The three mountains
[Reading time: 6 mins read]
In his seminal work on cognitive development, Piaget (1951) discusses children’s pre-operational stage and the notion of egocentrism. During this stage which begins at around the age of 3 till around 7 years’ old, children do not, consciously distinguish the self and others. Because of the lack of cognitive functioning, children think at a symbolic level and they are not able to use logic to process more than one idea. Their tendency to focus on only one thing at a time and mostly in relation to self, is referred to as egocentrism (centred on own self/ego and unable to perceive another person’s viewpoint).
The ‘three mountains task’ was employed to test this hypothesis (Piaget & Inhelder, 1956) where a model of three mountains is positioned between the child and the researcher. The researcher places a doll in different positions in the model and children are asked to say what the doll would see from these different views. The findings show that 3-4-year olds typically opt for the view they, themselves, see, while at later ages (e.g. around 7) children more often select the doll’s viewpoint. The conclusion is that children at the pre-operational stage are egocentric and their thinking is predominantly perceptive but symbolic functioning increases as they grow older and they can see more than their own perspective (de-centers).
The three-mountain task was often considered to be a complex test and it was often suggested that children didn’t perform well because they didn’t understand the task. Other cognitive scientists used different experiments (e.g. Borke, 1975; Hughes, 1975) with different findings and results which are beyond the scope of this article.
The bottom line is that cognitive scientist predicted that when we outgrow the pre-operational and other cognitive stages, we are able to understand and see different points of view and while these predictions were largely correct, psychologists now think that a transformation is not happening all of sudden and permanently, but many aspects of egocentrism persist and are revived in adulthood too. In fact, Diamond & Kirkham (2005) believe that there is greater continuity between children and adults in cognitive and perceptive features observed in childhood and suggest that perhaps adults never fully outgrow any of these biases. Instead, the latter are overcome by a more mature and reflective thinking. Epley et al. (2004) conducted a tracking eye movement communication experiment with parents and their children taking part. They observed that in relation to egocentricity, the difference between children and adults was not the egocentric behaviour itself, but that adults are quicker adjusting and correcting their initial egocentric view. Overall children appeared to behave more egocentrically than adults, however, a reflexive moment of egocentrism applied to both groups. Epley et al. conclude that “the differences in egocentrism therefore seems less a product of where people start in their perspective taking process than where they stop”.
The problem with such ‘childish’ behaviour enduring into adulthood, is that such default and often unconscious feature, influences our view and ultimately our judgement and decisions. Egocentricity in adulthood doesn’t need to be tested in psychological experiments; our inability to associate with other peoples’ views, situations and problems is obvious. Similarly, to the ‘three-mountains task’, even when we are aware of what happens on the other side, we often tend to ignore this information, for example, our first world problems vs. what happens in other countries; famine, human rights, different races, people from different countries, behavior towards animals, etc. The bottom line is that really nothing much changes even when we grow up, unless we make a conscious effort to understand and embrace different points of view.
In coaching, more than anywhere else, self-centered vision needs to be pushed aside, once and for all. The coach has no space or role to practice from a judgmental or disapproving viewpoint. Coaches use their own experience and values, but they need to be able to see and understand the other side. A fatal mistake is to assume that others will interpret the world as we do, with exactly the same interpretations. But two people see and interpret the same thing very differently because they see it from their own viewpoint, using their own knowledge, experience, beliefs, attitudes and intentions. A coach needs to be able, figuratively speaking, to hover over and around the three mountains so they can see the whole picture. This ability to relate and understand someone is key to effective coaching. At the same time, as coaches we need to be aware of the client being trapped in their own egocentric view and support their transition to a more open and transparent vision that can appreciate different positions of a situation and therefore increase their awareness.
Our social senses are hypersensitive to differences. However, if we don’t explore these differences, we project our own perspectives into these blank gaps. The less we know and understand about the other person the more our stereotypes and beliefs take over and mislead us. And once we start disapproving of someone’s behavior or that someone behaves inconsistently, then we lose our ability to focus and listen. The final way we come to know the minds of others is by listening what someone tells us and by watching how they act; and a developed sense of objectivity and curiosity enables us to remain open and objective.
Applications & extensions: adapting this knowledge to your organization, a series of metric tests are used to raise awareness and explore the current status of an individual or a team e.g. self-determination and self-efficacy diagnostics or Implicit Association Tests.
- Diamond, A., & Kirkham, N. Z. (2005). Not quite as grown-up as we like to think: Parallels between cognition in childhood and adulthood. Psychological Science, 16, 291–297.
- Epley, N. (2014). Mind-wise. How we understand what others Think, Believe, Feel and Want. Allen Lane, Penguin Books (Psychology)
- Epley, N., Morewedge, C. K., and Keysar, B. (2004) Perspective taking in children and adults: Equivalent egocentrism but differential correction. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 40 (2004) 760–768
- McLeod, S. A. (2018). Preoperational stage. Retrieved from https://www.simplypsychology.org/preoperational.html
- Piaget, J. (1951). Egocentric thought and sociocentric thought. J. Piaget, Sociological studies.
- Piaget, J., & Inhelder, B. (1956). The Child’s Conception of Space. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.