A comparison and evaluation of the nativist and empiricist views of infant perception.

The study of infant perception lies within the broader context of developmental Psychology, more specifically children’s development. Perception is about how the brain interprets sensory stimuli detected by various body receptors. There are multi-causal factors that influence a child’s perceptual ability. These factors are found and sometimes overlap between the two key approaches; Empiricist and Nativist. Both approaches attempt to explain infant perception from perspectives that are the complete antithesis of one another, and they are a reflection of the nature versus nurture debate. In terms of infant perception, the empiricist view (nurture) suggests that all perceptual abilities are acquired through learning, and that a child is born as a ‘tabula rasa’ (blank slate) as proposed by the pioneer of empiricism Locke (1688; cited in Fancher, 1979). Locke was supported by William James (1890; cited in Commins, 1932) who made the classic statement of empiricism; ‘The baby assailed by eyes, ears nose, skin and entrails all at once, feels it all as one great buzzing confusion’. Essentially what James was saying is that despite the fact that infants have the biological tools to detect sensory information, they are unable to interpret it, thus implying that perception is not present at birth. On the other hand, the Nativist approach maintains the view that a child is biologically equipped from birth with perceptual abilities, proposing that infant perception is driven by innate factors. In this essay I will explore both approaches, using previous studies on infant perception, with the intention of evaluating not only the approaches but also the methodology used, and as the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate reaches a common ground, I aim to reflect that in my essay with Empiricism and Nativisim.

            Studying infants poses as a challenge for researchers, simply because they are verbally inept and therefore unable to give meaningful responses, for this reason a variety of ingenious techniques have been created in order to facilitate the study of infants.  Using a variety of methods to explore infant perception strengthens our confidence in the theory when similar results are obtained. The visual preference technique (VPT) is one that is widely used in research. It consists of the individual being shown two stimuli, and the time spent looking at each stimulus is measured. If the individual showed more preference towards one stimulus, they are perceptually discriminating (i.e. they can see the difference). The reliability of this technique has been criticised, with questions such as how does the researcher specifically know where the individual is looking? As a result, more sophisticated methods such as videoing and eye-tracking have been introduced, leading to increased precision and reliability of the method and consequently the results. Fantz (1975; cited in Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2011) used the VPT in his study of 2 to 6 day old babies, and found that they showed a preference for the schematic human face against a face with jumbled features. Fantz’s study supports the nativist view, as it suggests that there is an innate preference to look at the human face. On the contrary, Maurer and Barrera (1981; cited in Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2011) discovered that Fantz had overestimated a childs ability to perceptually discriminate. After repeating Fantz’ study, they found that infants only begin to show face preference at 2 months, giving them enough time to learn, and so supporting the empiricist view. A pivotal study was done by Johnson (1991) and Goren (1975; cited in Smith, Cowie & Blades, 2011) using neonates (new born infants), they both found that when a schematic human face was placed in the babies visual field, they showed more preference for it against any other stimuli. This study on neonates strengthens the nativist view, as one hour old babies wouldn’t have had the time to learn how to detect facial stimuli as the empiricist view suggests. This implies that the child is pre-equipped from birth with this perceptual ability.

Perception isn’t solely about facial preference, even though it is essential to understanding social, emotional and cognitive development in infants. Psychologist use basic stimuli such as shapes and patterns to investigate perceptual constancies, and they do so with the method of Habituation. A stimulus is continuously shown to the individual until they become habituated (familiar) with it, showing the stimulus less attention each time.  A second novel stimulus is shown to the individual and they become dishabituated, diverting their attention to the new stimulus.  Perceptual constancy is the ability to perceive an object as remaining the same despite changes in the retinal image. In Caron’s (1979) study of shape constancy, he found that when he showed 3 month old infants a rectangle until they became habituated, and then presented the same rectangle with a different orientation alongside a novel image, the infants preferred the new image, showing that regardless of it being tilted, they still recognised it as being the same rectangle. However, these were 3 month old infants therefore the empiricist view would propose that learning had already taken place. On the other hand, a similar study by Slater, (1990) indicates the possibility of perceptual constancies being present in neonates, supporting the Nativist view. It must be said that habituation studies give a broad explanatory scope, as not only does it allow us to identify these perceptual abilities in infants, it also highlights the fact that infants have a capacity for visual memory, as surely it is involved when infants become habituated with a stimulus.

Pascalis et al (2002) used this technique alongside the visual paired-comparison (VPC) procedure to demonstrate whether infants were able to perceptually discriminate between faces of their own species and other species. The participants for this study were 6 month olds, 9month olds and adults. The stimuli used were two different schematic human faces and two different monkey faces. In the VPC, they were shown one face of each species, until they became habituated. Subsequently they were shown the second face alongside the initial stimulus, the time spent looking at each stimulus was used as an indicator of perceptual discrimination. The results showed that the adults and 9 month olds were only able to discriminate between the human faces, highlighting their inability to process faces of different species. In contrast, the 6 month olds were able to perceptually discriminate between all stimuli. Pascalis suggested that the younger infants were able to do so because they are still within the ‘perceptual window’, and that after this phase, you can only recognise faces of your own species. This is known as ‘regression’, as it is a loss of ability during our perceptual development. It could be argued that this study supports the empiricist view, as humans become experts at human facial recognition through experience. The loss of ability strengthens the empiricist view, as it emphasises the importance of learning. All the participants had no experience with monkeys and therefore couldn’t learn how to process their faces, so that ability simply diminished; psychologists call this ‘perceptual narrowing’. Having said that, the study suggests that face processing is an innate capacity (nativist), as one could take the evolutionary perspective and argue that the 6 month olds were able to recognise the monkeys because young infants are closest to primates.  This study could be criticised for its lack of mundane realism. Facial processing of monkeys are not entirely relevant in today’s world, alternatively identifying whether face processing is ethnic-specific at the onset of life would be more influential, especially in covering the spectrum of cross-cultural variations. Investigating primitive abilities would also prove to be beneficial.

However, as demonstrated in this study, and many alike, no one approach is adequate enough on its own, Nativism and Empiricism are not mutually exclusive or independent of one another. Even though the historical context has changed from the empiricist view to now a widely supported nativist view, nevertheless, we still require a combination of both approaches for a holistic understanding of infant perception. Infants may be born with set perceptual capacities and innate abilities, but the extent to which they are used, explored and nurtured depends on their environment, and their exposure to stimulating stimuli. Perhaps if the 6 month old infants in Pascalis et al’s study were continuously exposed to monkey faces, there may be the slightest possibility that as 9 month olds or even adults they may be able to perceptually discriminate between faces of monkeys, because they would have nurtured their innate ability. Conceivably the interplay between Empiricism and Nativism ought to be further explored, together with research into possible cultural variations in infant perception.



Caron, A. J., Caron, R. F. & Carlson, V. R. (1979). Infant perception of the invariant shape of objects varying in slant. Child Development, Vol 50, No. 3, 716-721

Commins, W. D. (1932). Some early holistic psychologists. The Journal of Philosophy, Vol 29, No. 8, 208-217.

Fancher, R. E. (1996). Pioneers of Psychology. (3rd ed.). New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc.

Johnson, P. S. (1998). Object perception and object knowledge in young infants: A view from studies of visual development. In A. Slater (Ed.). Perceptual development, visual, auditory and speech perception in infancy. (pp. 211-239). East Sussex, UK: Psychology Press Ltd.

Pascalis, O., de Hann, M., & Nelson, C. A. (2002). Is Face Processing Species-Specific During the First Year of Life? Science, 296, 1321-1323.

Smith, P., Cowie, H., & Blades, M. (2011). Understanding Children’s development. (5th ed). West Sussex, UK: John Wiley & Sons Ltd

4 thoughts on “A comparison and evaluation of the nativist and empiricist views of infant perception.

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