Baillargeon’s explanation of early infant abilities - Cognition and development

AQA A-level Psychology: Revision Made Easy - Jean-Marc Lawton 2017

Baillargeon’s explanation of early infant abilities
Cognition and development


Renee Baillargeon devised the violation of expectation technique, which tests whether infants develop object permanence earlier than Piaget believed. The technique is based on the idea that infants look for longer at things not expected. A child is repeatedly shown a scenario new to them until they demonstrate, by looking away, that the technique is no longer novel to them. Then the child is shown an impossible example of the scenario, such as an object appearing to pass through a solid object without being damaged. The time spent looking at this is compared to the time spent looking at a possible example of the scenario. Using this technique, Baillargeon consistently found results that suggested children much younger than Piaget thought demonstrate object permanence and have intuitive knowledge concerning the properties of objects and their relationships to each other. Baillargeon’s research has permitted investigation of the Core Knowledge Theory (CKT), the belief that humans have an innate understanding of inanimate objects and their relationships with each other. Baillargeon’s findings have suggested this is true, but more recent research, such as that by Cara Cashon (2000), has cast doubt on this by suggesting that infants look longer at scenarios that are more ’interesting’ rather than impossible.


Fig 11.3 Children expect to see the top of the tall carrot in the window — when they don’t it violates their expectation and they stare at that scenario longer

Focal study

Baillargeon et al. (1985) familiarised 5-month-old infants with a drawbridge that was moved through 180 degrees. A coloured box was then placed in the path of the drawbridge. The infants then either witnessed a ’possible event’ where the drawbridge stopped at the point where its movement would be stopped by the box, or an ’impossible event’ where the drawbridge appeared to pass through the box and ended up lying flat, with the box apparently having disappeared. It was found that the infants spent longer looking at the impossible event, which suggests the infants were surprised that their expectations (about the properties of physical objects) were violated and that they knew a solid object cannot pass through another solid object. This supports the idea that children develop an understanding of the properties of objects at a much younger age than Piaget thought.


• Baillargeon (1987) found that 3-month-old infants looked for longer at an impossible event — where a block was placed where it would stop a truck’s movement but didn’t — than they did at a possible event — where the block was placed to the side of the truck where it would not stop its movement. This suggests children develop an understanding of the properties of objects much earlier than Piaget believed.

• Baillargeon & DeVos (1991) found 3.5-month-old infants spent longer looking at an impossible scenario of a tall carrot that did not appear in a window as it moved along a track than at a possible scenario of a shorter carrot. This suggests children develop object permanence earlier than Piaget stated.

• Cashon & Cohen (2000) used Baillargeon-type scenarios with 8-month-old children to find that the children looked for longer at more ’interesting’ scenarios (ones that had more novelty) than ’impossible’ scenarios, suggesting humans do not have an innate understanding of object representation.

Positive evaluation

Image Baillargeon’s ’violation of expectation’ technique has become a paradigm method, the accepted method of assessing children’s understanding of the physical properties of objects, which is a testimony to the high regard in which the procedure is held.

Image Investigating the cognitive developmental abilities of infants is problematic, as infants cannot communicate verbally what abilities they have. Therefore Baillargeon’s paradigm technique is useful as it allows insight into what skills infants possess.

Image Research based on Baillargeon’s methodology has produced consistent results, which allowed the CKT to be widely accepted as a valid explanation.

Negative evaluation

Image Schoner & Thelen (2004) argue that all that violation of expectation studies demonstrate is that infants notice a difference between the ’possible’ and ’impossible’ scenarios they have been shown, which does not necessarily mean they are surprised by what they have witnessed. For instance, in the drawbridge study infants may be attracted to the fact that the ’impossible’ scenario has more movement in it than the ’possible’ scenario. Therefore what Baillargeon sees as evidence of infants having innate knowledge of object representation may actually be just the effects of confounding variables. This viewpoint is supported by research such as Cashon & Cohen (2000).

Practical application

The main practical application of Baillargeon’s research has been in providing a useful method of investigating very young children’s cognitive developmental abilities, something that was not possible before Baillargeon developed the technique.