Using object history to predict future behavior: Evidence for essentialism at 9 months of age

AbstractPreschool-age children show essentialism (Gelman, 2003), ascribing an essence to an object that includes its history, and which can determine behavior. While infants show the precursors of essentialism, such as maintaining object representations during naturalistic occlusion (6-month-olds; Kaufman, Csibra, & Johnson, 2005), and resisting individuating two disparate appearances of an object when shown that one can change into the other (14-month-olds; Cacchione, Schaub, & Rakoczy, 2013), the implicit precursors of essentialist reasoning in infants have not been directly studied. Here we tested whether young infants could use an object’s prior history to predict its behavior, even after it had changed into a novel shape. Critically, the object either smoothly morphed into the novel shape (facilitating an essentialist interpretation) or was replaced by a new shape (discouraging essentialist interpretation). Results showed that 9-month-old infants (N = 22) in the Morph condition predicted the novel object would have the same behavior as the pre-transformation object; an essentialist interpretation. However, in the Replace condition (N = 22), predictions for the novel object were at chance; infants seemed to have lost the link to the pre-transformation object. Furthermore, results from a group of 6-month-olds (N = 15) showed that they failed to maintain this link, even in the Morph condition (which may indicate a failure to apply essentialist reasoning, or, more likely, a failure to adequately remember the pre-transformation object and/or apply the matching rule to predict post-transformation behavior).

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