How do the object-file and physical-reasoning systems interact? Evidence from priming effects with object arrays or novel labels

Yi Lin, Jie Li, Yael Gertner, Weiting Ng, Cynthia L Fisher, Renée Baillargeon

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


How do infants reason about simple physical events such as containment, tube, and support events? According to the two-system model, two cognitive systems, the object-file (OF) and physical-reasoning (PR) systems, work together to guide infants' responses to these events. When an event begins, the OF system sends categorical information about the objects and their arrangements to the PR system. This system then categorizes the event, assigns event roles to the objects, and taps the OF system for information about features previously identified as causally relevant for the event category selected. All of the categorical and featural information included in the event's representation is interpreted by the PR system's domain knowledge, which includes core principles such as persistence and gravity. The present research tested a novel prediction of the model: If the OF system could be primed to also send, at the beginning of an event, information about an as-yet-unidentified feature, the PR system would then interpret this information using its core principles, allowing infants to detect core violations involving the feature earlier than they normally would. We examined this prediction using two types of priming manipulations directed at the OF system, object arrays and novel labels. In six experiments, infants aged 7-13 months (N = 304) were tested using different event categories and as-yet-unidentified features (color in containment events, height in tube events, and proportional distribution in support events) as well as different tasks (violation-of-expectation and action tasks). In each case, infants who were effectively primed reasoned successfully about the as-yet-unidentified feature, sometimes as early as six months before they would typically do so. These converging results provide strong support for the two-system model and for the claim that uncovering how the OF and PR systems represent and exchange information is essential for understanding how infants respond to physical events.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number101368
JournalCognitive Psychology
StatePublished - Mar 2021


  • Event representation
  • Infant cognition
  • Object-file system
  • Physical reasoning
  • Physical-reasoning system
  • Priming

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Neuropsychology and Physiological Psychology
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Linguistics and Language


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