Catastrophic individuation failures in infancy: A new model and predictions

Maayan Stavans, Yi Lin, Di Wu, Renée Baillargeon

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


Comparison of infant findings from the physical-reasoning and object-individuation literatures reveals a contradictory picture. On the one hand, physical-reasoning results indicate that young infants can use featural information to guide their actions on objects and to detect interaction violations (when objects interact in ways that are not physically possible) as well as change violations (when objects spontaneously undergo featural changes that are not physically possible). On the other hand, object-individuation results indicate that young infants typically cannot use featural information to detect individuation violations (when the number of objects revealed at the end of an event is less than the number of objects introduced during the event). In this article, we attempt to reconcile these two bodies of research. In a new model of early individuation, we propose that two systems help infants individuate objects in physical events: the object-file and physical-reasoning systems. Under certain conditions, disagreements between the systems result in catastrophic individuation failures, leading infants to hold no expectation at all about how many objects are present. We report experiments with 9- to 11-month-old infants (N = 216) that tested predictions from the model. After two objects emerged in alternation from behind a screen, infants detected no violation when the screen was lowered to reveal no object. Similarly, after two objects emerged in alternation from inside a box, which was then shaken, infants detected no violation when the box remained silent, as though empty. We end with new directions, suggested by our model, for research on early object representations.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)196-225
Number of pages30
JournalPsychological review
Issue number2
StatePublished - Mar 2019


  • Infant cognition
  • Object individuation
  • Object-file system
  • Physical-reasoning system

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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