Anyone who is a science fiction fan will probably understand the concept of assimilation: there are many stories and plot lines involving the ‘assimilation’ of one species by another. When taken in this context, to be assimilated means to be absorbed or incorporated into something else. So when the Borg assimilated humans, they basically ‘absorbed’ them until humans ‘became’ Borg. But if examined from a psychological perspective, what is the difference between assimilation Vs accommodation?
Piaget, the well-known child development expert, describes assimilation and accommodation as two complimentary processes of a child’s adaptation to new experiences: using a process of assimilation and accommodation, a child is able to make sense of the world around them and learn new things as they grow. But if both are processes of learning adaptation, what is the difference between assimilation Vs accommodation?
Assimilation is a learning process whereby the child takes on board ideas and concepts and makes them fit what he or she already knows. So if a child knows what a dog is, but he meets a new breed of dog, he assimilates the information that a dog can be a different size and colour, but it is still a dog.
Accommodation is a slightly different process of learning adaptation whereby the child’s existing knowledge has to be altered to accommodate the new information the child has picked up. For example, a child thinks that all dogs are friendly, but one day he meets a dog that is vicious and frightening. Because the child has never come across a nasty dog before, he is forced to accommodate this new and unexpected information and therefore change his internal ideas about all dogs in general.
Whilst Piaget described the two processes of accommodation and assimilation as entirely separate entities, in reality both processes take place simultaneously. As a child grows and explores the world around him, he is continually assimilating familiar information and making adjustments to accommodate new information at the same time. Most children have no problems assimilating and accommodating new information: they are like sponges that soak up new experiences, helping to expand their ideas and view of the world around them.
According to Piaget’s model of child development, the combined processes of assimilation and accommodation work together to form a state of equilibrium. Assimilation and accommodation first begins during the sensori-motor stage of a child’s development, but are not thought to develop more fully until the child is older. During the pre-active stage, the child assimilates new information, but is unable to make logical connections between facts. It is only during the concrete operations stage that the child is able to make accommodations (links between previously acquired knowledge and newly learned knowledge). These skills continue as the child grows up and becomes an adult.
Unfortunately, the capacity for assimilating and accommodating new ideas is something we lose as we grow older and the cognitive problem of aging is a well recognized phenomenon: old people are notoriously resistant to change as they shuffle inexorably into their twilight years.