Section 2, Article 1 - Adolescents graduate from the concrete operational stage, which was discussed in the previous module, and move to the formal operational stage of thought around the age of 12. As the fourth and last stage of Piaget’s cognitive development theory, this stage brings about the ability to engage in abstract thought (Piaget, 1972Source: Piaget, J. (1972). The psychology of intelligence. Totowa, NJ: Littefield.). With this new form of thought, adolescents are able to comprehend and methodically handle theoretical concepts. No longer bound by concrete reasoning, adolescents develop a complex imagination and a hypothetical approach to problem-solving. They are often concerned with the reason or the “why” behind things. Instead of being limited to concrete thinking, adolescents can imagine both the possible and the impossible, form speculations, and use deductive reasoning (discussed in concept 5.3.3) to determine the probability of a concept or task. Indicating that teenagers have reached the formal operational stage, they now have the ability to represent concepts by holding thoughts in their minds instead of having to use objects. To illustrate this, one could ask a child to rank items based off of reasoning: If A = B and B = C, then A = C. The child still in the concrete operational stage will not be able to understand this task without using drawings or objects. In contrast, teenagers in the formal operational stage will be able to imagine the concept in their minds and explain the logic behind it (Miller, 2011Source: Miller, P. H. (2011). Theories of developmental psychology (5th ed.). New York: NY: Worth Publishers. ).

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Concrete to Abstract Thought: The child still in the concrete operational stage will not be able to understand this task without using drawings or objects. In contrast, teenagers in the formal operational stage will be able to imagine the concept in their minds and explain the logic behind it.

In 1970, Piaget devised several tests to demonstrate formal operational thought. The third eye problem is a simple exercise in which teenagers are asked where they would put a third eye on their body if they could and why. Their exact answer is not as important as the inventiveness and rationale behind the answer that they give. Another test of formal operational thinking is the pendulum or weights test. After presenting the teens with strings and weights of various sizes, they are asked to discuss the impact of the different combinations of string length, heaviness of the weight, and the strength of the push. The goal of this test is to observe how people experiment with the various factors that affected the pendulum swing. Again, the teens’ test results are not as important as their ability to use abstract reasoning. Those who have moved into the formal operational stage will approach the task systematically, testing one variable at a time to determine its effect. However, those still in the concrete operational stage will measure these factors randomly, not grasping the relationship between the variables (Schaffer, 1988Source: Schaffer, H. R. (1988). Child Psychology: the future. In S. Chess & A. Thomas (eds), Annual Progress in Child Psychiatry and Child Development. NY: Brunner/Mazel.).

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Third EyeSchaffer (1988) reported that when asked this question, 9-year-olds all suggested that the third eye should be on the forehead. However, 11-year-olds were more inventive, for example suggesting what a third eye placed on the hand would be useful for seeing round corners. 

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Adolescent thought is often self-centered and influenced by the belief that others are acutely aware of their every action. They live with the awareness of an imaginary audienceDefinitionimaginary audience: This refers to everyone who—according to a teen’s egocentric viewpoint—are observing and noting his or her actions, appearance, and ideas, resulting in teens being quite self-conscious. and often act out in attention-seeking behavior. Elkind (1976Source: Elkind, D. (1976). Child development and education: A Piagetian perspective. New York: Oxford University Press.) called this heightened self-consciousness adolescent egocentrismDefinitionadolescent egocentrism: The tendency of teenagers between ages 10-13 to center their thoughts and focus on themselves to the exclusion of others., which gives rise to several shortcomings of adolescent thought. For instance, a personal fable occurs when teenagers believe that their thoughts, feelings, and experiences are exclusively distinct, more exceptional, or more terrible than others’. Similar to the personal fable is the invincibility fable, which happens when adolescents believe that they cannot be affected or hurt by anything that would negatively affect an average person (e.g., unprotected sex, drug abuse, or speeding) (Alberts, Elkind, & Ginsberg, 2007Source: Alberts, E., Elkind, D., & Ginsberg, S. (2007). The personal fable and risk taking in early adolescence. Journal of Youth and Adolescence, 36, 71–76.). It is important to note that many developmentalists do not support the belief that individuals make a quick jump into the formal operational stage, with many noting the gradual, individual progression of cognitive development (Siegler, 2007Source: Siegler, R. S. (2007). Cognitive variability. Developmental Science, 10(1), 104-109. doi:10.1111/j.1467-7687.2007.00571.x). This is evident in the tug-of-war that occurs between adolescents’ growing abilities, making them caught somewhere in-between childhood and adulthood.