by Liz Alexander
Originally published: March 7, 2017
In the 1930s, long before machine learning was anything more than a figment of popular sci-fi imagination, the Swiss clinical psychologist Jean Piaget identified four universal stages of cognitive development. His work suggested that adolescents reached a final, “formal operations” stage, in which they remained throughout adulthood. This includes the ability to think through things in the abstract and draw conclusions, without the need for direct, physical experience.
Today, thanks to breakthroughs in brain science, we know a lot more about cognitive development than Piaget did. Research on brain plasticity in particular has shown that we don’t reach some kind of plateau, and that’s the end of that. We’re capable of so much more.
This should come as good news to any adult who has to face the messy ethical and moral choices that adult life inevitably presents us with, especially today. As machine learning and other forms of workplace automation gain ground, technical competence alone doesn’t cut it. To stay competitive, we need to get comfortable making difficult, complicated, higher-order decisions more regularly—until we’ve achieved what Harvard psychologist Robert Kegan refers to as “immunity to change.”