What Is Adaptation?

Adaptation
Adaptation is part of the learning process. Marc Romanelli / Blend Images / Getty Images

Adaptation is a term referring to the ability to adjust to new information and experiences. Learning is essentially adapting to our constantly changing environment. Through adaptation, we are able to adopt new behaviors that allow us to cope with change.

How Does Adaptation Take Place?

According to Jean Piaget's theory, adaptation was one of the important processes guiding cognitive development. The adaptation process itself can occur in two ways: through assimilation and accommodation.

Assimilation

In assimilation, people take in information from the outside world and convert it to fit in with their existing ideas and concepts. People possess mental categories for information, known as schemas, that are used to understand the world around them.

When encountering new information, it can sometimes be readily assimilated into an existing schema. Think of this as much like having a mental database. When information fits easily into an existing category, it can be quickly and easily assimilated into the database.

However, this process doesn't always work perfectly, especially during early childhood. One classic example: imagine a very small child is seeing a dog for the first time. The child already knows what a cat is, so when she sees the dog she immediately assumes it is a cat. After all, it fits into her existing schema for cats, since they are both small, furry, and have four legs.

Correcting this mistake takes place through the next adaptation process we will explore.

Accommodation

In accommodation, people also accommodate new information by changing their mental representations to fit the new information. When people encounter information that is completely new or that challenges their existing ideas, they often have to form a new schema to accommodate the information or alter their existing mental categories.

It is much like trying to add information to a computer database, only to find that their is not a pre-existing category that will fit the data. In order to incorporate it into the database, you will have to create a brand new field or change an existing one.

For the child in the previous example that initially thought that a dog was cat, she might begin to notice key differences between the two animals. One barks while the other meows. One likes to play while the other wants to sleep all day. After a while, she will accommodate the new information by creating a new schema for dogs while at the same time altering her existing schema for cats.

Not surprisingly, the accommodation process tends to be much more difficult that the assimilation process. People are often resistant to changing their schemas, particularly if it involves changing a deeply held belief.

In Conclusion

The adaptation process is a critical part of cognitive development. Through the adaptive processes of assimilation and accommodation, people are able to take in new information, form new ideas or change existing ones, and adopt new behaviors that make them better prepared to deal with the world around them.

References

Piaget, J. (1964). Six Psychological Studies. New York: Vintage.

Piaget, J. (1973). The Child and Reality: Problems of Genetic Psychology. Penguin Books.

Piaget, J. (1983). Piaget's theory. In P. Mussen (Ed.) Handbook of child psychology. New York: Wiley.

Continue Reading