Too much of the behavior shown by people with mental retardation is attributed to their having subaverage intelligence and not enough to their other human qualities. In an effort to correct this imbalance, Zigler (1971) called for the study of the “whole person” and showed that subaverage IQs do not predict personalities. A decade later, Reiss, Levitan, and Szyszko (1982) called for the study of the mental health of persons with mental retardation. They held that negative social experiences and attitudes, not subaverage intelligence, lead to many of the emotional and behavioral problems shown by people with mental retardation. Recently, researchers have disproved the myth that people with significantly subaverage IQs lack the cognitive capacities needed to self-determine their futures (e.g., Turnbull & Turnbull, 2001; Wehmeyer, Kelchner, & Richards, 1995). Despite these and other past efforts to correct for the misuse of IQs, they are still too powerful a determinant of how we respond to people with mental retardation.

Here, we consider another misuse of IQs, namely, the assumption that these scores are strongly predictive of curiosity. Our thesis is that intelligence and curiosity are distinguishable traits, less strongly related to each other than generally assumed. Intelligence refers to one's ability to learn, whereas curiosity refers to one's motivation to experience intellectual activity. Intelligent people have the potential to solve difficult problems whether or not they enjoy doing so, whereas curious people have the potential to enjoy thinking about difficult problems whether or not they can solve them.

Generally, educators pay too much attention to intelligence and not enough attention to curiosity when planning a student's future. Consider the standardized tests that educators use to assess students. Although educators often use standardized intelligence tests, they rarely use standardized tests of curiosity. Until recently, there were no widely used standardized tests of curiosity for students with mental retardation or for students generally. The recently published Reiss Profile MR/DD (Reiss & Havercamp, 2001) includes a Curiosity subscale that may be the only standardized measure of this construct specifically validated for use with people who have mental retardation. Past educators could not have formally assessed the curiosity of people with mental retardation even if they had wanted to do so because they lacked appropriate assessment tools.

Three Perspectives on Curiosity

Behaviorists view curiosity as motivation to explore novel stimuli (Berlyne, 1960). Many animals show alternating curiosity/fear reactions to the unknown: They tentatively approach a novel stimulus, such as a stranger, quickly pull back, and then tentatively approach again. Humans also show both fear and interest in the unknown. Although exploratory behavior is interesting in its own right, we do not know the extent to which exploratory behavior is related to intellectual curiosity. Arguably, the desire to explore and the desire for intellectual stimulation are distinct and largely unrelated psychological motives.

Intrinsic motivation theorists have provided a different perspective on curiosity (Deci & Ryan, 1985). They hold that learning is intrinsically enjoyable (Weiner, 1995); that is, curious people seek out learning activities in order to have fun. On the other hand, when students expect that school will be unpleasant—when they dislike their teachers, are bored by the curriculum, or feel anxious over grading practices—they lose their curiosity and their interest in school. Intrinsic motivation theorists advise educators to make school “fun” so that the students can rediscover the natural joys of learning (Lepper & Cordova, 1992). Haywood (1992) and Switzky (1999) applied the construct of intrinsic motivation to the education of students with mental retardation.

Trait theorists have provided a third perspective on curiosity. As put forth by Reiss (2000, in press), trait curiosity is the usual strength of a person's desire for knowledge. People show significant and stable individual differences in the quantities of time they want to spend in intellectual pursuits. Some people, for example, have the potential to experience curiosity for only a few minutes at a time: When these people engage in effortful thought for more than a few minutes, they become frustrated even if they are smart and are successfully solving problems. Other people have the potential to experience curiosity throughout much of a day. The former individual rarely thinks about anything, whereas the latter person may seem to be always thinking about something.

As shown in Figure 1, Reiss's theory holds that curiosity forms a continuum of motivation anchored at the extremes by the goals of 100% time spent inquiring and 0% time spent inquiring. For the sake of illustration, Figure 1 expresses the hypothetical assumption that the average person (Av.) desires to spend about 15% of his or her time in intellectual activities. Bill, however, desires to spend only 5% of his time in such activities, whereas Tom seeks to spend more than half his time inquiring about things. These quantified goals are called motivational sensitivities, which are individual differences in trait motives. People aim to balance the amount of intellectual activity they experience toward their sensitivity point: When Bill and Tom experience less intellectual activity than they desire, they become curious, and they experience learning as fun; when they experience more intellectual activity than they desire, they become motivated to behave mindlessly and experience learning as unpleasant. In Figure 1, Bill will seem to others to act mindlessly nearly all the time, whereas Tom will appear to be a serious intellectual.

Figure 1

Curiosity as a trait

Figure 1

Curiosity as a trait

Cacioppo, Petty, Feinstein, and Jarvis (1996) have put forth the concept of need for cognition. Sensitivity theory's concept of curiosity is very similar to Cacioppo et al.'s prior concept of need for cognition. They defined it as an “individual's tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive endeavors.” The “need for cognition” is a motivational trait, or a stable individual difference in behavior evident in many different situations over long periods of time. People with a high need for cognition have an inquiring intellect (Cacioppo et al., 1996). “The need for cognition is thought to reflect a cognitive motivation rather than an intellectual ability” (Cacioppo et al., 1996, p. 199).

In conclusion, scholars have put forth three perspectives on the nature of curiosity. Behaviorists have viewed curiosity from an evolutionary perspective, focusing on exploratory behavior and the primal “curiosity/fear” (alternating approach–avoidance) reaction to novel stimuli. Intrinsic motivation theorists have embraced a variant of hedonism, holding that the inquiry process is inherently enjoyable except when extraneous factors, such as grades, turn “fun” into “work.” Trait theorists hold that curiosity is a psychological “need” for cognition (Cacioppo et al., 1996) or knowledge (Reiss, 2000, in press). Satisfaction of this need produces happiness—curious people are happy when they gain knowledge—but the inquiry process itself (especially effortful thinking) is not necessarily fun and at times can be inherently frustrating. According to sensitivity theory, curious people persist in their inquiries even when it has become unpleasant to do so because they desire knowledge more than they desire fun.

Correlation With Intelligence

Because smart people are more successful at intellectual activities than are less smart people, we expect smart people to enjoy these activities more than do less smart people. Based on such reasoning, educators have guided smart people toward intellectually challenging careers and less smart people toward menial careers.

What is wrong with this analysis? Partly, it implies that one has to be smart to enjoy intellectual activity, which is not necessarily so. The correlation between curiosity (potential to enjoy learning) and intelligence (potential to learn) is much lower than many educators realize. In a study with 195 sixth grade boys, for example, Langevin (1971) assessed the correlations between five measures of curiosity and two measures of intelligence, the Otis and Raven tests. The r values, which ranged from .10 to .38, showed low to moderate correlations. Penny and McCann (1964) studied 433 boys and girls in Grades 4, 5, and 6; they showed low correlations ranging from .03 to .24 between a measure of children's interests and the California Test of Mental Maturity. Maw and Maw (1975) reported that their Curiosity Scale and the Primary Mental Abilities Test were moderately correlated at .38 for 43 boys and at .54 for 24 girls.

Researchers of curiosity in adults have assessed correlations between the need for cognition and measures of intelligence. In a meta-analysis of seven studies with a total of 1,285 college student participants, Cacioppo et al. (1996) reported a correlation of .24 between curiosity (need for cognition) and verbal intelligence as measured by the American College Test (ACT). In a study of 167 undergraduate participants, the correlation between need for cognition and abstract reasoning was only .03 (Cacioppo, Petty, & Morris, 1983).

These correlations are sufficiently moderate to low to suggest that intelligence and curiosity are distinguishable traits. Curiosity and intelligence are conceptually (motivation vs. ability) and empirically (low to moderate correlations) distinguishable. Thus, we should not expect people to enjoy or dislike intellectual activities based solely on how smart they are: We also need to consider the extent of curiosity.

MR/DD Measure of Trait Curiosity

The Reiss Profile of Fundamental Goals and Motivational Sensitivities, Mental Retardation version, is a standardized assessment of 13 fundamental motives, one of which is curiosity (Reiss & Havercamp, 2001). The Reiss Profile MR/DD is a rating scale to be completed by parents, residential caretakers, teachers, work supervisors, or other people who have known the individual for at least 4 months. The Curiosity subscale, which was empirically derived through previously published exploratory and confirmatory factor studies (Reiss & Havercamp, 1998), has eight items (e.g., “strong desire to explore environment,” “enjoys new experiences,” and “likes to figure out how things work.” The test–retest reliability was assessed at .72 for 3 months and at .83 for 3 years (Lecavalier & Tassé, 2003). Internal reliability was assessed at .82 in one study (Reiss & Havercamp, 1998) and at .87 in another (Lecavalier & Havercamp, in press). In an unpublished sample of 77 adults with mental retardation, Lunsky (1998) showed a .28 statistically significant correlation between curiosity assessed at Time 1 and quality of life assessed 6 months later using the Quality of Life Questionnaire (Schalock & Keith, 1993). The finding provided evidence for the validity of the Reiss Profile MR/DD Curiosity scale. Dykens and Rosner (1999) also presented evidence of validity, showing that a diagnosis of Williams syndrome may be associated with low curiosity on the Reiss Profile MR/DD.

The social validity of the Reiss Profile MR/DD scale is shown by case examples in which the instrument was successfully used. M., for example, was a 13-year old boy when evaluated for special education services. He had a developmental handicap and met the diagnostic criteria for mental retardation (Luckasson et al., 1992). M. had a WISC (third edition) Full Scale IQ of 68 (Verbal IQ, 74; Performance IQ, 65). His academic achievement scores on the Woodcock Johnson Tests of Achievement Form A, third edition, ranged from 1st to 4th percentile except for Academic Knowledge, which was 12th percentile. His score for knowledge was significantly higher than his other achievement scores.

M.'s special education teacher rated the Reiss Profile MR/DD. According to the results, M. had an above-average score for curiosity. This finding was consistent with the inquiring behavior M. showed in the classroom and during psychological testing sessions. M. asked a lot of questions in class, and he asked an unusual number of questions during the testing session. When the school psychologist showed M. a picture of a hand with one fingernail missing, for example, M. asked if this could really happen to people. When asked to define the word alphabet, he responded correctly and then asked who invented the alphabet. When he could not identify the important part missing in a picture in a supermarket shelf, he was still puzzling about this missing part 2 days later. In conclusion, the case of M. documents the phenomenon of significant curiosity in the context of mental retardation.

Personal Satisfaction of Curious People

Sensitivity theory distinguishes between two kinds of happiness or personal satisfactions (Reiss, 2000): feel-good happiness and value-based happiness. Feel-good happiness comprises sensation-based experiences that occur when certain senses are stimulated. In contrast, value-based happiness is the personal satisfaction we experience when our psychological needs are fulfilled. The more needs we fulfill and the more completely we fulfill them, the more value-based happiness we experience. Because sensitivity theory distinguishes between feel-good and value-based happiness, this theory implies that people can be happy when experiencing physical pain. A good case in point is the soldier who is tortured on the rack for withholding information from captors. Because the soldier is in physical pain from being tortured, he or she does not experience feel-good happiness. Because the soldier is withholding information and fulfilling a need for honor, the soldier experiences value-based happiness.

Because sensitivity theory holds that value-based happiness is attained when psychological needs are fulfilled, the theory implies that curious people with mental retardation need to be stimulated intellectually in order to experience much value-based happiness. This poses a real challenge for service planners who need to find environments in which curious people with mental retardation will be stimulated intellectually. One innovative idea addressing this matter has been put forth by Fish (2003), who was funded to organize book clubs for people with mental retardation in cooperation with a national bookstore chain.

Satisfaction of intellectual needs has not been a measure of quality of life for people with mental retardation. According to sensitivity theory, this is an oversight that should be corrected. Although intellectual stimulation may not be an important factor in the quality of life of some people with mental retardation, it is important in the lives of curious people with mental retardation.

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Author notes

Authors: Steven Reiss, PhD, Professor ( reiss.7@osu.edu), Nisonger Center, Ohio State University, 1581 Dodd Dr., Columbus, OH 43210-1296. Maggi M. Reiss, MA, School Psychologist, Walnut Springs Middle School, 888 E. Walnut St., Westerville, OH 43081-9302