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Violation of Expectation – the mechanism of dissonance

The holiday schedule has been extremely busy for all of us I’m sure. I still wanted to create a post or two, though they may be a tad shorter than normal. I’ll be talking about some of my favorite topics out of developmental psychology, so please throw me any questions that come to mind! If I didn’t enjoy talking about it, I wouldn’t post it!

Cognitive dissonance is one of the most fundamental parts of social psychological theory. You can read my post about it here! Imagine you just poured yourself a nice glass of tea. You place it down on a nice coaster, but when you lift it back up, your hand somehow slipped and you pick up a nearby glass of water instead. When you take a sip of the water thinking it’s tea you are certainly caught off guard. Many of us have done something like this before, and it’s a bit shocking. Suddenly you think something is wrong with this tea as it tastes horrid, but you look down and somehow you were just mistaken.

In summation, whenever something occurs that is outside of your expectation, you feel a bit conflicted. The feeling of conflict is created from your conflict monitor in your anterior cingulate. This part of the brain has to inhibit your old ideas and begin to accept the new ones. While you could accept this new reality, or you may also doubt the source or situation in which it occurred.

For example, if I tell you I saw a little green space man shoot lasers at a cow, you might assume the source of information (me) is at fault. If you see this event yourself, however, you may have to accept this new reality (or doubt your sanity).

Violations of expectation are even more fundamental than cognitive dissonance. The term is used in developmental psychology as we try to understand how an infant’s brain works. Cognitive dissonance typically refers to an event not fitting into your constructs or schemas that define a person, place, thing, event, etc. It’s a bit unclear just how much information an infant takes is, and how they organize their thoughts. So, we do not want to assume their brains work just like an adult brain. It’s a good distinction to make until we can prove otherwise.

How would we define a violation of expectation in an infant though? It’s a bit tricky. We can’t just ask them. Communication is obviously an issue. Oddly, their eye movements tell us quite a lot!

Let’s imagine I show an infant a video of a ball bouncing up and down. The first few times I have them watch it, they seem to pay attention. After the 4th of 5th time, they start to direct their gaze elsewhere. This is normally referred to as habituation. Habituation is normally calculated with a simplistic formula, but it could be defined different from experiment to experiment.
Typically, habituation (h) occurs if duration of gaze after the first exposure (g2) is half as long or less as the first exposure to the stimulus (g1). if g2<g1/2, then you have h! To be more clear if a child sees the bouncing ball and looks at it for 20 seconds, we will not say they have habituated until we present it and the child looks at it for 10 seconds or less (half the amount of time of the first exposure).

For an adult, we don’t use the term habituation anymore, we typically say they have learned, they have memory of, they can recall the item, etc. We can assess the knowledge in an adult, but for infants, we can only assess their attention based on their gaze. For that reason, we are limited to saying “habituation” instead of learning.

Now, experimenters could create a violation of expectation for the infants by showing my bouncing ball video again, but this time the ball would explode. instead of bouncing. How would we assess a violation of expectation?

If duration of gaze is greater than habituation (g2>g1/2) then we have violated expectation! In this way, we are able to assess (to a minor degree) the memory of infants without ever being able to communicate with them. I find research methods of this nature to be completely fascinating. The biggest mistake we make as developmental scientist is the assumption that an infant or child’s brain is just a slower version of our own brain with less capacity. The evidence overwhelmingly shows us that the brains of infant and children work in a qualitatively different manner than adults. In the next few weeks I’ll share a few more short snippets that build on this premise.

In the meantime… HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!


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