The Cognitive Approach Explanation for Gender Differences

Updated on March 24, 2020
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What Does the Cognitive Approach say about Gender Differences?

The Cognitive Approach deals with the mind as if it was a computer - we process information and develop in rigid and set ways.

This general concept can apply to gender differences and result in a convincing argument for how we acquire gender differences.

Of course, the cognitive approach is not the only one to have made a convincing argument, the following article is also worth considering in order to get a well-rounded idea of why men and women are assigned different roles in society: The Biological Explanation for Gender Differences.

Feel free to leave your opinion in the voting and comments section at the bottom of the page!

Kohlberg’s Theory of Cognitive Development

Kohlberg believed, much like Freud did, that children go through three specific developmental stages in their lives. These stages relate to their age and understanding of gender.

Boy or Girl? Can you tell?

Young children just don't have the cognitive ability to distinguish girls from boys in dresses.
Young children just don't have the cognitive ability to distinguish girls from boys in dresses. | Source

Kohlberg’s Stage One: Gender Identity

What children can do:

  • Children begin to think about gender at 2-3 years.
  • They understand whether they are male or female.
  • They can make guesses at which sex and gender other people are.

What children can't do

  • They don't understand what actually makes something a male or female - they merely remember that people just are one or the other, much like they do when they learn names.
  • They also do not realise that their sex is fixed - a little boy might think he will become a mummy when he grows up, a girl a daddy.
  • They don't realise that they were always the same sex - they might have thought they were a female when they were younger even though they realise that they are a male now.
  • Since they do not understand that genitals define someone's sex they will call boys in dresses girls and women wearing mens shoes boys.

Kohlberg’s Stage Two: Gender Stability

  • Children begin to understand that their own sex will not change over time at about 3-4 years.
  • They cannot apply this rule to other people however, and might think that a person who changes into clothing of traditionally the opposite gender will turn into the sex traditionally associated with that gender.
  • In addition, they do not fully understand the difference between gender and sex and although they know they are male or female (because of their genitalia) they will still believe they changed sex when they wear clothing of the opposite gender.
  • Therefore, in gender stability the children realise that if circumstances do not change neither will their sex but their minds are still open to the idea that if circumstances do change then so can their sex e.g. wearing different clothing.

Kohlberg’s Stage Three: Gender Constancy

  • At around the age of five children understand that other people’s sex won’t change over time.
  • Children identify males and females by their genitals (which they seek out).
  • They understand that changing your appearance does not affect your sex or gender unless you feel like that is more comfortable/more ‘you’ e.g. a girl putting on boys shoes won’t declare that she is a boy or masculine – just wearing shoes she does not usually identify her gender with.
  • They have the ability to conserve – realise that although a person is acting differently to how other people of the same sex do, they are not necessarily a different sex.

Gender Identity and then Gender Constancy

Marcus and Overton’s Gender Constancy Experiment (1978)

Children of different ages were tested on their ability to recognise that changing the appearance of a person does not change their sex.

  • They were given a puzzle in which they could change the haircut and clothing of a character,
  • They were also given the same characters but with other faces superimposed on them as well as photos of themselves imposed.
  • The conclusions found that young children could only identify no change in sex when dealing with pictures of their own sex e.g. a girl would realise that the character was still a girl despite the boys haircut.
  • Older children realised that both sexes were constant despite appearance.

Slaby and Frey (1975)

  • Children were given a screen to watch with a male on one side and a female on the other performing the same action.
  • Young children would spend equal amounts of time studying each side.
  • Older children would study the model with the same sex as themselves (so they could model after them).

Munroe et al. (1984)

  • Tested children in a variety of countries (Kenya, Belize, Samoa and Nepal).
  • Found that all the children went through Kohlberg’s stages.

Damon (1977)

  • Children were told a story about a boy who played with dolls.
  • Young children responded that it was acceptable.
  • Older children responded that it was unusual and/or wrong.
  • The older children must have had a greater understanding of gender roles.

McConaghy (1979)

  • Showed children images of characters with see-through clothing that revealed the characters’ genitals
  • Younger children could not identify the sex of the characters by their genitals and used their clothes instead.
  • Older children could recognise the genitals and associate it with the correct sex.
  • If a character had a penis but wore a dress, young children would claim he was a girl whilst older children realised that he was still a boy.

Gender Understanding at Different Ages

  • At age five - six, children develop a very good understanding of what their own gender should do and how they should respond to given situations.
  • Only at around the age of eight - ten do they know the same information for the opposite gender.

Gender Schema Theory

  1. Kohlberg’s theory states that children begin developing and internalising the gender specific behaviours of their models only after they have reached gender constancy (age five).
  2. Gender schema theory states that children begin to seek gender specific information immediately after they reach gender identity (age two – three) – as soon as they realise that they fit into a group: boy or girl, they start thinking about how they should behave according to this.
  3. They use the information they receive to develop a schema: an internal representation of how the world works which they will later use to process gender related information.
  4. Gender schemas are essentially just gender stereotypes that the children develop - girls should play with X toys but not with Y toys, boys should play with Y toys but not X toys.
  5. They then develop gender scripts - sets of actions that are reserved for each gender: cooking dinner is for girls because they saw mummy do it and DIY is for boys because daddy does it.
  6. After these gender schemas and scripts have been developed, children lose interest in anything they have learned to be for the other gender. Instead, they focus on things that are 'meant' for their gender.
  7. What is important to note is that after the schemas and scripts are developed it is very difficult to change them - if children see information that agrees with their scripts then they will use it as part of their future thinking, but if they see something that does not co-operate with their gender schemas then they may not encode the information at all (resulting in no change). This preserves their stereotypes into adulthood.

Bradbard et al. (1986) and the Neutral Toy Experiment

  • Children were given a variety of neutral toys to play with.
  • Some of the neutral toys were said to be for boys and some of them for girls.
  • Children were far more likely to spend time playing with the toys they were told were for their own sex than those for the opposite sex.
  • Therefore, this experiment supports the idea that children are very much inclined to use their gender schemas when faced with a given gender-related situation.

Martin and Halverson's Study of Schema Inconsistency and Memory (1983)

  • Children were shown differing pictures that would be either gender consistent (like a boy playing with a toy gun) or gender inconsistent (a boy playing with dolls).
  • A week later they were asked if they could recall the images they saw.
  • The gender consistent ones were far more likely to be remembered than the gender inconsistent pictures.
  • The gender inconsistent pictures were distorted in the memory so that they became gender consistent - a girl playing with a toy gun was remembered as a boy playing with a gun instead.

Another Slaby & Frey (1975) Experiment

  1. Asked children several questions
  2. Showed them pictures or dolls and asked whether what they saw were male or female.
  3. Gender stability was tested by asking the children what they thought they were when they were younger and what they would be when they're older.
  4. Gender constancy was tested by asking if the boy or girl would be a different gender if they changed clothing or haircut to that of the opposite gender.
  5. Results showed that Kohlberg's stages were applicable to those children.


Marcus & Overton - interchangeable hair & clothing-characters.
Damon - story about dolls.
Slaby & Frey - double screen male and female.
McConaghy - see-through clothing, young children did not use genitals to assess sex.
Munroe - tested children in many countries to prove that Kolhberg's theory applies everywhere.
Martin and Halverson - gender consistent or inconsistent pictures - 1 week recall - memory distorted so all were consistent instead.
Bradbard et al - toys for boys, toys for girls, children chose same sex toys
Slaby & Frey (for gender schema) -
Perry and Bussey - children most likely to choose the toys they saw their same sex person holding.
Masters et al - xylophone was a boy toy, drums was a girl toy, same sex model played the wrong sex instrument - children found the perceived appropriateness of the instrument more important than the sex of the model playing the instrument.

What do you think?

Do you think the cognitive makes a good or bad argument for the development of gender differences?

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    • profile image

      Keri OCreene 

      5 years ago

      Hi DK,

      Thank you for your article. I too am familiar with the different theories in which gender is acquired. I supported Sandra Bem's gender schema theory in my essay 'Gender Differences in Film Noir, U.S. Film, and Gender Schema theory'. She believes that the only reason male/female sex typing occurs by a child is when a culture holds gender at its core. This would explain why indigenous tribes which have not been exposed to westernized cultures do not even recognize or adhere to male/female categories. Also, although children who have been exposed to sex-typing can remember things better, I believe this is merely indicative of schematic employment to enhance memory, and is done in countless ways. Furthermore, a study was done where gender-consistent and gender inconsistent individuals were asked to identify people over a telephone and match them to their pictures. The gender-consistent invoked stereotypes and were more often wrong, than those who were not. This demonstrates how it is not beneficial to peoples perceptions when they employ schemata related to gender in order to enhance memory.


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