John Hurley Flavell

An American developmental and cognitive psychologist known for his studies of role-taking in children.

John Hurley Flavell is a founder of social cognitive developmental psychology. His research on “roletaking,” the cognitive skills that children require in order to understand and accept the roles of others, was a major contribution to developmental psychology. Flavell was one of the first psychologists to study the ways in which children think about their thinking processes and the human mind. He is the author of more than 20 book and 100 articles.

Flavell was born on August 9, 1928 in Rockland, Massachusetts, the son of Paul I. and Anne O'Brien Flavell. His father was a civil engineer who was unemployed for a long period during the Great Depression. Thus, Flavell and his two sisters experienced economic hardship during childhood. After graduating from high school in 1945, Flavell joined the Army for two years. He then attended Northeastern University in Boston and graduated in 1951. Because of financial considerations, Flavell chose to enter the psychology graduate program at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, rather than Harvard University. He earned his M.A. degree the following year and his Ph.D. in 1955. Flavell's training at Clark stressed psychoanalysis and the developmental psychology of Heinz Werner (1890–1964). In 1954, Flavell married Eleanor R. Wood, who would share his research interests throughout much of his career. The couple have two children.

Introduces Piaget into American psychology

Flavell's first position was as a clinical psychologist at a Veterans Administration Hospital in Colorado. He left the hospital a year later to accept a position at the University of Rochester in New York, first as a clinical associate and then as an assistant professor of psychology. He was promoted to associate professor in 1960. Although Flavell first undertook to write a book on theories of developmental psychology, he soon switched to a major study of the work of Jean Piaget (1896–1980), publishing The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget in 1963. This was the first major work in English on the research and theories of Piaget, and it marked the start of the modern science of cognitive development. That same year, Flavell traveled to Paris for additional studies at the Sorbonne.

He called this knowledge “metamemory.” Flavell was president of the American Psycholog ical Association's (APA) Division of Developmental Psychology in 1970. In 1976, he became a professor of psychology at Stanford University. There he continued his involvement with professional organizations. He served as president of the Society for Research in Child Development from 1979 to 1981. In 1986, Flavell was presented with the G. Stanley Hall Award of the APA.

Studies metacognition in children

Since his arrival at Stanford, Flavell and his longtime research associates, his wife, Ellie Flavell, and Frances L. Greene, have studied preschoolers at the Bing Nursery School on the Stanford campus. They have also studied elementary-school and college students. One major focus of Flavell's work is the research and development of his theory of “metacognition” or “metaconsciousness,” which is a child's understanding about the workings of the human mind and his or her own thought processes. In 1995, the Flavells and Greene published Young Children's Knowledge about Thinking. In their research, Flavell and his research associates have found that preschoolers understand that thinking is a human, mental activity and that it can involve things that are in the past or in the present, real or imaginary. They distinguish thinking from other activities such as talking, feeling, seeing, or knowing. However, preschoolers greatly underestimate the amount that they and others think, and they have difficulty perceiving that other people think. In other words, Flavell has found that, although preschoolers know that rocks do not think, they also do not believe that their parents think all that much.

One of Falvell's most famous contributions to the field of developmental and cognitive psychology in children is his work on the appearance-reality paradigm and the false-belief task. In the false-belief task, Flavell shows a pre-school-aged child a Band-Aids box and asked the child what he or she believes could be found inside the box. Most often, the child will say Band-Aids and is surprised when Flavell showed that in reality a doll is inside the box. Flavell then asks the child what he or she thinks their friend would guess is inside the box if asked what was hidden inside the Band-Aid box. Again, most often the child will say that the friend would guess Band-Aids. Flavell then asks the child to think back to when they first saw the box and asked what did he or she first think was in the Band-Aid box. This time the child typically says that he or she thought there was a doll in the box. This response gave Flavell insight into a child's mental state.

Throughout his career, Flavell's books have received critical acclaim and he has been the recipient of various awards including the American Psychological Association's Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1984, the G. Stanley Hall Award in 1986, the Society for Research in Child Development Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1995, and American Psychological Association Mentor Award in 2002. As of 2015, Flavell is the Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences at Stanford University (Emeritus).



Dunlosky, John, and Sarah K. Tauber, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Metamemory. New York: Oxford University Press, 2016.

Flavell, John H., Frances L. Greene and Eleanor R. Flavell. Young Children's Knowledge About Thinking. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Flavell, John H., Patricia H. Miller and Scott A. Miller. Cognitive Development, 4th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Flavell, John H., in collaboration with Patricia T. Botkin, et al. The Development of Role-Taking and Communication Skills in Children. New York: Wiley, 1968.


Flavell, John H. “Metacognition and Cognitive Monitoring: A New Area of Cognitive-Developmental Inquiry.” American Psychologist 34, no.10 (1979): 906–911.

Flavell, John H. “Theory-of-Mind Development: Retrospect and Prospect.” Merrill-Palmer Quarterly 50, no. 3 (2004): 274–290.


Coombs, Karen. “Professor John Flavell.” (accessed July 17, 2015).

Livingston, Jennifer A. “Metacognition: An Overview.” (accessed July 17, 2015).