Theory of postformal thought

Sinnott sees the development of thinking as part of the holistic and complex process of human development. It is reflected in wisdom, interpersonal skills, concern for others, spirituality, and an ability to deal with paradoxes. She describes how adult individuals construct their own identities and realities and how this has an impact on their cognitive functions. Meaning and intention form a prominent part of adult life. However, Sinnott points out that we lack studies of higher-level intellectual operations that are required when adults make sense of life and process its meaning. For the holistic challenges of adult life, abstract, formal logics do not work without linkage with emotional, interpersonal, and spiritual aspects. Problems in adult life are most often obscure, and problem-solving is therefore a multidimensional process involving a close interplay of cognitive, emotional, and social processes. Our impact on the evolving systems in which we are involved is permanently transformative for ourselves and other systems. We are neither victims nor outsiders, but instead team members helping design it all. Thus, she says, there is a need not only for new paths of research, but also for new theoretical paradigms. She suggests the new physics theory, systems theories, complexity theory, and self-regulating systems theories as prominent frameworks for research into modern adult thinking (Sinnott, 1998, pp. 14-33, 1981, p. 110).

Sinnott says that rather than just the individual’s development and connection with the physical world, our research should be concerned with an individual’s interaction with other developing individuals. This view of social interaction is far more complex than the framework applied in earlier behavioural sciences, she adds, and has implications for understanding social development, emotional growth, and group dynamics, for instance (Sinnott, 1981, p. 301).

Sinnott elaborates the theoretical background of her thinking in great depth, and lays bare the false assumptions of current research. She describes with clarity and precision her new proposed path and argues that the development of adult thinking must be anchored to the elements that guide adult life, that is, meaning, identity, and intention. These can be seen as the determinants of adult development to which cognitive operations are subordinate, and therefore adult thinking must be studied in this context rather than seeking to solve predefined problems. Her theorising is surprisingly identical with the three systems paradigms described earlier, and in contrast to most other behavioural scientists she explicitly states her theoretical grounds and anchors her theory' to the third systems paradigm.

Sinnott (1998, pp. 23—52) summarises her view on the development of adult thinking and argues that postformal thinking

  • • is unique to major adult thought and thus exceeds Piaget’s theory;
  • • includes various truth systems, multiple conflicting ideas and uncertainty as a driver;
  • • is higher-level thinking, although all other levels are also purposefolly in use;
  • • is developed through interaction with other knowers, through social interactions, and co-created by people in those interactions;
  • • has an impact on one’s view of self, the world, other persons, change over time, and our connections with one another over time;
  • • is complex cognition, a bridge between affect and cognition, between one person and other persons, and a way to make the demands and practical concerns of adult life meaningful;
  • • refers to knowledge as a subjective component being necessarily incomplete, because any logic we use is self-referential logic (the higher-level postformal system of self-referential truth decisions gives order to lower-level formal truth and logic systems).

The theory of postformal thought has been developed both on the basis of the general systems theory and the theories under the third paradigm, especially chaos and complexity theories and the theory of self-organising systems, and the views on self-renewing systems and postformal thought overlap in significant respects (Table 12.2).

TABLE 12.2 Comparison of the characteristics of self-renewing systems and postformal thought (page references to Sinnott (1998) in parentheses)

Key characteristics of self-organizing and self-referential systems

Requirements of self-renewal of social systems

Assumptions of the theory of postformal thought (Sinnott, 1998)

System’s state far

Tolerance to confusion, discrep-

Uncertainty is a driver developed

from equilibrium

ancies, and disharmony.

through interaction with other knowers. Disorder, potential, unstructuredness arc necessary requirements (204).

Production of

Abundant communication and

Postformal thinking needs aware-


production of ideas, different

ness that there are various truth

angles of information without

systems, and that contradiction,

any certainty as to whether they

subjectivity, and choice arc

will prove to be useful.

inherent in all objective observations and solutions (24).


Active and frequent response to each other’s ideas, opinions, and reactions.

Momentums of

Momentums in the system's life

Chaos theory explains why


when genuine choices can be

development of thinking is not


TABLE 12.2 (Cont.)

Key characteristics of self-organizing and self-referential systems

Requirements of self-renewal of social systems

Assumptions of the theory of postfor-mal thought (Sinnott, 1998)

made. Bifurcation is a source of innovation and diversification, since it endows a system with a new solution.

linear but often happens by leaps (108).


System must interact with other systems and use them as a point of reference for itself: reflection of existence, identity, and boundaries.

The essential notion of selfreference is that we can never be completely free of the built-in limits of our system of knowing (32). Systems construct their own realities, and for this they need to interact with other systems (204).

Double contingency

Mutual interdependence, power balance, and trust within the system. Everyone is of equal value and positively dependent on each other.

Experiential information

Exchange of information is the system’s renewing power. Information must have influence on others and thus it always changes the state of the system.

Complex cognition is a bridge between affect and cognition, and between one person and other persons (52). Cognitive development is dependent on social-cognitive experience; the ideas of others challenge the reality of the knower (27, 28).

Processing meanings

Meanings are created collectively within the system through jointly created events.

Postformal thinking is about making sense of life (26). Making demands and practical concerns of adult life meaningful occurs by co-creation by people in interactions (27).

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