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Gender and Cognitive Development Research Paper

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Updated: May 21st, 2021

Gender development

The development of a person’s gender identity begins at birth and follows socially defined roles, behaviors, and attitudes. This paper considers two major theoretical perspectives – psychoanalytic and systems – that give contrasting explanations for early advancement in gender-typed behaviors and interests. While the psychoanalytic approach views the phallic stagepsychoanalytic dimorphism’ as the basis for a healthy personality, the systems perspective considers reciprocal interactions within the environment as the drivers of gender development. It is argued that the systems perspective gives a more satisfactory explanation for gender development as it considers the effect of environmental forces, while the psychoanalytic approach does not.

Psychoanalytic Perspective vs. Systems Perspective

The psychoanalytic perspective holds that human development is a multistage process characterized by conflicts between emotions/drives and social factors (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). The resolution of these conflicts determines how well a person interacts with others. The basic formulations of this perspective include those by Sigmund Freud and later Erik Erikson.

In brief, Freud describes four distinct psychosexual stages of gender development, i.e., oral, anal, phallic, latent, and genital. At the phallic stage (age 3-5), the child develops a sexual attraction to the opposite-sex parent. However, to avoid sanctions, he/she acquires the same parent’s traits and values, leading to the development of a superego (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). This relational superego develops further during the latent stage (6-11 years), as the child learns new values from other people. A successful same-sex parental relation defines the child’s long-term personality and healthy maturation.

Erikson’s view – an extension of Freud’s perspective – explains that psychological differences are due to sexual divergences between males and females (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Therefore, it can be understood that the psychoanalytic perspective gives a developmental path that leads to gender differentiation and roles. The gender differences in masculine/feminine personality are due to inner forces developed from childhood experiences. In contrast, the systems perspective by Bronfenbrenner considers the reciprocal interactions in interconnected social subsystems as the drivers of behavior. Therefore, this approach is more inclusive of the environment/systems than the psychoanalytic view. In this view, an environment comprises multiple nested structures present in the family, school, community, or the place of work. Structured roles in the microsystem, mesosystem, and exosystem environments are required to achieve system balance or stability (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). A role encompasses the behaviors expected from an individual holding a given social position.

From a systems perspective, interaction patterns within the environment would influence how masculine or feminine behavior patterns are socialized in children. One real-life example that could help illustrate this point involves early gender socialization through the toys parents buy for boys and girls. Boys’ playrooms often contain miniature trucks and trains. On the other hand, girls are encouraged to play with pinky dolls and teddy bears. At the microsystem level, the toys are seen as being gender-conforming and thus, evoke approval and acceptance from adults/parents. Therefore, bidirectional interactions within the environment lead to the reinforcement or disapproval of certain socially influenced masculine or feminine behavior. This means that gender differentiation emerges from the reciprocal interactions that shape sex-typed roles.

In comparison, from a psychoanalytic view, instincts help us distinguish the self from a differentiated object world. Therefore, for a girl or boy, the outside world means the ‘other’ or the individual not meeting a particular expectation (Zosuls, Miller, Ruble, Martin, & Fabes, 2013). Based on this perspective, this separateness would emerge from within a person without outside influences. Further, the development of ego boundaries and inner dispositions leads to gender differentiation. This view differs from the systems model, which emphasizes behavior as being the product of interactions within the environment. The environment comprises a microsystem, which focuses on the relational aspects of the developing individual and his/her immediate surroundings, e.g., family. While the psychoanalytic view ascribes gender differentiation to inner dispositions, the systems perspective attributes it to the relational aspects of the developing person in his/her immediate environment.

Another distinction lies in how the two perspectives consider the social/cultural influence on gender differentiation. The psychoanalytic perspective emphasizes psychological separateness and autonomy in the development of the relational ego. In other words, the developing person learns to distinguish the self or masculine/feminine roles from the other (outside world) innately without environmental influences. In contrast, forces operating at the macrosystem level influence the environment defined in the systems model. The macrosystem comprises the cultural values, norms, and customs that influence interactions in the family, school, workplace, etc. (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Therefore, the interaction effects shaping gender role differences are influenced by cultural values and norms operating at a macrosystem level.

Gender differentiation in childhood can be considered an innate developmental process from the psychoanalytic perspective. According to Zosuls et al. (2013), a boy or girl is born originally with a “narcissistic relation to reality” (p. 831). His or her cognitive or libidinal experiences at birth are generally connected to the immediate world and the maternal caregiver in particular. Gender differentiation emerges when the child begins to perceive the separation between “the self and the object world” (Zosuls et al., 2013, p. 834). As a result, ego boundaries develop, culminating in the same-parent relations that manifest as gendered roles in adulthood. In contrast, from a systems perspective, the ego boundaries do not emerge in a developing person; rather, the sex-typed behavior comes from reciprocal interactions.

Psychoanalysis tells us that gender role development needs physiological maturation through the five psychosexual stages. Through physiological maturation, the developing person acquires gender-typed personalities and attributes. Therefore, psychoanalysis views gendered roles in an essentialist dimension. It holds that gender roles based are established in an individual based on the dimorphism that occurs at the phallic stage of development. In contrast, in the systems model, the developing person learns and responds to the social/cultural norms through interactions. This means that he/she does not go through physiological maturation as per the psychosexual stages of development.

The psychoanalytic perspective’s emphasis on a person’s unique superego during his/her life course gives insights into emotional/social development that shapes gender identity and roles. It shows how ego functioning influences gender identity, intimacy, and generativity in adulthood. However, the perspective’s limitation relates to its focus on inner dispositions alone to explain gender differentiation. In my view, the systems perspective provides a more valid explanation of gender differentiation than psychoanalysis does. Gender differences in behavior and roles emerge from the socialization process, which requires interactions between the developing person (biological factors) and his/her environment (Zosuls et al., 2013). Therefore, the interaction between a person and his/her immediate environment would determine how a child perceives his/her roles within the system.


The psychoanalytic perspective emphasizes the individual ego development or inner dispositions as the cause of gender differentiation. In contrast, from a systems perspective, gender differences are the product of the reciprocal interactions between the developing person (biological) and his/her environment. Therefore, the latter view gives a more comprehensive and valid explanation for gender differentiation than the former perspective does.

Cognitive development

A person acquires knowledge throughout his/her lifespan via higher thinking processes or cognition. The development of cognitive functions such as orientation, memory, language, and perception, among others, varies across the lifespan. Cognitive development theorists pose tentative insights into how the mind keeps, processes, and recalls information. Cognitive development in adolescence and later adulthood is characterized by a successive shift from the hypothetical view to pragmatism to address practical challenges. This paper compares cognitive development during adolescence and later adulthood based on relevant theorists’ views and concepts.

Cognitive Development: Adolescence vs. Later Adulthood

Cognitive development in adolescents differs from that of adults in terms of problem-solving abilities, memory, learning, and reaction time. About problem-solving ability, Piaget’s theory considers cognitive development as gradual learning of cognitive skills through four discrete stages of development. The stages include sensorimotor (0-2 years), preoperational (2-7 years), concrete operations (7-11), and formal operations (over 11 years) (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). The formal operations stage applies to adulthood. It is marked by the acquisition of reasoning power and problem-solving abilities. At this stage, the adolescent focuses on “the form of thought, objects, and experiences” rather than on the actual content (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016, p. 98). The adolescents are also able to identify logical relationships between categories or clusters of ideas/concepts.

Adolescents enter into a world of possibilities and can think in an abstract manner using intangible concepts. Thus, they can picture situations or events they have not experienced. For example, an adolescent at the formal operations stage can conceive of the experiences of victims of Hurricane Katrina, even though he/she was not affected by the storm. The teen can utilize hypothetical-deductive reasoning to do abstract operations in his/her mind. Hypothetical-deductive reasoning involves the use of a “methodical and scientific” approach to solving a problem (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014, p. 642). Adolescents also develop inductive reasoning to arrive at a particular solution by considering various premises. This capacity allows a teen to consider combinations of possibilities and develop a sensible solution to a challenge. They can work in a more systematic fashion than people in the concrete operational stage can.

The formal operations constitute the last stage in Piaget’s theory. In his part, Schaie holds that experiences affect cognitive development based on exposure to problems. According to this theory, childhood/adolescence focuses on acquisition, early/middle adulthood centers on responsibility, and later adulthood emphasizes ‘reintegrative’ aspects (Lefmann & Combs-Orme, 2014). Therefore, adolescents focus on acquiring information processing and integration abilities. In contrast, people in the late adulthood of cognitive development focus on reintegrating their “interests and values” to lead a more satisfying life (Demetriou, 2013, p. 155). For instance, older adults tend to be selective in their hobbies and relationships. They are not as open to creating new friendships as adolescents are.

The reintegrative stage is also characterized by diminished intellectual functioning. The declining health status in late adulthood due to diseases such as diabetes affects memory and learning (Demetriou, 2013). Also, sensory impairments, including vision and hearing loss affect fluid intelligence. An individual’s fluid intelligence comprises abilities such as “associative memory, abstracting, inductive reasoning, and problem-solving” (Demetriou, 2013, p. 157). These abilities are enhanced in adolescents through the hypothetical-deductive reasoning described in Piaget’s theory. In comparison, fluid intelligence in older adults diminishes due to reduced Neuro-physiological functioning. On the other hand, individuals in the later adulthood stage may exhibit a higher crystallized intelligence than adolescents do. Crystallized intelligence encompasses accumulated verbal comprehension and information that are dependent on experience/learning (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Therefore, crystallized intelligence increases with age; however, this comes at the expense of diminishing fluid intelligence.

Labouvie-Vief’s theory, a neo-Piagetian perspective, can also explain the cognitive changes seen in adolescence and later adulthood. The theory holds that cognitive development entails a successive construction of higher “adaptive levels of activity” (Demetriou, 2013, p. 160). It explains the move/transition from the perception of limitless opportunities in adolescence to the pragmatic thought in adulthood. Therefore, an older adult understands the inconsistencies of life and imperfections. He/she is aware of truths and can integrate logic into the practical world. In comparison, in adolescence, people tend to be highly idealistic and often challenge the status of things. This characteristic relates to the concept of egocentrism where an individual considers situations only from his/her perspective. Being egocentric, adolescents fail to consider multiple factors in solving a problem. In contrast, older adults are pragmatic and ready to make compromises; thus, they are less egocentric than adolescents are.

From a Piagetian perspective, the formal operational thought in adolescents, including inductive inferences, allows teens to tackle various problems more deeply. They can use the acquired abstract ideas to conceive solutions to real problems. For example, teens may develop an interest in feminism or religion at this stage. In contrast, the poor cognitive performance in older people is attributed to diminished response speed and an increase in processing time (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). However, the performance can be enhanced through remedial training to improve reaction time. Similarly, it has been shown that developmental progress in adolescence depends largely on the level of exposure to cognitive opportunities (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). Therefore, while cognitive performance may be lower in the elderly than in adolescents, exposure to cognitive tasks is required by both groups to achieve higher functioning.

Alternative perspectives on adolescent cognitive functioning have been proposed in recent years. In particular, the information-processing theories explain that cognitive performance in adolescence is not the result of developed deductive or inductive reasoning, but an outcome of improved information processing capacity (Mossler & Ziegler, 2016). The abilities are due to continuous neural developments in the frontal cortex part of the adolescent brain. Therefore, the processing efficiency in adolescents accounts for their high cognitive performance.

In contrast, the reduction in response/processing speed in the elderly could be attributed to intellectual changes and dementias. Intellectual changes in elderly people are due to a reduction in fluid intelligence. As a result, they are not able to utilize patterns/relationships to resolve problems as adolescents can do. Dementia also accounts for the cognitive impairments in the elderly. However, this condition affects only a small fraction (15%) of the elderly population, i.e., people above 65 years old (Demetriou, 2013). Memory lapses may also arise in this stage. In comparison, memory is usually maintained in adolescence through middle adulthood. Sensory impairment, especially vision, is common in the elderly. This affects their ability to integrate and process sensory input appropriately.


Various theories account for the differences in cognitive development in adolescence and later adulthood. Piaget’s theory centers on the variations in the formal operational thought between adolescents and the elderly in terms of reasoning. For Schaie, the demands of the reintegrative stage versus the acquisition stage account for these differences. In contrast, Labouvie-Vief’s theory holds that progressive adaptations lead to a move from an idealistic view to pragmatism in later adulthood.


Demetriou, A. (2013). Mind, self, and personality: Dynamic interactions from late childhood to early adulthood. Journal of Adult development, 10(3), 151–171.

Lefmann, T., & Combs-Orme, T. (2014). Early brain development for social work practice: Integrating neuroscience with Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 23(5), 640-647.

Mossler, R., & Ziegler, M. (2016). Understanding development: A lifespan perspective. San Diego, CA: Bridgepoint Education

Zosuls, K., Miller, C., Ruble, D., Martin, C., Fabes, R. (2013). Gender development research in sex roles: Historical trends and future directions. Sex Roles, 64(1), 826-842.

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