Object Permanence (Definition + Examples)

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. This issue is resolved when babies develop object permanence.

What Is Object Permanence?

Object permanence is the idea that places, objects, and people still continue to exist after we cannot perceive them. It’s just one piece of Jean Piaget’s Theory of Cognitive Development. When this is developed, babies understand that when things left the room or are hidden, they still continued to exist. 

Example: Peek-a-Boo

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.

a man playing peek-a-boo with a baby

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.

Piaget’s 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.

a baby looking at a blanket covering a ball

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.

When Is Object Permanence Developed?

From his 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.

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. 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.

Which Animals Develop Object Permanence?

a dog sitting at the door thinking about a human

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.

This is a Major Milestone in Development

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.

Practical Psychology

Practical Psychology began as a collection of study material for psychology students in 2016, created by a student in the field. It has since evolved into an online blog and YouTube channel providing mental health advice, tools, and academic support to individuals from all backgrounds. With over 2 million YouTube subscribers, over 500 articles, and an annual reach of almost 12 million students, it has become one of the most popular sources of psychological information.

Leave a Comment