Babies Bamboozled by Numbers: What’s so hard about four?
Most of the time, when I am blindsided by a seemingly perplexing psychological phenomenon—prephonological spelling, for instance, or the downside of social intelligence—it doesn’t take more than a day’s research to convince me that said phenomenon makes sense after all, at least on some level, at least well enough to write about. I often come away questioning whether it was really that surprising in the first place.
But it’s safe to say that babies and numbers—specifically one-year-olds and the number four—are an exception. What am I talking about? In studies published in 2003 and 2005, Lisa Feigenson of Johns Hopkins and Susan Carey of Harvard brought 12-to-14-month-old infants into a lab for a manual search task. The infants first watched as an experimenter placed one Ping-Pong ball at a time into a box. “Look at this!” the experimenter said. “What’s in my box?” The babies, who, thanks to the presence of a spiraling ball chute, were pretty motivated to retrieve the balls, subsequently reached into the box themselves to pull them out.
Except, this being an experiment, the box also had a hidden slit in the back. Thus, after depositing the balls, the experimenter could remove any number of them without the baby being any the wiser. The researchers were interested in whether an infant who had watched three balls enter the box, but could only retrieve two, would scour the box for a longer period of time than if he’d been able to retrieve all three. This would suggest he was able to mentally represent three individual objects.