On object permanence.

In one of my education courses, we learned about something Jean Piaget labelled “object permanence”–the understanding that objects don’t cease to exist simply because you can’t see them. The youngest infants haven’t developed this understanding yet; that’s why you can play hide-and-seek with them simply by holding a blanket over your face.

A week or two ago, some of my students were being a little rowdy, so I told them about this concept. I then told them that behavioral psychologists may be wrong when they say that babies develop it in the first few months of life–after all, these students were 15, 16, and 17 years old and they didn’t seem to realize that other people do exist outside their field of vision. They seemed to think I couldn’t hear them simply because they weren’t looking at me. The kids got the point, and got back on task.

Well, this past weekend, I had reason to question whether certain adults have developed object permanence. On Friday, my family arrived in New Jersey to attend my brother’s wedding.* Got to the hotel at 10 at night, had dinner in the hotel restaurant, hung out with family I hadn’t seen in a while, and headed for my room at a quarter to midnight.

I passed two of the hotel’s employees in the hallway. They stood about thirty feet apart, just outside people’s doors, and talking to each other. Loudly. Loudly enough that I probably should have written “shrieking” instead of “talking.” Loudly enough to suggest that they failed to grasp the purpose of a hotel, which is that people pay to sleep in them.

And then it occurred to me that maybe they hadn’t developed our friend “object permanence” yet. What if the employees simply didn’t realize that the guests still existed? After all, the hotel guests were in their rooms, behind locked doors with “Do Not Disturb” signs hanging from the doorknobs.

It’s possible that these employees were simply rude and inconsiderate. But if I’m right, and these adults haven’t developed this cognitive capacity that most infants have before their first birthday, then perhaps I was being insensitive in thinking they should have been terminated immediately.

* When I learned that my brother’s wedding would be done barefoot on a New Jersey beach, I joked:

There’ll be all sorts of ungodly medical waste washing ashore from New York. Hopefully they’ll rake the beach a day or two ahead of time, to get the hypodermics out of the sand.

–Me, “These last coupla weeks,” October 9, 2007

Sure enough, the beach was shut down for the three days prior to the wedding due to medical waste washing ashore. However, it wasn’t New York medical waste; it was local.