Home > Development > Are you a Patriots or Giants fan? Transitive Reasoning Skills will help your first-born decipher which die-hard fan you are before Potty Training!

Are you a Patriots or Giants fan? Transitive Reasoning Skills will help your first-born decipher which die-hard fan you are before Potty Training!

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We all pick “favorites” or have things that we prefer in our everyday lives. It may be chicken alfredo over marinara sauce at your favorite Italian restaurant, moose tracks ice cream over cookies and cream or the Patriots over the Giants. But – would you believe that an infant of only 16 months could understand and interpret YOUR preferences?

The way children of only 1.5 years old can pick up on preferences is through transitive reasoning, a process through which they recognize relationships among things in a consecutive and logical order.  For example, if Brendan prefers the Giants over the Patriots, and prefers the Patriots over the Eagles, we can assume Brendan prefers the Giants over the Eagles as well (i.e., If A > B and B > C, then A > C). This is an interesting and powerful thing for parents with young children to learn, particularly if their future team allegiances are important!

According to Jean Piaget, a well-known Swiss psychologist, children do not gain transitive reasoning skills until after infancy. This claim comes from his theory of cognitive development, which separates child development into four stages. Each stage is separated by big milestone achievements. For example, in the second stage, between the ages of two and six, a child begins to learn language. During the third stage, between the ages of seven and twelve, which is called the “concrete operational period,” a child starts to develop concepts and can perform mental operations, such as seriation, which involves tasks like a child putting their stuffed animals in order from biggest to smallest. Also he claims that it is not until the third stage that a child will develop transitive reasoning skills. Piaget’s theory provided a reference point for psychologists; however, his critics challenge whether he underestimated the true abilities of child development. 

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As three such critics, Yi Mou, Jordan Province and Yuyan Lou set out to test infants’ true transitive reasoning skills, hoping to prove that transitivity develops in infancy. As infants sat on their parent’s lap, an experimenter sat behind two different colored footballs, acting out her preferences clearly for the child. First, the experimenter sat behind a red football placed on the right and a yellow football placed on the left. The experimenter would noticeably choose the red football, demonstrating that she “preferred” the red football over the yellow one. Then the infant would watch a second trial in which the experimenter sat behind a yellow football placed on the right and a green football placed on the left. This time the experimenter chose the yellow football as her favorite. Through these trials, if the infant “learned” what the experimenter preferred, they would expect that between the red and green ball, the experimenter would choose the red football. Therefore, if the Eagles beat the Patriots, the infant should know that the experimenter wouldn’t be too happy.

Then the infants were put to the test. The experimenter returned and sat behind a green football on the right and a red football on the left. During the first presentation the experimenter would reach for the green football, which is an unexpected event, as in the previous trials the infant should have learned that the experimenter prefers the red one. The second time the experimenter would reach for the red football over the green, which is an expected event, in line with what the child had learned in the first round.

To measure whether or not the infants in the study possessed transitive reasoning skills, experimenters measured an infant’s looking time and where they directed their gaze. Babies will look longer at new, surprising things and will look for a short amount of time at things that cause boredom because nothing has changed. So if the experimenter chose the red football, the infant should look at the experimenter for a short amount of time because he or she would already expect that they would’ve chose the red football. However, if the experimenter chooses the green football, a red flag (Pun intended) should pop up in the infant’s head. The infant should look at the experimenter for a long period of time because the event is unexpected, causing an element of surprise as if the infant was thinking, “But wait a minute, I thought you didn’t like the eagles.”

Data from this study did in fact show that the majority of infants looked longer at the unexpected event than the expected event! But as the experimenters continued to play around with ordering, results became murky. Since the presentations shown to the infant were no longer in sequential order, it made it more difficult for the infant to process what football the experimenter preferred the most. In fact, the reverse order of trials led the majority of infants to look longer at the expected event than the unexpected event – NOT what Mou, Province, and Lou were hoping to find! Though the infants had a hard time figuring out which football the experimenter preferred, they didn’t necessarily lack transitive reasoning skills, but instead these results highlighted the importance of learning preferences chronologically, in an easy-to-digest order.

So, Yi Mou, Jordan Province and Yuyan Lou set out with another experiment, keeping a similar methodology as the one before, but making one addition: after infants saw what the experimenter preferred, he stepped out of the room and then the infants were presented with three colored footballs in various orders.  As seen in Figure 1, the footballs were displayed without the experimenter present to see if the order of the footballs on the table influenced the infant’s reaction. If the color order of the footballs was green, yellow, red, it was considered a “consistent-direction” condition because they were vertically set up from least favorite to most favorite football. The reverse color order of red, green, yellow was considered an “inconsistent-direction” condition because the order was not sequential and did not match the position of the preferred experimenter’s red football in earlier trials. The experimenter would come back in and choose the red football over the green, or in alternative trials would choose the green over the red, demonstrating an unexpected event.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The findings again supported the importance of chronological ordering, as the majority of infants during consistent-direction trials looked longer at the unexpected event than the expected one. The children in the inconsistent- direction trials had a more difficult time picking up on an “unexpected event” because the task was much too difficult, confusing infants as to which football the experimenter preferred. The children in the consistent-direction group had a much easier time reading the experimenter’s preferences because the trials were set up in an organized manner, similar to the first experiment, which allowed the infant to make inferences faster.

This study proves Piaget wrong and supports the fact that infants as young as 16 months possess transitive reasoning skills if probed the correct way, which in turn helps them understand people’s preferences! If an age-appropriate task, such as putting colored footballs in order from least favorite to most favorite, is presented to an infant, a basic level of transitive reasoning skills will be observed. It seems that successive ordering cues are what help trigger transitivity in infants, helping them engage in this developmental skill.

In real life, the results of these studies can be used across households in America with young children, and especially for those who want to instill allegiances from a young age. My advice to those parents? Keep reaching for that lucky red Patriots football in your hand during big NFL games and leave a blue Giants and green Eagles football somewhere on the floor. Your baby will then be sure to know what die-hard fan they’ll be when they grow up… even if verbal communication is still at a mere “goo goo gaga.” There’s plenty of time to teach them the team’s fight song.


 Mou, Y., Province, J., & Luo, Y. (2013). Can Infants Make Transitive Inferences?. Cognitive Psychology68, 98-112.

Image 1 Source: Reuter, Traci. “Stop crying, the game hasn’t started yet.” JPG file.




Categories: Development Tags: ,
  1. May 7th, 2014 at 17:36 | #1

    Very interesting post. I suppose it’s good that researchers are still testing the most famous theories in psychology, such as Jean Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. It was and still is very difficult to measure cognitive abilities in infants, so it’s easy to see why there would be disagreements in deciding at which age babies develop particular cognitive skills. Measuring length of observation seems like a valid way to test what’s going on in a babies head because if they fixate their attention on something for a significantly longer time, there must be something causing that increase in attention. However, is that enough to confidently conclude that the baby knows which ball you prefer? I’m a little skeptical about that.

    It would be interesting to perform the experiment again but with varying time delays between the initial ball presentation and test presentation. I would predict that any fixation differences would decay as a function of time between the learning event and the testing.

  2. October 7th, 2014 at 23:23 | #2

    As with the above commenter, does this study actually prove Piaget wrong? Is there really an accurate and effective way to tell? I feel that yes, in this experiment, presenting the footballs in chronological order did result in the infants appearing to exhibit transitive reasoning skills by observing the consistent direction trials for less time than the inconsistent trials. However, I would love to see the data of milliseconds of time each infant took to observe each arrangement of footballs because, as a reader without data, I am unsure if the data is consistent with the infants in the consistent trials having a “much easier time” determining the experiment’s preferences. Also, the fact that the children are not able to speak in sentences or read leads me to believe that they cannot critically think and this experiment succeeded by coincidence or chance. How could infants communicate thoughts in their heads without a medium of cognition such as language that allows them to reason between the different colors of footballs? Or are the children able to acquire transitive reasoning based on strictly imagery? I just feel that reasoning in terms of images requires enough language to comprehend and analyze situations enough to predict preferences. Do infants of this age have object permanence enough to decipher the different footballs? Is there a scientific way to measure the neural activity of an infant as she or he observes the footballs being moves around and “picked” by the experimenter? I am just confused about the legitimacy of the findings of this experiment.

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