repressed memories.
Unfortunately, some of the people who remembered terrible things like being abused as children were discovered to have created these memories under pressure (unintentional, we hope) from their therapists! Some parents were even sent to jail because of their adult children's “recovered memories.” But research indicates that not only is there very little evidence of repressed traumatic memories, but trauma - with its emotional intensity - actually makes memories harder to forget!
Of course, people really do get abused, and other traumatic things do happen to people. There have been people who have recovered memories and whose memories have been confirmed. So it is a difficult issue that has yet to be decided.Memories are not like the recordings you might make with a video camera. Outside information may alter our memories as we reconstruct them. Some people are easily manipulated, and everyone can be manipulated to some degree. This happens, for example, when a lawyer asks you what happened when you saw the accused’s car “crash” into his client’s car - when in fact it merely bumped into it. Hearing the word "crash" tends to subtly alter your recollection in the direction the lawyer wants it to. Hypnosis is especially powerful when it comes to altering memories. So are drugs. And children are very susceptible to manipulation. This is why children’s testimony in court is rarely accepted.
A number of psychologists, most notably Gestalt psychologists, suggest that we begin life with differentiation. First you see a lot of undifferentiated "stuff" going on (a "buzzing, blooming confusion," as William James called it). Then you learn to pick out of that "stuff" the things that are important, that make a difference, that have meaning for you. This approach was also taken by George Kelly. He starts with what he called dichotomy corollary: "A person's construction system is composed of a finite number of dichotomous constructs."
Kelly called the basic building blocks of meaning constructs: We cut up the world into little pieces, we separate this from that, we make differentiations. There are many other names we could use: contrasts, concepts, percepts, categories, dimensions, and so on, all with slightly differing meanings. Kelly also referred to them as "useful concepts," "convenient fictions," and "transparent templates." You "place" these "templates" on the world, and they guide your perceptions and behaviors. But they all ultimately refer to this process of making one into two: more or less; it's this or it's that; there are two kinds of people in the world; it's them or us; it's got to be one or the other; it's black or white; please answer, yes or no; what goes up must come down.
He often calls them personal constructs, emphasizing the fact that they are yours and yours alone, unique to you and no-one else. A construct is not some label or pigeon-hole or dimension that I, as a psychologist, lay on you with my fancy personality tests. It is a small bit of how you see the world.
He also calls them bipolar constructs, to emphasize their dichotomous nature. They have two ends, or poles: Where there is thin, there must be fat, where there is tall, there must be short, where there is up, there must be down, and so on. If everyone were fat, then fat would become meaningless, or identical in meaning to "everyone." Some people must be skinny in order for fat to have any meaning, and vice versa!
This is actually a very old insight. In ancient China, for example, philosophers made much of yin and yang, the opposites that together make the whole. More recently, Carl Jung talked about it a great deal. Linguists and anthropologists accept it as a given part of language and culture.
Most of the time, we use only one end or the other of a contrast at a time. These ends are called characteristics or, especially in reference to the characteristics of people, traits. But the other end is always there, lurking in the background.
Many constructs have names or are easily nameable: good-bad,
happy-sad, introvert-extravert, flourescent-incandescent.... But they
not be verbal: My cat
the difference between the expensive cat food and the cheap stuff, yet
can't tell you about it; an infant contrasts between mommy and
wild animals contrast safe areas and dangerous ones, etc.
Probably, most of our constructs are non-verbal. Even adult humans sometimes "just know" without being about to say - unconscious contrasts, if you like: Think of all the habits that you have that you don't name, such as the detailed movements involved in driving a car. Think about the things you recognize but don't name, such as the formation just beneath your nose? (It's called a "philtrum".) Or what is it about that person that you like or dislike? Or think about all the subtleties of a feeling like "falling in love." Constructs with names are more easily thought about. They are certainly more easily talked about! It's as if a name is a handle by which you can grab onto a construct, move it around, show it to others, and so on. And yet a construct that has no name is still "there," and can have every bit as great an effect on your life!
One more differentiation Kelly makes in regards to constructs is between peripheral and core constructs. Peripheral constructs are most constructs about the world, others, and even one's self. Core constructs, on the other hand, are the constructs that are most significant to you, that to one extent or another actually define who you are. Write down the first 10 or 20 adjectives that occur to you about yourself -- these may very well represent core constructs. Core constructs is the closest Kelly comes to talking about a self.
Mental structuresConstructs don't just float around independently, either. We interrelate and organize them. For example, we can define a category: "Women are adult female human beings." Or we can go a step further and organize things into taxonomies, those tree-like structures we come across in biology: A Siamese is a kind of cat, which is a kind of carnivore, which is a kind of mammal, which is a kind of vertebrate....
Kelly has the organization corollary: "Each person characteristically evolves, for his convenience in anticipating events, a construction system embracing ordinal relationships between constructs." Constructs are not just floating around unconnected. If they were, you wouldn't be able to use one piece of information to get to another -- you wouldn't be able to anticipate! When you are talked into a blind date, and your friend spends a great deal of energy trying to convince you that the person you will be going out with has a "great personality", you know, you just know, that they will turn out to look like Quasimodo. How do you get from "great personality" to "Quasimodo?" Organization!
Some constructs are subordinate to, or "under," other constructs. There are two versions of this. First, there's a taxonomic kind of subordination, like the "trees" of animal or plant life you learned in high school biology. There are living things vs. non-living things, for example; subordinate to living things are, say, plants vs. animals; under plants, there might be trees vs. flowers; under trees, there might be conifers vs. deciduous trees; and so on.
Mind you, these are personal constructs, not scientific constructs, and so this is a personal taxonomy as well. It may be the same as the scientific one in your biology textbook, or it might not be. I still tend to have a species of conifer called "Christmas trees".
This is also the basis for stereotyping: "We" are good, clean, smart, moral, etc., while "they" are bad, dirty, dumb, immoral, etc.
Many constructs, of course, are independent of each other.
is independent of flourescent-incandescent, to give an obvious
We can also put constructs into more temporal structures, like rules. These are often called schemas or scripts. You can find explicit examples in books about card games, etiquette, or grammar; but you know quite a few rule systems yourself, even if they have become so automatic as to be unconscious!There are also narratives - the stories we have in our minds. These are temporal, like rules, but are amazingly flexible. They can be a matter of remembered personal experiences, or memorized history lessons, or pure fiction. I have a suspicion that these contribute greatly to our sense of identity, and that animals don't have them to the degree we do.
Sometimes, the relationship between two constructs is very tight. If one construct is consistently used to predict another, you have tight construction. Prejudice would be an example: As soon as you have a label for someone, you automatically assume other things about that person as well. You "jump to conclusions."
When we "do" science, we need to use tight construction. We call this "rigorous thinking," and it is a good thing. Who, after all, would want an engineer to build bridges using scientific rules that only maybe work. People who think of themselves as realistic often prefer tight construction.
But it is a small step from rigorous and realistic to rigid. And this rigidity can become pathological, so that an obsessive-compulsive person has to do things "just so" or break out in anxiety.
On the other hand, sometimes the relationship between constructs is
left loose: There is a
connection, but it is not absolute, not
necessary. Loose construction is a more flexible way of using
When we go to another country, for example, we might have some
the people. These preconceptions would be prejudicial stereotypes, if
construed them tightly. But if we use them loosely, they merely help us
to behave more appropriately in their culture.
One example of loose construction is when describe something: "Women are delicate." As the example is intended to suggest, descriptions, as opposed to definitions, need not be true! Beliefs are similar to, but looser than, taxonomies. Whereas birds definitely (i.e. by definition) are vertebrates and have feathers, it is only my belief that they all fly - I could be wrong! Stereotypes are examples of beliefs; so are opinions. But some beliefs are so strongly held that we see them as definite.
We use loose construction when we fantasize and dream, when anticipations are broken freely and odd combinations are permitted. However, if we use loose construction too often and inappropriately, we appear flaky rather than flexible. Taken far enough, loose construction will land you in an institution.
The creativity cycle makes use of these ideas. When we are being creative, we first loosen our constructions - fantasizing and brainstorming alternative constructions. When we find a novel construction that looks like it has some potential, we focus on it and tighten it up. We use the creativity cycle (obviously) in the arts. First we loosen up and get creative in the simplest sense; then tighten things up and give our creations substance. We conceive the idea, then give it form.
We use the creativity cycle in therapy, too. We let go of our unsuccessful models of reality, let our constructs drift, find a novel configuration, pull it into more rigorous shape, and try it out!
The range corollary tell us that "A construct is convenient for the anticipation of a finite range of events only." No construct is useful for everything. The gender construct (male-female) is, for most of us, something of importance only with people and a few higher animals such as our pets and cattle. Few of us care what sex flies are, or lizards, or even armadillos. And no-one, I think, applies gender to geological formations or political parties. These things are beyond the range of convenience of the gender construct.
Some constructs are very comprehensive, or broad in application. Good-bad is perhaps the most comprehensive construct of all, being applicable to nearly anything. Other constructs are very incidental, or narrow. Flourescent-incandescent is fairly narrow, applicable only to light bulbs.
But notice that what is relatively narrow for you might be relatively broad for me. A biologist will be interested in the gender of flies, lizards, armadillos, apple trees, philodendra, and so on. Or a philosopher may restrict his or her use of good-bad to specifically moral behaviors, rather than to all kinds of things, people, or beliefs.
The modulation corollary says "The variation in a person's construction system is limited by the permeability of the constructs within whose range of convenience the variants lie. Some constructs are "springy," they "modulate," they are permeable, which means that they are open to increased range. Other constructs are relatively impermeable.
For example, good-bad is generally quite permeable for most of us. We are always adding new elements: We may never have seen a computer before, or an iPod, or a thumb drive, but as soon as we have, we want to know the best brand to buy. Likewise, a person who will look around for a rock if a hammer is not available uses the construct concerning "things to hammer with" in a permeable fashion.
On the other hand, flourescent-incandescent is relatively impermeable: It can be used for lighting, but little else is likely to ever be admitted. And people who won't let you sit on tables are keeping their sit-upon constructs quite impermeable.
In case this seems like another way of talking about incidental vs. comprehensive constructs, note that you can have comprehensive but impermeable constructs, such as the one expressed by the person who says "Whatever happened to the good old days? There just don't seem to be any honest people around anymore." In other words, honesty, though broad, is now closed. And there are incidental constructs used permeably, such as when you say "my, but you're looking incandescent today!" Permeability is the very soul of poetry!
When there is no more "stretch," no more "give" in the range of the constructs you are using, you may have to resort to more drastic measures. Dilation is when you broaden the range of your constructs. Let's say you don't believe in ESP. You walk into a party and suddenly you hear a voice in your head and notice someone smiling knowingly at you from across the room! You would have to rather quickly stretch the range of the constructs involving ESP, which had been filled, up to now, with nothing but a few hoaxes.
On the other hand, sometimes events force you to narrow the range of your constructs equally dramatically. This is called constriction. An example might be when, after a lifetime of believing that people were moral creatures, you experience the realities of war. The construct including "moral" may shrink out of existence.
Notice that dilation and constriction are rather emotional things. You can easily understand depression and manic states this way. The manic person has dilated a set of constructs about his or her happiness enormously, and shouts "I've never imagined that life could be like this before!" Someone who is depressed, on the other hand, has taken the constructs that relate to life and good things to do with it and constricted them down to sitting alone in the dark.
Finally, there's the choice corollary: "A person chooses for himself that alternative in a dichotomized construct through which he anticipates the greater possibility for extension and definition of his system." With all these constructs, and all these poles, how do we chose our behaviors? Kelly says that we will choose to do what we anticipate will most likely elaborate our construction system, that is, improve our understanding, our ability to anticipate. Reality places limits on what we can experience or do, but we choose how to construe, or interpret, that reality. And we choose to interpret that reality in whatever way we believe will help us the most.
Commonly, our choices are between an adventurous alternative and a safe one. We could try to extend our understanding of, say, human social interaction ("partying") by making the adventurous choice of going to more parties, getting to know more people, developing more relationships, and so on.
On the other hand, we might prefer to define our understanding by making the security choice: staying home, pondering what might have gone wrong with that last unsuccessful relationship, or getting to know one person better. Which one you choose will depend on which one you think you need.
With all this choosing going on, you might expect that Kelly has had
something to say about free will vs. determinism. He has, and what he
to say is very interesting: He sees freedom as being a relative
We are not "free" or "unfree;" Some of us are free-er than others; We
free-er in some situations than in others; We are free-er from some
than from others; And we are free-er under some constructions than
others. We will look into the idea of freedom later.
One example of how we actually use constructs - at least those that
have words attached to them -
is describe a person to someone. We
then begin to deal with them socially before we actually meet
They, in fact, could be long dead, and yet we can get to know them to
Each word or phrase we give or hear narrows the range of possible
a little more. "He's male." So what. "He's male, in
chubby, a professor of psychology, kinda odd..." Oh, I think know
"He wears jeans with suspenders." Bingo! The more that is said,
the more precise the anticipations.
Just like any other constructs, our social constructs are organized to some degree so that we can make inferences from one construct to another. Usually, this means going from a fairly obvious characteristic to one that is more "abstract," hidden, or uncertain. For example, when you see a person in a lab coat with a stethoscope around her neck and a certain kind of diploma on the wall, you might infer that this person is a physician. Or if you see someone being rude to someone else, you might infer that she is obnoxious, that is, has some inner trait that will lead her to be rude in other situations and might involve other behaviors as well.
Note that some of our inferences are more a matter of definitions, and others are more a matter of beliefs. Certain college degrees, for example, are crucial to who is or isn't a doctor; their manner of dress, or their bedside manners, might be important, but are not crucial.
There are several different bases for the inferences we make:
(1) A smile is usually correctly understood as an indication of happiness because smiles seem to be a part of our biology. There is no culture in the world that does not understand the smile, though many misuse and pervert that understanding.
(2) "The finger" is understood, in our culture, as an indication of contempt, because it is a part of our cultural communications system. Language, gestures, clothing, social ritual, occupation, and much of body language is cultural.
(3) Being female has been, in our culture, traditionally assumed to imply poor mechanical ability. This assumption, of course, has lead parents to discourage the development of mechanical abilities in their daughters: Why bother? The inference is, therefore, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The expectation creates itself!(4) Finally, many of our inferences don't really work at all. They are perpetuated because we often ignore or deny contradictions - perhaps they are threatening to us - or the contradictions simply don't show up well, as when we have little contact with some category of people. We could call these superstitious inferences.
In linguistics, it is said that language is generative. That means that, with a small set of words and a small set of rules of grammar, you can create (generate) a potentially infinite set of meaningful sentences. Well, this generativity is characteristic of all human activity. This means that, no matter how many contrasts you can relate about a chubby professor or whatever, there are still an infinite number of possible characteristics or behaviors that the 50-ish professor can generate. That professor, in other words, can still surprise you!
Since we are still "built" to try to anticipate him, we try one more thing: We try to anticipate others by putting ourselves into our anticipations! We make the assumption that they will do what we would do if we were in their situation and in the kinds of pigeon-holes we have placed them in. I call this "the assumption of empathic understanding."
This seems to be such a strong tendency in human beings that we often do it when we are trying to anticipate non-human beings and things. We tend to be anthropomorphic in our dealings with animals, for example. I tend to see my cat as being manipulative, Machiavellian, even sociopathic when, in fact, she doesn't have the I.Q. of a bean sprout. We even attribute "souls" to non-living things, which is called animism. So our ancestors attempted to appease angry volcanoes, or give thanks for the generosity of the earth, and so on.When all else fails, we expect others to be like us.