How Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development Explains Implicit Bias

If you are an educator, you studied John Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and the closely associated schema theory, when going through your teacher training.  You learned how to use this theory to better your instruction. You learned how to activate or build schema before beginning your lessons. However, what you likely didn’t learn is how the schema theory helps explain our affinity to the power construct of race. 

What are Schemas?

Schemas are basically mental categories which allow us to make sense of the world.  Schemas help us filter through information.  According to neuroscientists, the brain may be receiving up to 11 million bits of information every second but can only process around 40 bits.  Hence, the conscious brain can only process through .00001% of the information it receives.  Mental boxes that allow us to quickly categorize this information helps our brains be more efficient against the inundation of information we constantly face.

According to John Piaget, cognitive development occurs as we adjust our schemas to new experiences.  For example, a small child learns the word “cat” and creates a mental box in which all furry, four legged animals belong.  Then, when the child sees a dog, the child mistakenly calls it a “cat” because it fits the schema or mental category the child has created.  After all, dogs are also furry, four legged animals.  The adult present, however, quickly corrects the child and helps the child understand the difference between a cat and a dog.  Cognitive disruption occurs and the child develops a new schema for dogs.

Schema and Race

Linnaeus, the father of scientific taxonomy, created for his eager European-descent audience such mental boxes when it comes to human beings and in turn, solidified a burgeoning concept of race.   In his 1735 book, Systema Naturae, he created four schemas of races that he placed in a hierarchical order. At the bottom of his hierarchy, he created a group that he called Homo sapiens afer. He ascribed this label to all those of African descent, characterizing them with the color black and the trait of being “beastly.” Next up on his hierarchy were those who descended from the Original Peoples of the Americas.  He ascribed the color red to this group and the trait of being “lazy.”  Next on his hierarchy, he placed descendants from Asia whom he labeled as Homo sapien asiaticus.  He ascribed the color red and the trait of “greedy” to this group of people.  Finally, at the top of his hierarchy were the those descending from Europeans whom he called Homo sapien europaeus and described as white skinned and blue eyed.  He endowed them with all positive traits including intelligence and beauty.

It is important to note that not only were these descriptions inaccurate but that the people in each of these categories did not necessarily consider themselves as homogenous groups.  Those were categories and identities placed upon them in a power structure that was solidified by this pseudo-scientific classification.

Linneaus’s Pseudo-scientific Taxonomy of Human Beings (1735)

Continued Impact and Solutions

Unfortunately, we continue to be exposed to these mental boxes and this racial hierarchy even today and our brains, in order to be efficacious, accept these boxes in the form of implicit bias.  The only way to undo this bias is, like the child who learns that dogs are not cats, to consistently challenge our beliefs and allow cognitive disruption to take place.  Reading about issues related to race and diversity, listening to people who are different from us, and checking our own fragility at the door when we explore issues of race will help us grow in a way that can undo the internalized racism each of us carries.

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  1. I’m glad you’re sharing this important point in history. So many of us, of all racial identities, have accepted this to some degree without realizing how this thinking has been passed down for centuries by supremist thinking. Time to do the work of unlearning and relearning anew.


    • Thank you, Terri, for the feedback. I hope you will subscribe to the blog and share with others as I continue to write about our collective historical identities.


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