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Cognitive Theory, Moral Development And Delinquency

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Theories with respect to cognitive ability and moral development by theorists such as Piaget, Kohlberg, and others point to relationships existent between cognitive and moral developmental levels and criminal or deviant behavior. Research studies that have been conducted over the years, primarily on juveniles, have found, in most instances, a strong correlation between cognitive ability, moral development and delinquency. While other factors, such as ones of socioeconomic import, are most assuredly responsible as well, cognitive ability and moral development are central to the issue of delinquency. The research available necessitates more than a cursory glance by those in the criminal justice system, including judges, probation officers, parole officers, as well as those in the community. This paper will discuss the stages of cognitive and moral developmental theory, resulting defects in each as it pertains to delinquency and discuss effective treatment methods other than behavioral methods for correction of impaired cognitive and moral ability of individuals that find themselves in the criminal justice system.

Cognitive and moral development theorists such as Piaget and Kohlberg were instrumental in laying the groundwork allowing criminologists and applied researchers a better understanding of the mindset of criminal offenders. Other cognitive theorists in later years have built upon these foundational tenets of these men to further develop theories surrounding criminal behavior. Criminal justice personnel have in turn, instituted programs and reforms and rehabilitative services in an attempt to correct cognitive and moral deficiencies in those offenders that find themselves in the criminal justice system.

“The developed moral sense of human beings brings about the capacity for the evaluation of good and bad moral actions” (Darley, 1993, p. 357). Darley goes on to say that moral action is directly related to an individual’s cognitive ability. Studies have revealed a high degree of correlation between cognitive and moral development and the ability to settle moral dilemmas that make future outcomes rather predictable (Tomlinson-Keasey and Keasey, 1974). Cognitive ability aids in the development of moral constructs that can be used to explain moral actions. Furthermore, there is the suggestion that even emotional constructs are critical to both an individual’s cognitive and moral development as well because they help shape cognitive processing ability (Darley, 1993). Understanding the stages of cognitive and moral development have helped researchers to better understand why this phenomenon occurs.

Cognitive and moral development theory was first introduced by Jean Piaget and later refined by Lawrence Kohlberg and eventually others (Byrne and Hummer, 2016). Both Piaget and Kohlberg approached moral development from a cognitive perspective and maintain that “sophisticated operations are a pre-requisite to advanced moral judgments” (Tomlinson-Keasey and Keasey, 1974, p. 296). Often times Piaget used stories in his investigations of moral development and “emphasized the importance of mutuality autonomy” (Cam, Cavdar, Cok, et al, 2012, p. 1223). From his research, Piaget maintained that the development of a child’s moral judgment goes through sequential stages.

The first stage, the pre-conventional stage, occurs before age nine. Following is stage 2, the conventional stage, ages 10-13. The last stage is the post-conventional stage. At each stage the child must cognitively resolve moral dilemmas and consequently form moral judgments. (Cowan, Langer, Heavenrich, and Nathanson, 1969). As individuals progress through the stages of cognitive and moral development the reasoning process becomes “more advanced, internally consistent and universal” (Arbuthnot and Gordon, 1988, p. 383). To further quote Arbuthnot and Gordon, “Progression is largely a function of disequilibrating cognitive experiences and related to prior development of more generalized intellectual abilities” (1988, p. 384). The degree to which an individual is able to reason about moral dilemmas “varies directly as a function of cognitive development, specifically the degree to which logical operations has developed” (Tomlinson-Keasey and Keasey, 1974, p. 296).

According to cognitive theorists, a child at the pre-conventional stage is unable to separate physical reality from his own desires and focuses on only the physical dimensions of morality at this point (Tomlinson-Keasey and Keasey, 1974). Not until stage 2 (conventional stage) does the child transition into looking at morality in terms of peer pressure/approval. Piaget’s research concluded that at age 13 a cognitive shift occurs whereby the child no longer believes that adult rules are sacred and immutable, but rather products of human creation (Marsh, 1981). Finally, in stage 3 (post-conventional) the child hopefully possesses the ability to use logic as well as cause and effect hypotheses to construct solutions to moral dilemmas (Tomlinson-Keasey and Keasey, 1974). Later theories have added that a lack of understanding in how the law is applicable in varying situations demonstrates deficient cognitive ability (Marsh 1981). The natural conclusion is that any positive changes in cognitive development should necessarily result in changes in moral judgment. But if the child is deficient

Those associated with the criminal justice system and delinquency espouse that the stages of cognitive and moral development culminate in an individual’s ability to use personal and universal principles as they interact with their society (Moore, 2011) and is an expression of psychological conflict (Byrne and Hummer, 2016). Moore further argues that “patterns of delinquent thinking and behavior develop over time and correlate closely with deficiencies in both cognitive ability and moral judgment” (2011, p. 236). With delinquency, adolescents continue to reason at the three distinct levels of cognitive/moral development to such an extent that “cognitive development suggest the way an individual organizes thoughts about rules and laws results in persistent behavior patterns such as delinquency” (Morash, 1981, p. 360).

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It has been argued that adolescence is the most significant period of the formation of values and the most open to change (Denno, 1985). Any disconnect or dysfunction in this developmental process can result in lower intelligence and even learning disabilities. Moreover, Denno states that cognitive development directly correlates to an adolescent’s susceptibility to outside influences such as their peers, family, and others in their social environment (1985). This explains why delays in the acquisition of socio-cognitive skills are directly related to the development of various forms of social deviance, particularly juvenile delinquency (Lee and Prentice, 1988). Any cognitive deficiency results in the individual’s capability to find immoral actions socially unacceptable and consequently, learn to justify their deviant behavior (Darley, 1993).

Delays during the conventional stage suggest this is the point at which an “arrest in development” occurs that leads to delinquency and research has proven that there is a direct correlation between the development reasoning level of the juvenile and delinquents whether sociopathic or not (Marsh, 1981). Delinquent youths are demonstrating cognitive ability at the pre-conventional level even at ages of 14 and older. Non-delinquents of the same age are nearing the post-conventional stage according to research. A greater number of delinquent youths have demonstrated an “inability to understand good will, proper roles in behavior, cognitive empathy, and guilt” (Arbuthnot and Gordon, 1988, p. 384). Moreover, delinquents do not possess any of the cognitive/moral development features that would be considered deterrents against their behavior choices.

Critics, on the other hand, argue that cognitive/moral development theory is too simplistic in understanding the relationship it bears towards delinquency and add that social factors, such as socioeconomic background have considerable influence as well. “Aggression and disciplinary problems in school during adolescence are the strongest predictors of repeat offense behavior” (Denno, 1985, p. 728). But this would be perfectly plausible considering cognitive and moral development deficiencies. The aggression of delinquent males centers around the instability of the family, including income or lack thereof. For females, their delinquent behavior centers around physical development (Denno, 1985).

Researchers Lee and Prentice found that studies indicate considerable variability exists between members of different social classes with respect to social deviance and delinquency (1988). Socioeconomic factors actually exacerbate an already existent deficiency in the delinquent’s cognitive and moral development. Regardless of social class, Lee and Prentice discovered that psychopathic and neurotic delinquents were deficient in social cognition, moral reasoning as well as empathy compared to their non-delinquent counterparts and displayed more immature modes of role-playing, moral reasoning and logical cognition (1988).

Because “lawbreaking results from individuals not having sufficiently developed reasoning abilities to resolve moral dilemmas, specifically those involving legal acts” (Morash, 1981, p. 360), the criminal justice system finds it important to allocate resources to further research as well as programs directed at altering cognitive function of offenders. Studies reflect the notion that if changes are not made during the “conventional stage” of cognitive and moral development, that children are less likely to outgrow deviant behavior and may retain these attributes into adulthood (Denno, 1985). Disciplinary models have proven ineffective in dealing with these types of issues so other means centering on discussion groups have shown promise because they emphasize modifying reasoning ability as opposed to other mental health programs or behavioral changes (Cowan, Langer, Heavenrich, and Nathanson, 1969; Lee and Prentice, 1988; Morash, 1981). Individuals that have completed these sorts of discussion groups have demonstrated raised levels of cognition which resulted in positively altered behavior as they guided delinquents through a verbal rationale of moral decision-making processes in hypothetical moral dilemmas (Darley, 1993). Delinquents moved from initial explanations based on fear to conclusion based on a logical set of premises.

Granted, research cannot occur in a vacuum and these cognitive concerns make a child even more susceptible to their social environment and the ability to synthesize what is considered acceptable conduct (Denno, 1985). “Opportunities for and skills used in social interplay affect the course of moral development…it either stabilizes socially accepted morality or causes it to become delinquent in nature” (Tomlinson-Keasey and Keasey, 1974, p. 296). Problems with implementing these type programs center around the lack of understanding by criminal justice officials (including judges, parole and probation officers), lack of allocated resources and funding, and the non-uniformity of policies already on the books even though research has repeatedly demonstrated significant increases in moral development when strategies associated with cognitive theories are implemented (Byrne and Hummer, 2016; Cowan, Langer, Heavenrich and Nathanson, 1969). As Morash states in her research “the justice system should function both to correct offenders and to demonstrate the viability of the law” (1981, p. 362).

While findings from research can be misused and misapplied, psychological criminology has had great import in corrections (Byrne and Hummer, 2016). The psychological perspective is so important to probation and parole practices because of its individualized focus whereas punishment alone does not get to the heart of the issue. For some unknown reason, sociological and psychological advocates have previously discouraged any form of interdisciplinary research and funds continue to be allocated mainly to sociological efforts at delinquent reform. However, failure to recognize the importance of deficient cognitive and moral development as well as behavioral and learning disorders in adolescents will only continue to result in deviant behavior (Denno, 1985). What begins as a cognitive deficiency results in deviant behavior when coupled with deficient moral thinking and the inability to exhibit socially normative behavior and create social bonds. Even early cognitive theorists considered social interaction to be an important factor in changing a child with a lower cognitive ability and moral judgment to a child with higher cognitive ability and moral judgment.

Studies continue to validate that an investment needs to be directed to criminal justice reform that concentrates on instance-based learning rather than preaching morality through didactic instruction. Delinquents “lack the capacity to view his actions in ultimate effects on the maintenance and mutual trust and respect among members of an orderly society” (Arbuthnot and Gordon, 1988, p. 383) so use of instance-based learning further develops the delinquent’s ability to understand and implement socially normative behavior (Arbuthnot and Gordon, 1988; Byrne and Hummer, 2016; Denno, 1985; Lee and Prentice, 1988). Only then can the well-established patterns of delinquent behavior subside.


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  2. Byrne, J. and Hummer, D. (December 2016). An Examination of the Impact of Criminological Theory on Community Corrections Practice. Federal Probation, 80(3), 15-25. Retrieved from
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