Pitfall or Pratfall? Behavioral Differences in Infant Learning From Falling

Danyang Han, Whitney G. Cole, Amy S. Joh, Yueqiao Liu, Scott R. Robinson, Karen E. Adolph

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Researchers routinely infer learning and other unobservable psychological functions based on observable behavior. But what behavioral changes constitute evidence of learning? The standard approach is to infer learning based on a single behavior across individuals, including assumptions about the direction and magnitude of change (e.g., everyone should avoid falling repeatedly on a treacherous obstacle). Here we illustrate the benefits of an alternative “multiexpression, relativist, agnostic, individualized” approach. We assessed infant learning from falling based on multiple behaviors relative to each individual’s baseline, agnostic about the direction and magnitude of behavioral change. We tested infants longitudinally (10.5–15 months of age) over the transition from crawling to walking. At each session, infants were repeatedly encouraged to crawl or walk over a fall-inducing foam pit interspersed with no-fall baseline trials on a rigid platform. Our approach revealed two learning profiles. Like adults in previous work, “pit-avoid” infants consistently avoided falling. In contrast, “pit-go” infants fell repeatedly across trials and sessions. However, individualized comparisons to baseline across multiple locomotor, exploratory, and social-emotional behaviors showed that pit-go infants also learned at every session. But they treated falling as an unimpactful “pratfall” rather than an aversive “pitfall.” Pit-avoid infants displayed enhanced learning across sessions and partial transfer of learning from crawling to walking, whereas pit-go infants displayed neither. Thus, reliance on a predetermined, “one-size-fits-all” behavioral expression of a psychological function can obscure different behavioral profiles and lead to erroneous inferences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)3243-3265
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology: General
Issue number11
StatePublished - 2023


  • Individual differences
  • associative learning
  • crawling
  • falling
  • walking

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • General Psychology


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