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Infants' attribution of agent and recipient roles to animate and inanimate objects in a causal event

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Research on the perception of causality suggests that infants' ability to perceive causal events develops during the first year of life (Oakes, 2003). However, few studies have investigated whether infants associate the role of an agent with animate beings and the role of a recipient with inanimate objects in a causal event. Using an infant-controlled habituation procedure, the aims of the present two experiments were to examine whether (a) infants are able to detect a role-reversal in a causal event featuring animals and furniture items and (b) infants are able to detect an incongruent role-reversal in which an inanimate object plays the role of an agent. Results of Experiment 1 revealed that 16-month-old infants who had habituated to causal events involving animal agents and furniture recipients looked longer at the test trial, in which the roles were reversed relative to the habituation events, than at the test trial, in which the roles were maintained. Results from Experiment 2 revealed that when infants were habituated to category-congruent causal events, 19-, but not 13-, month-old infants looked longer at the test event featuring an incongruent role-reversal than at the test event featuring a congruent role-reversal. Overall, these results indicate that infants are able to perceive a role-reversal between animals and furniture, and that by 19 months of age, infants are able to associate agent-recipient roles with the appropriate category. These results shed light on infants' developing knowledge of causal events as well as their conceptualization of animates and inanimates.

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