Discuss evidence that Piaget underestimated infants understanding of objects

Discuss evidence that Piaget underestimated infants understanding of objects.


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Discuss evidence that Piaget underestimated infants understanding of objects.

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In 1992, Beilin cited the anonymous reviewer of a Piaget manuscript and argued that:

                  "assessing the impact of Piaget on developmental psychology is like assessing the impact of Shakespeare on English literature, or Aristotle in Philosophy - impossible" (Beilin, 1992, p,191).

The piagetian view of child development has highly influenced our understanding of how children come to recognize and accept the world around them. Although his views on development were at the time of publication groundbreaking so to speak, modern research has questioned the validity of some of Piaget's theories and perhaps that his views underestimated the capacity of ‘children's understanding of objects'. 

Piaget proposed that a child develops through maturation and that there are stages at which a child passes through in his learning and that a child can move through stages when they are psychologically mature enough. Piaget's theory recognises four developmental phases and the progression by which children develop through them. The four stages are:

  1. Sensorimotor stage (birth – 2 years old) - physical interaction constructs concepts about reality. The child does not know that physical objects remain in existence even when out of sight (object permanance).
  2. Preoperational stage (ages 2-7) - unable to think abstractly and needs concrete circumstances.
  3. Concrete operations (ages 7-11) - the child creates logical structures that explain his experiences.
  4. Formal operations (beginning at ages 11-15) – the start of adult thinking, containing conceptual reasoning.

The A-not-B error is typically made in the sensorimotor stage of development. Typically an experimenter blocks the sight of an object, by covering it with a box (A) in reach of the child. This is repeated numerous times. The experimenter then moves the object to under another box (B), all within sight of the child. Infants under the age of 10 months are seen to search for the object under box A, showing a lack of ‘object permanence'; that an item remains stable in time and space. Piaget suggested that children over the age of 12 rarely make the A not B error (Gross, 2010).

Challenges to Piaget's account of development often come in light of his views of the development of object permanence. It has been argued that his studies are not valid in nature. The child's failure to search may not be truly indicative of ‘out of sight, out of mind'. It has been argued this may be for many reasons; the infant may have become unfocused, lost attention or is unable to physically coordinate his muscles to reach for the object (Mehler & Dupoux, 1994).

A significant challenge to the findings of Piaget came from Renee Baillargeon and colleagues (Baillargeon, Spelke & Wasserman, 1985) who argued that infants do in fact have expectations of things that they cannot see, such that the child would have the expectation about the object that is covered. This was displayed in what came to be known as violation of expectation (VOE) paradigm.  In the VOE, a child is introduced to a novel situation. They are shown this until they respond by looking away, such that the item is no longer ‘new' to them. In Baillargeon's study the habituation stimulus was a drawbridge, which moved a full 180 degrees. The infant is then shown a further two stimuli, which are based on an adaptation of the drawbridge. One of these is physically achievable and the other is not (such that it could not actually occur as it appears). In the possible event, a box was placed in front of the drawbridge, at which the drawbridge then stopped. However, in the impossible task, the drawbridge appeared to pass through the box and ended up flat, apparently having vanished. Baillargeon et al., found that the infants spent a longer period of time, gazing at the impossible task. It was herein proposed that the child innately knew that one of the stimuli was not plausible and such, spent longer looking at the object. She proposed that the infant knew that one solid object could not pass through another thus have an understanding beyond that assumed by Piaget. The infants in this study were 5 months of age, a period in which Piaget would state that such wisdom is beyond capacity. This account suggests that the innate understanding they have is somehow construed with knowledge about continuity of moving objects and their solidarity (Spelke et al., 1992). Furthermore, Baillargeon (1987) habituated infants of just 3 years of age to a truck rolling down a track and off behind a screen. This screen was then removed and a box placed adjacent to the track or in the path of the truck before replacing the screen. In both events, the truck bypassed the box and carried along the track. The infants again spent longer observing the impossible task than the possible one. She concluded that the infant must have known that the box still existed even though it had been hidden behind the screen. This in turn suggested that infants of 3 months of age have an understanding of objects that Piaget assumed was unknown until 9 to 12 months.

Piaget's theory was based upon the idea that a child learns about objects only through interacting with them and that the understanding of their solidarity and existence and that they occupy a space in time takes time for the child to comprehend. However, the work of Baillargeon would suggest that children acquire this knowledge much earlier than proposed in piagetian theory. Baillargeon proposed two possibilities; that children are born with a capacity to learn incredibly quickly (innate fast learning) or that they are born with the knowledge surrounding the properties of objects (innate object knowledge). Innate object knowledge was termed ‘core knowledge' by Spelke et al (1992), which includes the properties of objects such as; solidarity, space, inability to pass through one another, motion continuity, objects movement through space and that an object starting at A can only get to B on a path that passes from A to B. Baillargeon (2002) agrees with Piaget that a primitive understanding of objects is challenged when a child is faced with the impossible task. However, the suggestions of Baillargeon and Spelke are than a child is born with innate abilities or comprehension as opposed to Piaget who developed his theory based on a child's experience. Piaget's theory is empiricist in nature, whilst Baillargeon and Spelke demonstrate a nativist perspective.

In conclusion, it is assumed that a true understanding of how a child comes to have the knowledge he does, can never be fully understood. The uncoordinated, non-verbal and highly dependent nature of infants make verification of theories extremely difficult in nature. 


Baillargeon, R. (1987). Object Permanence in 3 ½ and 4 ½ Month Old Infants. Developmental Psychology, 23, 655-664.

Baillargeon, R. (2002). The Acquisition of Physical Knowledge in Infancy: A Summary in Eight Lessons. In U.Goswami (Ed.) “Blackwell Handbook of Childhood Cognitive Development”. Oxford, Blackwell. 

Baillargeon, R., Spelke, E.S. & Wasserman, S. (1985). Object Permanence in Five-Month-Old Infants. Cognition, 20, 191-208.

Beilin, H. (1992). Piaget's enduring contribution to developmental psychology. Developmental Psychology, 28, 191-204.

Gross, R., (2010). Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour (6th ed.). London: Hodder Education.

Mehler, J. & Dupoux, E. (1994). What Infants Know: The New Cognitive Science of Early Development. Oxford, Blackwell.

Spelke, E.S., Breinlinger, K., Macomber, J. & Jacobson, K. (1992). Origins of Knowledge. Psychological Review, 99, 605-632.

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