Moral Development During The Adolescent Years Psychology Essay

Moral development during the adolescent years can be defined as the way young people learn to decide what is right and wrong, which in turn forms the basis of their principles of justice. Influences of morality on adolescents have been focused on moral cognitions and socialisation agents, principally parental influences, as contributed by cognitive developmental and moral socialisation theories. Research shows that higher level reasoning in adolescence is related to parenting that is supportive and stimulates adolescents to question and expand on their reasoning, as well as with an authoritative parenting style (Eisenberg, Morris, McDaniel & Spinrad, 2009). Furthermore, the foundation for a coherent positive identity, Erikson believed, originated in the successful psychosocial outcomes of infancy and childhood, but it is not until late adolescence that young people become absorbed in the task of establishing their identity as it is during adolescence that individuals begin to assume commitments to future occupations, adult sex roles and personal belief systems (Eisenberg et al, 2009). Consequently, if one’s value system and behaviour code, which govern moral reasoning and resultant behaviour, are to any great extent shaped during adolescence and influenced by the individual’s identity, the period of adolescence becomes an important and sensitive one with regards to moral development. This study thus aims at examining the hypothesis that moral development and identity formation in adolescence are significantly related, and exploring the influences that certain parental practices have on adolescents’ moral development.


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The aims and objectives of this study are proposed as follows:


The purpose of this triangulated study is to investigate the relationship between moral development and identity formation as affected by parental influences. The main aim of the study is to investigate the relationship between moral development and identity development while concurrently explicitly exploring the role of parental influences on the moral development of adolescents, from the perspective of adolescents.


To investigate the relationship between moral development and identity formation

To describe the factors that influence moral development in adolescence.

To explore the influence that parental practices have on the moral development of adolescents.

To explore, from the perspective of adolescents, their experiences of parental practices.

To provide awareness regarding the importance of moral development in adolescence.

Operational definitions

For this study, there are two terms that need to be defined:

Moral development: Moral development during the adolescent years can be defined as the way young people learn to decide what is right and wrong, which in turn forms the basis of their principles of justice.

Identity formation: Identity formation entails an attempt to identify or create an adequate degree of consistency to substantiate construing the self as singular (Head, 1997).

2.4. Research questions

The main research question is formulated as follows: What is the relationship between moral development and identity formation as influenced by parental practices? The research question can then be subsequently addressed by the following sub-questions; (1) what is the relationship between moral development and identity formation during adolescence? (2) How do parents’ (parental warmth, parental interaction, discipline, and parental role models) influence moral learning development? (3) To what extent do social influences such as peer and reference groups determine development of adolescent’s values and behaviour? And (4) how do adolescents experience of parental practices influence their moral development?

2.5 Hypotheses

This study aims to examine the hypotheses that:

Moral development and identity formation in adolescence are significantly related

Moral development increases as identity formation increases

Parental practices (such as parental warmth, parental interaction, discipline, and parental role models) significantly influence moral development in adolescence

Social influences significantly influence moral development in adolescence

2.6 Scope of the study

The study will be conducted in the Gauteng Province of South Africa, and will represent an urbanised community of adolescents attending a semi-private high school in the Midrand region of Johannesburg. As this study is concerned with moral development of adolescents, it is postulated that this group of adolescents will provide useful insight into the research problem.

2.7 Research Rationale

As adolescents’ cognitive, emotional, and social development continue to mature, their understanding of morality expands and their behaviour becomes more closely aligned with their values and beliefs. Therefore, moral development describes the evolution of these guiding principles and is demonstrated by the ability to apply these guidelines in daily life, as adolescents must make moral judgments on a daily basis. When children are younger, their family, culture, and religion greatly influence their moral decision-making. However, during the early adolescent period, peers have a much greater influence. Peer pressure can exert a powerful influence because friends play a more significant role in adolescents’ lives (Walker, 1989). Furthermore, the new ability to think abstractly enables youth to recognise that rules are simply created by other people. As a result, adolescents begin to question the absolute authority of parents, schools, government, and other traditional institutions. By late adolescence most adolescents are less rebellious as they have begun to establish their own identity, their own belief system, and their own place in the world. The extent of these novel external influences on adolescents should then be theoretically dependent on the individual’s identity formation as well as parental practice and education. This study aims at exploring these assumptions, as these factors are believed to play an important role in the moral development of adolescents (Walker & Taylor, 1991).

2.8 Implications of this study

This study hopes to contribute to the literature of moral and identity development, by researching these concepts in a South African, urban context, and employing a mixed method approach in order to examine the relationship between these two variables while concurrently exploring individual experiences concerning influential factors. The findings from this study aim to contribute to the understanding of moral development in adolescence in the current era, and to consequently raise awareness regarding the period of adolescence as a sensitive one with reference to moral development.


Theories of Moral Development

Different theorists have different views about moral development.

Bezuidenhout and Joubert (2003:208) highlight that “moral development entails that one learns to acquire forms of pro-social behaviour such as being sympathetic, co-operative, helpful and comforting.” It is a life-long process which is shaped by social institutions such as the school, church, community and family as well as personal experiences.

Cognitive developmentalists study morality by monitoring the development of moral reasoning that people exhibit at different stages of development when making decisions concerning the wrongfulness of various acts.

Jean Piaget Cognitive Developmental Theory

According to Piaget’s theory, the stage of formal operations, which is the highest level of thinking attainable by man, is achieved from the age of 12 onwards. For that reason, a person who has attained formal operations can execute a number of tasks relating to the use of hypothesis, trial and error, prediction and the definition of terms, abstractions and the drawing of logical and scientific conclusions, pertaining to claim that the dominant mode of thinking at the stage of formal operations is abstract and is far more mobile and flexible than a concrete mode of thinking. Most significantly though, in order to attain this stage of formal operations, the person ought to be presented with an appropriate environment (Weinreich-Haste 1982). However, the fact that a person has attained the formal stage does not mean that he or she stops using lower levels of thinking as identified by Piaget (1932). Logically, during the formal operational stage, adolescents shift beyond concrete, actual experiences and commence to think in more logical, abstract terms, necessary for the development of morality. Nevertheless, Piaget’s theory stimulated many researchers to critique his views on the grounds that the majority of adolescents do not function at the formal operational level, which inspired further studies into the field (Weinreich-Haste 1982).

Kohlberg’s Theory of Moral Development

Kohlberg’s research on moral development grew out of Piaget’s cognitive-developmental approach in his pioneer research (Kohlberg, 1978, 1981 & 1984), where he proposed a comprehensive theory of moral development. He studied a group of boys whose ages ranged from 10 to 16 years where he told his subjects stories in which moral dilemmas occurred and then asked them to respond to those stories by telling him how they would deal with the dilemmas in them. Based on his longitudinal study, Kohlberg then proposed that moral judgements develops through a series of six universal, sequential, and hierarchical stages of progressively more differentiated and integrated concepts of justice, which comprised of three main levels of moral development; the pre-conventional, conventional and post-conventional levels (Kohlberg, 1981). His theory focused on the “underlying structure of individual’s moral judgements rather than on the content or particular decisions that children and adolescents made,” (Smetana, 2003 p249). According to Kohlberg’s theory, moral judgements in middle and late childhood is structured by preconventional reasoning and divided into 2 stages which are concerned with obedience, punishment avoidance, and instrumental needs (Smetana, 2003). In other words, children obey rules to please people in authority and for the personal pleasure they derive from observing such rules. In contrast, at the conventional level, both adolescents and adults conform to certain behaviour on the basis of the law and norms of society. The law is seen as an instrument for the preservation of society and cultural heritage. Consequently, the impact of the media such as television, internet and newspapers can have a deeper impact on the adolescent’s behaviour. Kohlberg then described a further developmental level of ‘post-conventional’ or principled moral judgements, structured by concerns with mutual respect, contractual arrangement among individual and their rights and duties, and differentiated concepts of justice and rights (Smetana, 2003). Smetana (2003 p252) notes that “changes in adolescent moral structures are connected to the emergence of competencies in other domains, including the development of formal operational thought and the development of more advanced perspective-taking abilities.” For example, formal operational logic (or early formal operations) has been proposed as an essential but not sufficient condition for the development of principled moral reasoning (Kohlberg, 1984). For this reason, Kohlberg’s theory and research gave a rise to empirical and theoretical work on the development of moral self-understanding and identity.

Blasi’s Self Model of Moral Identity

It was Augusto Blasi’s 1980 review of empirical research on moral cognition and moral action that gave rise to the interest in moral identity and its role in moral behaviour. After emphasising the relatively modest relations between moral judgment and moral behaviour, Blasi posited that the observed gap may be explained by moral identity or the extent to which moral values and goals are regarded as core or essential aspects of the self, “those aspects without which the individual would see himself or herself to be radically different” (Blasi, 1984 p131). Blasi (1980) explained that Individuals with firm or well developed sense of the self-as-moral would be more likely to act in agreement in with their moral judgments. “The critical mechanism is a sense of personal responsibility to act and the concomitant need to maintain self-consistency” (Blasi, 1983). Blasi’sgroundbreaking work on moral identity spawned much theoretical and empirical research. Blasi’sself model also suggests that moral identity is not a unitary construct. Whereas some individuals may see honesty and fairness as essential aspects of themselves, other individuals may highlight compassion and caring for others as most salient to their sense of self-as-moral. In their seminal work on the development of self-understanding through childhood and adolescence, Damon and Hart (1988) found that moral qualities such as honesty and loyalty did not become a part of study participants’ self-definitions until they reached adolescence. It is however clear that very few people ever achieve Kohlberg’s stage six reasoning ability, as Damon and Hart (1988). explain very few experience a full integration of morality and self.

Theories of Identity formation

From the theory on moral development previously discussed, it can be followed that identity formation is a major factor in the development of morality. Identity formation entails an attempt to identify or create an adequate degree of consistency to substantiate construing the self as singular (Head, 1997). The forming of an identity as a major personality achievement for an adolescent and a crucial step toward becoming a productive content adult was first recognised by psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Erikson identified a well organised self-description and differentiated sense of self-esteem as the necessary cognitive foundation for forming an identity (Cummings, 1995).

Erik Erikson’s Psychosocial theory

Erikson (1963) developed a theory that reflected a personal issue which involves a search for personal identity. Erikson builds on Freud’s analysis of the personality into id, ego and super-ego and on his stages of psycho-sexual development. He stressed the social functions of the ego that allow individuals to cope successfully. These functions assume central importance in adolescence, as adolescents question who they are and where they are going. The foundation for a coherent positive identity Erikson believed originated in the successful psychosocial outcomes of infancy and childhood, but it is not until late adolescence that young people become absorbed in the task of establishing their identity as “it is during adolescence that individual begin to assume commitments to future occupations, adult sex roles and personal belief systems” (Erikson, 1963 p20). Therefore, identity is a central aspect of the healthy personality, reflecting both an inner sense of continuity and sameness over time and the ability to identify with others and share in common goals and to participate in one’s culture. Erikson’s (1963) emphasis in his theory is on the power or virtue of the person to develop in a healthy manner. He has speculated about innate moral strengths or virtues which he contends must be nurtured at various stages of time in order for the person to develop morally. In each of the eight stages of life he presents, there are conflicts, challenges and crises to be resolved. If development is correct, then these are met by the emergence of inner strengths within the person. The emergence of these virtues takes place within three periods of ethical development. Erikson (1963) lists three distinct areas of development, “namely; (1) moral learning in childhood, (2) ethical or ideological experimentation in adolescence (which is the focus for this study) and (3) ethical consolidation in adulthood “(Erikson, 1963 p30). During adolescence, moral development was connected with the crisis between identity and role confusion or diffusion. This conflict is to be resolved by dealing in moral terms with one’s sexuality and one’s belief system or ideology. “The virtue that enables one to resolve this crisis is fidelity, which is described as the ability to sustain loyalties freely pledged in spite of the inevitable contradictions of value systems” (Erikson, 1964 p125). In complex societies adolescents’ experience an identity crisis – a temporary period of distress as they experiment with alternatives before settling on values and goals. During this period the adolescent goes through a period of inner soul searching, sifting through the characteristics that defined the self in childhood and combine them with new commitments. Once formed the identity continues to be refined throughout life as people reevaluate earlier commitments and choices. Erikson described the negative outcome of adolescence as identity confusion – a shallow and directionless demeanor either because earlier conflicts have not been resolved or because society has restricted their choices to ones that do not match their abilities and desires. As a result of identity confusion they are unprepared for the psychological challenges of adulthood, (Cummings, 1995).

Marcia’s Identity Statuses

Using a clinical interviewing procedure developed by Marcia researchers evaluate progress in identity development on two key criteria derived from Erikson’s theory: exploration and commitment. Their various combinations yield for identity statuses. The highest status being, identity achievement, which states that after having explored alternatives, these individuals are committed to a clearly formulated set of self-chosen values and goals. They feel a sense of psychological well being, of sameness through time and of knowing where they are going (Berk, 2009). This status is followed by identity moratorium, in which individuals have not made any definite commitments. They are in the process of exploring – gathering information and trying out activities with the desire to find values and goals to guide their life (Berk, 2009). The third status proposed by Marcia is identity foreclosure, where individuals have committed themselves to values and goals without exploring alternatives. They accept a readymade identity that authority figures (parents/teachers/religious leaders/romantic partners) have chosen for them (Berk, 2009). Lastly, and the lowest of the levels identified by Marcia, is identity diffusion, in which individuals lack a clear sense of direction. They are neither committed to values and goals nor actively trying to reach them. They may never have explored alternatives or may have found the task too threatening and overwhelming (Berk, 2009).


There is, although mostly theoretical, a relationship between moral development and identity formation and development. However, another major influence in the moral development of adolescence, which this study aims at exploring, is parental practices such as parental warmth, parent-interaction, discipline and parental role models. The section of the literature review of this proposal will further develop this idea. The above information has provided a theoretical background to moral development. Moral development is crucial from childhood up to adulthood including the adolescent phase. It was imperative to see how different theorists point out their views about moral development and identity formation, as well as its implications.


Moral Development in Adolescence

According to Eisenberg, Morris, McDaniel and Spinrad (2009) the preschool and elementary school years present evidence of major development in moral judgement as well as the frequency of some types of morally relevant behaviours. Nevertheless, there are reasons to expect further change in moral cognitions and prosocial tendencies in adolescence, (Eisenberg et al, 2009). First of all, moral judgement and prosocial behaviours such as helping, sharing and comforting have been linked both conceptually and empirically with perspective-taking skills, which continues to develop in adolescence. For example, it is not until preadolescent age (ages 10-12) that individuals are “aware of the infinite regress characteristics of dyadic relations, in other words, that each person is simultaneously aware of his own and others’ subjective abilities and begins to view his own interactions with and subjective perspectives of others from a third person perspective,” (Selman, 1975 p. 41).

Later in adolescence, the individual may become aware that in taking another’s perspective, “the mutuality of perspectives includes a view of both self and other as complex psychological systems of values, beliefs, attitudes etc, and the further awareness that the mutuality of understanding of each other’s point of view can take place at different qualitative levels – for example: persons can know each other as acquaintances, friends, closest friends, lovers etc,” (Selman, 1975: 40). Furthermore, Selman (1980), reported a linear pattern of change from childhood to adulthood regarding social perspective taking, as well as advances for many individuals from adolescence to adulthood. Due to the theoretical significance of comprehending another’s perspective for sympathy, other-oriented prosocial behaviours and higher level moral reasoning, progress in perspective-taking skills in adolescence is thus expected to be related to further development of these capabilities during the same period. Likewise, development and progress in social problem-solving skills and interpersonal negotiation skills prominent during adolescence would be expected to contribute to the development of other-oriented social interaction.

As noted earlier, in the discussion of relevant theory, changes in conceptions of the self from childhood to adolescence likely promote moral and prosocial development. During childhood, the self is principally defined in terms of nonmoral properties such as bodily properties, material possessions or typical behaviour, but by late adolescence the self id is defined in terms of social and psychological aspects of the self, with morality being the key regulator of social interactions. Lastly, “changes in the quality of moral reasoning and in the probability of sympathetic responding during adolescence have been conceptually linked to the development of altruistic tendencies,” (Eisenberg et. al., 2009: 156). An individual’s ability to sympathize with others’ distress develops in late childhood or early adolescence, this in turn is based on early adolescence’s newfound ability to perceive others as having ongoing personal identities and life experiences beyond the immediate situations. This change in sympathy is thought to endorse a willingness to assist abstract individuals or groups in adolescents.


In summary, there are substantial changes in sociocognitive-skills and affective responses during late childhood and adolescence that are believed to promote the development of moral reasoning and altruistic tendencies. Consequently, “adolescence would be expected to be a period of growth for moral and prosocial dispositions, cognitions and behaviours,” (Eisenberg et. al., 2009 p157). The importance of morality during adolescence and factors that could determine an adolescent’s moral development was thoroughly examined in order to provide a framework for this field of study

4.1 Introduction

Research method foundations in developmental psychology suggest that this field is best understood by using a variety of methods, however “methodological pluralism is difficult to obtain in practice, particularly so in the study of adolescents,” (Hart & Carlo, 2005: 228). Hart and Carlo (2005) report that much of the research available relies on adolescent self-reports for data. For example, Lawford, Pratt, Hunsberger, and Pancerstudied adolescents’ sense if generativity by asking that participants judge the self-descriptiveness of items and rate the parenting they received so as to create a measure of parenting quality. Eisenberg, Cumberland, Guthrie, Murphy, and Shepard (2009) also made use of self report measures, as they studied responses to empathy and prosocial moral reasoning. Other studies have elicited adolescents’ narratives concerning their lives, as, but the bulk of research undeniably makes use of self-reports as their primary sources of data, as these are generally valid and reliable indicators of attitudes, behaviour, beliefs, and other psychological attributes (Hart & Carlo, 2005). Moreover, when participants are adolescents the collection of data by observation becomes difficult, as adolescents are unlikely to exhibit their typical behaviour when they are aware that they are being watched. Furthermore, as Hart and Carlo (2005) report, all of the studies presented in the Journal of Research in Adolescence are correlational in design with none making use of experimental procedures, as correlational research has proved to be valuable in the study of moral development. In fact, researchers in moral development have been especially attracted to longitudinal, correlation designs. Nevertheless, Hart and Carlo (2005) encourage the use of methodological pluralism, as they explain that even well-designed correlational, longitudinal studies cannot on their own answer all questions of interest. This study thus proposes a mixed methods approach to the study of moral development and identity formation.

Moral reasoning, depending on its conceptualization reflects the structure and content of an individual’s reasoning about hypothetical or real-life moral dilemmas, that is, how an individual justifies his or her moral decisions, (Eisenberg et. al, 2009). Nevertheless, in recent years there has been a significant quantity of research where adolescents have been asked to reason about real-life instead of hypothetical moral dilemmas. Walker, Pitts, Hennig, and Matsuba’s (1995) research on moral judgement using Kohlberg’s stages, concluded that there was no considerable difference between 16- to 19-year-olds’ moral reasoning about real-life moral conflicts and 18- to 25-year-olds’ reasoning, although 35- to 48-year-olds and 65- to 84-year-olds reasoned at higher levels than did the two younger groups. From this study, it can thus be argued that change in moral reasoning in late adolescence about real-life moral dilemmas (as well as hypothetical dilemmas) appears to be moderately gradual. During the 90s, Eisenberg and colleagues conducted longitudinal studies where they followed children through adolescence into early adulthood with the aim to demarcate the development of their prosocial moral reasoning, (Eisenberg &Fabes, 1998). They have found that some self-reflective and internalized modes of moral reasoning (e.g., reasoning pertaining to role taking; positive or negative affect based on the consequences of behavioural choices; positive affect related to living up to internalized values; internalized norm, rule, and law reasoning; generalized reciprocity) increased in use, whereas stereotypic reasoning (e.g., references to expected or normative behaviour, e.g., “it’s nice to help”) continued to decrease in use from childhood until late adolescence. Furthermore, linear increases with relevance to positive affect and values with reference to consequences and negative affect with reference to consequences was not found until late adolescence. However, hedonistic reasoning increased modestly in mid-adolescence and then again in late adolescence, primarily for males. In contrast, there was some continuity in moral reasoning from age 13 to 14 years to 17 to 18 years. Slightly similar findings were observed by other researchers using a variety of methods (Eisenberg &Fabes, 1998). For example, in a study of Israeli 12- to 13-, 14- to 15-, and 16- to 17-year-olds’ self-reported motives for their own volunteering to help, reports of altruistic motives (i.e., personal willingness to assist without any expectation of reward or approval, and without reference to compliance) increased with age (Bar-Tal, Raviv&Leiser, 1980). It is coherently clear that past research has been focused on the progression of moral development by making use of moral dilemmas. This study hopes to move in a different direction to past studies by focusing on the relationship between moral development and the factors; identity formation and parental influences while still making use of hypothetical dilemmas.

4.2 Factors influencing moral development during adolescence

Hart and Carlo, (2005), highlight that the bulk of research on the influences of morality on adolescents has been focused on moral cognitions and socialization agents, principally parental influences, as contributed by cognitive developmental and moral socialization theories. However, the study of adolescents posits other factors of change which deserve recognition. Eisenberg and Fabes (1998) for one, highlight the biological basis of morally relevant tendencies and behaviours such as altruism and aggression, more so during the maturation period of puberty in adolescents which might be expected to augment emotional sensitivity and intimacy, and consequently care-based emotions and social behaviours. Another important area of research in adolescent socialization studies is peers, who provide role-taking opportunities and expose adolescents to new and different moral behaviours (Hart & Carlo, 2005). Furthermore, adolescents’ social roles and responsibilities, as well as socially regulated behaviours place them in a variety of moral decision-making situations, which can influence their moral development. These include; community service, extracurricular activities as well as driving, smoking, alcohol etc. Not to mention the powerful effect that the media, in the form of the internet, magazines or television, on developing adolescents has in providing further and unique socialization experiences which cannot be ignored. “No doubt, the influence of these socialization experiences is intertwined with the impact of the authority figures and the peers who are part of the socialization spectrum of these, opportunities (Hart & Carlo, 2005 p231).

The role of gender in moral development has been a highly debated factor which is worthy of mentioning. The gender bias debate was pioneered as a criticism of Kohl-berg’s theory in the late 1970s by Carol Gilligan as she began to raise concerns about gender bias in the theory, suggesting that justice-based philosophical orientation of the model emphasized traditional masculine values and traits (e.g., individual rights, rationality, and impartiality) and thus marginalized traditional feminine values and traits (e.g., interpersonal care, intuition, and social relations). Her books launched investigations which lend some credence to Gilligan’s critique but taken together show that gender differences are not as great as she claims (e.g., Walker, 2006). Where, for example, Gilligan posits a dichotomy-males are justice oriented and females are care oriented-the research indicated that males and females possess both justice- and care-based orientations (with females being only slightly more care oriented). this study will incorporate both genders, and although awareness of the gender bias debate will be taken into consideration, it hopes not to find any significant differences between genders.

The role of culture and religion in moral development are other factors which must be addressed. According to Berns (2004) culture involves learned behaviour, including knowledge, beliefs, morals, law, customs and traditions that is, characteristic of the social environment in which the individual grows

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