Object Permanence

Object Permanence

Have you ever heard the phrase “out of sight, out of mind?” When you were a young baby, that phrase wasn’t just a figure of speech. When things were not in your range of vision, they didn’t exist anymore! At some point, this probably made you cry. Your mom and dad walked out of your nursery, and it appeared to you that they were gone forever! While this lack of understanding could cause for some cries and confusion, it’s all a part of your cognitive development.

Eventually, you developed a thing called “object permanence.” Object permanence helped you understand that when things left the room, they still continued to exist. It also helped you understand that when things were covered with a blanket or hidden, they were worth looking for. 

In this video, we will briefly go over object permanence, when babies develop it, and how it was discovered. It’s just one piece of Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development, which is the subject of the next few videos on my channel! 

What Is Object Permanence?  

Object permanence is the idea that things still continue to exist after we cannot perceive them. Maybe it’s an object, a person, or even a place. 

One classic idea of object permanence is playing “peek-a-boo.” When you are an adult and you see another adult covering their face with a blanket, you know that the adult still exists. This certainly makes peek-a-boo less exciting, but it helps reassure you that the person is not gone forever.

Babies simply don’t have a grasp of this concept, or schema, yet. When the adult places a blanket over its head, the baby thinks the adult has disappeared forever. They can’t see the adult, so they’re gone! The rush of seeing their mom or the adult again is pretty thrilling, which is why peek-a-boo is so popular with infants. 

The Blanket And Ball Study

Eventually, babies figure out that the adult under the blanket still exists. But when does that happen? 

That was the question that Jean Piaget set to answer in the 1960s as he developed his Theory of Cognitive Development. Object permanence is a major development, especially when you consider that it develops at some point while a child is still an infant. Knowing that things outside of our sight still exist is key to understanding the world around us. 

So Piaget set up a study, now known as “The Blanket and Ball study.” The study was simple. He put a ball in front of infants of varying ages and, while they were watching, placed a blanket over the ball. Then he observed the children. If the children looked for the ball, under the blanket or otherwise, they were said to have developed object permanence. These children had a “mental representation” of the ball, so it still existed to them. If the children didn’t make an attempt to look for the ball, they might not have developed object permanence yet. The ball simply didn’t exist anymore. 

From this research, Piaget determined that kids developed object permanence by the time that they were eight months old. 

Eight months old is early. The child is still in the first stage of cognitive development, also known as the sensorimotor stage. More specifically, the child is probably in the third substage of the first stage of cognitive development: the secondary circular reactions stage of the sensorimotor stage.  

(I have a whole video on this topic up on my channel!) 

Of course, eight months is not set in stone. Additional studies have critiqued Piaget’s study for the motivations a child might have to look for a ball or to disregard it. The child could simply not be interested in looking for the ball, even if they do have object permanence. And, when it comes to cognitive development, these ages vary for each individual child. While one child may not develop object permanence until they are eight months old, another child may develop it as early as four months old! Other studies since Piaget’s Blanket and Ball study have confirmed this range of ages. 

Infants Aren’t The Only Creatures Developing Object Permanence 

Babies eventually grasp the schema of object permanence. What about animals? 

Studies have shown that yes, animals can also develop object permanence! Dogs, cats, and even birds can develop object permanence. So don’t worry. When you leave the house for the day, your dog knows that you still exist. 

Object Permanence is a Major Milestone 

Object permanence helps infants to predict what is going to happen next. It sets the foundation for the idea that the world exists outside of their own existence. This is an exciting milestone. 

Learn more about what comes next, and other important milestones in cognitive development, by watching more of my videos on this subject.

About the author 

Theodore

Theodore created PracticalPsychology while in college and has transformed the educational online space of psychology. His goal is to help people improve their lives by understanding how their brains work. 1,700,000 Youtube subscribers and a growing team of psychologists, the dream continues strong!

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