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Violation of expectation paradigm


The violation of expectation (VoE) paradigm is a popular approach to studying the development of cognitive functions and memory in infants. The research approach, which relies on “looking time” as an index of surprise. For researchers in the field, the method, which was introduced by Baillargeon, Spelke & Wasserman (1985) is recognized for its role in assessing whether young infants have object permanence. The studies ultimately found that infants do understand that objects continue to exist, even when they cannot confirm this through sight, sound, or touch.


In practice, the violation of expectation research examines whether infants have object permanence by familiarizing the child to a situation. An example is when the researcher takes a ball and drops it in one of two boxes, one blue and the other red. The research expects that when the researcher retrieves the ball from the blue box, where the infant saw them place it, the infant’s looking time is short. This suggests that they are not surprised at the outcome. However, if the infant sees the researcher place the ball in the blue box but later retrieves it from the red one (after it was moved without the infant’s knowledge), the looking time for the infant is longer. The longer looking time is a nod to the understanding of object permanence as the infant did not expect the toy to be there in the first place. Infants as young as 3 months old were always surprised when they viewed the impossible event.


The major conclusion of the violation of expectation paradigm is that children, indeed, have object permanence as their brains are able to create a mental representation of the object introduced. The study by Baillargeon was seen as a critical examination of Piaget (1963) who had initially examined the age at which children gained object permanence. In his research Piaget used a blanket, under which a toy was placed and then consecutively searched for by the child. According to Piaget, the infant could only search for a hidden toy when they had reached a specific age (8-months-old). The conclusion, therefore, had been that only children around 8 months old could form mental representations of objects. Baillargeon’s study, therefore, became a critical examination of Piaget’s study as it found that children as young as 5 months old could also have expectations about the behavior of objects. Unlike Piaget, who assumed that such knowledge would be beyond infants younger than 8 months, Baillargeon proved that the development of cognitive functions and memory starts early.


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