A comparison of postformal operations in diverse adult populations: contrasting African Americans and standard-average-European Americans



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Texas Tech University


The study of cognitive change over adulthood became important to researchers during the 1980s with the recognition and clarification of the limits of Piaget's formal operational stage and suggestions that formal operations was not the concluding or most comprehensive cognitive structure. With this recognition, researchers turned to look for a model of development that might outline systematic and positive cognitive elaboration that occurred beyond formal operations and over the adult years. Thus, the field of postformal operations was created.

Postformal theories build upon Piagetian theory with expectations that postformal stages evolve from formal operations. The new stages are outlined as cognitive levels through which the adult comes to understand the contextual and contradictory nature of social life. The adult is expected to bring certain wisdom to the tasks of everyday life and look for a 'best' answer, not necessarily the most logically correct answer to whatever problem is at hand. Empirical findings suggest that indeed middle-aged and older adults do look for 'workable' answers while younger adults look for logical answers to a variety of posed everyday problems.

Using interview methods to pose everyday problems and using a variety of new measurement techniques, researchers found detectable differences in cognitive processes of middle-aged adults when compared to young adults. Yet, efforts are just beginning and existing research is narrow in its focus. To date, research has centered on only White middle-class and highly educated respondents. Existing studies have not included individuals from disparate social statuses or ethnic groups. This project was designed to augment existing research. This project examined postformal levels of cognition in two previously underrepresented groups, working-class Anglos and African Americans.

It was theorized, as social psychologists predicted, that social milieu would have an impact on cognitive development. It was predicted that minority status would aid in and speed the development of postformal stages. To a limited extent, the prediction was upheld and differences were found on measures of postformal operations between the working-class Anglos and African Americans who participated in this study.



Cognition and culture, Working class whites, African Americans