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Example Answers for Cognition & Development - A Level Psychology, Paper 3, June 2019 (AQA)

A Level

Here are some example answers to the two Paper 3 questions on Cognition & Development in the 2019 AQA exams.

Question 9

Mirror neurons are brain cells that are activated when we see another person performing an action. The cell activation is the same as if we had performed the action ourselves and they are thought to allow humans to shore understanding of intention and to feel empathy. This is because if we see someone crying because they are sad, we will experience the same feeling because our mirror neurons will be activated. The mirror neuron system has been studied using scanning techniques, and areas of the brain such as the pars opercularis have been identified as being rich in mirror neurons.

The mirror neuron system is argued to have shaped human evolution, as Ramachandran suggests it has allowed us to live in large groups with complex social roles. This is because it allows us to understand intention, emotion and perspective. Dysfunction in the mirror neuron system has also been proposed as an explanation for the deficits in social cognition shown by those diagnosed with ASD. This is supported by studies of participants with ASD using functional imaging that have shown lower activity in brain areas associated with mirror neurons.

However, one problem with research using brain scans is that they only identify areas that might be rich in mirror neurons. They do not allow activity in specific cells to be measured in the same way that research using non-human animals has been able to. This means there is a lack of direct evidence to support the existence of mirror neurons in humans, which has led researchers such as Hickok (2009) to question their importance in social cognition.

Question 10

This is the second of Piaget’s stages of intellectual development that last from 2 to 7 years approximately. Piaget divided in into the pre-conceptual (2-4) and intuitive (4-7) stages. Language develops in this stage, but children are egocentric, so are unable to take another person’s perspective. They are also unable to perform logical mental operations (e.g. mentally reverse an action) and their thinking is dominated by outward appearances, so they are unable to perform correctly on conservation tasks. Conservation is the understanding that the fundamental properties of a material do not alter just because appearance changes. Although children in this stage are able to classify objects, they struggle with class inclusion - the idea that classes have subsets and an object can belong in more than one class. If they are shown pictures of 5 dogs and 3 cats and asked ‘are there more dogs or more animals’, they will say there are more dogs.

Piaget and Inhelder supported the idea of egocentricity using the Three Mountain Experiment. A child was seated one side of a model of mountain scenery, with a doll seated on a different side. The child was shown a series of pictures and asked to select the one that the doll would see. Children in the pre-operational stage tended to choose the picture of the view they could see and Piaget took this as evidence they are egocentric. However, other research has found that if you investigate perspective-taking using more child-friendly methods, children are able to show evidence of this much earlier. For example, Hughes used a piece of apparatus comprising ‘two walls’ intersecting to form a cross. A policeman was placed where he could see two of the sections and the child was asked to hide the little boy doll where the policeman could not find him. This was then increased to two policemen. Using this task, 3-and-a-half to 5-year-olds hid the boy successfully 90% of the time, suggesting Piaget had underestimated their ability.

Conservation of number was supported by Piaget who placed two rows of counters in front of the child and got them to agree both had equal numbers of counters. Then one row was pushed together and the child was asked which row had the most counters. The pre-operational child typically says the ‘longer’ row has more counters. However, Donaldson argued that the conservation of number task may create demand characteristics as the experimenter may be forcing the child to produce the wrong answer by asking the same question twice. To test this, McGarrigle and Donaldson used ‘naughty teddy’ to emerge from a hiding place and rearrange the rows (so it would not seem like the experimenter had deliberately changed something) In this version, 50 out of 80 4-6-year-olds conserved, compared to 13 out of 80 tested using the Piaget’s version. This suggests that children in the pre-operational stage may be able to conserve, but only if they are asked in an appropriate way that does not confuse them or lead them to think they need to give a different answer.

Furthermore, some psychologists have argued that the pre-operational stage may not be a rigid stage, but part of a more gradual process of development. In stage theories, differences between stages are oten overestimated and differences within stages underestimated. However, Piaget tried to deal with this by introducing the concept of horizontal decalage as he himself found that children find it easier to achieve conservation on some tasks (e.g. numbers and liquids) than on others (e.g. weight and volume).

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