Research Article

Observing the unexpected enhances infants’ learning and exploration

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Science  03 Apr 2015:
Vol. 348, Issue 6230, pp. 91-94
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaa3799

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Learning when and what to learn

Infants use “unexpectedness” as a cue for learning. Stahl and Feigenson studied how babies reacted when objects behaved in surprising ways (see the Perspective by Schulz). Babies who saw apparently solid and weighty objects moving through a wall or past the edge of a table without falling looked intently at them. When given the opportunity to explore these peculiar objects, they did so by banging them on the floor—as if to test their solidity—or dropping them—as if to test their weightiness.

Science, this issue p. 91; see also p. 42


Given the overwhelming quantity of information available from the environment, how do young learners know what to learn about and what to ignore? We found that 11-month-old infants (N = 110) used violations of prior expectations as special opportunities for learning. The infants were shown events that violated expectations about object behavior or events that were nearly identical but did not violate expectations. The sight of an object that violated expectations enhanced learning and promoted information-seeking behaviors; specifically, infants learned more effectively about objects that committed violations, explored those objects more, and engaged in hypothesis-testing behaviors that reflected the particular kind of violation seen. Thus, early in life, expectancy violations offer a wedge into the problem of what to learn.

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