The Visual Cliff Experiment: Purpose & Significance

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  • 0:01 Development
  • 1:19 Nature vs. Nurture
  • 3:17 Visual Cliff Experiment
  • 6:01 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

How do babies perceive the world around them? In this lesson, we'll examine the famous visual cliff psychology experiment and how it relates to the classic psychology debate of nature versus nurture.


Liz is a new mom. She is constantly amazed at her son Malcolm. He has her eyes and his daddy's nose, and he's starting to show signs of their personalities, too. He likes to crawl all the time, just like Liz likes to always be on the move, and he babbles to anyone who will listen, just like his dad likes to talk a lot.

At first, though, Malcolm didn't remind Liz of anyone. He didn't even seem human. At first, he was just a baby that seemed like every other baby: a scrunched up little face, no real personality at all. Now, though, he's changing and growing into the toddler who resembles his parents.

Liz is witnessing Malcolm's development, or the way people change and grow. People develop across the lifespan, but the changes in infancy are often dramatic. Toddlers learn how to crawl and walk, talk and eat, and even how to think about things in an ordered way.

But what exactly dictates this development in infancy? And how can psychologists test the way that babies think and perceive the world around them? Let's look closer at two theories of how people develop, nature and nurture, and the Visual Cliff Experiment done to test babies' development.

Nature Vs. Nurture

Remember Malcolm? Liz is noticing how he's growing and changing every day. He used to seem oblivious to the world around him. When Liz would sing to him, Malcolm wouldn't react at all. Slowly, though, Malcolm has started to interact with her. He kicks his feet in time to the song that Liz is singing, and sometimes, he'll shake a rattle or beat the floor with his hands to make noise, too. Sometimes, he even tries to sing along.

Malcolm is developing into quite the musician! But what's causing this development? On one hand, some psychologists argue that Malcolm has an innate gift for music that is part of the nature of his personality. In other words, there's something in his genes that just makes him a talented musician.

On the other hand, some psychologists point to the fact that Liz sings to him and gives him a rattle to play with. She's teaching him to be a musician, and her nurture of music in him is what is leading to his developing musical talent.

Essentially, the nature versus nurture debate is based on what causes individual differences in people, their genetics or their environment. Of course, the debate is complicated by the fact that most things are probably a product of both genetics and environment.

For example, Malcolm may have a little more rhythm than most kids his age. This might be a genetic thing that means he's developed that sense of rhythm early. But Liz notices how good he is with rhythm, so she buys him all sorts of musical toys: drums and rattles and keyboards. She's nurturing his genetics.

As Malcolm grows older and everyone around him encourages him to be a musician, he might find himself practicing more, which makes him better. His natural gift has turned into something that is nurtured by his environment. Both nature and nurture are playing a role in his musical ability.

Visual Cliff Experiment

Malcolm develops into a more extraordinary musician than other people, but some developmental milestones are universal. Except in cases of disability or illness, all infants learn how to walk and talk and feed themselves. They all learn to perceive the difference in darkness and light or between high and low. But are these innate developments or are they learned? In other words, are they a product of nature or nurture?

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