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.
Instincts and Abilities
Though human babies are born relatively more helpless than other animal babies, they are still born with lots of instincts and abilities that help them grow and also protect them from harm. Infants instinctually grasp objects, like their mother’s finger, that come into their hand.
If you rub an infant’s cheek, it will turn its head to the side and attempt to suck–this is called a rooting reflex and it helps infants learn how to nurse. These instincts, along with babies’ natural preference for their mothers’ voices, help them to form the kinds of attachments they need to figure out difficult situations like the visual cliff.Babies instinctively know that certain kinds of things are dangerous for them; they’ll shut their eyes when exposed to a bright light or pull away from a sharp object. Their avoidance of the visual cliff when their mothers didn’t encourage them is another example of an instinct to avoid harm.
To sum things up, infants are biologically wired to behave in certain ways.
They are born with reflexes that help to secure their safety and survival, such as their grasping, blinking and rooting reflexes. Infants seem to be biologically predisposed to seek close relationships, or attachment, with their mothers and primary caregivers, who help them to feel secure enough to explore their environments. Their exploration, in turn, helps them to develop in a variety of ways.
After watching this lesson, you should be able to:
- Describe the visual cliff experiment and what it means in regards to infant development
- Identify and explain infants’ instincts