Updated: Apr 6, 2021
When Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget set out to understand the nature of knowledge, after finding out one of his earliest memories was a false one, he did so, as his own theory would have predicted (had he had it to hand at the time), based on his background in zoology. The theory he developed helps explain why personal experiences are not to be relied upon when forming beliefs.
Illustration by Sophie Corrigan
Cognitive development, Piaget hypothesised, must just be another biological process, like those of the molluscs he studied (and published on) from childhood to doctorate. Equilibrium, the preferred state of any organisms, is achieved in this development, he concluded, through the basic biological mechanisms of organisation and adaption.
The organisational part of the theory, which we can call knowledge, comes from schemata, a concept adapted from the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. Schemata are mental frameworks created through interaction with the environment, which are, in turn, used for the interpretation of new interactions. A basic schema of a snail for example might include concepts such as small, slow-moving, spiral-shaped shells, tentacles, slime trails, and, depending on your culinary background, edible.
Just as the digestive processes of the snail allow it to adapt the decaying organic matter that it feeds upon into something it can use, so adaptive processes, which we can call intelligence, are also needed to allow new experiences to be fitted with the pre-existing schemata. Failure to achieve such adaption resulting in an uncomfortable state of disequilibrium.
Piaget proffers two processes for the purpose of achieving this adaptation:
Assimilation is the process of taking new experience and adapting it to fit into the existing schemata. A giant African snail, for example, may be somewhat different to the garden snails most of us built our snail schema upon, but it can be assimilated with minimal adaptation.
Accommodation is the process of taking existing schemata and adapting them to new experiences. A slug, for example, is so significantly different from the garden snail upon which our snail schema was built that disequilibrium can only be avoided by creating an entirely new schema for it.
These twin processes are based on our own unique schemata and are thus highly subjective.
In order to avoid the discomfort of disequilibrium and the additional effort of accommodation we tend to prefer experience which assimilates easily into our existing schemata (confirmation bias) and to misinterpret those that do not in such a way that they do. Thus, either way, personal experience is far more likely to reinforce existing beliefs than change them.