Cognitive Explanations of Gender Development: Theory (2022)

Cognitive approaches focus on our thought processes and how they explain our behaviour and certain psychological phenomena. Cognitive approaches use computer models and introspective studies to examine how our thoughts affect us.

Cognitive studies use a range of methods such as case studies, questionnaires, laboratory experiments, and interviews to find out our thinking patterns and what they mean to us.

  • What are the psychological theories of gender development?
  • What is Kohlberg's theory of gender identity development?
  • What are two cognitive explanations of gender development?
  • What are some biological, social, and cognitive influences on gender development?
  • Are there psychodynamic explanations for gender development?

Psychological Theories of Gender Development

When considering psychological theories of gender development, the age-old question is central to the conversation -- does gender identity develop due to nature or nurture?

Gender identity: refers to an individual's personal sense of their gender.

Nature vs Nurture: the debate in psychology that suggest that our individual differences are due to natural (or genetic) predispositions or nurture (or environmental) influences.

Psychologists have identified several different theories of gender development that can help answer this question. In this article, we'll focus on cognitive theories including Kohlberg's theory of gender development, gender schema theory, and cognitive-development theory.

Kohlberg's Theory of Gender Identity Development

American psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg published his cognitive theory of gender development in the 1960s. His theory states that gender development occurs in stages, similar to Jean Piaget's 1936 essay describing specific stages in which children develop certain cognitive skills. Kohlberg theorized that as children develop cognitive skills, their understanding of their gender and that of the people around them increases.

Kohlberg described three stages:

Stage 1: Gender labelling (ages 2-3)

Stage 2: Gender stability (age 4)

Stage 3: Gender consistency (ages 6-7)

For more information on Kohlberg's theory of gender development, read another StudySmarter article entitled 'Kohlberg's Theory'!

He suggested that children begin to understand various complexities surrounding genders, such as how to identify the gender of others and the idea that gender is constant and does not change based on superficial factors such as clothing.

Cognitive Explanations of Gender Development: Theory (1)Fig. 2 Genderfluidity.

Evaluation of Kohlberg's theory

A strength of Kohlberg's theory is that many studies support it, eg Thompson (1975) and Munroe et al. (1984). The existence of research supports the validity of the theory.

A weakness of this theory is that it is descriptive rather than explanatory. It does not explain why gender identities and certain attitudes regarding gender emerge but merely describes what this process looks like and when specific changes occur.

Two Cognitive Explanations of Gender Development

Suppose we use the cognitive approach to explain gender and its development. In that case, we must first base our theories on the assumption that gender identity is a cognitive concept. In other words, gender identity is something that takes place in our minds and is not biologically determined or strictly behavioural.

As our brains physically develop, our cognitive abilities also mature, meaning we are capable of more complex thought. This idea forms the basis for the two cognitive explanations of gender development we will explore in this section.

Gender Schema Theory

Carol Martin and Charles Halverson developed the gender schema theory in 1981.

Gender schema theory describes how gender identities develop based on our schemas about that aspect of ourselves and others.

Schemas are abstract cognitive representations of concepts, like a mental toolbox containing information about various things.

A child may develop a schema about dogs that includes knowledge that dogs are furry creatures with four legs.

In terms of gender, Martin and Halverson suggested that children develop their gender identity by creating schemas about different genders and determining their in-group and out-group based on this. By identifying with their in-group, usually consisting of people with similar gender identities, children take on gender characteristics and develop their gender expression and their idea of belonging to their in-group.

Evaluation of the Gender Schema Theory

The good thing about this theory is that it helps explain the thought processes behind Kohlberg's stages much more comprehensively. Some studies support this theory, such as a 1993 study by Liben and Signorella in which 106 predominantly white children were shown stereotypical images of behaviours alongside neutral and non-stereotypical images. In two studies, children had difficulty remembering nontraditional and opposite-sex stimuli even when given additional interpretations (eg, labels) when they first encountered the stimuli.

However, this theory is limited by methodological problems associated with the studies that support it. Many of the studies used to support this theory are based on interviews with young children, which increases the likelihood of demand characteristics.

Demand characteristics: When participants act as they believe the researcher expects them to act, rather than acting naturally.

Cognitive-Developmental Theory

The cognitive-developmental theory of gender development suggests that children adjust their view of gender based on the new information they receive as they mature. If they learn new information that does not align with what they already knew, they will adjust their schema so they are aligned.

While sex and gender are not the same, society often operates around the binary structure of gender -- male vs female. Children are motivated by these binary expectations of society to establish their gender identity. They recognize how important of a role gender plays in society. As children mature, their gender constancy becomes more established, which lays the foundation for how they understand other elements of gender including same-sex models and gender stereotypes.

When a child's concept of gender is formed, their gender stability is established.

Cognitive Explanations of Gender Development: Theory (2)Fig. 2 Society tends to see gender as binary.

Biological, Social, and Cognitive Influences on Gender Development

When we look at a particular topic in psychology from a particular psychological approach, it can be helpful to look at how other schools of thought also approach the same phenomenon. We can use our knowledge of different approaches to evaluate the ones we are focusing on and see which approach best explains the various elements of a particular topic.

Biological Influences on Gender Development

The biological approach to gender suggests that our gender identities are based on biology. There are two different factors at play: our genetics and our hormones.

Genes

Our biological sex is determined at birth by our 23rd chromosome. We either have the pattern XX (for a female) or XY (for a male) within this chromosome. However, there are rare exceptions to this rule. For example, people with a genetic condition known as Klinefelter's syndrome have the chromosomal pattern XXY, which results in different physical characteristics than typical males with an XY chromosome.

Hormones

Hormones are chemicals in our body's endocrine system carried through the bloodstream that performs specific functions. Certain hormones contribute to our physical sex characteristics.

In the womb, around the eighth week of pregnancy, the presence of the hormone testosterone determines whether a baby is born with male or female genitalia. When testosterone is present, the male sex organs begin to develop and the hypothalamus changes so that the brain is more inclined to male behaviours. When testosterone is not present, the baby grows female sex organs, and its brain does not undergo significant gendered changes.

During puberty (between the ages of 10 and 16), young people experience another surge of hormones. In males, testosterone levels rise sharply, developing secondary sexual characteristics such as facial hair and a deeper voice. In women, estrogen levels rise sharply, developing secondary sexual characteristics such as breasts and beginning their menstrual cycle.

Social Influences on Gender Development

Just as there are biological influences on gender development, there are also social influences on gender development. Observation is one of our most important survival skills as humans. From a very young age, children watch and observe those around them and, eventually, try to mimic them. This phenomenon is called the social learning theory.

Social learning theory says that we learn certain behaviours and social roles (i.e. gender roles) through observation and imitation and through reward and punishment.

The social learning theory plays a major role in gender development. As children watch and observe, they learn what behaviours are associated with the gender they identify with.

Psychodynamic Explanation of Gender Development

Initially developed by Sigmund Freud between 1890 and 1930, the psychodynamic approach focuses on how our unconscious thoughts and drives influence our behaviour. This approach assumes that we develop our gender identities around the age of five, which Freud calls the 'phallic stage', through specific crises he calls 'complexes'.

Oedipus Complex

Freud proposes that children develop their gender through the Oedipus complex. The complex is described as unconscious tension in which a young boy is preoccupied with his mother and hates his father, viewing him as a rival. In a girl, it is the other way around. The Oedipus complex is traditionally used to describe the development of boys. To resolve this tension, the boy takes on the masculine characteristics of his father.

Electra Complex

Carl Jung proposes that the female gender identity develops through the Electra complex. The complex is described as an unconscious tension in which a young girl is preoccupied with her father and hates her mother because she sees her as a rival and believes she has castrated her, so she has no penis. Freud refers to this as penis envy. To resolve this tension, the girl adopts her mother's feminine traits and replaces her desire for a penis with a desire for a baby.

  • When considering psychological theories of gender development, the age-old question is central to the conversation -- does gender identity develop due to nature or nurture?

  • Kohlberg theorized that as children develop cognitive skills, their understanding of their gender and that of the people around them increases. Kohlberg described three stages:

    Stage 1: Gender labelling (ages 2-3)

    Stage 2: Gender stability (age 4)

    Stage 3: Gender consistency (ages 6-7)

  • The biological approach to gender suggests that our gender identities are based on biology. The social learning theory plays a major role in gender development. As children watch and observe, they learn what behaviours are associated with the gender they identify with.

  • Kohlberg theorized that as children develop their cognitive abilities, their understanding of their gender and that of the people around them increases.

  • Initially developed by Sigmund Freud between 1890 and 1930, the psychodynamic approach focuses on how our unconscious thoughts and drives influence our behaviour.

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