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Visual Cliff Experiment

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  • 0:05 How do Infants See Depth?
  • 0:54 Experimental Procedure
  • 2:22 Results of the Expriment
  • 3:30 Conclusions from the…
  • 4:38 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Yolanda Williams

Yolanda has taught college Psychology and Ethics, and has a doctorate of philosophy in counselor education and supervision.

Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk conducted the visual cliff experiment in the 1960s to study depth perception in infants. Learn about the visual cliff experiment, how it was conducted, the findings of the experiment and more.

How Do Infants See Depth?

Psychologists have been interested in determining how infants perceive the world around them for quite some time. Prior to the visual cliff experiment, researchers had found that infants are able to respond to depth cues before they are able to crawl, which happens around ages six to eight months. Depth cues are just visual cues that are used to estimate the distance between objects. Thus, it is safe to say that most infants will not crawl off ledges, tabletops and other surfaces that drop off into open spaces.

Psychologists Eleanor Gibson and Richard Walk were interested in studying depth perception in infants. Gibson and Walk wanted to know if depth perception is a learned behavior or if it is something that we are born with. In order to study this, Gibson and Walk conducted the visual cliff experiment.

Experimental Procedure

Gibson and Walk studied 36 infants between the ages of six and 14 months, all of whom could crawl. The infants were placed one at a time on a visual cliff, which is this device you see on screen.

A visual cliff was created using a big glass table that was raised about a foot off the floor. Half of the glass table had a checker pattern underneath in order to create the appearance of a 'shallow side'. In order to create a 'deep side,' a checker pattern was created on the floor; this side is the visual cliff. Even though the glass table extends all the way across, the placement of the checker pattern on the floor creates the illusion of a sudden drop-off. Researchers placed a foot-wide center board between the shallow side and the deep side.

The infants were placed on the center board one by one. The mother of each child would call the child from the deep side and the shallow side consecutively. Researchers looked to see if the infant would cross the deep side and crawl to the mother, or if the infant would crawl away from its mother toward the shallow side.

Gibson and Walk also tested cats, chicks, goats, lambs, turtles, and rats, to see if they would cross the visual cliff. However, these animals did not have their mothers present to call them.

The animals were not tested at ages 6 to 14 months, but rather at the age in which they started to move independently. For example, chicks were tested when they were only one day old.

Results of the Experiment

Gibson and Walk found the following:

  • Nine of the infants did not move off the center board.
  • All of the 27 infants who did move crossed into the shallow side when their mothers called them from the shallow side.
  • Three of the infants crawled off the visual cliff toward their mother when called from the deep side.
  • When called from the deep side, the remaining 24 children either crawled to the shallow side or cried because they could not cross the visual cliff and make it to their mother.
  • All of the chicks under 24 hours old hopped off the center board and crossed the shallow side. The chicks avoided the deep side.
  • Goats and lambs did not cross into the deep side.
  • Four-week-old kittens preferred the shallow side and would either freeze up when they were put on the deep side or they would head back toward the center board.
  • 76% of turtles that were placed on the center board crawled toward the shallow side. This is largely due to the fact that turtles do not have good depth perception abilities.
  • Rats did not show a preference for either the shallow or deep side.

Conclusions From the Experiment

Gibson and Walk concluded that although we are not born with the ability to discriminate and perceive depth, this ability manifests as soon as we are able to crawl. Humans are not born fearing heights, but rather we develop this fear sometime during the stages of infancy.

Researchers found that when placed in uncertain circumstances, such as a situation where an infant cannot get to its mother without falling off of a cliff, infants look for cues from those around them to decide how to proceed. The infants whose mothers had a frightened look on their faces did not attempt to crawl across the glass, while the infants whose mothers appeared happy and encouraging crawled onto the glass.

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