**How children make errors when searching for an object**
Do babies know that an object still exists after it’s no longer visible? Can they find something that’s been hidden in plain sight? These are some of the questions brought up by Piaget’s (1954) classic demonstration of the “A-not-B error.” In this phenomenon, children make what is called a perseverative error where they continue to search for an object in location A even after it has been hidden in location B right in front of them!
- Two identical opaque containers placed on a piece of cardboard about 1.5 feet apart
- A small unfamiliar toy that can be hidden
Sit on the floor across from the child, who can be seated in someone’s lap to hold her until it is time to search. Place the two identical containers upside down on the cardboard, slightly out of the child’s reach. Establish eye contact with the baby and get her attention, showing her the toy and telling her to “look here” as you hide it under one of the two containers, which is your location A. You can shift your gaze between the object and location A as an indication of where it is hidden, but do not say where it is. Now wait 4 seconds and then push the cardboard toward the child so that the containers are at an equal distance and observe where she first searches for the toy. Do not provide feedback regardless of whether she chooses the right or wrong location.
Repeat this procedure hiding at location A 3 more times. Most infants should be able to accurately find the toy during these trials. Now on the fifth trial, you will follow the same procedure, except that you will place the toy under the second container, location B. Observe where the baby searches. Repeat this for two more trials and see whether she continues to search in location A or changes to location B.
Notes & Observations
What did you observe? Did your child continue to search in location A even after you had switched to B? How many times did she make the perseverative error?
Research Findings & Extension
Many researchers have found that babies between 10-12 months continue to search in location A even after they have watched the experimenter place the object in location B. This error has been attributed to infants’ inability to stop themselves from searching in a place where they were rewarded with finding the toy or their inability to maintain the short-term memory of the new location.
However, Topal et al (2008) published a study suggesting that some of the source of the error comes from infants over-interpreting the communication signals given by the adult (such as eye contact and verbal attention-getting). They implemented a stripped-down procedure where the experimenter faced to the side and did not communicate with the child in any way but did everything else in terms of hiding the objects exactly the same way. They found that the rate of the error was much less in this condition since it no longer seemed like the adult was trying to “teach” anything. Try this version a few weeks later (with different containers and toy) and see if your infant makes fewer errors. You can also try the procedure after 12 months and see if the error is no longer made at all.
Piaget, J., (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.
Topal, J., Gergely, G., Miklosi, A., Erdohegyi, A., & Csibra, G. (2008). Infants’ perseverative search errors are induced by pragmatic misinterpretation. Science, 321, 1831-1834.