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Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development and Cognitive Dissonance as a Mechanism for Moral Improvement

I have decided to devote my life to adolescent developmental psychology because I believe not enough is done to ensure their mental health

Cognitive Dissonance as a Mechanism for Moral Development

Like many other conceptions of mental growth, individuals progress through Kohlberg's stages of moral development as they successfully navigate conflicts that force a confrontation with the self. This conflict can come in many forms, including the resolution of cognitive dissonance between perceived morality of the self and the performance of a moral decision from a higher stage of development. An individual experiencing this conflict will have to reconcile their belief that they are moral and the knowledge that they have just proven their morality still has room to develop and their past decisions have a lower level of moral development than the choice that was just made.

Stages of moral development

Stages of moral development

Moral Development

At many points during adolescence, I had the thought that my personality and ethics were finally fully formed and I would have no more growth as a person. I was complete. Each and every time I “realized” this I proved myself wrong by going through personal growth in a crisis and I was then forced to see the flaws in my past self, which I had previously considered a moral and rational person. This process of growing up is extremely interesting, developmental psychology has captured the minds of many of the greatest thinkers in the field (and also Freud); understanding how the human mind is changed as it matures and accrues life experience is arguably the most actionable insight into the human mind we have. This is particularly true during adolescence, where the foundations for prosocial attitudes and good adult mental health can be laid. It is where many lifelong mental health concerns and mental illnesses that require environmental factors to present themselves are triggered. If we desire a population of healthy, prosocial individuals, we must learn everything we can about adolescent development and how to nurture positive growth. The teenage years are a time of extreme identity crisis and crisis drives development. One crisis many teens will face is the cognitive dissonance brought on by witnessing their own moral growth while having the self concept that they were always moral people. I will briefly describe human moral development and then how cognitive dissonance can be a mechanism for healthy moral development.

  • When it comes to theoretical stages of moral development, the most supported model is Kohlberg’s.
  • The first stage he observed in children was the simple avoidance of punishment. During this phase, misbehavior and punishment are conceptualized as a simple cause and effect relationship. As the child progresses through this phase, they learn they can modify their behavior to receive their preferred treatment.
  • This leads into the next stage, where elementary aged kids learn to seek rewards for their behavior.
  • Eventually that desire for reward will bring the child into the next phase where the rewards they start seeking are social. They care about being moral because it brings social acceptance.
  • Teenagers will then realize that rules in their environment bring ultimate social cohesion and the desire to maintain that can lead to a “Law and Order” orientation. Part of this stage is learning to accept that everyone has duties in life and society will run better if everyone plays their role. This is where morality and the adolescent struggle for identity clash, because they are unsure of what their role in society will be.
  • Some individuals will then develop a more nuanced view where they acknowledge that laws cannot necessarily solve all moral dilemmas and that social cohesion is most effectively maintained through agreed upon contracts between entities. Laws are fallible.
  • That acceptance of the imperfect nature of the law can sometimes lead people into the final stage, where they adopt a universal set of principles of their own creation that they value above the law.

Cognitive Dissonance

You have probably experienced cognitive dissonance in your life. It is an unpleasant tension brought upon by discrepancy in beliefs and actions. A person that believes stealing is wrong and yet steals food to feed their family will most likely experience cognitive dissonance. The most interesting thing about it is the lengths people will go to resolve this tension. The individual experiencing dissonance is forced to change either their beliefs or their actions so that they match each other. In our food stealing example, the thief might change their belief that stealing is always wrong to a more nuanced stance where there are acceptable circumstance for theft.

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Cognitive Dissonance and Adolescent Moral Development

When an individual chooses a response to a moral dilemma, they may make a choice that would be expected from someone at a higher stage of development. For an adolescent, this will most likely be when they decide a social contract is morally more important than the law. For example, if a teenager found out their mother stole new school supplies from a store they might acknowledge that they know they need the supplies and the theft will not impact the finances of the store; they might then question whether the prohibition on theft applies in this specific situation. They will question the law and experience cognitive dissonance between the belief that theft is wrong because it is illegal and the action of accepting the school supplies. To resolve the dissonance they can change their behavior, return the items to the store, or belief that stealing is inherently wrong. Studies show that in this situation it would be likely for them to change their beliefs. That gives the individual access to a higher level of morality than before navigating the moral dilemma.

What is the Significance?

For adolescents to develop higher moral reasoning, it is important to let them face dilemmas and make decisions on their own. That means letting them make their own mistakes and to learn their own personal values.

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