Writing Assignment 1

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Topic: Are studies of cognitive and emotional developments in adolescents useful for setting public policy guidelines?

To begin this assignment, you will read three sources (full citations and abstracts below):

  1. An analysis by Steinberg et al. of emotional and cognitive development in adolescents and how our understanding of these topics should be used in setting public policy, such as juvenile access to abortions or the death penalty;
  2. A criticism of this position by Fischer et al., who have a different perspective on how public policy should take into account emotional and cognitive development in juveniles; and,
  3. A rebuttal of the Fischer position by Steinberg et al.

Review the writing assignment guidelines given on the Syllabus. Your specific goal for Writing Assignment 1 is to analyze the arguments in the three papers, construct a coherent argument about the role of studies of cognitive and emotional development in setting public policy guidelines, and support this argument with specific evidence from the papers. A number of different approaches to this topic can satisfy the requirements of this writing assignment. For example, your thesis might address:

  • In what circumstances can psychological research on cognitive and emotional development be used to set public policy?
  • When, if ever, should public policy distinguish between cognitive and emotional development and why (or why not)?
  • Whose view of psychological development – Steinberg or Fischer – is better for setting public policy and why?

There is no "correct" answer you are expected to discover. Instead, you should read the papers and develop your own conclusion about what role psychological research should play in setting public policy. Your thesis should clearly state your position, and you should use the rest of the paper to justify your conclusion with specific evidence from the background readings.


Abstracts are presented courtesy of the American Psychological Association.

Steinberg, L., et al. "Are Adolescents Less Mature than Adults? Minors' Access to Abortion, the Juvenile Death Penalty, and the Alleged APA 'Flip-Flop'." American Psychologist 64, no. 7 (2009): 583–94.

Abstract: "The American Psychological Association's (APA's) stance on the psychological maturity of adolescents has been criticized as inconsistent. In its Supreme Court amicus brief in Roper v. Simmons (2005), which abolished the juvenile death penalty, APA described adolescents as developmentally immature. In its amicus brief in Hodgson v. Minnesota (1990), however, which upheld adolescents' right to seek an abortion without parental involvement, APA argued that adolescents are as mature as adults. The authors present evidence that adolescents demonstrate adult levels of cognitive capability earlier than they evince emotional and social maturity. On the basis of this research, the authors argue that it is entirely reasonable to assert that adolescents possess the necessary skills to make an informed choice about terminating a pregnancy but are nevertheless less mature than adults in ways that mitigate criminal responsibility. The notion that a single line can be drawn between adolescence and adulthood for different purposes under the law is at odds with developmental science. Drawing age boundaries on the basis of developmental research cannot be done sensibly without a careful and nuanced consideration of the particular demands placed on the individual for "adult-like" maturity in different domains of functioning."

Fischer, K. W., et al. "Narrow Assessments Misrepresent Development and Misguide Policy." American Psychologist 64, no. 7 (2009): 595–600.

Abstract: "Intellectual and psychosocial functioning develop along complex learning pathways. Steinberg, Cauffman, Woolard, Graham, and Banich (see record 2009-18110-001 ) measured these two classes of abilities with narrow, biased assessments that captured only a segment of each pathway and created misleading age patterns based on ceiling and floor effects. It is a simple matter to shift the assessments to produce the opposite pattern, with cognitive abilities appearing to develop well into adulthood and psychosocial abilities appearing to stop developing at age 16. Their measures also lacked a realistic connection to the lived behaviors of adolescents, abstracting too far from messy realities and thus lacking ecological validity and the nuanced portrait that the authors called for. A drastically different approach to assessing development is required that (a) includes the full age-related range of relevant abilities instead of a truncated set and (b) examines the variability and contextual dependence of abilities relevant to the topics of murder and abortion."


Steinberg, L., et al. (2009b) "Reconciling the Complexity of Human Development with the Reality of Legal Policy." American Psychologist 64, no. 7 (2009): 601–4.

Abstract: "The authors respond to both the general and specific concerns raised in Fischer, Stein, and Heikkinen's (see record 2009-18110-002 ) commentary on their article (Steinberg, Cauffman, Woolard, Graham, & Banich) (see record 2009-18110-001 ), in which they drew on studies of adolescent development to justify the American Psychological Association's positions in two Supreme Court cases involving the construction of legal age boundaries. In response to Fischer et al.'s general concern that the construction of bright-line age boundaries is inconsistent with the fact that development is multifaceted, variable across individuals, and contextually conditioned, the authors argue that the only logical alternative suggested by that perspective is impractical and unhelpful in a legal context. In response to Fischer et al.'s specific concerns that their conclusion about the differential timetables of cognitive and psychosocial maturity is merely an artifact of the variables, measures, and methods they used, the authors argue that, unlike the alternatives suggested by Fischer et al., their choices are aligned with the specific capacities under consideration in the two cases. The authors reaffirm their position that there is considerable empirical evidence that adolescents demonstrate adult levels of cognitive capability several years before they evince adult levels of psychosocial maturity."


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