Full version The Development Of Object Permanence

The Development Of Object Permanence

This print version free essay The Development Of Object Permanence.

Category: Psychology

Autor: reviewessays 12 November 2010

Words: 3616 | Pages: 15

I never realized when I played Peek-A-Boo with different infants in my family, that I was teaching them one of the most valuable lessons in their life. I just thought it was a game that infants liked to play and it made them laugh. I didn't know that this was so funny to them because they were fascinated with the fact that for one moment I wasn't there and a moment later I popped back up. Little did I know I was teaching them one of their most important accomplishments.

Adults and older children never give a second thought to the fact that when something disappears out of sight that it still exists. It never crosses our minds to think about when exactly did the ability to "just know"develop. If something ceases to exist that was once right in someone's hand right before our eyes we think we must be at a magic show. However, people don't know that when they were an infant they had to develop the knowledge that when you don't see something it still exists on earth. Technically, infants must be looking at a magic show everyday for months.

Piaget coined the term object permanence in 1954 to describe the understanding that objects continue to exist, even when they cannot be directly seen, heard or touched. While conducting an experiment on his son as Piaget often did he found that his son did not reach for a toy that he had hidden with a cover. Piaget took that to mean that his son must not know that they toy exists anymore. When Piaget started these experiments to test this phenomenon light bulbs lit up in the heads of developmental psychologists around the world as they probably said to themselves,"I never thought about that before". Since the emergence of the idea of object permanence many psychologists have conducted experiments to either prove or disprove Piaget's theory. Experiments to test the development of this phenomenon have been conducted for decades and continue to be a topic that many developmental psychologists study.

In his book written in 1954 Piaget stated that "for young infants objects are not permanent entities that exist continuously in time but instead are transient entities that cease to exist when they are no longer visible and begin to exist anew when they come back into view." He proposed the notion that infants do not begin to understand the object of object permanence until about the age of nine months. Piaget did a lot of experiments to test whether this was true. He came to the conclusions from his many experiments that an infant prior to eight months of age do not possess the understanding that because they cannot see an object does not mean that it does not exist (Siegler & Alibali,2005).

Piaget proposed that object permanence doesn't develop until during what he identifies as the sensorimotor stage. The sensorimotor stage he identifies as being from birth to about two years of age. Piaget broke the sensorimotor stage down into six sub stages. Piaget also broke down the idea of object permanence according to the sub stages of the sensorimotor stage. During the first stage of object permanence which is roughly between the ages of birth to one month old, an infant will look at an object only while it is directly in front of their eyes. However, if an object was to move to the left of right of an infants direct line of vision, the infant would no longer look at the object. During the second sub stage which lasted from one to four months, Piaget said that infants will look for an extended period of time to an area where an object had disappeared from. He said that an infant will not however, follow the object if it were to move out of their line of sight. In the third sub stage which is between the ages of four and eight months, an infant will anticipate where a moving object will go and they will begin to look for the object there. They will only do this though if the object is partially visible, they will not make an attempt to retrieve an item if it is completely covered. At this stage they have not yet developed the full understanding of object permanence. By the time infants are in the forth sub stage roughly between the ages of eight and twelve months infants will begin to look for objects under covers. These infants will sometimes make the mistake referred to as the A-not-B mistake. If an object is repeatedly hidden in a particular place, an infant of this age will continue to look for the object there despite the fact that they may have watched you hide the object in another place. Infants this age are working according to an automatic process. By the time they are in the fifth sub stage between the ages of twelve and eighteen months infants tend to grow out of this automatic processing and they begin to search for an object in the last place that they saw it hidden. Once an infant reaches the last sub stage between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four months he has mastered all the is to know about object permanence according to Piaget(Siegler & Alibali, 2005).

Since Piaget made these claims there have been many experiments done that sought to disprove the claims that Piaget made. These experiments thought that Piaget was giving infants far less credit than they deserved. Other developmental psychologist wanted to prove that in fact infants learned the concept of object permanence at a much earlier age than Piaget first proposed. People came up with many different ideas as to why the infants failed to reach or search for objects that were hidden. They wouldn't go as far as to say that the infants just don't know that they still exist but there are other things that attribute to why they don't reach such as the fact that it takes a whole lot more coordination than they have to reach for an object before even five months.

After reading so much information about Piaget I decided to try an experiment of my own on two infants in my life. One of the infants at the time was fourteen months old, and fairly advanced for his age. The other infant was eleven months of age and had an average learning capacity. The eleven month old infant was coloring with several crayons. I took the crayon that he was coloring with at the time, out of his hand and hid it under another piece of paper. At first he became fussy but then he moved the paper and retrieved the crayon. I didn't know whether this was due to coincidence or not so I repeated the same process, with the same results. The last time that I repeated the process he got fussy and he did not move the paper to find the crayon that he was using instead he just reached for another crayon and started coloring with the new crayon. I think that he was just bored with the game after I took his crayon too many times and he just decided to get another one so that I would leave him alone. When I uncovered his original crayon and tried to hand it back to him he did not want it and was already occupied with the new crayon that he had found. The other experiment that was done with the fourteen month old infant was done with a cell phone that he was playing with. He handed me the cell phone and I hid it under a pillow, I made it like a game for him as I told him to find the phone and give it to me. He immediately went to where the phone was hidden under the pillow. I did this several times, and every time he went and got the phone and handed it to me without problems. Finally, I let him see me hide the phone under a different pillow. Since I had read so much information about Piaget I expected that he would go to the pillow that I had previously hidden the phone under. Surprisingly, he went straight to the pillow that I had just hidden the phone under and retrieved the phone and brought it back to me. I was appalled because I just knew that Piaget was right because I hadn't read the research that had disproved Piaget's theory. When he brought me the phone I wondered what I had done wrong. This prompted me to find research material that talked about object permanence other that the things that Piaget had proposed.

Renee' Baillargeon is someone who has made many discoveries when it comes to the development of object permanence. Her many experiments have broken down many of Piaget's claims. She has found that there is a discrepancy in the ages that Piaget quoted as the different stages of the development of object permanence. Her research has found that in fact infants understand the concept of object permanence at an age much earlier that what Piaget originally believed.

One of her first experiments conducted in 1985 with the help of Elizabeth Spelke and Stanley Wasserman, was conducted on four and five month old infants. Keep in mind the fact that Piaget claimed that infants younger than eight months of age did not realize that objects exist when they are out of sight. Baillargeon conducted and experiment which involved a possible and an impossible event. There was a box placed behind a wooden board. The board had the ability to swing back and forth, however, when it would come to the place where the box was it would stop, this was the possible event. With the use of lights and mirrors, Baillargeon was able to create the effect that the board was going through and occupying the same space where the box once was. This was the impossible event. This event elicited a response from the infants. In fact, they stared at and seemed more surprised by the impossible event. This proved that at four months of age the infants realized that something was wrong there. They knew that two objects could not occupy the same space at the same period of time (Baillargeon, 1985).

Baillergeon even took it a step further and attempted to prove that even infants as young as three and a half months old could notice something wrong with an impossible event. In 1987 she did an experiment in which she showed the infants a rabbit moving across a window. However, when the rabbit should have been in the window it wasn't. Again she used trickery to make the rabbit not appear in the space where it should have been. The infants stared more at the impossible event, showing that they expected the rabbit too appear in the window, and that they knew something was wrong when it didn't (Baillargeon, Graber, 1987).

In another attempt to disprove Piaget's theory Renee' Baillargeon came to the conclusion that, "although infants possess the ability to appreciate the idea that an object continues to exist when it is occluded, they just lack the ability to predict when an object should be occluded. This ability is at first poor in young infants and it undergoes a systematic development." Baillergeon did two experiments to test just how true this statement is. She conducted these experiments with the help of Andrea Aguiar. In this experiment they used two and a half month old infants. They assigned the infants in the experiment to two different conditions which were, two screens or a connected screen. The infants were habituated to seeing a toy mouse pass from one side of the screen, behind the screen, and out the other side. After the infants were habituated to this event they were then presented with two test events. In one of the test events it was the same procedure as before except that now instead of a whole screen there was a window cut from te top of the screen. The mouse was shorter than the window so the infant couldn't see the mouse as it passed behind the screen. Depending on which group the infant was in the second test event was different. For the two screen group the screen was divided down the middle and there was a space so now it appeared that there were two screens instead of one. In the other test group there was a space in the middle but the screens were connected at the top. In both cases if the mouse were to pass behind the screen, when it reached the mid section it should have been visible to the infant. By use of trickery again Baillargeon was able to make the mouse invisible as it passed behind the screen. By doing this she created an impossible event(Baillargeon, 1999).

The infants in the two screen tests looked a lot longer at the two screen event than at the first test event with the high window. This indicated that the infant must have realized that the mouse could not disappear behind the screen and reappear from behind the other screen without first passing through the mid section. The infants were surprised when the mouse reappeared from behind the second screen and they did not see it first pass through the mid section. Baillergeon made reference to the findings by Spelke et al. in 1992 and Wilcox et al. in 1996 that stated that two and a half month old infants have some representation of occluded objects(Baillargeon, 1999).

In comparison the infants that were in the experiment with the connected screen they looked equally as long at both test events. This led the experimenters to conclude that although infants as young as two and a half months old have to ability to represent objects, they don't have this ability to its full capacity. When looking at the connected screen the infants saw that as one screen and the understood the fact that when the mouse passed behind the screen they couldn't see it. Unlike in the other test with the two screens where the infants saw the screens as two separate entities and understood that the mouse had to be seen in the space where the screen wasn't at(Baillargeon, 1999).

They took this experiment a little further and added different variations of the experiment which included adding another mouse and having the screen lying flat at the start of the experiment. They also conducted these experiments on three and a half month old infants (Baillargeon, 1999).

After conducting several experiments Baillargeon was able to come to a strong conclusion. In an attempt to explain how infants learn about the physical world she said that, "infants aged two and a half and three and a half months are aware that objects continue to exist when masked by other objects, that objects cannot remain stable without support, that objects move along spatially continuous paths, and that objects cannot move through the space occupied by other objects." Baillargeon says that although it is obvious that these young infants have an understanding of object permanence to some extent, she knows that it is not up to its full potential. Of course an infants understanding begins to get better and better as they get older. She just sought to prove that the understanding is there far earlier than Piaget originally thought. She argues that, "an infants expectations about occlusion events undergo rapid development between the ages of two and a half and three months, and that this is made possibly by the improvements in the infant's visual system (Baillargeon & DeVos, 1991)

Many experiments have been conducted to test whether infants can track and reach for occluded objects. Swiss Psychologists, Bert Jonsson and Claes von Hofsten conducted one such experiments. They proposed that infants representations of objects are similar to those of adults according to five different criteria. First they said that, " representations of an object are more precise at all ages when it can be seen rather that when it is hidden. Second, representations of different objects are competitive: the more on attends to one object in a scene, the less precise will be ones representation of other objects. Third, more precise representations are required for reaching than for head tracking: to reach for an object one must know where it is, how big it is, and how it is moving. Fourth, the representation of an object will degrade with time with the visual absence of the object. Fifth, the representation of a hidden object involved in a specific event strengthens with experience of that event." Jonsson and von Hofsten attributed a lot of what they claimed to memory. It is memory that allows us to get better at something with experience, and it is also memory that allows the representations of objects to be in competition with each other in our minds (Jonsson & von Hofsten, 2003).

They conducted and experiment with six and six and a half month old infants. They were interested in finding out the exact effect of nonvisibilty on reaching and head tracking. In order to understand why they were conducting this experiment we must first realize that they expect that after a period of habituation, infants will begin to look at the reappearance point from the time that the object disappears out of view. They say that the infant will expect to see the object return to view at this particular point. Basically the experiment consisted of the infants looking at an object moving along a horizontal path. At certain points along the path the object was out of sight due to an occluder or by a blackout in the room. At the beginning and end of the experiment they took a baseline measurement of the head movements of the infants(Jonsson & von Hofsten, 2003).

During the experiments they passed the object in front of the infant and basically tracked where their head and thus their gaze fell. They sought to prove in the experiment that in fact an infant must have a representation of an object otherwise they would not look or expect to see it come from the other side. If infants learned object permanence at the rate at which Piaget had first proposed when the object passed behind the screen or when the lights were turned off the infant should no longer look for an object that they think doesn't exist anymore. They also tracked the infants movements in hopes to disprove Piaget, because if at six months of age an infant reaches for an object that is not clearly visible to him he must know and expect to see it again. The results of this experiment showed that the heads of these infants move almost as much as the object did. This experiment proved four of their hypotheses true(Jonsson & von Hofsten, 2003).

With all that said about object permanence getting back to the concept that I started this paper with is the game of Peek-A-Boo. This kind of refers to a term that has not been referred to by this name and its person permanence. It is the understanding that a person still exists even when you can't see them. People have been referring to this phenomenon for years and it is the basis that allows infants to develop attachment to certain people such as their mother or another care giver. Infants as young as a few days old realizes that their mother is someone that exists in their life. This understanding must develop in utero after all the infant hears the mother's voice while they're in the womb and they continue to hear it for years to come. However, that still doesn't explain to me why infants find the game of Peek-A-Boo so amusing. After all this research I'm starting to think that they laugh and say to themselves inside their heads, "look a this fool, she thinks I don't know she's there when she covers her face. What a joke she is."


Baillargeon, R. (1994). How do infants learn about the physical world? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 3, 133-140.

Baillergeon, R., Spelke, E., & Wasserman, S. (Aug, 1985). Object permanence in five-month-old infants. Cognition, 20(3), 191-208.

Baillargeon, R., & DeVos, J. (1991). Object permanence in 3.5 and 4.5-month-old infants: further evidence. Child Development, 62, 1227-1246.

Baillargeon, R., & Graber, M. (1987). Where's the rabbit? 5.5 month-old infants' representation of the height of a hidden object. Cognitive Development, 2, 375-392.

Jonsson, B., & von Hofsten, C. (2003). Infants' ability to track and reach for temporary occluded objects. Developmental Science, 6(1), 86-99.

Siegler, R., & Alibali, M. (2005). Children's Thinking Fourth Edition. Prentice Hall Inc. Upper Saddle River NJ.