Conventional belief states that infants are scared of heights. That is why they are often seen as smiling when at the edge of a cliff. But the question that has been debated by researchers is that if infants are actually scared of heights. The article ‘Fear of Heights in Infants?’ by Adolph et al. shows that the conventional belief is a myth and provides an alternative explanation as to why infants avoid falling off the edge (61-64). This paper is a summary of the article.
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The article presents a comprehensive analysis of the literature on infants’ fear of height. The first section presents studies that showed that infants are actually afraid of heights. The primary basis of the research on fear of height is based on the seminal work done by E.J. Gibson and Walk in 1960 (Adolph et al. 61). Their study first reported that infants who could crawl would avoid going over the edge of a surface that would cause them to fall.
Thus, the debate on the subject began with the contention that human infants must develop their self-produced locomotive ability in order to avoid a visual cliff. In other words, infants who have not learnt to crawl or walk will be unable to avoid a fall from height and would plunge right over the edge. Consequently, it may be concluded that an individual would avoid a risky situation such as falling from a cliff if one is scared. Hence, infants who do not fall over the edge are actually scared of heights, which is why they avoid falling. This argument is supported by studies that have shown an increase in heart rate of infants when they are on the edge of a visual cliff (Adolph et al. 61).
Adolph et al. provide evidence that infants are not actually scared of heights as conventional belief and early scientific findings showed (62). This is because they believe that researchers do not have any substantiating proof to support the existence of fear in infants. They presented five arguments to prove their stand. They argued that fear was actually an avoidance mechanism in infants. They believe that the physical evidence (i.e. increased heart rate) presented as the proof of fear, is actually an indication of an arousal of excitement (Adolph et al. 62).
They also argue that infants, while closing the edge of a cliff, do not show the usual signs of negative expression such as crying or clinging to the caregiver. Instead, their facial expression has been found to be positive or neutral (Adolph et al. 62). This negates the popular theory that infants’ accelerated heartbeat shows fear.
The second argument that they presented was the physical proximity of an infant to a cliff. They pointed out that infants on the edge of a cliff usually put their hands forward or rock to and forth. Adolph et al. believed that if infants were scared of heights they would avoid going close to the edge (62). Instead, they are drawn to a cliff side and try to figure out how they would try to survive if they had a fall.
The third argument presented against fear is that infants have no idea what it would mean to fall from different heights. For instance, a fall from the edge of a bed would cause almost no harm to a child but a fall from the edge of a cliff may be fatal. Therefore, infants do not understand the severity of the fall and do not judge a cliff-side accordingly. However, if they were afraid, they would consider the height of the elevation.
The fourth contention against fear is that infant’s decision on the edge of a precipice depends on the constraints of the test situation (Adolph et al. 62). This creates the difference in reaction and response of infants in different test situations. Had fear been the reason for avoiding fall then, all infants should have reacted in a similar fashion across all conditions.
The fifth argument presented by Adolph et al. shows that infants’ fear of height depends on their newly acquired posture or old familiar ones (63). For instance, a child who has just learnt to walk will be reluctant to walk over a cliff but an infant who has been crawling for some time and had experience doing it would avoid falling over a cliff. Thus, if infants are scared of heights after they learn to move then more infants should avoid falling over a cliff once they are experienced crawlers.
Adolph et al. then show why they believe infants are not afraid of heights yet they avoid a fall (64). They believe it is due to the combination of an infant’s locomotive ability and its familiarity with the environment. Thus, when experienced crawlers walk over the ledge they are more confident of their movement and are probably more aware of their surroundings. This, and not fear of height, helps infants avoid a fall.
Adolph, Karen E, et al. “Fear of Heights in Infants?” Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol. 23, no.1, 2014, pp. 60–66.