Robert Fantz: The Looking Chamber Experiment

Psychologist Robert Fantz investigated what babies really understand about the world with his looking chamber experiment.

Psychologist Robert Fantz investigated what babies really understand about the world with his looking chamber experiment.

Robert Fantz, a developmental psychologist, in his 1961 series of experiments, investigated what babies really understand about the world.

The eyes of tiny infants look glazed and they mostly seem concerned with the bare necessities of life.

What do they understand about the world and how can you possibly find out, given that babies are not so hot on answering complex questions about their perceptual abilities?

In 1961, when Fantz carried out his experiment, there wasn’t much you could do to find out what was going on in a baby’s head – other than watch.

And watching the baby is what he did.

An enduring feature of human nature is if there’s something of interest near us, we generally look at it.

So Fantz set up a display board above the baby to which were attached two pictures (Fantz, 1961).

On one was a bulls-eye and on the other was the sketch of a human face.

Then, from behind the board, invisible to the baby, he peeked through a hole to watch what the baby looked at.

The results

What he found was that a two-month old baby looked twice as much at the human face as it did at the bulls-eye.

This suggested that human babies have some powers of pattern and form selection.

Before this it was thought that babies looked out onto a chaotic world of which they could make little sense.

In modern psychology the descendants of this experiment are still used today to find out what babies understand about the world.

These have discovered that we’re remarkably early developers.

At one month we can follow a slow-moving object.

At two months we can move both our eyes together and begin to appreciate how far away things are.

At three months we can tell the difference between members of our family (Hunt, 1993).

As a result of these and similar studies, psychologists have suggested that we are born with a definite preference for viewing human faces.

This would certainly make evolutionary sense as other human faces hold all sorts of useful information which is vital for our survival.

Not a bad set of conclusions from simply watching a baby’s eyes!


Why The Monster Study On Stuttering Was Unethical

The so-called ‘Monster Study’ on children’s stuttering was dramatic, unethical and was never published.

The so-called ‘Monster Study’ on children’s stuttering was dramatic, unethical and was never published.

The so-called ‘Monster Study’ on children’s stuttering was carried out in 1939 on 22 orphaned children in Davenport, Iowa.

Conducted under the supervision of Dr Wendell Johnson, a severe stutterer himself, the study examined the effects of being labelled a ‘stutterer’ on children’s development.

The research was dramatic on three counts:

  1. It was unethical.
  2. Its results were never published for fear it would be likened to experiments carried out by the Nazis (Rothwell, 2003).
  3. Finally, in historical context, its findings were dramatic.

Monster study summary

Dr Wendell Johnson, a speech pathologist, wanted to show that the prevailing theories about the causes of stuttering were wrong.

During the 1930s it was thought that stuttering had an organic or genetic cause.

This meant you were born a stutterer (or not) and little could be done.

Dr Johnson had different ideas. Instead he thought the labelling of children as stutterers could actually make them worse, and in some cases cause ‘normal’ children to start stuttering.

To prove his point, he suggested an experiment which has since become known as the ‘Monster Study’.

Power of labelling

For the ‘monster study’, twenty-two young orphans were recruited to participate in the experiment.

They were then divided into two groups.

The first were labelled ‘normal speakers’ and the second ‘stutterers’.

Crucially only half of the group labelled stutterers did actually show signs of stuttering.

During the course of the experiment, the normal speakers were given positive encouragement but it was the treatment of the other group that has made the experiment notorious as the ‘monster study’.

The group labelled stutterers were made more self-conscious about stuttering.

They were lectured about stuttering and told to take extra care not to repeat words.

Other teachers and staff at the orphanage were even unknowingly recruited to reinforce the label as the researchers told them the whole group were stutterers.

Monster study dramatic results

Of the six ‘normal’ children in the stuttering group, five began stuttering after the negative therapy.

Of the five children who had stuttered before their ‘therapy’, three became worse.

In comparison, only one of the children in the group labelled ‘normal’ had greater speech problems after the study.

Realising the power of their experiment, the researchers tried to undo the damage they had done, but to no avail.

It seemed the effects of labelling the children stutterers was permanent.

This is something the orphans labelled stutterers have had to cope with for the rest of their lives.

Clearly this research raises a number of major ethical issues.

Defending the monster study

  • The researchers had the best of intentions – they were motivated to help stutterers of all ages. Indeed Dr. Wendell Johnson was himself a severe stutterer.
  • The findings supported Dr Johnson’s theory and contributed to new and successful ways of treating people with stutters.

Why the monster study was unethical

Despite the researcher’s good intentions, the ‘monster study’ fails on any number of ethical dimensions.

  • The children were never told they had been involved in a study, until it was revealed by a newspaper over 60 years later.
  • The teachers and administrators of the orphanage were also misled about the purpose of the study. This deception was never explained to them.
  • The study was never published. Because of this some argue the damage inflicted on the children was even more unethical. All studies must balance the potential risks against the potential benefits. Without publication and dissemination through the academic community, this study’s benefits are reduced.

The final word

This is left to the University of Iowa, where Dr Johnson was working at the time of the experiment.

In 2001, 36 years after his death, they issued a formal apology, calling the experiment both regrettable and indefensible.

This judgement is impossible to argue with.

UPDATE: Six participants in this study have just won a £500,000 settlement against the University of Iowa.


Children’s Memories Work In A Surprising Way (M)

Children’s ‘delayed remembering’ goes hand-in-hand with their so-called ‘extreme forgetting’.

Children's 'delayed remembering' goes hand-in-hand with their so-called 'extreme forgetting'.

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A Fascinating Sign That You Have A High IQ

This parental behaviour is linked to more intelligent children.

This parental behaviour is linked to more intelligent children.

Children whose parents are ‘chatterboxes’ tend to have higher IQs, research finds.

Children hearing more speech from their caregivers had better reasoning and numeracy skills, the observational study found.

Some children in the study heard twice as many words as others.

Perhaps less surprisingly, children who heard higher quality speech from their parents, using a more diverse vocabulary, knew more words themselves.

For the study, tiny audio recorders were fitted to 107 children aged between 2 and 4.

They were recorded for 16 hours a day for three days at home.

Ms Katrina d’Apice, the study’s first author, explained the results:

“Using the audio recorders allowed us to study real-life interactions between young children and their families in an unobtrusive way within the home environment rather than a lab setting.

We found that the quantity of adult spoken words that children hear is positively associated with their cognitive ability.

However, further research is needed to explore the reasons behind this link — it could be that greater exposure to language provides more learning opportunities for children, but it could also be the case that more intelligent children evoke more words from adults in their environment.”

While parental talk was linked to children’s cognitive abilities, their parenting strategy was linked to their behaviour.

Specifically, positive parenting was linked to less aggression, disobedience and restlessness.

Positive parenting involves responding to children in positive ways and encouraging them to explore the world.

Professor Sophie von Stumm, study co-author, said:

“This study is the largest naturalistic observation of early life home environments to date.

We found that the quantity of adult spoken words that children were exposed to varied greatly within families.

Some kids heard twice as many words on one day as they did on the next.

The study highlights the importance of treating early life experiences as dynamic and changeable rather than static entities — approaching research in this way will help us to understand the interplay between environmental experiences and children’s differences in development.”

The study was published in the journal Developmental Psychology (d’Apice et al., 2019).

The Childhood Sign That Your Adult Relationships Will Last

The one thing that predicts satisfying romantic relationships.

The one thing that predicts satisfying romantic relationships.

People who have strong friendships as teenagers tend to have better romantic relationships as adults, research reveals.

Children who got on better with their friends at 13-years-old were more satisfied with their romantic partners at 30-years-old, the study found.

Adolescence is an important training ground for friendships, which predicts more satisfying romantic relationships later on.

Adolescent romances, though, have less influence on romantic satisfaction later on.

Professor Joseph P. Allen, the study’s first author, said:

“In spite of the emphasis teens put on adolescent romantic relationships, they turn out not to be the most important predictor of future romantic success.

Instead, it’s the skills learned in friendships with peers of the same gender — skills such as stability, assertiveness, intimacy, and social competence — that correspond most closely to the skills needed for success in adult romantic relationships.”

Researchers interviewed 165 adolescents at aged 13 and followed them through to age 30.

They were all asked about the quality of their social and romantic relationships.

Over the last three years of the study, when the participants were in their late 20s, they were given annual interviews about their romantic lives.

The results revealed a fascinating pattern.

People were more satisfied with their romantic relationships at 30 if they had better friendships aged 13.

As teenagers they expected to have positive interactions and were able to be assertive.

Having close friendships at ages 15 to 18 also predicted later relationship satisfaction.

In other words, it was successful (same-sex) friendships in adolescence that were linked to better romantic relationships later on.

Ms Rachel K. Narr, study co-author, explained:

“Romantic relationships in adolescence are much more likely to be fleeting, and as such, they don’t appear to be the main way teens learn skills needed for the future.”

The study was published in the journal Child Development (Allen al., 2019).