There were also more subtle apparent connections between Stevens relative inability, (especially in light of his intelligence in other areas), to recognize moral issues provided they do not involve lying, physically overpowering, or overtly stealing from others. As a child, Steven used to trick his peers about the relative quantity of ice cream or candy in packages to trick them into unfair (but voluntary) trades. As an adolescent, Steven became very skilled at using his superior communications skills and his persuasiveness to split hairs and exploit contrived ambiguities in agreements to get what he wanted without “breaking” a rule or a promise in the strictest technical sense. In Stevens mind, his parents prohibited him from buying a custom skateboard; they said he could use his allowance to buy a bike and they never said anything about his not being allowed to trade his new bike for the skateboard. Steven expressed the belief that “people should keep their agreements” and “its not my fault if people are too stupid to know what theyre saying.”
Relevant historical information provided by Stevens parents included the fact that Steven was initially applauded by his parents for demonstrating superior awareness and understanding of his surroundings and relations. In retrospect, some of the positive feedback that Steven received during the early phases of his concrete operational stage came up in relation to his tricking his playmates so that Steven could get his way. During this time, Stevens parents were much more careful to correct physically inappropriate impulses and they always stressed the importance of “telling the truth.” It may be that Stevens relative inability to appreciate moral issues and his overemphasis of literal truth over fairness had nothing to do with his precociousness in other ways.
Alternatively, it could be that the two anomalies are directly related on a neurological (or other) level (Dennet, 1991).
Finally, it could also be that Stevens precociousness simply allowed him the opportunity to show off his intelligence and that the reinforcement by parental praise (in conjunction with other instructions about not lying) establishes a reward loop in a 5-year-old that would not have occurred without the opportunities to display his intelligence and be reinforced for it (Pinker, 2002).
In some respects, the case of Steven may represent some of the conceptual criticisms of Piagets theoretical approach to understanding human cognitive development and the formation of moral understanding almost exclusively in definitive stages. Cases such as Stevens may illustrate that Piagets concept of concrete stages of cognitive development are too rigidly defined (Gardner, 2006). While certain aspects of cognitive intelligence seem to correspond to chronological stages, they also appear to be highly influenced by learning through experiences with the external world. Explicit messages about behavioral expectations are also important (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008). Likewise, it is not necessarily the case that all adolescents (or adults) ever reach the complex reasoning stages of logical or moral development described by Piaget (Gardner, 2006).
In Stevens case, it may be that the increased exposure to reinforcement for demonstrations of intelligence occurred at a time when Steven understood only literal connections despite being precociously verbal. It is possible that this early reinforcement of his displays of intelligence together with instructions from his parents and other adults not to lie established a neural pathway that interfered with the normal development of moral reasoning commensurate with general intelligence.
Dennet, D. (1991). Consciousness Explained. New York: Little Brown & Co.
Gardner, H. (2006). Frames of Mind: The Theory of Multiple Intelligences. New York:
Gerrig, R, Zimbardo, P. (2008). Psychology and Life. 17th Edition. New York: Allyn.