The Formal Operational Stage of Cognitive Development

The formal operational stage is the fourth and final stage of Jean Piaget's theory of cognitive development. It begins at approximately age 12 and lasts into adulthood.

At this point in development, thinking becomes much more sophisticated and advanced. Kids can think about abstract and theoretical concepts and use logic to come up with creative solutions to problems. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning also emerge during this stage.

formal operational stage of cognitive development
Illustration by Brianna Gilmartin, Verywell

Piaget's Research

Piaget tested formal operational thought in a few different ways. Two of the better-known tests explored physical conceptualization and the abstraction of thought.

Conceptualizing Balance

One task involved having children of different ages balance a scale by hooking weights on each end. To balance the scale, the children needed to understand that both the heaviness of the weights and distance from the center played a role.

Younger children around the ages of 3 and 5 were unable to complete the task because they did not understand the concept of balance. Seven-year-olds knew that they could adjust the scale by placing weights on each end, but failed to understand that where they put the weights was also important. By age 10, the kids considered location as well as weight but had to arrive at the correct answer using trial-and-error.

It wasn't until around age 13 that children could use logic to form a hypothesis about where to place the weights to balance the scale and then complete the task.

Abstraction of Ideas

In another experiment on formal operational thought, Piaget asked children to imagine where they would want to place a third eye if they had one. Younger children said that they would put the imagined third eye in the middle of their forehead. Older children, however, were able to come up with a variety of creative ideas about where to place this hypothetical eye and various ways the eye could be used.

For example, an eye in the middle of one's hand would be useful for looking around corners. An eye at the back of one's head could be helpful for seeing what is happening in the background.

Creative ideas represent the use of abstract and hypothetical thinking, both important indicators of formal operational thought.

Deductive Logic

Piaget believed that deductive reasoning becomes necessary during the formal operational stage. Deductive logic requires the ability to use a general principle to determine a particular outcome. Science and mathematics often require this type of thinking about hypothetical situations and concepts.

Abstract Thought

While children tend to think very concretely and specifically in earlier stages, the ability to think about abstract concepts emerges during the formal operational stage. Instead of relying solely on previous experiences, children begin to consider possible outcomes and consequences of actions. This type of thinking is important in long-term planning.

Problem-Solving

In earlier stages, children used trial-and-error to solve problems. During the formal operational stage, the ability to systematically solve a problem in a logical and methodical way emerges. Children at the formal operational stage of cognitive development are often able to plan quickly an organized approach to solving a problem.

Hypothetical-Deductive Reasoning

Piaget believed that what he referred to as "hypothetical-deductive reasoning" was essential at this stage of intellectual development. At this point, teens become capable of thinking about abstract and hypothetical ideas. They often ponder "what-if" type situations and questions and can think about multiple solutions or possible outcomes.

While kids in the previous stage (concrete operations) are very particular in their thoughts, kids in the formal operational stage become increasingly abstract in their thinking.

As children gain greater awareness and understanding of their own thought processes, they develop what is known as metacognition, or the ability to think about their thoughts as well as the ideas of others.

Current Observations

The following observations were made about the formal operational stage of cognitive development:

  • From Zana H. Babakr, Pakstan Mohamedamin, and Karwan Kakamad authors of Piaget's Cognitive Developmental Theory: Critical Review : “Although Piaget proposed that all children, without exception, go through the four different types of cognitive development, recent literature demonstrated that not all adolescents approach the formal operational stage. Since in some societies, the educational process does not focus on critical thinking, which is very essential to reach a formal operational stage. Studies showed that only half of the individuals in some societies reach the formal operational stage due to the lack of educational background. Moreover, sometimes individuals can illustrate formal operational skill in just one field, for example, an individual who is a very good an engineer, can think logically about this particular area, but at the same time are very likely to have difficulty thinking logically about poetry.” 
  • From Fatima Malik and Raman Marwaha authors of Cognitive Development: “Formal operational stage (12 years and up), suggests an adolescent can use logical operations with the ability to use abstractions. He can understand theories and hypothesize and comprehend abstract ideas like love and justice.”
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8 Sources
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  2. Malik F, Marwaha R. Cognitive development. PubMed. Published 2020.

  3. Inhelder B, Piaget J. The Growth of Logical Thinking: From Childhood to Adolescence. Basic Books; 1958. doi:10.1037/10034-000

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  5. Jeon M, Draney K, Wilson M, Sun Y. Investigation of adolescents’ developmental stages in deductive reasoning: An application of a specialized confirmatory mixture IRT approach. Behavior Research Methods. 2019;52. doi:10.3758/s13428-019-01221-5

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  7. Senan D. Enhancing educational effectiveness in physics through cognitive development model: An investigation in formal operational stage. The International Journal Of Engineering And Science (IJES). 2013;2(8).

  8. Padmanabha CH. Metacognition: Conceptual framework. i-Manager’s Journal on Educational Psychology. 2020;14(1). doi:10.26634/jpsy.14.1.16710

Additional Reading
  • Piaget, J. (1977). Gruber, H.E.; Voneche, J.J. eds. The essential Piaget. New York: Basic Books.

  • Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's theory. In P. Mussen (ed). Handbook of Child Psychology. 4th edition. Vol. 1. New York: Wiley.