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Infants' understanding of physical phenomena: A perceptual hypothesis

Thomas Harold Schilling, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Piaget (1953) believed object permanence emerges through a series of stages at approximately 18-months. Contemporary researchers have suggested infants achieve object permanence by 3.5-months. A series of studies by Baillargeon (1987) utilized a violation-of-expectation paradigm habituating infants to a paddle moving 180$\sp\circ$. During test trials, a block was positioned in the path of the paddle. During "possible" trials, the paddle moved 120$\sp\circ$, stopped at the block and returned. During the "impossible" trials, the paddle moved 180$\sp\circ$, seemingly through the block. Infants looked longer at the impossible events suggesting an understanding that one object cannot occupy the space of another object contiguously. Looking times could not be explained by detecting perceptual novelty because the impossible event was the more familiar of the test events. Hunter and Ames (1988) have demonstrated that infants look longer at familiar stimuli if they have not thoroughly encoded habituation stimuli. These researchers believed that habituation is a function of time, age, and task difficulty. The current research examines the possibility that infants look longer at impossible events because these events are perceptually familiar. To test whether infants had sufficient opportunity to encode habituation events using the moving paddle paradigm, the number of habituation trials and infants' age were manipulated. Four-month-olds who received 7-180$\sp\circ$ habituation trials looked longer at the 180$\sp\circ$ test event (a significant familiarity preference). Four-month-olds receiving 7-112$\sp\circ$ habituation trials looked longer at the 112$\sp\circ$ test event (a significant familiarity preference). Four-month-olds receiving 12-180$\sp\circ$ habituation events looked significantly longer at the 112$\sp\circ$ test event (a significant novelty preference). A group of 6-month-olds habituated to 7-180$\sp\circ$ trials showed no preterential looking during the test trials. For the four-month-olds, looking times during the test trials were a function of the type of familiarity event and whether there were enough trials to fully encode the habituation events. Looking time was not necessarily a function of an inferred violation of physics. Performance on the moving paddle paradigm might be more easily explained by perceptual mechanisms.

Subject Area

Developmental psychology|Cognitive therapy

Recommended Citation

Schilling, Thomas Harold, "Infants' understanding of physical phenomena: A perceptual hypothesis" (1997). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9809397.