Posted: May 25th, 2022
Educational Psychology Case Study and Analysis
The subject of this case study is an 18-year-old male who, for the purposes of this project, will be referred to as “Steven.” Steven illustrated high intelligence and precocious cognitive development as an infant, and as a small child. In those respects, Steven reached several specific milestones of cognitive development before his peers and performed very well in educational measures generally associated with intelligence throughout elementary and middle school. However, as Steven entered adolescence, he became easily bored and distracted in school and his academic performance dropped significantly. Steven also found himself in trouble for disciplinary violations on many occasions.
In many respects, at least with the benefit of hindsight, there were indications of problems in Steven’s perception of moral rules and values even before adolescence. Those problems became much worse in adolescence and eventually resulted in his being confined to a school for troubled boys at the age of 17 for repeated disciplinary problems in school as well as at home. Steven began talking earlier than his peers and also demonstrated other elements of high intelligence and cognitive development in relation to perceiving various physical relationships and associations. Steven also absorbed rules and logical principles early.
However, Steven always (in retrospect) seemed to lack the ability to appreciate some of the fundamental principles and concepts served by rules. That was particularly evident in the distinctions that Steven made in connection with telling the truth, making promises, and negotiating fair solutions to problems. From a very early age, Steven spoke very definitively about and could articulate the meaning and importance of being “honest”; on the other hand, he seemed to lack the same ability (or interest) in honesty in the spirit of rule that he had always easily recognized in terms of honesty in the proverbial letter of rules and promises.
Two specific examples concerned an incident involving the trade of his bike for skateboard that he had been specifically forbidden to purchase with his allowance and the manner in which he used to trick his much younger brother into accepting unfair compromises or agreements. In the first case, when Steven was 14, he had expressed the desire to purchase an expensive custom-made skateboard with his allowance. His parents forbade him from “spending your money on a skateboard” primarily because they thought it was too dangerous and also because they disapproved of the particular friends with whom he intended to skateboard. His parents agreed to allow Steven to “buy yourself a bike instead.” Steven purchased a bike and immediately traded it for a skateboard. When his father confiscated it, Steven had a tantrum because, according to him, he “didn’t buy a fucking skateboard; I bought a bike and traded for the skateboard.”
The other incident occurred when Steven was 12 and his younger brother was 5. Steven allowed his brother to watch cartoons on television instead of a science fiction program in return for the agreement that “I get to watch whatever I want for one year.” Steven showed no appreciation for the unfairness of tricking a 5-year-old who had not yet reached the stage of cognitive development where he could understand what he was agreeing to and Steven accused his parents of “not being fair” and of “caring more about him” (referring to his brother) when they stepped in and reversed his agreement after they discovered that Steven had taken advantage of his brother.
Analysis — Application of Piaget’s Conceptual Framework
Steven began demonstrating signs of precocious cognitive development during the concrete operational stage (Gerrig & Zimbardo, 2008) when he began to acquire and apply conservation of numbers at the age of 4 1/2, conservation of mass at 5, and conservation of weight shortly before his 6th birthday. In retrospect, it was apparently relevant that Steven’s parents had noticed a tendency on Steven’s part to use his advanced cognitive skills to take advantage of his peers without regard for fairness.
There were also more subtle apparent connections between Steven’s 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 Steven’s 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 “it’s not my fault if people are too stupid to know what they’re saying.”
Relevant historical information provided by Steven’s 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, Steven’s parents were much more careful to correct physically inappropriate impulses and they always stressed the importance of “telling the truth.” It may be that Steven’s 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 Steven’s 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 Piaget’s theoretical approach to understanding human cognitive development and the formation of moral understanding almost exclusively in definitive stages. Cases such as Steven’s may illustrate that Piaget’s 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 Steven’s 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 & Bacon.
Pinker, S. (2002). The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature.
New York: Penguin.
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