What reasons does contemporary psychology give for rejecting William James’s notion that the infant enters into a “blooming, buzzing confusion”? (1000 words) In the very earliest days of psychology it was thought that infants had no idea what was going on around them, that the world was as William James (1890) put it a “blooming, buzzing confusion”. Locke (1690) suggested that infants had no personality or abilities at birth, they were Tabula Rasa. Contemporary psychology has however rejected this. Why is this so?
Modern technology, changes in society’s view of children and the emergence of women as a force in psychology have all played their part in this change in the way we view the capabilities and competencies of neonates and infants in psychology today. This essay will demonstrate just how this has taken place. It will work through each element of the process, beginning with the social changes, moving through changes in the discipline of psychology and then moving on to the work of individual psychologists.
In the Victorian era and before, there had been historically a high infant mortality rate which led to parents needing to distance themselves from their children in order to reduce the inevitable emotional distress that would occur (Brazelton, 1979). From this infants came to be viewed as not quite human. This is of course no longer the case, as medicine improved we found ourselves able to save the lives of more and more infants and now the norm is for infants to survive to adulthood rather than die at a young age. This affords the parent(s) the chance to form an attachment to their children with less concern for their own emotional damage.
While society has changed, psychology has too. Where men have been previously dismissive of children as the work of women with the emergence of women in psychology we find a new perspective on things. Finally gone is the notion that a baby’s smiles were ‘just gas’ (Gopnik et al, 1999, p26), that recognition was a fond maternal illusion. Instead of the male medical perspective where an infant is merely an animal like any other, a biological entity, the social side of infants’ capabilities now emerges.
As well as changes in the nature of psychologists themselves, psychology has moved on in terms of the technology it employs. Modern technologies such as video have emerged to show infant behaviour in detail. This means we can now observe using techniques such as preferential looking where you may show an infant two objects and observe which provides stimulation and thus gain a perspective of that infant’s preferences based upon how long they spend looking at that object (Fantz, 1961). One can also gain inference from rate of sucking, as to which stimulus is preferred by the infant. Again, two stimuli are presented, and the greater suck rate indicates the higher level of interest. This has been used by DeCasper & Fifer (1980) in their sucking study, showing infants had a preference for certain sounds such as the mother’s voice.
Spelke (1990) and Baillargeon (1987) demonstrated that infants have an expectation of the world as composed of solid, substantial, physical objects that continue to exist from one moment to the next, which may impact upon each other, and do all this in a predictable way. Indeed infants even attempt to make these predictions themselves, as proved in her object occlusion studies in which babies clearly showed surprise when these rules were broken by objects, and did not when the rules were not broken. This followed on from previous work by Bower (1971) showing infants belief that an object partly hidden is still whole. This again demonstrates an understanding of objects. Infants will often take the behaviour of an adult and mimic it (Meltzoff and Moore, 1977) in an effort at strengthening the attachment bond between mother and child. This behaviour is important from a survival point of view as it ensured more attention from the mother.