The Social Genetic Model of Cognitive Development

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September 2, 2019

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During the 1970′, at Geneva, a new perspective on cognitive development has begun to emerge. The self-defined school of socio-genetical psychology advanced theories that represented a challenge addressed to the spirit of genetical epistemology.

Willem Doise, Gabriel Mugny and Jean Claude Deschamp, to name but a few of the representatives, declare that social interactions constitute the privileged setting which gives birth to the intellectual acquisitions of the child. There is a direct cause and effect link between social interaction and individual cognitive development.

The Tripolar Ego-Alter-Object Perspective

The studies of the mentioned psychologists on the evolving intellect aim at clearing the path for the shift from a bipolar ego-object psychology to a tripolar ego-alter-object psychology. This mutation is viewed as necessary because it is simply more in accordance with reality. In other words, the thesis that regards cognitive development as a result of merely the child’s interaction with his or her environment – see Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development – should be replaced with one that admits to the fact that in certain key moments of mental growth, cognitive acquisitions have their origin in the confrontational actions or opposing ideas that occur between individuals.

The Main Postulates of the Theory

Social interaction plays a generative role which manifests in the form of a spiral; if the social interaction allows for the child to elaborate new cognitive instruments, these new instruments allow, in turn, for the child to participate in more complex social interactions, thus favouring a new cognitive restructuring. 

The psychosocial theory of intellectual development proposed by Doise and Mugny (1998) is:

  • opposing epistemologic individualism;
  • aiming at explaining the mechanisms that help articulate the intellectual and social dynamics;
  • surpassing the workings of imitation, reaching toward social activism and postulating a socio-interactionist and socio-constructivist view. 
We could say that this outlook is compatible with the conception around which most of Lev Vygostsky’s work is built. There is, however, an important difference regarding the way in which social interaction is perceived. If Vygotsky’s theories refer to a guided or tutelaged interaction which takes place between a mentor and a novice (an asymmetrical interaction), the genetic social interactionists describe a symmetric interaction in which equal partners cooperate in resolving a problem and focus on reaching a shared response.
Experimental studies have shown that in order for the cognitive progress to develop, social interactions must provoke a socio-cognitive conflict.

The Role of the Socio-cognitive Conflict

The socio-cognitive conflict is defined by diverging initial responses given by partners that are faced with a problem situation which has to be countered with a mutually accepted method of solving.

The socio-cognitive conflict integrates two types of conflict:

  • an interindividual conflict – determined by the divergence between the initial responses of the two;
  • an intraindividual conflict – which arises as a result of becoming aware of the differences between the responses.
So that it proves itself efficient and to produce the expected individual progress, a sociocognitiv conflict must carry out certain conditions:
  • the presence of different initial reponses to the same problem and the obligation of reaching a common response in order to counter it;
  • the participants must already possess certain cognitive and sociocognitive abilities;
  • the interaction must give birth to an active engagement on both sides.

Cooperative Learning Groups

The researches conducted by the Geneva School have attracted the interest of specialists in the education psychology field. For example, D.W. Johnson and R.T. Johnson (1983), which were mainly interested in studying group learning activities in the scholar and academic contexts, decide on attributing a major role to the socio-cognitiv conflict. For them, the active participation of cooperative learning groups inevitably lead to conflicts between the ideas, opinions and information held by the members of the groups. If it is conducted in a constructive manner, the controversy can favorise curiosity and uncertainty in one’s previous held beliefs, as well as an active search for complementary information, which, in turn, brings about a better memorisation of the learning material. It has been demonstrated that people who work or compete in individual situations don’t have the opportunity to participate in such processes and this is directly affecting their performance.

The two authors have identified five elements that define the cooperative learning groups:

  • face-to-face interaction;
  • positive interdependence – the students support and explain to each other;
  • individual responsibility – although they learn together, each one of them demonstrates what he or she gained
  • possessing some cooperative abilities
  • group processing – the group members must monitorize both the operation and the group relationships and, also learn about the group dynamics.


Although the theory’s main ideas have been proven to be accepted, there are a series of rules that must be accomplished so that the socio-cognitive conflict is followed by the desired mental growth. One of those is the regulative intention which puts out the conflict.

Work on socio-cognitive conflict and cooperative learning groups has shown that confrontations can benefit learning when conflict is regulated in an epistemic manner, but can hinder learning when conflict is merely relational. In other words, if one part of the interaction is simply agreeing with the other out of compliancy or desire to put an end to discussions, both parties fail to improve their abilities. 

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