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Piaget, Behavior Theory, and Intelligence

Author(s): Harold W. Stevenson

Source: Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Vol. 27, No. 2,
Thought in the Young Child: Report of a Conference on Intellective Development with
Particular Attention to the Work of Jean Piaget (1962), pp. 113-126
Published by: Wiley on behalf of the Society for Research in Child Development
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/1165533
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University of Minnesota


At first glance, the developmental psychologies of Jean Piaget and cur-

rent American behavior theory appear to differ so much that an attempt
to compare them would seem a strained and unproductive venture. It is
difficult to find two points of view in psychology which have utilized more
dissimilar methods, produced more disparate types of data, and developed
more divergent conceptual systems. The workers in Geneva have concen-
trated primarily upon the accumulation of rich naturalistic observations
concerning the cognitive life of children. Behavior theorists have been
more concerned with the careful analysis of the development of simple
nonverbal responses such as bar-pressing by children or running a straight
alley by animals. The highly descriptive and wide-ranging theoretical
formulations of Piaget form a striking contrast to the behavior theorists'
attempts to present their systems in operationally well-defined and quanti-
tative terms.

It is fair to say that most behavior theorists have no understanding of

what Piaget has accomplished. Similarly, Piaget appears to have little knowl-
edge of developments in American behavior theory since 1930. Although
the two systems have developed simultaneously, behavior theorists have been
totally uninfluenced by Piaget's thinking and Piaget has failed to be influ-
enced by the methodological and conceptual developments of behavior
theory. This lack of cross-stimulation is not difficult to understand when
discussion centers on such topics as the development of causal thinking or
the acquisition of mathematical concepts. Piaget and the workers at Geneva
have been greatly interested in such topics and behavior theorists have gen-
erally avoided them. When the discussion concerns intellectual development
during the first years of life, however, the lack of communication is sur-
prising. Here, where relatively simple behavior is under consideration, both
Piaget and the behavior theorists sometimes find themselves in the position
of attempting to account for the development of the same forms of behavior.
Both theoretical approaches are faced with a number of similar prob-
lems. How is a stimulus to be defined? What is the relationship between

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stimulation and the modification of response? W

stimulus after it has been responded to? What is
in the modification of behavior? To what deg
without reinforcement? As we shall see, the two
to make many similar postulates in accounting for t
forms of response.
Thus, although there may be reason for pessim
relate the two approaches when more complex p
under consideration, Piaget's discussion of early
The Psychology of Intelligence (1946c) and in Th
in Children (1936) may be amenable to some type
behavior theorists have to say about learning. Thi
similarity and of difference between the two app
count of the development of intelligence within


Before attempting an integration of these two theoretical approaches to

early development, it will be useful for us first to explore the major points
of similarity and difference between the two positions.

Similarities between Piaget and Behavior Theorists

I. Both are historical theories. Behavior is seen by both as being progres-
sively modified by experience. Piaget gives greater emphasis than the behav-
ior theorists to the interaction between maturation and learning in his dis-
cussion of the development of behavior, but both reject the possibility of
sudden changes in behavior independent of relevant prior experience.
2. Both are reinforcement theories. Piaget has criticized simple associa-
tionistic interpretations of classical conditioning in the following manner:

When a response is associated with a perception, there is more in this

connection than a passive association (i.e. becoming stamped in as a result of
repetition alone); meanings also enter into it, since association occurs only
in the presence of a need and its satisfaction. Everyone knows in practice,
although we too often forget it in theory, that a conditioned reflex is stabil-
ized only as long as it is confirmed or reinforced; a signal associated with
food does not give rise to an enduring reaction if real food is not periodically
presented together with the signal (1946c [1959, p. 91]).

Hull, on the basis of a similar argument, introduced into his system the
notion that drive reduction constitutes a reinforcing state of affairs and
that such drive reduction is necessary for learning to occur. Hull also postu-
lated two other functions for drive: (a) an energizing function which acti-
vates the organism and (b) a behavior-directing function which occurs
through the conditioning of overt responses to drive stimuli. Similarly,

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Piaget assumes that behavior occurs as a con

the organism's state of equilibrium and tha
both assume that responses gain strength thro
relation to need, both Piaget and Hull may b
or "confirmation" theorists.
3. Both postulate some similar processes. S
cepts (which will be discussed later in greate
from concepts developed in reinforcement the
ing assimilation and recognitory assimilation
concepts of stimulus generalization and cond
forced stimulus-response unit corresponds
schema. Other apparent communalities in th
Reproductive assimilation may be accounted
by assuming that the repetition of a response
a response through reinforcement, rather th
tion. Piaget's primary circular reaction can
through the behavior theorists' concept of
example, sitmuli produced by sucking initiall
mary drive reduction and thus acquire secon
when the finger is sucked, this response gai
forcing effect of stimulation of the mouth.

Digerences between Piaget and Behavior The

i. The active-reactive problem. Perhaps th
the behavior theorists and Piaget is in the e
individual's role in intelligent response. To
consist-as accepted by reflexology entirely im
ciationism-in an ensemble of responses mec
ternal stimuli and in a correlative ensemble
new stimuli with old responses. On the contra
based upon an appropriate structure and assim
number of external objects" (1936 [1952, p.
to associationism, therefore, is that it views th
subject and does not consider the active role th
ing his experience. Although the criticism m
is rather extreme and would not necessarily
behavior theory does in fact place a greater e
of the person's behavior than upon active seek
2. The mechanical-dynamic problem. Piage
ployed by associationism because he considers
to place too much emphasis on the developmen
random, passive, and nonreversible aspects o
Piaget, "has always seemed to some people t
gence. Where the second is active invention,

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tition; where the second is awareness of the pr

comprehension, the first remains tainted with la
etc." (1936, [1952, P. 409]). The core concept in
of course, that of habit. Major interest has cen
tematic framework to account for the modifica
utilizing such concepts as "awareness," "inventi
The reluctance of behavior theorists to use such
behavior in dynamic terms contrasts greatly wi
these concepts and this view.
Although there are many specific differences be
two general points are those on which Piaget an
most widely. The question of greatest interest
course, is not whether differences can be found
proaches, but how well each can provide a satis
emergence of behavior in the young human infa


A brief summary of Piaget's views regarding

ligence during the child's first five years is of
for further discussion. For Piaget, the function
a state of equilibrium between the individual a
occurrence of disequilibrium produces a state of
attempts to reduce need and to reestablish a stat
logical and psychological development show com
ant" processes which operate in morphological as
opment. The most important of these processes
modation. Assimilation involves the action of t
the changes produced in him as a consequence of
involves the action of the environment on the p
child assimilates objects of the environment in
second, the child accommodates his behavior to
is considered to be an historic process in which b
are modified as a function of experience.
The primary difference between Piaget's ideas
other views of adaptation or homeostasis is the
the concepts of accommodation and assimilation
these two processes during early phases of behav
impossible, and only in later development do the
tinct. Accommodation seems to result from env
stacles which force response from the person or
lation, on the other hand, occurs whenever the i
The action patterns become attached to objec
assimilated into these action patterns.

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Intelligence is defined by Piaget as "the dir

evolves" from simple reflexes to novel resp
as an organizing activity which extends biolo
that the organism will be capable of more sa
velopment of intellectual processes makes it p
tinue as the environment becomes increasin
marized his point of view in the following st

Organic adaptation in fact only insures an

limited equilibrium between the individual a
Elementary cognitive functions, such as perc
tend it in the direction of present space (perce
jects) and of short-range reconstructions and a
capable of all its detours and reversals by a
towards an all-embracing equilibrium by aim
whole of reality and the accommodation to i
frees from its dependence on the initial hic

Piaget's definition of intelligence is rather n

ing from an examination of the stages thro
changing from a reflexive to a reflective o
changes whereby the response, which is initi
to "immediate" objects, finally becomes inve
made to "represented" objects. There are
child passes. These encompass reflex behavio
and associations, sensory-motor intelligence,
During the reflexive stage behavior is elicited
Even at this stage, however, the organism i
is difficult to separate the two functions at
accommodation occur. For example, the inf
and the schema (organized action) of suckin
jects are associated with the schema (general
entiated according to the object present (re
tends to be repeated spontaneously for the
assimilation). Experience thus modifies both
current behavior can be evaluated only in light
All aspects of assimilation-including the ten
peated, for it to generalize to new objects, and f
ent objects-are found in the simplest respon
complex types of behavior.
The second stage of development is marked
tations (circular reactions). In this stage ther
mata, but the form of the exercise is determ
environment. By chance, the infant perform
effect that is interesting and satisfying, an
endeavor to maintain the satisfying state of af

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fortuitous, and they center upon the infant's own

external objects. The repetitive nature of the respo
scribe them as circular reactions; and, since they
types of repetitive responses the infant performs, th
circular reactions." Thumbsucking is a typical exam
tions found in such "acquired adaptations." The pl
resulting from sucking leads the infant to attempt
this source of satsfaction.
Secondary circular reactions evolve in the third s
by chance produced an effect in the environment an
duce or maintain the effect. The infant strikes a
strikes at the rattle again and again. The secondary
some differentiation of means and ends; but this di
pletely comprehended, and the infant will often at
which are ineffective in a given situation. This stag
tween primary circular reactions and actions which a
combinations of schemata and actual inventions. T
occurring in secondary circular reactions constitute
themselves-"objects" in the environment-and not
body movements.
In the fourth stage there is a clearer differentiat
and the ends. In approaching a problem in this stage
associated with other situations, but has the intenti
type of consequence by his responses. The importan
at this stage is that the infant keeps the goal in m
means of surmounting the obstacles. There is a coo
acquired schemata with anticipation of the cons
example, the infant appears to anticipate that he w
begins to cry when his parent gets up. This stage se
extension of the schemata in that response tenden
plied to a vast variety of objects. The infant begins
vironment from himself during this stage and begins
period when the environment is not differentiated fr
when the two are clearly separated for the child (ego
"Tertiary circular reactions" appear during the f
the secondary circular reaction the child repeated t
to maintain a satisfying state of affairs, the child n
response to ascertain the different results which m
is, therefore, "empirical groping," in which the chil
ence the types of variations he can produce in the
In other words, the characteristics of objects are now
Earlier, his behavior changed only when accommoda
was required; now the child actively searches for an
the environment to which he can react. The respon

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are directed by the goal and are not rando

ized by a sudden insightful process.
The sixth stage is marked by the inv
"mental combination" of schemata. It is
to carry out acts in order to respond appr
ized actions" which make it possible for
and for symbolic functions to operate. In
ery; in invention the child produces a new
combination, while in discovery the chi
cedures by active experimentation. There
object does not need to be present for th
representation as well as invention char
sentation involves symbols; a word or ima
meaning to the extent that the subject ca
to the object. As invention is contrasted
contrasted with groping.
With these developments, the origins of
child now has passed through the phase o
the development of mature, reflective intel
acquisition of language and the assimilati
language, the child's cognitive developm
occur as the child moves from sensory-m
primarily changes in speed of responding
ing ability to operate at greater and mor
tances. Piaget summarizes his view of the d
the first five years in the following words

Let us now recall how things occur in the

point of view of this progressive accommo
ment. During the first stage there exists,
experience, since activity is simply reflex.
fore confused with reflex use. During the
formed and so the pressure of experience
limited, at the beginning, to interconnecti
body or else a reaction of the subject to a
an acquisition due to experience. But this
mind in the presence of "things" themse
between the external environment and t
tion remains undissociated from the activit
simply on the results acquired fortuitously
opment of reflex activity. In the third sta
tute relations between different body mo
remain dependent on the action, that is to
periment; his accommodation to things re
tion, the results reproduced just being m
stage. In the fourth stage, experience com
coordinations between the schemata perm
relations between things (in contrast to

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relationships). But it is only in the fifth stage th

nitely liberated and gives rise to true experience w
course of the sixth stage (1936 [1952, pp. 364-365
During the fifth stage, the utilization of experi
since this period is characterized by the "tertiary
periment in order to see," and the coordination of
forth into "discoveries of new means through activ
Lastly, the sixth stage adds one more behavior p
ones: the invention of new means through deduction
As with regard to the fourth stage, one can ask on
thereafter held in check by the work of the mind
of a priori origin will not henceforth double the e
(1936 [1952, p. 361]).


Although behavior theorists have not attempted

types of behavior with which Piaget is concerned
see whether a systematic use of concepts from be
result in an adequate account of early intellectiv
three assumptions within the context of general rei
an account will be attempted here. The three assu
I. For normal children, increased age is accomp
ment of an increasing need for sensory stimulati
to produce a primary drive of "stimulus hunger"
changes in the organism's sensory input. Other pr
to restrict the opportunity for expression of stim
the organism's total stimulation to such a degree th
lation is no longer reinforcing. Thus, we are conc
which occurs when other drives have low strength
the most primitive forms of cognitive behavior ar
sensory stimulation, rather than to needs of a mo
as hunger, thirst, and so forth.
2. Repeated response to a reinforcing stimulus re
the efectiveness of the stimulus as a reinforcing
which the subject is capable of responding may f
stimulus and reduce "stimulus hunger." Noxious
have limited capacity for the reduction of this dr
dency to produce drive states linked to avoidance.
states based on pain and fear are operative, "stim
to contribute less to the total drive state of the or
operate as strong drive states which increase the tot
and reduce the effectiveness of other forms of sens
We assume that stimuli are not unitary but co
stimulus elements. Response may occur to differ
elements-i.e., may be directed to various aspects o

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to each sample reduces the effectiveness of th

reinforcers. Repeated response is thus require
given stimulus are sampled; hence a number of
stimulus may be made before its reinforcing ef
therefore, that alternative modes of initial resp
ples of reinforcing stimuli) will eventually have
to the stimulus situation is to be maintained afte
the consequences of initial responses are exhaus
It should be emphasized that we are concern
tionship: a stimulus (S) leads to a response (
a change in the subject's sensory input (Sre); t
ness of) this new form of stimulation is reinf
sequence of events with which we are concerne
Sre will continue to be a potentially reinforcing
of the stimulus have been responded to in the
formance. As long as the stimulus maintains its
relationship increases in strength. Eventually,
and the S-R relationship ceases to increase in s
S and Sre may or may not be from the same
may see a rattle (S) and strike it (R), resulting
rattle (Sre) which, if perceived (Rre), is assume
same time, the baby may see a rattle (S), shak
the noise (Sre)which it makes.
3. Intellectual level is negatively correlated wi
elements required to produce a given response
sponse is produced in subjects of higher intell
of stimulus elements than is required for respons
ligence for the same response. As a consequence
responses which the subject will make within a
directly related to his intellectual level. For the
cussion, we will assume that the performance c
higher chronological ages represents a higher
ment than the performance characteristic of ch
As can be seen in the following paragraphs, the use of such assump-
tions leads to quite different means of accounting for early behavior from
those used by Piaget. The reflexes which exist at birth may be considered
potential S-R units. There are apparently differences among organisms in
the degree to which experience is necessary to activate these potential S-R
units; in some cases frequent reinforced repetition is necessary to strengthen
the response, while in others the response appears at high strength without
experience. In the case of the sucking response, strengthening comes from
the effectiveness of the response in reducing hunger. If the response does
not lead to reinforcement, it will be extinguished. During the first few weeks,

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new stimuli may be associated with the reflex thro

conditioning, in which a response made in the pr
accompanied by reinforcement becomes associated
During the first weeks after birth, the baby's be
control of hunger, thirst, and fatigue. By the end
infant becomes capable of satisfying hunger and
and is less susceptible to fatigue. The baby is aw
are satisfied, and wakefulness makes it possible f
behavior to occur. Sensory-motor activity increas
the primary function of experience is to organiz
rather than to initiate it.
The infant's first motor responses are directed
rather than to external objects. Because of the re
stimulation, the responses to his own body ar
strength. Gradually, the infant becomes able to ini
objects. These random and fortuitous responses
changes in the stimulus situation produced by the
infant is practically devoid of experience; thus a
situation produced by a response maintain their r
periods (under assumptions I and 2). During this
may be far greater repetition of a response than w
development. As time passes, some aspects of th
duced by a response tend to be the same as those
reinforcing effect of such stimulus changes are
point, old responses are sustained only on the basis
no longer gain in strength. New responses, whi
stimulus changes, emerge to replace the child's ol
Thus, the type of stimuli which are reinforcing c
ior develops; at each stage there is exhaustion of the
stimuli to which the child has already responded.
ments of objects, bright images, and so forth ma
reinforcing effect of such simple stimulus changes
Repeated response to an object is made by the
great many repetitions are required before the
changes produced by the response is depleted. Eve
are capable of producing a large variety of stimul
forcing effect is depleted, responses which produ
will be replaced by responses which produce var
example, the infant may at first hit a rattle beca
but later the infant will continue to hit the rattle
or position or makes different types of noises. A
the consequences of simple responses become ex
responses emerge. With complex responses, the
that variable consequences of the responses will b

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babies initially may show perseverative beh

variable behavior, is consistent with the not
eventually produce consequences which are r
"try" to produce variation in the consequen
will not develop unless variable consequences
As the infant grows older, behavior is incre
stimulation. Examination and manipulation
tinued by the infant until their reinforcing e
range of stimuli to which the infant respo
responses made increase with experience. S
the child, such as his crib and his rattle, are f
responses to these immediate stimuli decreases
stimuli, and distal stimuli then tend to becom
of the child's perceptual experience is ther
complex types of responses are developed, si
ferent types of sensory stimulation and are r
Even though particular responses are repla
consequences produce novel changes in the en
were made originally will have been learned
uli are presented again, depending on wheth
have been developed which have greater str
responses may no longer produce consequenc
stimuli to which they have been conditione

With the development of language, the opportunity for stimuli to elicit

more and more complex types of response is possible. The word "mama,"
for example, will have a variety of responses conditioned to it, and the word
may now substitute for the physical presence of the mother. Language allows
the response to be made despite greater and greater physical and temporal
separation from the object represented. Some object in the environment may
elicit the verbalization, and then a variety of responses conditioned to the
verbalization may be made. Gradually, the verbalization may be interiorized,
so that the actual activation of the vocal apparatus is unnecessary. Thus,
operation of the organism independent of objects is assumed to be depend-
ent upon the development of language.
As the population of S-R units increases, it is possible for the child to
perform novel responses in a new situation. A novel response is assumed
to consist of a combination of old responses; it is novel in its organization
and not in its components. Novel responses may occur when a variety of
responses has been conditioned to a single stimulus, enabling the stimulus
to elicit a series of responses. Sudden production of a novel, correct response
is due to a high degree of transfer; typically, modification of the novel
response will occur before it is appropriate in producing the change in the
situation demanded by the task facing the child.

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The development of concepts in children occurs on

developed a large number of responses to a large numb
cept is assumed to emerge when certain types of stim
common elements that a common response is elicited
when each stimulus has conditioned to it a common m
The mediating response may be a series of movemen
Some types of stimuli contain communalities of stimu
degree to which such communalities are responded to
of the child's conceptual development. The concept is r
ent of the physical presence of the stimuli if verbal labe
to the common elements the stimuli possess. The prob
be handled in an S-R framework by assuming that st
to the degree that the child has learned that certain re
will produce certain types of changes in the stimulus s
The preceding discussion is primarily a translation f
another in an attempt to cover the topics discussed in
ligence as these were summarized earlier. The test
alternative view is whether it is capable of generating
The purpose of the following section is to discuss some
dictions that may be made on the basis of the assum
operation of sensory stimulation as a reinforcing agent
tion of intelligence according to the number of stimul
to elicit a response.
In applying these assumptions to a particular example
that differences in level of cognitive development can
dren of the same chronological age and that our under
development will be advanced by a systematic compa
dull children.


It is assumed that there are differences among childr

lectual capacity and that the number of stimulus eleme
duce response is negatively correlated with intellectual le
for experience is necessary for these differences to b
development of behavior may be hindered if the env
provide opportunities for experience. From an early ag
be possible to determine something about the nature of t
stimulus and response that will have value in predict

The fact that different numbers of stimulus eleme

produce a response should not be interpreted as indicat
subject is more sensitive to simple stimulus qualities th

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ject. The discussion concerns objects which

dimension; hence we will consider the det
and not his sensitivity to stimulation.
There are several ways in which such dif
be tested. The bright subject should respo
presentation of an object should not be s
elicited. It may be predicted that conditi
(or of older children) will be established m
than in duller subjects with rapid presenta
even though differences in rate of condit
presentation intervals. The rate of develop
should also differ for bright and dull sub
if it occurs when all of the cues to which it has been conditioned are not
present. Bright subjects should make such responses at a younger age, and
to fewer cues, than the dull subject. If a complex stimulus is used in condi-
tioning, it would be possible during test trials to vary systematically the
aspects of the stimulus which are presented. Differences should appear
among bright and dull subjects in the number of cues that are necessary
to elicit the response. Or, if minimal cues are presented during the condi-
tioning trials, the conditioned response should develop more rapidly in
brighter subjects.
Another factor which may have predictive value for later intellectual
level is the reactivity of the subject. If it is assumed that fewer stimulus
elements are required to produce response, the bright subject should make
a greater number of responses to a stimulus in a given period of time than
a dull subject. In other words, the bright subject should show more "curios-
ity" and manipulative behavior. For example, if an object is presented for
a constant period of time, more aspects of the objects should be described
by brighter subjects. In the terms of our theory fewer cues are required
for bright subjects to elicit response both to the external stimulus and to the
stimulus change produced by response. But fewer repetitions of a response
will be required for bright subjects before the reinforcing effects of the
stimulus change lose their reinforcing power. Thus, the bright subject will
be forced to vary his behavior more frequently than the dull subject, and
the incidence of variable response to an object in a given period of time
should be related to intellectual level.
The dull subjects should show greater stereotypy of response. If a re-
sponse produces a certain consequence, it should take the dull subject longer
to exhaust the reinforcing value of the stimulus change, and a particular
response will therefore gain greater strength in these subjects. Consequently,
the response will be repeated more often during the subject's initial experi-
ence with the stimuli and will be more likely to reappear upon later pres-
entation of these stimuli.

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It is surprising that there have been so few st

tionship between ease of learning has been related
most intelligence tests are used to determine the ea
will learn new responses, it seems reasonable that
assess intellectual level is in terms of the ease wit
at a particular age. The rapidity of learning shou
with intellectual level for tasks which are appropr
level of the subject. In a simple situation with a d
the response should be conditioned to more aspect
in the bright subject; hence on later trials there
hood that the response will be elicited in the br
situations, the bright subject should make more
the likelihood that the correct response will be el
tion, the response will be conditioned to more st
therefore be more likely to recur on later trials. Su
hold if the task is below the subject's developmenta
are too easy for the subject, the bright subject ma
from more "advanced" responses, show slower lea
ject. More complex responses may be made by the
responses may interfere with the emergence of th
Differences in performance related to differences in intellectual level
should also appear in transfer problems. Such problems should be especially
sensitive measures of differences in intellectual level. Ease of positive trans-
fer should be positively correlated with intellectual level. Dull subjects re-
quire more of the elements which were present in the earlier stimulus situ-
ation in order to make the earlier responses and should show poorer transfer
than brighter subjects.
Differentiation of intellectual level should also be possible by determin-
ing the rapidity with which subjects show satiation to particular changes
in the stimulus situation produced by their response. If a fixed, rigid con-
sequent is produced, brighter subjects should cease responding sooner than
dull subjects, since the brighter subjects will exhaust the reinforcing value
of the stimulus change more rapidly. If variable consequents are produced
by response, the number of trials which the bright subject will perform
should be increased. One test of intellectual level may be the degree to which
the subject chooses to respond to a stimulus with variable consequences
rather than a stimulus with constant consequences.
Intellective development during the early years may be mirrored, there-
fore, in the ease with which subjects respond to partial or minimal cues,
in the frequency with which responses are made and are repeated, in the
ease with which behavior can be modified and can be transferred to new
situations, and in the rapidity with which subjects show satiation for par-
ticular types of stimulation.

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