The Violation-of-Expectation Paradigm: A Conceptual Overview

Francesco Margoni, Luca Surian, Renée Baillargeon

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


For over 35 years, the violation-of-expectation paradigm has been used to study the development of expectations in the first 3 years of life. A wide range of expectations has been examined, including physical, psychological, sociomoral, biological, numerical, statistical, probabilistic, and linguistic expectations. Surprisingly, despite the paradigm’s widespread use and the many seminal findings it has contributed to psychological science, so far no one has tried to provide a detailed and in-depth conceptual overview of the paradigm. Here, we attempted to do just that. We first focus on the rationale of the paradigm and discuss how it has evolved over time. We then show how improved descriptions of infants’ looking behavior, together with the addition of a rich panoply of brain and behavioral measures, have helped deepen our understanding of infants’ responses to violations. Next, we review the paradigm’s strengths and limitations. Finally, we end with a discussion of challenges that have been leveled against the paradigm over the years. Through it all, our goal was twofold. First, we sought to provide psychologists and other scientists interested in the paradigm with an informed and constructive analysis of its theoretical origins and development. Second, we wanted to take stock of what the paradigm has revealed to date about how infants reason about events, and about how surprise at unexpected events, in or out of the laboratory, can lead to learning, by prompting infants to revise their working model of the world.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)716-748
Number of pages33
JournalPsychological review
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 2 2023


  • expectation
  • explanation
  • infant cognition
  • measures of surprise
  • ognitive development

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Psychology


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