This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 10 table of contents.

Appearance vs. Reality

John H. Flavell of Stanford University is a respected developmental psychologist whose text Cognitive Development is a classic in the field. Flavell found that young children go through a regular progression of changes in their ability to distinguish between superficial appearances and deeper reality.

How did Flavell study the "appearance/ reality distinction"?

Here is an example from Flavell (1986). An adult takes a red car and shows it to a child, who can see it is red. Now the adult places the car behind a plastic filter that makes it appear black. If asked, "What color is this car? Red or black?" a 3-year-old will say "Black" but a 6-year-old will say "Red." This occurs even if the adult carefully phrases the question in a way that emphasizes the appearance/reality distinction. For example:

"I don't want you to tell me what it looks like to your eyes right now; I want you to tell me what the color really and truly is."

The 3-year-old will nevertheless say, "Black." Flavell writes:

At issue in such simple tasks is the distinction between how things presently appear to the senses and how or what they really and enduringly are, that is, the familiar distinction between appearance and reality. The six-year-old is clearly in possession of some knowledge about this distinction and quickly senses what the task is about. The three-year-old, who is much less knowledgeable about the distinction, does not. (Flavell, 1986)

Flavell argues that learning the distinction between appearances and reality is "probably a universal developmental outcome in our species," essential for basic coping in the world. Without it, we would be as badly off as the schizophrenic who is unable to tell hallucinations and delusions from reality. Our awareness of the appearance/reality distinction underlies our ability to distinguish fantasy, play, satire, and all forms of acting from "the real thing."

The distinction between appearance and reality also seems to be the core issue underlying Piaget's conservation experiments. The conservation experiments deceive three- and four-year-olds precisely because children of that age are swayed by appearances. They do not grasp the idea of a reality that exists apart from appearances.

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