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...
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