Cognitive explanations for gender development.

Cognitive explanations for gender development.

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What is the Cognitive Approach to Gender Developme

The cognitive approach to gender development believes that the way we develop our gender identity is actively constructed psychologically, it is not a biological process. There are two core theories that form the Cognitive explanation, which are:

  • Gender Schema Theory
  • Cognitive Developmental Theory (Kohlberg)

These theories are similar, but have a few differences.

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Cognitive Developmental Theory

Blind                     Basic
Grannies               Gender 

In                          Identity  
Glasses                Gender  

See                       Stability  
Grandchildren       Gender  
Clearly                   Constancy 

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Cognitive Developmental Theory

Kohlberg believed that a child is active in structuring their sex role concepts, they are not passively injected with the ideals.

It does not mean that they simply observe and imitate, the children focus and behave the same way as same sex role models because they have already developed a constant gender identity, therefore they feel rewarded for playing with people who fit their gender identity. 

"I am a boy; therefore I want to do boy things; therefore the opportunity to do boy things is rewarding" 


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The Stages:

Age: 2-3 - Basic Gender Identity

They are aware of sex differences and what their own sex is but they believe that sex can be changed. 

Age: 3-4 - Gender Stability

The child knows that sex is constant over time but not situations. i,e a boy may refuse to wear a dress because he believes that it would make him a girl

Age 4-7+ - Gender Constancy

The child understands that sex is constant no matter what the situation or age. In this stage they seek out same sex role models and feel rewarded by engaging in gender appropriate behaviours

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Supporting Study

Slaby and Frey (1975) studied children to determine if they had achieved:

Gender identity by being asked if they are a boy or a girl, where they were shown a picture or a boy/girl and told to choose which they were.
Gender stability involved questioning them on if they have and will always be boy/girl
Gender constancy involved observing children as they watched a video of men and women. Those with greatest gender consistency watched more same-gender models, evidence that at this stage of development children focus more on same-gender models to provide them with information about what behaviour is suitable.

This study supports Kohlberg by showing that children have different understandings of gender at different ages in the same order that Kohlberg had proposed.

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Evaluation of supporting study

The methods used were appropriate for the ages, where asking children to point at photographs or watch a video was within their cognitive capabilities. Also, by not telling the children the purpose of the study when looking at the video reduces demand characteristics as the children do not know they are being observed watching the screen.

A weakness of such study would be demand characteristics where children may have been choosing images or answering question based on what they assumed the experimenter wanted, leading to less internal validity

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  • Bruce/Brenda was treated like a female, believed that she was female but still rejected her gender identity. According to this theory Bruce would have adopted a female gender identity and stuck with it.
  • Huston (1985) argued that the link between cognitive processes and gender behaviour is not as strong as Kohlberg suggested, and is infact weaker in girls
  • Gender role behaviour usually appears by the 2nd birthday, sooner than anticipated according to Kohlbergs theory
  • The theory focuses too much on the child as an individual and doesn't take into account the influence from environment & upbringing
  • It places too much emphasis and exaggerates the role of cognitive factors
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Gender Schema Theory - Martin and Halverson

Similar to Kohlberg.

  • Believes that children learn appropriate behaviour through observation. 
  • Children actively process information that contributes to their sex typing. 


The stage where the child is motivated to acquire knowledge about their gender is different to Kohlbergs model. According to Gender Schema theory, a childs gender schema begins to form as soon as the child recognises the differences between men an women at 2-3, not 4-7 as Kohlberg suggested.

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5 stages

Realisation                 Randy

Labels                        Lesbian

Gender                       Girls
Play                            Prefer

Opposite                    Older 
Gender                       Girl

Flexible                       Friends

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Gender Schema - The 5 stages

1) Children realise the difference between men and women

2) The child labels themselves male or female

3) At 4-6 the child indulges in gender play and associates with their own gender

4) Between 8-10, children pay attention to opposite gender children, broadening their schema and creating gender stereotypes

5) Gender concept is more flexible, child begins to think most boys don't play with dolls but it is freedom of choice.

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