The Formal Operational Stage of Cognitive Development

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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.

In the formal operational stage, children's 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 tested formal operational thought in a few different ways. Two of the better-known tests explored physical conceptualization and the abstraction of thought.

Balance in the Formal Operational Stage

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 the 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 in the Formal Operational Stage

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.

Formal Operational Stage Skills

Important skills that emerge during the formal operational stage include the following:

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.


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.

Criticisms of the Formal Operational Stage

Some researchers have noted that while Piaget's theory indicates there are four stages of cognitive development, there is also evidence that indicates that not all adolescents reach the formal operational stage.

The formal operational stage hinges on the emergence of critical thinking skills. Depending on factors such as education, parenting, and cultural influences, some children do not necessarily develop the requisite thinking skills to fully approach this stage.

It has also been noted that formal operational thought may, in some cases, be domain specific. A trained engineer may be able to engage in formal operational thought with regard to their profession, but they may lack the ability to apply similar skills in domains such as economics, politics, or social science.

8 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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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.

By Kendra Cherry, MSEd
Kendra Cherry, MS, is a psychosocial rehabilitation specialist, psychology educator, and author of the "Everything Psychology Book."