Conceptual Change

The Basic Idea

Have you ever read an insightful book or watched a riveting documentary that changed your worldview? This phenomenon can be referred to as conceptual change, where knowledge is restructured and the interpretation of a given conception – be it an opinion, belief, ideology, or notion – is revised accordingly.

You can probably think of an example from your own life, where you or someone you know changed their perspective by learning new information. This could be that introduction to psychology class from first-year University that changed your thoughts about free will. It could also be that convincing piece on climate change in a notable magazine your friend said changed how she thought about sustainability. Although there are many instances of these epiphany-like moments, a key aspect of conceptual change is the element of learning.

Every now and then a man’s mind is stretched by a new idea or sensation, and never shrinks back to its former dimensions.

- Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr.

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The notion that the process of learning is an interaction between new content and a person’s existing beliefs and concepts has been theorized in the domain of psychology since the beginning of the 20th century. This idea was further developed by the famous developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget, whose work involved children’s conceptual understanding of phenomena.1 

Piaget’s insights led to scientific interest in concept development,2 with particular attention devoted to the formation of misconceptions. The growing interest in this subject resulted in a paper published in 1982 by a group of researchers from Cornell University that formally proposed a theory of conceptual change.1 In their paper, the authors acknowledged the existing work on the topic but argued at the time that “there has been no well-articulated theory explaining or describing the substantive dimensions of the process by which people’s central, organizing concepts change from one set of concepts to another set, incompatible with the first.” 

Their proposed model of conceptual change was largely derived from contemporary philosophy of science, particularly Thomas Kuhn’s canonical text, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.3 Kuhn believed that science was executed alongside central commitments – or “paradigms” – within an area of research, but that these central commitments occasionally require revisions. In this latter stage, a scientist’s basic assumptions are challenged, and to progress, they must exhibit some form of conceptual adjustment. Kuhn saw this stage as “scientific revolution” and it was a modern idea that ironically explained its own influence. Kuhn challenged the prevailing belief that scientific progress was achieved through mere accumulation of facts and theories through the proposal of paradigms, which overturned the field and spurred new research. The researchers from Cornell essentially believed that a similar process of Kuhn’s version of conceptual change occurs in the student learning experience.


Jean Piaget

The Swiss psychologist is perhaps the most notable figure in the realm of developmental and child psychology. Known for his work on the cognitive development of intelligence, Piaget was deemed the second most eminent psychologist of the 20th century in an analysis that looked at citation frequency and attained awards.

Thomas Kuhn

Arguably the most influential philosopher of science in the 20th century, Kuhn’s book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in 1962, is one of the most cited academic books of all time. His work on the progress of scientific knowledge gave way to the term paradigm shift.


Research on conceptual change has led to its application as an approach to education. This process typically involves first uncovering a student’s preconceptions about a given phenomenon, then guiding students in changing their conceptual framework.5 Analogous to Kuhn’s idea of scientific revolution, conceptual change in education involves more than just the accumulation of knowledge and information. It requires restructuring the concepts that are foundational to the beliefs around the relevant knowledge and information. In one study, researchers provided students with conceptual change texts and tools that dealt with misconceptions, while the integration of new, scientific conceptions are also incorporated in the lesson.6 A control group received a traditional instruction of lecture and discussion methods. The researchers discovered that conceptual change texts and tools caused a significantly greater understanding of the scientific concepts and also led to a more positive attitude towards science as a subject.

The notion of conceptual change is also relevant to business. Like Kuhn’s vision of scientific progress, central commitments or paradigms within an industry or organization also often require revision. In 1997, the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs from major US companies, wrote that “the paramount duty of management and of boards of directors is to the corporation’s stockholders.” In 2019, the same organization released a statement regarding a revision of what the purpose of a corporation should be, citing that social responsibility must also be critical to its endeavors, in addition to maximizing shareholder value. Depending on how much you’re willing to take the CEOs on their word, this conceptual change represents a paradigm shift in the role of business in modern society.

Apart from high-level industry changes like the example above, conceptual change in business settings can also occur on an individual level. An employee, for example, may have had certain beliefs around time and effort at a particular company or industry that didn’t allow taking breaks during the day, however, upon transitioning to a new job, where breaks are not only tolerated but encouraged, they may find themselves conceptually adjusting certain beliefs about time management in the workplace.


A paper published in 1993 by a group of researchers at the University of Michigan challenged the existing model of conceptual change, arguing that it is overly “rational.” 7 The crux of their argument was that the “cold” model of conceptual change was too dependent on a student’s cognition. It neglected the role of motivational beliefs as well as contextual factors within the classroom. This criticism was welcomed as the original researchers from Cornell acknowledged the gaps in their original model.8 Most work on conceptual change today will consider emotional, social, and contextual factors above and beyond the cognitive framework, making it more of a holistic approach.5

Case Study

Johannes Kepler

In 1997, researchers published a paper highlighting a prime example of conceptual change: The work of 17th-century astronomer, Johannes Kepler.9 They note that Kepler’s work contributed to a period of great change in astronomical theory, where he inherited a conceptual framework of the solar system from the astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, who presumed the planets moved in perfect circles at an orderly speed. Extensive analytical thinking would lead to Kepler undergoing conceptual change, culminating in his discovery of laws of planetary motion that shifted Copernicus’ sun-centered system to a more dynamic universe, with the sun causing planets to move at irregular speeds.

Related Resources


Why Gender Bias Persists, and How Behavioral Science Can Help Us Overcome it

A major barrier to gender inclusion and diversity is persisting misconceptions around gender norms and expectations. This article discusses how behavioral science can help “give us some insights on how to change mindsets and ensure gender parity in society, at work, and at home.” 

Science Denial isn’t Only a Conservative Problem

Misconceptions in science, a topic at the center of conceptual change research, is often believed to be a political issue, exclusive to individuals on the right. This article debunks that stereotype, breaking down the political boundary that’s assumed to accompany science denial.


  1. Posner, G. J., Strike, K. A., Hewson, P. W., & Gertzog, W. A. (1982). Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change. Science education, 66(2), 211-227.
  2. Driver, R., & Easley, J. (1978). Pupils and paradigms: A review of literature related to concept development in adolescent science students.
  3. Kuhn, T. S. (1970). The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (2nd ed.). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
  4. Haggbloom, S. J., Warnick, R., Warnick, J. E., Jones, V. K., Yarbrough, G. L., Russell, T. M., … & Monte, E. (2002). The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Review of General Psychology, 6(2), 139-152.
  5. Orey, M. (2011). Conceptual Change: Definition. OpenStaxCNX. Retrieved from
  6. Uzuntiryaki, E., & Geban, Ö. (2005). Effect of conceptual change approach accompanied with concept mapping on understanding of solution concepts. Instructional science, 33(4), 311-339.
  7. Pintrich, P. R., Marx, R. W., & Boyle, R. A. (1993). Beyond cold conceptual change: The role of motivational beliefs and classroom contextual factors in the process of conceptual change. Review of Educational research, 63(2), 167-199.
  8. Strike, K. A., & Posner, G. J. (1992). A revisionist theory of conceptual change. Philosophy of science, cognitive psychology, and educational theory and practice, 176.
  9. Gentner, D., Brem, S., Ferguson, R. W., Markman, A. B., Levidow, B. B., Wolff, P., & Forbus, K. D. (1997). Analogical reasoning and conceptual change: A case study of Johannes Kepler. The journal of the learning sciences, 6(1), 3-40.

About the Authors

Dan Pilat's portrait

Dan Pilat

Dan is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. Dan has a background in organizational decision making, with a BComm in Decision & Information Systems from McGill University. He has worked on enterprise-level behavioral architecture at TD Securities and BMO Capital Markets, where he advised management on the implementation of systems processing billions of dollars per week. Driven by an appetite for the latest in technology, Dan created a course on business intelligence and lectured at McGill University, and has applied behavioral science to topics such as augmented and virtual reality.

Sekoul Krastev's portrait

Dr. Sekoul Krastev

Sekoul is a Co-Founder and Managing Director at The Decision Lab. He is a bestselling author of Intention - a book he wrote with Wiley on the mindful application of behavioral science in organizations. A decision scientist with a PhD in Decision Neuroscience from McGill University, Sekoul's work has been featured in peer-reviewed journals and has been presented at conferences around the world. Sekoul previously advised management on innovation and engagement strategy at The Boston Consulting Group as well as on online media strategy at Google. He has a deep interest in the applications of behavioral science to new technology and has published on these topics in places such as the Huffington Post and Strategy & Business.

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