Nativist/ Empiricist Infant Research

Topics: Jean Piaget, Theory of cognitive development, Child development Pages: 10 (2417 words) Published: January 13, 2015
This essay will aim to illustrate two methods used by researchers in the domain of cognitive developmental psychology to gain information from infants, evaluate the interpretations of the results from both a nativist and an empiricist perspective, and highlight which perspective, if any, the research supports more. Firstly, the essay will define both the empiricism and nativism before progressing to highlight a main influential theory in cognitive developmental psychology. Secondly, the essay will highlight how research in object permanence is used to gain knowledge from infants before continuing to debate whether the research supports nativist or empiricist arguments. Third, the essay will show how numbers are used to gain knowledge from infants before again debating whether the research supports nativists or empiricists. Finally, there will be a conclusion discussing the essay and its implications.

Empiricism in developmental psychology is a perspective, which believes that knowledge is acquired through experiences using our senses as a medium. Due to the nature of empiricism it refutes the idea that knowledge is innate (Sober, 2011). The nativist perspective in developmental psychology refutes the empiricist stance, believing that knowledge is an innate concept emerging from ones mind post-exposure to trigger rather than being acquired through learning (Chomsky, 1965). 

Jean Piaget’s constructionist theory is arguably one of the most influential cognitive development theories of the twentieth century (Piaget, 1994). Part of his theory involves stages of development, which set a framework highlighting when he believed children’s behaviours and thoughts would change. In particular, the sensorimotor stage is of great interest in developmental psychology as it illustrates, from Piaget’s observations, how infants acquire the object concept and understanding of object permanence. The sensorimotor stage encompasses six sub-stages, each of which is a progression from the latter when presented with a problem that the infant cannot solve. Piaget termed this scenario “disequilibrium” and it is this that propels the infant to the next stage of development, allowing the acquisition of knew knowledge to enable the completion of the problematic scenario, and thus achieving equilibrium again (Piaget, 1952). Although not intentionally providing a nativist or empiricist stance, supporters of each perspective interpret the Piagetian paradigm as support for their respective perspectives (Parke & Gauvain, 2012). For example, nativists contend that the acquisition of knowledge to maintain an equilibrium is support for their stance as the infant has never ben exposed to this stimulus or even before, however, it unlocks an innate knowledge in order to handle the stimulus or event (Spelke, 1998). Conversely, empiricists would deny the nativists argument in favour of their own explanation that new skills were learned due to the exposure to the event, therefore, the child taught itself how to deal with the scenario (Spelke, 1998). Thus, empiricists would say that because of the external environmental causation, the child acquired a new piece of knowledge.

One method that Piaget used as measurement of infants cognitive development is the concept of object permanence (Piaget, 1954). Object permanence is the comprehension that objects continue to exist despite not being able to see, or sense is in any way, requiring the ability to form a schema for that object. Piaget’s assumption is that the concept of object permanence develops between the age of eight and twelve months old, a theory which derived from his own research in which he covered a toy with a blanket and observed that the infant did not uncover the toy, thus, motivating him to conclude that the child does not yet posses the concept of object permanence. Despite Piaget’s observations being supported by various studies (Elkind, 1961; Corman & Escalona, 1969) the nature of...

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