Assimilation refers to the process of how people develop an understanding of their world. As a person encounters new information, that information is processed based on existing knowledge. That is assimilation.
The idea of assimilation was proposed in Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget’s (1954) theory of cognitive development based on his observations of his children.
He theorized that as the baby grows it continuously encounters new information, which is organized in a framework he called a schema.
New information, or experiences, are processed in the framework (assimilation) which may lead to an alteration of that schema or the creation of a new schema (accommodation).
For example, a young child has a schema for “dog” that includes: furry, four legs, and one tail. One day they learn something new about dogs: they can play fetch.
That additional information is initially processed and made sense of in the child’s existing dog schema. This is assimilation.
Assimilation vs Accommodation
Piaget also proposed a concept called accommodation. Whereas assimilation involves adding new information to an existing schema, accommodation involves changing an existing schema altogether.
Here’s the difference:
- Assimilation: Improving existing knowledge of something thanks to new but congruent information.
- Accommodation: Amending existing knowledge of something thanks to new information that contradicts previous thinking.
|Improving existing knowledge of something thanks to new but congruent information.
|Amending existing knowledge of something thanks to new information that contradicts previous thinking.
|A child owns a poodle. They see a dachshund and notice it looks like a poodle. They point at the dachshund and say “That’s a dog!” The parent says “Yes. It’s a dog called a dachshund.” The child’s ‘dog’ schema is now improved and refined – they now know two types of dogs.
|A child owns a poodle. They see a cat and notice it looks like a poodle. They point at the cat and say “That’s a dog!” The parent corrects them: “that’s a cat”. The child now has to change its ‘dog’ schema to exclude some four-legged pets, and instead create a new ‘cat’ schema.
examples of Assimilation in Psychology
- A newborn reaches for a soft toy. The visual image of the toy forms the basis of a visual schema for the object. Once grasped, the sensations are initially processed in the context of the visual schema.
- An infant grabs mom’s noisy keys and puts them into their mouth to see if they’re edible. As they do so, the information regarding the sound, texture, and image of the keys are processed: they realize keys can’t be eaten. They bank “cannot eat” into their cognitive schema about keys.
- While the newborn is gazing at the face of its mother, the physical features of her face are being processed in a “mom” schema.
- A toddler sees a basketball and realizes it looks like a soccer ball. They put it in their “ball” schema and add a sub-category: soccer ball.
- A kindergarten teacher shows the class a horse and names it as a mammal. Then she shows a dog and explains that it’s also a mammal. The information is assimilated into the children’s “mammal” schema.
- When meeting a new teacher for the first time, each student compares her behavior with the schema they have for the previous teacher. The new teacher’s behavior is assimilated into the “teacher” schema.
- Every day first graders are learning to read short CVC words. The teacher is sure to use photos to help kids understand what the words mean. Now the children are developing schemas that consist of an image, letters, and sound of the word being spoken.
- Middle school students are taking a Spanish class. At first, every time they hear a new word that think of what it means in English.
- While in training, middle managers keep comparing the leadership styles they are learning about (servant, transformative, and collaborative), with their old concept of leadership as bossy and cold, to broaden their knowledge of the “leadership” schema.
- When visiting a foreign country, people will often process their new cultural experiences with the data base that they already have for the country, to develop a more nuanced understanding of the country’s culture.
Case Studies of Assimilation in Psychology
1. Tertiary Circular Reactions and Assimilation
During the sensorimotor stage of Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, infants progress from reflexive repetitive actions to those that are intentional. One of those types of actions are referred to as tertiary circular reactions.
These behaviors are a result of the child trying to discover new results as a function of changing their movements. It is a kind of trial-and-error engagement with the environment.
As the child experiments, information is being assimilated through their existing schema for that situation. As the experimenting proceeds, the processes of assimilation and accommodation are in constant flux:
“…accommodation and assimilation are simultaneously slightly differentiated and antagonistic. They are relatively undifferentiated in the sense that every attempt at assimilation is at the same time an attempt at accommodation…Every schema of assimilation is therefore forthwith a schema of accommodation; primitive assimilation, whether reproductive, generalizing or recognitory, only functions to the extent that it is accommodation growing toward reality” (p. 275).
2. The Conditioned Reflex as a Schema
At the time Piaget was formulating his theory of cognitive development, the idea of “cognitions” was unpopular with the more prominent views of behaviorism.
Observed behavior was a result of conditioned reflexes and there was no need to include fuzzy concepts about “thinking” that cannot be seen directly.
As Piaget (1956; 1965) states:
“…wherever we may speak of conditioned reflexes being stabilized as the result of experience, we always perceive that a schema of the whole organizes the parts of the associations” (p. 128).
The examples offered by Piaget include when the newborn “…follows moving objects with his eyes, tends to look at the people whose voice he hears, grasps objects he perceives…” (p. 128).
The schemata for each of these actions are a result of sequential experiences that create meaning:
“Accommodation and assimilation combined, peculiar to each schema, ensure its usefulness… which explains why the relationships of the parts which presuppose the schema are confirmed by experience” (p. 128).
According to Piaget, tracking, looking, and grasping are not merely associative reflexes, but rather, they constitute “sensorimotor assimilation and accommodation” (p. 129).
3. The Baby as Scientist
As anyone with children will testify, young children, even infants, are just very small iterations of scientists.
They love to explore their world by manipulating aspects of the environment and employing a variety of tools to do so.
There is no doubt that these behaviors are intentional and serve a very focused purpose.
To illustrate, here is an excerpt from Piaget’s notes while observing his daughter play in the tub:
“Observation 147. In her bath, Jacqueline engages in many experiments with celluloid toys floating on the water. At 1;1 (20) and the days following, for example, not only does she drop her toys from a height to see the water splash or displace them with her hand in order to make them swim, but she pushes them halfway down in order to see them rise to the surface (p. 273).
Although from a superficial perspective this just looks like a baby playing with water, if we could peer inside the cerebral cortex, we would see a massive amount of neural signaling taking place.
4. The Dynamics of Class Discussion
University students often encounter information which contrasts with their existing schemas. It is a time of exploration that can be both joyful and confusing.
It also represents an opportunity to examine the role of assimilation and accommodation when engaged in class discussions regarding various important issues.
When students participate in a class discussion, they are very likely to be confronted with opposing points of views. Ideally, that information will be processed in terms of one’s existing worldview in an objective manner.
Unfortunately, it may also be the case that information which challenges a person’s understanding will be rejected outright. In Piagetian terms, there will be no assimilatory processing.
When a person refuses to consider opposing views, no matter how diplomatically presented, it blocks personal growth. On a larger, more societal scale, it poses a threat to a civil society where ideas are exchanged freely and openly.
Assimilation refers to the processing of newly encountered information or experience through one’s existing schema. A kind of compare-and-contrast analysis takes place to see how the new data fits with the current knowledge base.
When the schema is altered or when a new schema is formed, it is referred to as accommodation.
The two processes, assimilation and accommodation, are in a constant of change.
We can see examples of assimilation when a class of kindergarten students yells “horse” the first time their teacher shows them a toy zebra; or when an adult travels to a foreign country and compares everything they see to how things are back home.
Read Next: The 5 Types of Schema
Bormanaki, H. B., & Khoshhal, Y. (2017). The role of equilibration in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development and its implication for receptive skills: A theoretical study. Journal of Language and Teaching Research, 8(5), 996-105. https://doi.org/10.17507/jltr.0805.22
Hanfstingl, B., Arzenšek, A., Apschner, J., & Gölly, K. I. (2021). Assimilation and accommodation: A systematic review of the last two decades. European Psychologist, 27. https://doi.org/10.1027/1016-9040/a000463
Piaget, J. (1954). The Construction of Reality in the Child. New York: Basic Books.
Rahmat, N., Othman, N. A., Muhammad, A. M., Anuarudin, A. A. S., & Arepin, M. (2019). Assimilation and accommodation: Exploring the dynamics of class discussions. European Journal of Educational Studies, 6(1), 222-237. https://doi.org/10.5281/zenodo.2647534