Using Piaget’s Epistemology of [Physical] Object Concepts to Analyze Social Behavior

In this example, we apply Piaget’s taxonomy of physical object concepts as they apply to the individual’s concepts of and behaviors with social objects, noting that the forms of behavior might be differen than those used with pysical objects.

Example: We often encounter individuals that behave in ways that they know are annoying to others.  They get hostile feedback and stops signs and commands to stop – even threat or punishment to get them to stop.  We might have difficulty wrapping our minds around what is reinforcing this behavior – why the hostile feedback we see them getting somehow encourages them to do it more?

Now if we look at an early stage of object thinking, Piaget’s Sensorimotor Substage V, especially the earliest parts of the stage –we see a great deal of experimentation with simple forms of trial and error and cause and effect.  That is, at or around the age of 12 months, infants move on from exploring just the sensory qualities of objects by touching and mouthing to exploring the effects of their behavior on objects.  They become fascinated with simple causes and effects.  They use [at first] random forms of trial and error to form concepts about what objects are made of and how they work.  The infant enjoys pushing things over, knocking things down, throwing, dumping, pushing things off the table, putting things inside other things and taking them out and push-button toys.  The goal of exploration apparently is experimental and exploratory – to find out “what if…”

The “what if” of human interaction, that is, the process of exploration and discovery of ‘what if I do this or that to this person or that person or the dog or any other animate creature in the environment..,” starts earlier in life.  The infant discovers that his or her own cries and sounds and movements and produce responses that can be anticipated.  We know that a good deal of our functional neurological resources are ready sooner after birth than others and ready to be devoted to developing social and emotional intelligence very early in life.  This is a species-specific trait among higher primates and especially so in humans.

By the time infants are ready to use their arms and hands and fingers to explore objects in the way they want, they already have a great deal of experience with behavioral and emotional cause and effect.  That is, the infant typically has, through social interaction and discovery, already developed theories of how a behavior (smile) seems to produce consequences of smiling in others.  By a year of age, the infant’s concepts of how people work are quite a bit ahead of their concepts of how physical, inanimate objects work.

In typical development, we see young children using their social intelligence to understand objects: they name inanimate things and otherwise anthropomorphize objects in play.   Also in typical development, we see relative divergence and variations in the balance of social curiosity and exploration, with some children placing more emphasis on developing their social intelligence (how people work), and others will spend more time developing their object skills).

Our Annoying 6th Grader

So let’s say in this case we are talking about an 11 year old 6th grader that seems to be able to do well in most academic subjects, but experiences repeated social failure with peers.  The 6th grade social milieu typically requires reading many signals at once along with language comprehension.  We are aware of significant deficits in social cognitive reasoning in this child – but this still does not explain why he repeats behaviors with peers that produce hostile reactions from peers.  There had been many times where if it wasn’t for the presence of an adult nearby, his peers might have escalated their hostility to physical levels.  And, he has been resistant to using the prosocial replacement skills that he’s demonstrated ability to do.

But if look at the social cognitive means or tools our 6th grader comes equipped with as he endeavors to join the complex social interactions of other 6th graders, we see that his social cognitive thinking is characteristic of early Stage V object concept behavior.

That is, we find that what reinforces this behavior is how reliable it is.  His annoying actions produce predictable effects.  The motivation for this behavior for this boy is being able to predict the consequences.  So in effect, he is “pushing buttons,” as if he is operating animated push-button toys.  He pushes the other person’s emotional buttons (and he has been experimenting with what works and what doesn’t and what works really, really well and what works less well), and they do their thing.

The consequences have what they call in mathematics “absolute value.”  +10 and -10 have the same absolute value of 10.  Due to his deficits in social concepts, our 6th grader may not be able to discriminate the positive or negative valence of other people’s responses.  He can only discriminate how intense they are.  The intensity provides and absolute value.  It is higher or lower.  Our 6th grader does not have the mental tools necessary to make other, more complex and subtle social behaviors of others meaningful.

Therefore, he appears motivated to turn on only the high intensity behaviors because hostile yelling and screaming sounds the same to him as excited and joyful behaviors.  In other words, whether the intensity of the response comes from extreme joy and happiness (positive valence), or irritation and rage (negative valence) they both share the same intensity and therefore have the same absolute [reinforcing] value.

The problem with his resisting replacement behaviors was the analyst’s assumption that social interactions are all of the same quality.  In this case, what this person enjoys is problematic.  He enjoys the intensive quality that comes from setting others off.  Anything less is not satisfying.  In fact, the analyst might find that there is little in the present environment that can produce similar consequences.  The so-called replacement behaviors never produce such exciting consequences.  Consequences of lesser intensity – because of this individual’s “push-button” appreciation of the social world, are not reinforcing.

There are many possible ways to address this problem, but that is not the point here.  The point is that we have a child that may, in certain academic areas be able to engage in relatively complex thinking, but the means he uses to explore and learn from social objects (people) are insufficient.  Mere exposure to peers will not result in beneficial learning because of the width of the discrepancy between himself and the social stages of thinking of in which his peers operate.  Including an examination of cognitive means, was useful here in our process of baseline logic, informing our hypotheses about the behavior in important ways.