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Formal Operational Stage of Cognitive Development


Formal operations is the final stage of cognitive development

The formal operational stage begins at the onset of adolescence and lasts through adulthood.

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The formal operational stage is the fourth and final stage of Piaget's theory of cognitive development.

Characteristics of the Formal Operational Stage:

The formal operational stage begins at approximately age twelve to and lasts into adulthood. During this time, people develop the ability to think about abstract concepts. Skills such as logical thought, deductive reasoning, and systematic planning also emerge during this stage.


Piaget believed that deductive logic becomes important during the formal operational stage. Deductive logic requires the ability to use a general principle to determine a specific outcome. This type of thinking involves hypothetical situations and is often required in science and mathematics.

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 quickly plan an organized approach to solving a problem.

Observations About the Formal Operational Stage:

  • "The formal operational thinker has the ability to consider many different solutions to a problem before acting. This greatly increases efficiency, because the individual can avoid potentially unsuccessful attempts at solving a problem. The formal operational person considers past experiences, present demands, and future consequences in attempting to maximize the success of his or her adaptation to the world."
    (Salkind, 2004)

  • "In the formal operational stage, actual (concrete) objects are no longer required and mental operations can be undertaken 'in the head' using abstract terms. For example, children at this stage can answer questions such as: 'if you can imagine something made up of two quantities, and the whole thing remains the same when one quantity is increased, what happens to the second quantity?' This type of reasoning can be done without thinking about actual objects."
    (Brain & Mukherji, 2005)

More From This Series:


Brain, C., & Mukherji, P. (2005). Understanding child psychology. United Kingdom: Nelson Thornes.

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.

Salkind, N. J. (2004). An introduction to theories of human development. Thousand oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Santrock, John W. (2008). A topical approach to life-span development (4 ed.). New York City: McGraw-Hill.

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