Classic Psychology Study: Visual Cliff

In the original article, the researchers developed a visual cliff apparatus and made a hypothesis that depth perception is inherited rather than learned. Gibson and Walk (1960) utilized an experimental method to assess the independent variable of calling the infant from a particular side of the apparatus and the dependent variable of infant response. The most important finding was that human depth perception develops when an infant begins to crawl, so the fear of heights might be innate or originates from trial and error learning.

The authors of the peer-reviewed article applied the concept of social referencing (SR) to describe the infant’s use of signals from parents for behavior guidance in novel situations. Moller et al. (2014) examined several studies describing the relations between SR, children’s avoidance, and their fear of novelty. The authors indicated the lack of research on the impact of paternal SR. They proposed a hypothesis that parental SR processes leading to infant anxiety are different from the maternal ones. To test the hypothesis, the researchers utilized an experimental visual cliff model and put the infants on the shallow side of the structure with their mother or father standing by the cliff side. The presence of the mother or father was an independent variable, and the infant’s behavior was a dependent variable for testing SR processes. During the experiment, the parents encouraged their children to cross the structure’s deep part, while the researchers monitored the process.

As a result, there were no differences between the paternal and maternal influence on the infants’ reaction time and anxiety level. However, the researchers discovered that paternal expressed anxiety led to expressed avoidance and anxiety of the infant, while paternal encouragement was unrelated. Moreover, the authors indicated the negative association between infants’ anxious temperament and their avoidance of the cliff’s deep side when maternal encouragement was present (Moller et al., 2014). Overall, the authors supported their hypothesis and concluded that SR processes between fathers and infants differed from the maternal ones.

Moller et al. (2014) utilized the same experimental model as Gibson and Walk (1960) but applied it to evaluate the psychological impact of paternal SR on infants rather than infants’ depth perception. The authors of the peer-reviewed article supported the validity of the original study, as they tested the same dependent variable of infant reaction. (Moller et al., 2014). However, Gibson and Walk (1960) provided an ambiguous conclusion, while Moller et al. (2014) made an evidence-based statement regarding paternal versus maternal SR impact based on the results of the experiment.


Gibson, E. J., & Walk, R. D. (1960). The “visual cliff.” Scientific American, 202, 67–71.

Moller, E. L., Majdandzic, M., & Bogels, S. M. (2014). Fathers’ versus mothers’ social referencing signals in relation to infant anxiety and avoidance: a visual cliff experiment. Developmental Science, 17(6), 1012–1028.

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PsychologyWriting. 2023. "Classic Psychology Study: Visual Cliff." July 20, 2023.

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PsychologyWriting. "Classic Psychology Study: Visual Cliff." July 20, 2023.