Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development: The Formal Operational Stage

In his theory of cognitive development, Jean Piaget stated that there are four stages that each individual goes through. The fourth and last stage of cognitive development is called the Formal Operational Stage. This period takes place at around 12 years old and lasts well into adulthood.

What Happens During the Formal Operational Stage?

This is the time when thinking skills become advanced and more sophisticated. Those in this stage can think about abstract and theoretical concepts and can use logic to come up with solutions to problems.

Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning are developed during this time.

Developing the Idea: Piaget’s Research

Jean Piaget conducted tests to support his theory of cognitive development. For the Formal Operational Stage, he came up with two: (1) physical conceptualization and (2) abstraction of thought.

For physical conceptualization, he used the concept of balance. Children from different age groups were asked to balance a scale. He found that those in the Formal Operational Stage (approximately 13 years old) made a hypothesis about where to place the weights to achieve balance. 10-year-old subjects used the trial-and-error method, while 7-year-olds placed weights on each side of the scale but did not consider the placement of the weights. Subjects younger than 7 years old were not able to complete the task because they did not understand the concept of balance. 

In the second test, which had to do with the abstraction of thought, children were asked to think of where to put a third eye if they could have one. Most of the younger children stated that they wanted to place the third eye in the middle of the forehead, while those in the Formal Operational Stage suggested more creative answers like putting it behind the head to see what’s happening behind them.

Creative ideas such as the answers provided by the children in the Formal Operational Stage are indicative of the use of abstract and hypothetical thought.  

Notable Skills

The skills listed below are indicators of the Formal Operational Stage of Cognitive Development:

1.                  Deductive Logic – this has to do with being able to think in broader terms. Children at this stage can come up with solutions to problems using logic and general principles. This skill is useful in Science and Math. 

2.                  Abstract Thought – has to do with being able to think about abstract ideas. They consider possible outcomes, which include out-of-the-box ideas to solve problems. This skill is useful for long term planning.

3.                  Problem Solving – is the ability to plan an efficient and logical approach to solve a problem.

4.                  Hypothetical-Deductive Reasoning – children at this age think about what-ifs and attempt to formulate various solutions to solve them.


The Formal Operational Stage is the last of four stages of cognitive development posited by Jean Piaget. Formal operational thinkers can think of different solutions to solve a problem, including those that are creative and abstract. Individuals in this stage think carefully before they act. 

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