Child Development and Early Learning

Critically evaluate the claim that infants have an innate knowledge of object properties. Use evidence to support your arguments. Object properties have been systematically associated with the Piagetian approach of cognitive development and in particular the sensorimotor period. Until the 1970’s, Piaget’s influential stance that knowledge of object properties is only learned from around nine months old had not been questioned.
However, due to more contemporary studies there have been claims that not only do younger infants exhibit behaviours suggesting that Piaget’s assumptions may underestimate cognitive abilities but some studies have controversially suggested that newborns have shown to have a certain amount of innate knowledge. This has lead to claims that there are some innate or core cognitive abilities for dealing with object properties, in contrast to Piaget’s view that ‘humans do not start out as cognitive beings’ (Berk, 2009).
It is important to state the significance of grasping the notion of object properties because according to Piaget this represents the start of symbolic thought or mental representation – an expression of intellectual behaviour (Davies & Houghton, 1991). However, this claim is a subject of dispute for investigators, who disagree on the degree of this inbuilt knowledge. This essay shall be using relevant research to critically evaluate the claim that infants have an innate knowledge of object properties, concentrating on the notion of object permanence.

Piaget theorised that knowledge of object permanence does not begin until the coordination of secondary circular reaction substage of sensorimotor period. He provided evidence for his assumptions, such as obscuring an object from an infant using a hand and seeing whether the child would reach for the object. Piaget concluded that the lack of searching by the infant implied a lack of object permanence, but Bower (1971) criticised Piaget’s use of search tasks because infants could be lacking the performance ability for reaching rather than competence to understand object permanence.
Therefore, studies were conducted using visual methods, whereby the infants’ looking was used to measure object permanence (Bower et al, 1971, 1972) to address the flaw in Piaget’s method by bypassing the need for the infant to perform the reach. Bower (1971) conducted a study showing infants a moving object disappearing behind a screen, and the results suggest infants from four to six months old show evidence of object permanence and as early as eight weeks old in a few participants, thus strongly contradicting Piaget’s assumptions.
In addition to this visual method, Baillargeon (1985; 1987) used habituation as it is concluded that infants spend longer looking at new stimuli, therefore infants are familiarised with it. Baillargeon and DeVos (1991) habituated infants to a small carrot, then a tall carrot moving side to side behind a screen, alternately. Violation-of-expectation test trials were conducted, whereby the screen that had previously hidden the carrots changed in colour and included a window. The infants were shown the small carrot trial which follows physical laws, and were then shown the tall carrot trial which violates physical laws.
Results showed that infants as young as two and a half months looked longer at the tall carrot event than the short carrot event, suggesting that younger infants have some understanding of object properties. However, there have been criticisms of both the habituation technique and the violation-of-expectation-method. Bogartz (2000) is suspicious of the use of the habituation technique as he states that infants will react with interest to any novel stimuli. He also criticised the way the results were analysed separately, suggesting they should have been analysed together.
Further, the violation-of-expectation method has been labelled as only measuring some sort of implicit understanding of object properties rather than the fully-conscious understanding that Piaget was referring to in his theory (Berk, 2009). Nevertheless, Baillargeon insists that the consistent findings from this and other studies use essential controls that aren’t included in opposing studies (Bogartz, Shinskey & Schilling, 2000), and also uphold that the findings can be generalised to lots of object related unexpected events (Berk, 2009).
Interestingly though, some researchers do not halt at the suggestion that Piaget underestimated younger infants cognitive abilities, but instead refute Piaget’s assumption that ‘humans do not start out as cognitive beings’ (Berk, 2009) and in fact have some innate cognitive abilities. There have been suggestions that knowledge of object properties depends on visual information relating to perceptual abilities of the infant, addressed in a study by Valenza, Zulian and Leo (2005). They tested infants’ ability to recognise a correspondence between one version of a simple shape with another.
Results showed infants recognised a correspondence more between a partly occluded shape and a non occluded shape than a non occluded shape and an unoccluded shape with a gap, implying that there may be some innate ability. The importance of the simplicity of the shapes used in Valenza et al’s study (2005) had been addressed by other researchers such as Kellman and Spelke (1983) who stated that the type of visual information used by younger infants differs from the visual information used by older children, therefore implying that there may be different thresholds of information needed for different ages (Johnson, 1995).
A study was conducted using a rod and box display with additional motion cues on two and four month olds. Despite the first experiment showing that infants at two months old held no preference for the disjointed rod, when the proportion of the box occluding the rods was decreased the two month olds showed a preference for the broken rod display over the complete rod display, therefore suggesting that there may be an innate low level representation of object properties (Kellman & Spelke, 1983).
This and further studies (Kamawata et al, 1999) lent support to Johnson’s (1995) threshold model where visual information must match the perceptual abilities of infants in order to show knowledge of continuous object properties along with attending abilities. However, some researchers take on a more reserved view, giving potential alternative explanations for the innate knowledge of object properties.
For example, following on from certain studies using darkness to hide objects resulting in evidence that infants search in the darkness earlier than they search for objects hidden by an occluder (Bowers and Wishart, 1972), Shinskey and Munakata (2003) conducted a study comparing the two conditions. Infants were given toy and no-toy trials in both the darkness and the occluder (a cloth) conditions. Results support the notion that infants are ore sensitive to searching for objects in darkness compared to objects hidden by an occluder. Researchers gave three potential explanations for this dissociation. Firstly, a means-end explanation was given, stating that they simply searched more in the dark because they don’t have the physical ability to retrieve the occluder, lending support to Piaget’s concept that the ability to problem-solve lays with means-end action sequences (Berk, 2009).
Secondly, graded representations may explain why infants’ representations can resist an interference of darkness to allow reaching but the interference may be too severe when an object is occluded. The results also introduced the notion of interruption of a plan to reach for the object due to a one second delay before the infants’ arms were released which may have led to less searching on occluder trials (in addition to another object in the way).
The researchers seemed to conclude that this study has supported the concept of a genuine sensitivity to objects hidden in darkness and that the origin of this dissociation between an occluder and darkness lies with the complications of retrieval. However, another potential explanation could be linked to Piaget’s observation that when one object is placed on top of another the infant cannot distinguish one from the other, leading back to idea that it can be representatively complicated.
On the whole, a large section of the research on knowledge of object properties conflict with Piaget’s assumptions. Findings show his theory underestimates the abilities of infants (Bower, 1971; 1972; Baillargeon, 1985; 1987; 1991), and although these studies are not free from criticisms (Bogartz, 2000), support of these findings is abundant, along with some controversial findings which suggest low level innate knowledge of object properties.
Valanza, et al (2005) study was supported by others (Kellman & Spelke, 1983; Kamawata et al, 1999) and the threshold model was proposed (Johnson, 1995). Nevertheless, other studies showing dissociations between abilities of searching for objects using darkness and occluders are less willing to settle for the explanation of innate knowledge and provide alternatives, including a means-end explanation, the notion of graded representations and interestingly the concept of interruption of a plan (Shinskey & Munakata, 2003).
In conclusion, while there is convincing evidence that Piaget strongly underestimated the abilities of younger infants, the claim that infants have an innate knowledge of object properties remains questionable, as although evidence for it introduces some potentially interesting advances, there is simply not enough known, specifically into where the complications of the knowledge lies and if this were ascertained then a greater understanding could be reached. References Berk, L. E. (2006). Child Development (7th ed. . Needham Heights: Allyn & Bacon Davies, R. & Houghton, P. (1991). Mastering Psychology, The MacMillan Press Ltd: London Kellman, P. J. & Spelke, E. R. (1983). Perception of partly occluded objects in infancy. Cognitive Psychology, 15, 483-524. Shinskey, J. L. , & Munakata, Y. (2003). Are infants in the dark about hidden objects? Developmental Science, 6(3), 273-282. Valenza, E. , Zulian, L. , & Leo, I. (2005). The role of perceptual skills in newborns’ perception of partly occluded objects. Infancy, 8(1), 1-20.

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