Assimilation in Psychology (Definition + Examples)

In this article, I want to explain a concept in psychology that helps to explain how we take in new information and organize it within the information that we already know. This process is called assimilation. 

What Is Assimilation? 

Assimilation is a cognitive process that takes place when a child acquires knowledge and needs to fit it into what they know. Although the child is learning something new, they are not learning anything that contradicts their current knowledge base. They are simply fitting it into what they already know.

Who Introduced Assimilation to Psychology?

“Assimilation” in psychology was first identified by Jean Piaget. Piaget is known as the father of developmental psychology. His most famous work includes creating the Stages of Cognitive Development. These stages describe how a child acquires fundamental knowledge and concepts from the moment they are born until they reach adulthood. 

Assimilation (Psychology) Examples

Here’s an example of the assimilation process. Let’s say that you practice Yoga regularly, and feel a sense of calm after practicing. A few months after practicing, you learn about the parasympathetic nervous system. You learn that by breathing deeply and fully, your body tells your mind that you are in a safe place. You learn that this process is as old as humans – although instead of getting stressed out by sabertooth tigers or running out of food, we are stressed out by work and bills. 

This knowledge fits into what you already know about the world. You know that you breathe deeply in Yoga. You know that Yoga makes you feel calm. You know that Yoga is about the connection between the mind and the body. You know that many functions of the human body have existed since humans first walked the Earth. The assimilation process is easy – everything you’re hearing about deep breaths and stress relief makes sense, so you pack it away into your knowledge about Yoga, breathwork, and calming down the mind and body. 

Although Piaget primarily worked with children, assimilation doesn’t stop when we grow up. Piaget suggested that as we continue to develop our cognitive thinking, we engage in assimilation and other forms of adaptation. 

Adaptation 

Assimilation is not a term that stands alone in psychology. It is not the only way that we take in new information. It is one piece of the adaptation process, as described by Jean Piaget. But before we talk about adaptation, it’s important that you understand “schemas.”

During the early stages of cognitive development, Piaget suggested that a child begins to form schemas. Schemas are frameworks of thought or behavior that organize the information we take in everyday. Think of a digital mind map. One section of this mind map may be reserved for what we know about cats. This includes what a cat looks like, the types of cats that exist in the wild, and a domestic cat’s typical behavior. Within the idea of a cat is the idea that cats and dogs do not get along. In a separate area of the mind map is a section about dogs. Piaget’s theory suggests that we have a schema for “cat” and a schema for “dog.” 

cat schema

As you grow and learn new ideas, these schemas are bound to expand. You may also change your schema. Where previously you thought all fuzzy animals were cats, you had to make some adjustments to your mind map to account for the idea that not all fuzzy animals are cats.

These processes both fall under the umbrella of “adaptation.” Piaget believed that the mind adapted in different ways based on the new information they received. 

The three terms underneath the umbrella of adaptation are assimilation, accommodation, and equilibrium. 

Accommodation 

We know what assimilation is. Let’s briefly talk about accommodation and how it differs from assimilation. Accommodation is the process of changing your current schemas to accommodate for new information. Think back to the example of thinking all fuzzy creatures are cats. Not so. Once you learn the difference between a dog and a cat, you have to change the schema of what makes a cat a cat. This might mean unlearning that chimpanzees, goats, and foxes are also not cats. 

accommodation

Before accommodation occurs, there is a moment where things feel “off.” You realize that something you had learned previously is not right. This can cause discomfort, known to many as cognitive dissonance. 

Piaget called it disequilibrium. He believed that in order to seek new information, we need to feel as though we are in a state of equilibrium. We need to feel as though we’ve got a good grasp on things already, and that all of the new information we have will fit in with what we know already. 

Unfortunately, this doesn’t always happen. 

Process of Assimilation in Real Life 

Think of the most honest person you know. It could be a friend, a mentor, or a leader. Whoever it is, you know them to tell the truth. You know them to be an honest person with integrity and a good heart. 

Now, what would happen if someone tells you that they stole a lot of money? Would you not believe the person sharing this information, based on what you know about your honest friend or leader? Would you explain their acts away as a mistake or an anomaly? Or would you stand back and change your view of this person you admire and know to tell the truth? 

What do you do? 

Do you push the information aside, allowing nothing to disturb your equilibrium? 

Or change your idea about this perfectly honest person, so that in the future you may not believe that they are so honest? 

Or do you try to fit the person’s actions into their honest personality, saying that they made a mistake and had honest intentions? 

This last option is assimilation, and we are all guilty of using this process in place of the harder, potentially more necessary “accommodation” process. As you take in new information and make judgements about people and current events, ask yourself. Are you changing your old ideas when necessary? Or are you taking the easier way out to stick with what you already believe?

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.