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What is Centration in Psychology?

a woman staring at herself in a mirror while the house around her burns, Centration in Psychology

In psychology, centration is the likelihood to focus on only one aspect at a time. In Piaget’s theory of cognitive development, it applies to children in the developmental stages of 2 to 7 years old. It’s the idea that kids can only focus on one aspect of a situation or object at a time, and are oblivious to the rest.

For example, a child is sitting in front of a huge mostly empty bag of Halloween candy. They cry and complain that there’s no more. But then, magic! You transfer the few remaining pieces into a tiny bag and the child is now full of glee. They have won more candy, in their mind.

Silly kids. No wonder it’s so easy to steal candy from them.

What is Centration in Psychology?

Picture this: you’re at a party and there’s a huge cake sitting on the table. But instead of admiring the delicious frosting and sprinkles, your friend can only focus on the one giant strawberry on top. That’s centration! It’s when we get so fixated on one aspect of a situation that we ignore everything else that could be important.

The famous Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget noticed this behavior in young kids during their preoperational stage of development. He believed that egocentrism, or the tendency to only see things from your own perspective, was the main cause of centration.

Piaget came up with some nifty tasks to test this theory, like the conservation tasks where kids had to figure out that even if the shape of an object changes, its volume or amount stays the same. And while Piaget did a lot of research on centration, other smart folks have expanded on his ideas since then.

So remember, next time you find yourself zeroing in on one detail of a situation, you might be experiencing centration. And if that detail is a strawberry on a cake, maybe it’s worth focusing on!

Conservation Tasks

Piaget’s conservation tasks are a classic example of centration. These tasks involve changing the shape of an object, like flattening a ball of clay, and then asking a child if the amount or volume of the object has changed. If they’re focused solely on the new shape, they might say that the amount has changed even though it hasn’t. This is because they’re not able to consider all the different aspects of the situation at once, leading to centration. But don’t worry, as kids grow and develop, they become less prone to this kind of thinking.


Egocentrism is closely related to centration. It’s when we only see things from our own perspective and have a hard time imagining what someone else might be thinking or feeling. This can lead to all kinds of misunderstandings, like when you assume your friend must love the same kind of music as you do. Kids in the preoperational stage are especially prone to egocentrism, but with time and practice, they learn to see things from different points of view.


Perseveration is another type of centration, and it’s when we get stuck on a particular thought or idea and have a hard time letting it go. You might have experienced this when you just can’t stop thinking about a problem at work or a fight with a friend, even when you’re supposed to be relaxing or doing something else. Perseveration can be a sign of anxiety or stress, but it can also be a natural part of problem-solving. The key is learning when to let go and move on.


Finally, we have decentration, which is the opposite of centration. It’s when we’re able to consider multiple aspects of a situation at once and not get stuck on just one. Think of it like zooming out from that strawberry on the cake and taking in the whole picture. Decentration is an important skill for problem-solving and decision-making, and it’s something we all develop with time and practice.

Conservation Tasks and Piaget’s Interest

In the world of psychology, Jean Piaget was fascinated by a child’s ability to understand quantitative concepts and how they are able to conserve these concepts when faced with perceptual changes. This phenomenon is known as conservation, and it is considered to be a concrete operational achievement. However, more recent studies suggest that there may be earlier forms of understanding that Piaget missed in his studies.

To better understand conservation, researchers have simplified conservation tasks in various ways. For example, they have reduced the verbal demands of the task or made the context of the question more natural and familiar by embedding the task within an ongoing game. These changes have resulted in improved performance by supposedly preoperational 4- and 5-year-olds. In simple situations, even 3-year-olds can demonstrate some knowledge of the invariance of numbers.

However, it is important to note that studies claiming to show earlier competence on conservation tasks have been criticized. Critics suggest that methodological changes in the early competence studies may bias younger children to conserve due to lower level mechanisms. Children’s completion of these tasks may be due more to perceptual mechanisms rather than cognitive mechanisms of true conservation and an understanding of invariance.

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