Object Permanence

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Critically examine views and works on infants’ understanding of the existence of objects which are out of sight and their abilities to imitate.

There has been much study into the development of an infant from birth. Attempts have been made to understand how infants perceive the world around them and then how they represent objects and how imitation then develops. In this paper we will consider the work of Piaget and the research that follows to consider if these view provide valid explanations (Bancroft and Flynn, 2005, 133-136). First we will consider how infants understand objects.

Object Permanence

When an object disappears from sight like that of a ball rolling under the coach, a four year old will know that it is simply out of view and just needs to retrieve it. However this is different for a 6 month old, who will assume that the ball is no longer there. The development of an understanding of object permanence for an infant was regarded by Piaget as an essential part of the basis of the cognitive system. Once a child has completed this developmental phase it allows then to build mental activities such as planning and prediction. Given that people could be considered objects then it may follow that object permanence is also important in social relationships. Hence it has been argued that the developing an awareness of permanence and individual identity of objects is a major accomplishment during the early stages of a child’s life (Butterworth, 1981, as cited, Bancroft and Flynn, 2006, 135-136).

Jean Piaget was a pioneer in the study of child development and was one of the first to study object permanence. Piaget and Inhelder (1969) did investigations with children under two years old and he found that six month old babies will not look for a toy once it has been covered by a cloth as they assume it has disappeared, even though they are capable of reaching for the object. By nine months the child would be able to uncover the toy understanding the object still exists. Piaget saw that this understanding of object permanence as being an important part of cognitive development for infants and that it was essential for many aspects of life (Piaget and Inhelder, 1969, as cited, Bancroft and Flynn, 2006, 135-136).

Following Piaget work there has been many other studies into object permanence one of which was made by Bower et al. (1971). Given that it was possible with the observations made by Piaget could have been affected by the infants not having the ability to coordinate the movement to uncover the hidden item Bower devised an experiment that relied only on the infant’s visual system. Using two month old children, they where placed in front of a model train track and their gaze was observed when a screen was placed to block the view of the moving train from one end to the other. The train was occasionally stopped behind screen and again the infants gaze was observed. According to Piaget’s work it would be expected that the infant would stop looking for the train, however it was found that they continued to look towards where the train should be if it kept moving. But there are some problems with this experiment as normally the eye will track moving objects and may not mean and understanding of object permanence (Bancroft and Flynn, 2006, 136).

The violation of expectations

Another method used to understand early cognitive development is the ‘violation of expectations’ procedure. Children will become habituated to seeing an event for example watching a ball drop and knowing that it will always fall to the ground. However if the ball stoped and floated in mid air this becomes an impossible event and hence a ‘violation of expectations’. Baillargeon (1995) devised two methods to observe infants. The showed a five month old baby a sheet of card laying flat on a table. Then they showed the sheet moving up and away from them, similar to a drawbridge. The card would travel through a full 180...
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