Social Psychology

Cognitive Psychology


Biological Theory
Cognitive Approach
Social Learning Theory
Psychoanalytic Approach

Mental Health

Cognitive Theories

The Theory

Cognition means how you think, and the theory we will be looking at is Kohlberg's Cognitive-Developmental Theory. The basic principle of the theory is that a child's understanding of gender develops with age; as part of the theory, Kohlberg idedntified three stages in gneder development.

The first is Gender Identity which happens at about 2 years of age, and it is where the child recognizes they are male or female and other people are as well.

The next stage happens at about 4 years and is called Gender Stability and the child now understands that their gender is fixed and will be male/female when they're older.

Finally is Gender Constancy which happens between 5 and 7 years and is the stage at which the child understands that cosmetic changes will not alter sex. For example, a girl wearing jeans is still female.

The Study: Damon 1977

The study by Damon in the table below is the main one for this theory, but below this there is also mention of other research that either supports or contradicts these findings.

AimTo see if children's understanding of gender changes over time.
MethodA group of children aged 4, 6 and 9 where presented with the story of George, who liked to play with dolls, but his parents didn't think it was appropriate since he is a boy. And then had to discuss it.
ResultsThe 4 year olds thought is was OK for George to play with dolls; 6 year olds thought it was wrong and at 9 the children thought it was fine if he wanted to but was unusual.
ConclusionChildren's understanding of gender develops with age.

Martin and Halverson showed 5-6 year olds pictures of sex consistent (a girl cooking) and sex-inconsisitent behaviour and they found that children distorted the memories to fit with their schema (understanding).

Kuhn et al (1978) also looked into sex sterotyping by asking very young (2-3) children about dolls. They found strong sterotyping and they tended to give positive characteristics to their own gender but not the opposite. This shows that understanding of gender exists even at a very young age.


The first issue with this theory is quite easy to get your head around; it is that the theory is descriptive rather than explanative. This means that the theory tells you what happens but not why.

Another issue is that it may well be that children are at these stages earlier, but because of limits in their langauage skills they are not able to verbalise this. Therefore it could be less of a theory of gender development and more a theory of the ability to talk about different concepts of gender.

And a final evaluative comment is that it takes a very broad approach. Not all children have the same understanding of gender and it doesn't account for how gender changes over time. For example, 50 years ago childcare would be primarily the job of women, but nowadays it would seem odd if a father didn't get involved in childcare.