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Centration is the tendency to focus on one aspect of a situation and neglect others. A term introduced by the Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget (1896–1980) to refer to the tendency of young children to focus attention on only one salient aspect of an object, situation, or problem at a time, to the exclusion of other potentially relevant aspects. A classic example is provided by an experiment first described by Piaget, in which a child watches while a number of objects are set out in a row and then moved closer together, and the child is asked whether there are now more objects, fewer objects, or the same number of objects. Most children in the pre-operational stage of development focus on the relative lengths of the rows without taking into account their relative densities or the fact that nothing has been added or taken away, and conclude that there are fewer objects than before. The process of cognitive development by which a child develops from centration to a more objective way of perceiving the world is called decentration or decentering.
A classic experimental demonstration of centration is to show a pre-operational child two equivalent glasses of liquid and ask the child if one glass has more liquid or if they are the same. The child should agree they are they same. Then pour one glass of liquid in plain view of the child into a different sized container (taller and more slender than the first) and ask the child again. A pre-operational will be persuaded by the change in the height of the container and fail to take into account the corresponding change in width, and will now respond that there is more liquid in the taller container.
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