In this excerpt from Human Development Perspectives>, Dr. Brent Duncan reviews Gisela Labouvie-Vief's theory of pragmatic thought and cognitive-emotional complexity to adult development as a process of continuously adapting to reality.

Gisela Labouvie-Vief (1980) extended Jean Piaget’s cognitive-development theory into adulthood by offering a theory of pragmatic thought and cognitive-emotional complexity that sees adult development as an active process of constructing successively more adaptive levels of activity. As a neo-Piagetian theory, Goldhaber (2000) classified Labouvie-Vief's theory of programmatic thought and cognitive-emotional under an organismic lens. Because Labouvie-Vief demonstrated how contextual factors can influence cognitive development, Merriam (2007) classified the theory as contextualist. Seemingly then, Labouvie-Vief's theory belongs under a contextualist-organismic lens.

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Child opportunity to adult reality

Labouvie-Vief's (1980) perspective on adult development asserts that children face limitless opportunities, while adults move from hypothetical to pragmatic as they face real-world problems and make conscious commitments to a single path (Goldhaber, 2000). In other words, adults put aside childish dreams and focus on reality.

Conscious commitment

As adults select one path out of many alternatives, they become more aware of the constraints of everyday life. While balancing roles, adults put aside discomfort with contradictions and accept inconsistencies as part of life and developing ways of thinking that thrive on imperfection and compromise (Berk, 2007). According to Labouvie-Vief (1980), the need to specialize motivates this change. “This conscious commitment to one pathway and the deliberate disregard of other logical choices may mark the onset of adult maturity” (p. 153).

Successive adaptations

While Piaget viewed this adult commitment as a regression, Labouvie-Vief (1980) saw it as a positive adaption to reality. In other words, she reframed Piaget’s developmental sequence as successive adaptations rather than successive levels of logical thought. This reframing of Piaget's theory introduced a view of development as a continuous process throughout life.

Cognitive and emotive integration

As young adults gain reflective capacity, they are better able to integrate cognition and emotion, allowing them to make sense of discrepancies. By studying hundreds of 10- to 80-year olds, Labouview-Vief (1980) found that people gain cognitive-affect complexity as they mature. In other words, adults become more aware of positive and negative feelings and are better able to coordinate those feelings into a complex, organized structure (Berk, 2007). Berk demonstrated cognitive-affect complexity with an example of a 34-year-old who described combined roles, traits, and diverse emotions into a coherent picture:

With the recent birth of our first child, I find myself more fulfilled than ever, yet struggling in some ways. My elation is tempered by my gnawing concern over meeting all my responsibilities in a satisfying way while remaining an individualized person with needs and desires.

Emotional intelligence

Cognitive-affective complexity allows mature people to demonstrate increased awareness of the perspectives and motivations of themselves and others. Labouvie-Vief (1980) noted cognitive-affect complexity as a vital aspect of emotional intelligence that allows adults to deal with practical problems. Individuals who demonstrate high cognitive-affect complexity tend to be more tolerant and open-minded toward events and people, make sense of conflicting emotions, regulate emotions, and think rationally about real-world dilemmas (Berk, 2007). 

In short, as young adults mature, they become aware of multiple perspectives, integrate logic with reality, and develop cognitive-emotional complexity that allows them to become increasingly specialized and context-bound in action and thought that opens higher levels of competence.

Perspectives on Labouvie-Vief

From a philosophical perspective, Labouvie-Vief's observations about cognitive-affect complexity being a vital aspect of emotional intelligence seem to correlate with definitions of self-actualization and wisdom found in other theories of human development. From a neurophysiologic perspective, the stages of human development derived from Piaget and Labouvie-Vief seem to correlate with research showing the developmental stages of the brain.



Berk, L. E. (2007). Development through the lifespan (4th ed.): Pearson Education, Inc.

Goldhaber, D. E. (2000). Theories of human development: Integrative perspectives. Mountain View: Mayfield Publishing Company.

Labouvie-Vief, G. (1980). Beyond formal operations: Uses and limits of pure logic in life-span development. Human Development, 23, 141–161.

Merriam, S. B., Caffarella, R. S., & Baumgartner, L. M. (2007). Learning in adulthood (3rd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.