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What is behind the screen? Object Individuation by 10 months old infants

Making sense of the world around us depends on the fundamental ability to parse the world into distinct objects and keep track of them. This process is defined as object individuation. Research indicates that it is not always easy for infants.

Gábor Bródy, Katalin Oláh, Ildikó Király, Szilvia Biro
23 April 2022
Individuation of agents based on psychological properties in 10 month-old infants

In the classic study by Xu and Carey (1996), infants were shown a scenario in which two different objects -  a duck and a ball - appeared sequentially from behind a screen, so the infants had never seen them next to each other. Then the screen was lifted up and either one or two objects were revealed. 10 month-old infants did not look longer when only one object was present which is interpreted that they were not “surprised” by this. This suggests that colour and shape differences were not enough for infants to keep track of two objects.

In our study, we investigated if infants are able to keep track of two objects if they are provided with other type of cues such as having different goals or preferences. We showed infants two differently looking figures who sequentially and repeatedly emerged from behind an screen, and then each approached one of two target objects before returning behind the screen. After this demonstration, the screen was lifted, revealing either one or two figures. Infants expected to see two figures behind the screen, while in another condition without the preference demonstration they did not.

Our study thus provides evidence that 10 months old infants can individuate objects if they are provided with the right cues. We propose that these cues are core conceptual properties of objects rather than differences in perceptual surface features. These type of studies can reveal how infants process both physical and social world around them. This research has been done in collaboration between the Leiden Institute of Education and Child Studies, the Social Minds Research Group at Eötvös Loránd University, Hungary and the Department of Cognitive, Linguistic, and Psychological Sciences at  Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, USA.

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