Some people like surprises, while others could most certainly do without them. For infants, surprises could yield a very unexpected benefit. Specifically, surprised infants may have a better chance of picking up new information.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that infants seek to learn more about objects that seem to behave in an unusual manner. Publishing their findings in the journal Science, the authors reached their conclusions after studying the actions of of a sizable group of 11-month old infants; a total of 110 children were analyzed.
The study attempted to pique its small subjects’ curiosity by toying with their expectations. For example, one such experiment involved a ball, a ramp and two small walls, which were positioned in front of the ramp. A screen was then placed in front of the walls, largely covering them. With the all of the pieces in place, the infants then saw one of two events unfold.
Both groups watched the ball roll down a ramp, coming to a stop behind the screen. When the screen was removed, some infants saw the ball in front of the wall closest to the ramp, where it would presumably stop. The second group was met with the sight of the ball between the two structures, as if it had somehow managed to pass through the one of the walls.
Making The Connection
The next step was to teach the children about the sounds emitted by the ball. The researchers moved the ball up and down in front of each child, while a hidden speaker emitted a squeaking sound. Having completed this step, the study authors then displayed both the ball and a “distractor object” to the infants, and recorded the amount of time they looked at each item.
These experiments were used to determine if the children could associate the squeaking sound with the ball. The children who watched the ball move as expected failed to pick up the lesson. In contrast, infants that saw the ball seemingly do the impossible made the connection very quickly. This same experiment was performed with a toy car in lieu of a ball, and yielded similar results.
Aside from learning new information about the toys, children in the “surprised” groups also demonstrated a keen interest in these objects. When given a chance to handle the ball, those who saw this object “move” through solid material wound up banging it on a table. The authors note that this was the children’s way of testing the physical characteristics of the ball. A similar type of experiment had some babies watch cars “float” off of a small stage. To see if the car would once again defy physics, the infants dropped these toys in mid-air.
So what explains the actions of these very young children? The authors contend that humans are born with a certain understanding of how objects interact with their surroundings. For example, even an 11-month old child realizes that a solid barrier should be able to rebuff a toy ball. When this knowledge is challenged by what appears to be unexplained events, babies seek to learn more about the perplexing object in question.
Moreover, the researchers argue that this characteristic could be used to help children learn new information. “Our work shows that infants’ early expectations about the world can scaffold or guide their future learning,” said study co-author Aimee E. Stahl. “This raises exciting questions about whether surprise can be harnessed by parents or educators to shape children’s learning. It very well might be the case that probing children’s intuitions and predictions in all kinds of settings might help guide their subsequent learning. This is something we are currently investigating in our own research.”