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  • Piagetian and Psychometric Conceptions of Intelligence

    DAVID E L K I N D , University of Rochester

    Professor Elkind devotes much of his discussion to the concept of intelligence. He finds both similarities and differences when comparing the Piagetian descrip­ tion of intelligence with Jensen's (and the psychometrician's) definition of in­ telligence. Operating from quite different assumptions than those of J. McV. Hunt (Piaget's Structuralism, rather than neurology) Elkind also finds reason to believe that intelligence is developed in experience. For Piaget and Elkind, in­ telligence is "an extension of biological adaptation" and is characterized by ability to assimilate (develop in response to internal processes) and accommodate (respond to environmental intrusions).

    I have been asked to respond to Professor Jensen's paper from the standpoint of Piaget's genetic psychology of intelligence. While I clearly cannot speak for Piaget, only the "Patron" can do that, I can react as someone steeped in Piagetian theory and research and as one who looks at cognitive problems from the Gene- van perspective. Accordingly, while I hope that what I have to say would be acceptable to Piaget, I cannot guarantee that this is in fact the case, and must take full responsibility for whatever is said below. I plan to discuss, in the first section of the paper, some of the similarities between the Piagetian and psycho- metric positions. Then, in the second section, some of their differences will be pointed out. Finally, in the third section, I want to consider two related practical issues regarding the modification of intelligence.


  • Conceptual Similarities

    What struck me in reading Professor Jensen's paper, and what had not really occurred to me before, were the many parallels and affinities between the psy- chometric or mental test approach to the problem of intelligence and the devel- opmental approach as represented by Piaget. It brought to mind the fact that Piaget began his career as a developmental psychologist by working in Binet's laboratory where he sought to standardize some of Burt's (1962) reasoning tests on Parisian children. Indeed, Piaget's method clinique is a combination of men- tal test and clinical interview procedures which consists in the use of a standard- ized situation as a starting point for a flexible interrogation. The affinities, how- ever, between the Piagetian and psychometric approaches to intelligence run more deeply than that. In this section I want to discuss such affinities: the accep- tance of genetic and maturational determination in intelligence, the use of non- experimental methodologies and the conception of intelligence as being essen- tially rational.

    Genetic Determination Implicit and often explicit in both the psychometric and Piagetian positions is the assumption that mental ability is, in part at least, genetically determined. With respect to the psychometric position, it assumes that at least some of the variance in intelligence test performance is attributable to variance in genetic endowment (Burt & Howard, 1957, Jensen). Piaget (1967a) also acknowledges the importance of genetic factors for intellectual ability but qualifies this by pointing out that what may be genetic in one generation may not always have been so and could be the partial result of prior environmental influences. So, for Piaget, as for the biologist Waddington (1962a) there is a certain relativity with respect to what is attributed to genetic endowment because what is genetic now may not always have been genetic. To illustrate, Waddington (1962a) observed that after several generations a strain of the fly grub drosophilia developed en- larged anal papillae when reared on a high salt diet. When the insects were returned to a "normal" low salt diet the anal papillae of successive generations became less large but never returned to their original size. Waddington speaks of this as "genetic assimilation" by which he means that the effects of an altered environment upon the selection process within a species may not be completely reversible even when the environment returned to its unaltered state.

    One consequence of their joint acceptance of the partial genetic determination of intellectual ability, is that both psychometricians and Piaget recognize the importance


  • Conceptions of Intelligence DAVID ELKIND

    of maturation in human development. To illustrate their commonality in this regard, consider these two passages, one written by Harold Jones in 1954 and the other by Piaget in 1967.

    Dubnoff's work, together with other related studies, may lead to the speculative sugges- tion that between natio-racial groups, as within a given group, a slight tendency exists for early precocity to be associated with a slower mental growth at later ages and per- haps with a lower average intelligence level at maturity. A parallel situation may be noted when we compare different animal species; among the primates, for example, the maturity of performance at a given age in infancy can be used inversely to predict the general level of adaptive ability that will be attained at the end of the growth span. (Jones, 1954, p. 638)

    And Piaget writes:

    We know that it takes 9 to 12 months before babies develop the notion that an object is still there when a screen is placed in front of it. Now kittens go through the same sub- stages but they do it in three months—so they are six months ahead of the babies. Is this an advantage or isn't it? We can certainly see our answer in one sense. The kitten is not going to go much further. The child has taken longer, but he is capable of going further so it seems to me the nine months were not for nothing. (Piaget, 1967b)

    Non-Experimental Methodology In addition to their shared genetic or maturational emphasis, the Piagetian and psychometric approaches to intelligence have still another characteristic in com- mon. This common feature is their failure, for the most part, to use the experi- mental method in the strict sense of that term. It seems fair to say that most of the studies which attempt to get at the determinants of test intelligence are correla- tional in nature. By and large such studies attempt to relate the test scores of parents and their children, of twins or of adopted children and their parents, or of the same children tested at different points in time and so on. Only in rare instances such as the Skeels (1966) study is an attempt made to modify intelli- gence by active intervention and with the utilization of a control group which does not receive the experimental treatment. While experimental work on hu- man intelligence might well be desirable, such research often raises serious moral and ethical questions.

    Piaget, for his part, has not employed the experimental method simply be- cause it was not appropriate for the problems he wished to study. This is true be- cause Piaget has been primarily concerned with the diagnosis of mental contents and abilities and not with their modification. To illustrate, the discovery of


  • what the child means by "more," "less" and "same" number of things requires flexible diagnostic interview procedures and not experimental procedures. Once the concept is diagnosed, then experimental methods are appropriate to deter- mine the effects of various factors on the attainment and modification of the con- cepts in question. The sequence of events is not unlike the situation in medicine where the discovery or diagnosis of a disease is often the first step to its experi- mental investigation. In short, Piaget has focused upon the discovery of what and how children think and not with the modification of thinking which is a subse- quent and experimental question. In every science there is a natural history stage of enquiry during which relevant phenomena must be carefully observed and classified. American psychology has often tried to bypass this stage in its head- long rush to become an experimental science. In his studies Piaget has revealed a wide range of hitherto unknown and unsuspected facts about children's think- ing, which have in America now become the starting points for a great deal of experimental investigation. What is often forgotten, when Piaget is criticized for not using the experimental method, is that such a method would not have re- vealed the wealth of phenomena which experimental investigators are now so busily studying.

    Rationality as the Definition of Intelligence There is a third and final commonality in the mental test and Piagetian ap- proaches to intelligence which should be mentioned. This commonality resides in what these two positions regard as the nature or essence of intelligence. While there is considerable variability among psychometricians in this regard, many agree in general with the position taken by Jensen (1969). Jensen argues that the g factor which is present in all tests of mental ability appears in its purest forms on tests of generalization and abstraction. Spearman (1923) called these activ- ities the education of relations (A is greater than B; B is greater than C; so A is in what relation to C?) and of correlates (Complete the series A AB ABC ). While intelligence tests contain measures of many different types of mental abilities, including language and perceptual skills, the psychometric approach holds that the most central feature of human intelligence is its rationality, or as Wechsler put it: "Intelligence is the aggregate or global capacity of the individ- ual to act purposefully, to think rationally and to deal effectively with his en- vironment" (Wechsler, 1944, p. 3).

    For Piage