The Importance of Assimilation in Adaptation

Assimilation in adaptation

Verywell / Cindy Chung

Assimilation is the cognitive process of making new information fit in with your existing understanding of the world. Essentially, when you encounter something new, you process and make sense of it by relating it to things that you already know.

Assimilation refers to a part of the adaptation process initially proposed by Jean Piaget. Through assimilation, we take in new information or experiences and incorporate them into our existing ideas. The process is somewhat subjective, because we tend to modify experience or information to fit in with our pre-existing beliefs.

Assimilation plays an important role in how we learn about the world around us. In early childhood, children are constantly assimilating new information and experiences into their existing knowledge about the world. However, this process does not end with childhood. As people encounter new things and interpret these experiences, they make both small and large adjustments to their existing ideas about the world around them.

Assimilation vs. Accommodation

Piaget believed that there are two basic ways that we can adapt to new experiences and information: assimilation and accommodation. Assimilation is the easiest method because it does not require a great deal of adjustment. Through this process, we add new information to our existing knowledge base, sometimes reinterpreting these new experiences so that they will fit in with previously existing information.

In assimilation, children make sense of the world by applying what they already know. It involves fitting reality and what they experience into their current cognitive structure. A child's understanding of how the world works, therefore, filters and influences how they interpret reality.

For example, imagine that your neighbors have a daughter who you have always known to be sweet, polite, and kind. One day, you glance out your window and see the girl throwing a snowball at your car. It seems out of character and rather rude.

How do you interpret this new information? If you use the process of assimilation, you might dismiss the girl's behavior, believing that it's something she witnessed a classmate doing and that she does not mean to be impolite. You're not revising your opinion of the girl; you are simply adding new information to your existing knowledge. She's still kind, but now you know that she also has a mischievous side to her personality.

If you were to utilize the second method of adaptation described by Piaget, the young girl's behavior might cause you to reevaluate your opinion of her. This process is what Piaget referred to as accommodation, in which old ideas are changed or even replaced based on new information.

Assimilation and accommodation both work in tandem as part of the learning process. Some information is incorporated into our existing schemas through the process of assimilation, while other information leads to the development of new schemas or total transformations of existing ideas through the process of accommodation.

Examples of Assimilation

Piaget did not believe that children just passively take in information. He argued that they actively try to make sense of the world, constantly forming new ideas and experimenting with those ideas. Examples of assimilation include:

  • A child sees a new type of dog that they've never seen before and immediately points to the animal and says, "Dog!"
  • A chef learns a new cooking technique
  • A computer programmer learns a new programming language

Another common example would be how children learn about different types of animals. A child might begin with a schema for a dog, which in the child's mind, is a small, four-legged animal. As the child encounters new information in the world, the new information can then be assimilated or accommodated into this existing schema.

When the child encounters a horse, they might assimilate this information and immediately call the animal a dog. The process of accommodation then allows the child to adapt the existing schema to incorporate the knowledge that some four-legged animals are horses.

In each of these examples, the individual is adding information to their existing schema. Remember, if new experiences cause the person to alter or completely change their existing beliefs, then it is known as accommodation.

Equilibriation

Piaget also believed that as children learn, they strike a balance between the use of assimilation and accommodation. This process, known as equilibration, allows children to find a balance between applying their existing knowledge and adapting their behavior to new information.

According to Piaget, the learning process involves attempting to interpret new information within the framework of existing knowledge (assimilation), making small changes to that knowledge in order to cope with things that don't fit those existing frameworks (accommodation), and eventually adjusting existing schemas or forming new ones in order to adjust to a new understanding (equilibration).

A Word From Verywell

Assimilation and accommodation are complementary learning processes that play a role at each stage of cognitive development. During the sensorimotor stage, for example, some information is assimilated, while some experiences must be accommodated. It is through these processes that infants, children, and adolescents gain new knowledge and progress through the stages of development.

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