This you to question things you thought

This lesson highlights Jean Piaget’s theory of disequilibrium with a definition and application of the theory.

When you are through, take a short quiz after the lesson that will test what you have learned.

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Jean Piaget was a noted psychologist who devoted much of his career studying how humans develop from the time we are babies to adulthood. Piaget devoted a lot of research into cognitive development, particularly how people transition from one developmental stage to another based on information to which they have been exposed. He was especially interested in how our thinking patterns changed based on individual life experiences.

Piaget came up with the idea that we build our schema, or background knowledge, based on these experiences.


Before we can talk about disequilibrium – the topic of this lesson – we have to begin with equilibrium. According to Piaget, equilibrium occurs when a person’s background knowledge allows him or her to deal with most new information through assimilation. Assimilation is applying what you already know to new situations. Ever heard the phrase ‘If it walks like a duck and acts like a duck, then it must be a duck?’ In a very simple way, this explains the concept of equilibrium. You know a duck when you see one because you have seen plenty of pictures of them and maybe have seen a duck or two in person.


Disequilibrium, then, refers to our inability to fit new information into our schema.

When you come across information or experiences that do not fit into your current knowledge base, this is where disequilibrium begins. What if you encounter an animal that walks like a duck and acts like a duck, but it has a long, furry tail? You know that ducks have beaks and webbed feet, but the furry tail throws you for a loop. This is where disequilibrium sets in because this new thing does not fit into what you already know about ducks.


The new duck-like friend has completely confused you, and you are conflicted. Do you move forward and refer to the beast as a duck, or do you call it something else? In your mind, there must be a reasonable explanation as to why this duck has a furry tail! This point of conflict is termed groping and it is simply when you have to decide whether you will remain committed to your original thinking (this is a duck) or if you will alter your thought process (this creature cannot possibly be a duck).

New Equilibrium

Once you have pondered all information available, you agree that the new creature is not a duck.

After scouring the Internet looking for photos of the duck-like creature, you come across a website detailing the existence of an animal known as a platypus. You realized the duck-like creature that you have encountered is, in fact, a platypus. By accepting this new information (a process called accommodation), you have developed a schema (or background) about the platypus, thus gaining a new equilibrium.

Lesson Summary

Let’s review. Unless you are fortunate enough to be born with all the knowledge you will ever need in life, chances are you will find yourself in a state of disequilibrium, where you will come across new ideas for which you have limited or no knowledge.

You will likely find this situation unpleasant because it may cause you to question things you thought you knew. As you face this situation (what Piaget calls groping), however, you will develop a new schema and return to a comfort zone – until you are again faced with a new situation that challenges what you thought you knew.


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