Studying Infant Development in Psychology: Experiments, Instincts & Abilities

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  • 0:00 The Visual Cliff Experiment
  • 1:32 Instincts and Abilities
  • 2:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Paul Bautista
Watch babies brave heights at the insistence of their smiling mothers! You'll learn how instinct and attachment can help infants explore their environments through the visual cliff experiments.

The Visual Cliff Experiment

If you were standing on the edge of what looked like a steep drop, would you step out into thin air just because someone on the other side was smiling at you? You'd probably be pretty skeptical of that person's intentions; you might even think they wish you harm. But when infants are placed in a similar (but safe) situation, they are happy to crawl out into space if the smiling face on the other side is their mother's. Infant development is a complicated process shaped by the interplay of instinct and attachment to a mother or other primary caregiver.

The visual cliff experiment was originally developed as a way to test infants' ability to perceive depth. The cliff was made up of two parallel patterned surfaces, one about five feet above the other. They put Plexiglas extending out from the higher surface so that it still looked like there was a cliff, but infants who didn't perceive it would safely step out onto the Plexiglas rather than actually fall down to the lower surface. The researchers found that the infants did perceive the drop-off and tended to avoid it.

Later, other researchers used the same setup to test whether the infants, who they knew were able to perceive the drop, could have their behavior influenced by the presence of their mothers. They found that they could--babies whose mothers stood on the other side, smiling, attempted to cross anyway, while babies whose mothers frowned and looked scared wouldn't cross. The researchers concluded that a baby's attachment to and trust of its mother is an extremely important part of its ability to explore and grow.

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