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The study of developmental psychology plays a very significant role in understanding the physical and psychological changes encountered in humans, from conception until adulthood and even death. In infants, several characteristics abound, which are either innate or need to be learnt for the survival of the child as growth proceeds.
Gradually, certain changes are observed in the infant as she improves upon her basic skills and conceptual development. These changes are particularly very rapid and involve several variations in behavioural patterns within very short periods.
In order to understand the changes, several developmental psychologists have done some important research with a view to understanding the otherwise complicated stage of infancy in humans. Prominent in this study of the child and her development, is Jean Piaget, a Swiss developmental psychologist whose works have been a pivot around which other research into developmental psychology have revolved.
Jean Piaget was renowned for his theory of cognitive development, which is grouped into four stages of sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational.
This paper however sets out to discuss a very important phenomenon in Piaget’s sensorimotor stage of cognitive development, which is object permanence. It refers to the child’s ability to understand that objects exist independently from the child. A child who possesses this ability is able to understand the fact that objects continue to exist even if they are not within her immediate sight (Jean Piaget, 2003).
However, certain characteristics abound, which precede the attainment of object permanence in infants. Prominent among these is the solid basis of action.
In other words, action is the most striking characteristic of human thinking during the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development (Bukatko and Daehler, 2003, p. 274). At the earliest period of this stage, that is, prior to one month, the infant’s movements occur as a result of reflex activities and not deliberate actions. The concept of object permanence at this stage therefore, is non-existent in the infant. Repetition of behaviours in later months such as nipple sucking and crawling however generates a feedback, which result in another action and another one.
Gradually, the infant understands her actions better and is able to use them to generate more goal oriented actions with anticipated results, other than was the case with the reflex, which is more accidental than deliberate. She is then able to differentiate herself from things around her and learns more about them. This significant achievement is known as means-end behaviour (Bukatko and Daehler, 2003, p. 273). It is a very important basis for the development and eventual acquisition of object permanence.
The concept of object permanence is a very significant feat in the development of the infant at the sensorimotor stage; therefore, it is studied in its six sub-stages. These sub-stages however reveal distinct features in the development of object permanence. The first of the sub-stages is that of early reflexes. It characterises the period between the birth of a child and when she is one month old. Actions around this time are highly reflexive and the child does not understand the fact that objects still exist on their own when they are no longer in sight.
The reflex actions are usually motivated by a biological need, for example, hunger motivates the infant to suck from her mother’s breast without being taught (Jean Piaget, 2003). The child between the ages of one month and four is in the second sub-stage of the sensorimotor stage. This sub-stage is referred to as the primary circular reaction stage. It is when the child is only interested in her body and nothing external to her body seems to be of any great significance. At this stage, the child repeats a behaviour, which produces interesting results centered on her body only.
As such, the infant conforms to the saying, “out of sight, out of mind”. An infant of three months, whose toy is taken away, does not go in search of it even if it is only placed behind her and not somewhere far away. As long as the toy is not within her immediate view, it is no longer of any significance as it is consequently forgotten like it never existed. Infants at this stage, just like the reflex stage, therefore, also lack the object concept. The third sub-stage is the genesis of the object permanence phenomenon.
It is referred to as the secondary circular reactions stage and is a sub-stage of children between the ages of four and eight months. During this phase of development, there is a gradual development of the object concept whereby partially hidden objects are searched and retrieved by the infant after it has been seen and partially covered from her. At this stage, the infant begins to integrate more with her environment and not just herself and behaviours are repeated, just like in the previous stage.
In other words, the infant repeats behaviours, which are external and not necessarily part of her. This ability to separate self from the external environment thus allows for the acquisition of object permanence, which is still at its early stages. The precedence necessary for object permanence at this stage is that the infant sees an object first before she is tested for the concept. If her toy is taken away and hidden partially, an infant at this stage is able to follow the sequence of events and sees a part of it, which then becomes a good clue to the discovery of the hidden object.
If there is no part of the toy in view and the infant never saw the toy taken away or drop, it would however still not be possible to go in search of it at this stage. Consequently, the infant at eight months of age commences the stage whereby, the co-ordination of actions is now possible. This stage lasts till she is twelve months old and involves a combination of several events aimed at co-ordination. Activities at this stage include grasping an object with one hand and trying to grasp another with the other hand.
Prior to this stage, this action of co-ordination would have been impossible for the infant. The form which object permanence takes in this phase of the development is such that is possible for the infant to search for a completely hidden object and not a partially hidden one like the example with the secondary circular reactions stage. The infant, who had seen an object earlier on, has the ability to search for it when it has been completely hidden beyond view. This is not so with the secondary stage whereby there needs to be a clue, like, a part of the hidden object in order for it to be searched for.
The problem at this stage can be referred to as the A Not-B error. Though she is able to search for a completely hidden object, the infant however has not developed the object concept fully and can only search where the object had been initially and no other place; even if she saw it moved to the new location. Furthermore, the infant progresses in the sensorimotor stage of cognitive development by attaining the tertiary circular reactions’ stage of cognitive development. Here, she tries to experiment with different actions in order to achieve the same result.
For example, an infant at this stage would drop a spoon at first, then a fork later in order to listen to their sound. It is characterised by the ability of the infant to follow visible displacements of an object. If an object has been moved from one room to another, an infant at this stage follows the movement in search of the object in the other room. It is however very important that the infant sees that the object has been moved to another room in order to initiate the search due to the displacement.
The age range of children in this group is twelve and eighteen months. The most important event necessary for them is that they see the displacement take place, in order to be able to trace it. They are therefore said to possess the ability to follow visible displacement of an object. Object permanence is a gradual process in the development of an infant, which is not achieved in a short while but develops with time. As discussed in preceding paragraphs, it begins gradually at about five months though at its very early stages.
The final sub-stage of the sensorimotor phase of development however corresponds to the full development of object permanence in children. It is referred to as the stage of invention of new means through mental combinations (Bukatko and Daehler, 2003, p. 273). This is the period when the child is between the ages of eighteen months and twenty-four months. At the end of this stage of development, the development of the concept of object permanence is completed in most infants. This stage of development is also characterized by the infant’s ability to imitate peers and members of her family.
She is also at this point in time, able to think through potential solutions to little problems. It is this ability to think through that grants her the distinction compared to children of the last stage of tertiary circular reactions. Unlike children in the previous stage, those of this stage of development are able to follow invisible displacements of an object. A toy which has been removed from one room and placed in another, just as was the case in tertiary circular reactions can also be followed and searched for in the new location.
The difference however is that, while infants of the previous stage have to see the toy moved to another location for follow-up, those of this stage already know fully that the toy can exist on its own, therefore, they are capable of making efforts to search for it in another location. A child is then assumed to have had a full development of the concept of object permanence. This stage thus concludes the sensorimotor stage of the cognitive development theory of Jean Piaget. Though widely regarded to as a renowned psychologist and founder of developmental psychology, Piaget’s work in the field has also been widely criticised over the years.
He has often been criticised to have underestimated the abilities of young children in his developmental theory. In an experiment by Renee Baillargeon (1987), it was suggested that children possess the concept of object permanence to a better extent than that suggested by Piaget. This experiment was carried out on four-month olds, who behaved as if they understood that an object continued to exist even when it was concealed by a screen. At first, they were made to observe a screen that rotated back and forth over repeated trials, eventually showing habituation of visual fixation to this display.
Next, a box was placed behind the screen, which was initially visible when the screen was flat against the table. As the screen rotated away from the child however, the box became hidden from view, hence the introduction of the possible event and impossible event conditions. In the possible event condition, the screen stopped moving at the point where it hit the box and in the impossible event, the box was removed and the screen passed through the space the box would have occupied. Habituation experiments would suggest that the infants would look longer at the possible event rather than the impossible one.
However, Baillargeon observed that the infants looked longer at the impossible event, drawn in by the fact that the screen was moving through the space where the box should have been (Bukatko and Daehler, 2003, pp. 279-280). Consequently, object concept was proposed for these four-year-olds, quite different from Piaget’s proposal. Piaget suggests that the first real notions of object permanence begin at about eight months, when the infant can go in search of an object, which is completely hidden, provided she had seen it before.
Baillargeon however also observed that six-and -a half months old children would reach in the dark for an object which they had seen previously (Renee Baillargeon, 1987). This is also different from what Piaget suggests at that stage of development because, objects in the dark can be regarded as totally hidden, yet the child still reaches out to them. Developmental psychology has therefore come of age, with new discoveries, theories and concepts, making significant impacts.
The contribution of Baillargeon on the concept of object permanence therefore remains quite significant, without any bias about the existing concept by Piaget. As far as the object concept is concerned, the ages attributed to the development of these developmental concepts such as object permanence remain a controversial issue. Piaget’s work and consequent theory, though remain the bedrock of advancement in developmental psychology, significant contributions and discoveries such as Baillargeon’s will continue to go a long way in improving existing knowledge of the child.