Ambiguous figures – pictures that have two different interpretations, such as the duck – rabbit pictured above, and the popular image of blue – white dress that circulated the internet a few years ago have interested researchers for decades. The physical properties of these figures remain constant and unchanged, but two distinct interpretations are possible. These interpretations can reverse from one percept to the other, but the specific processes that allow this reversal remain largely unclear.

Previous research has shown that adults that are able to reverse the image to reveal two different interpretations of a figure have developed a conceptual framework capable of representing that the figures can have multiple interpretations (e.g. Girgus, Rock, & Egatz, 1977; Rock & Mitchener, 1992; Rock, Hall, & Davis, 1994). This is likely because they already know that the figure is ambiguous and can contain different interpretations, and/ or they have prior knowledge of what the potential interpretations could be.

However, young children are not likely to have had as much experience with ambiguous figures, and as a result, they often struggle with tasks that require reversibility.

So, when does reversibility develop, and what processes underlie this ability?

Studies have shown that while children cannot reverse at all before the age of 4, more than 50% tend to develop this ability by the age of 5 years old (Rock, Gopnik, & Hall, 1994). This indicates that the processes that underpin reversal develop at around this age.

Further studies have sought to investigate what conceptual abilities underlie the ability to reverse and have highlighted some interesting results.

In research conducted by Doherty & Wimmer (2005) children between the ages of 3 – 5 took part in a series of tests that assessed reversibility and their ability to understand belief. These included the Ambiguous Figures test, the False Belief task, and the Droodle task.

  • The Ambiguous Figures test: children are asked to identify two different interpretations of the ambiguous line drawings presented to them (e.g., the duck/rabbit). This measures the child’s ability to reverse the image presented to them.
  • The False Belief task: children are told a story which is acted out using dolls, a marble, a small box, and a jar. In the story, Sally places a marble in a box before leaving the room. Another doll, Tony, moves the marble to a jar and also leaves. Sally then returns and the children are asked ‘where will Sally look first for her marble? ‘where is the marble really?’, and ‘where did Sally put the marble in the beginning?’. This is to test the child’s understanding of belief.
  • The Droodle task: involves showing children a drawing that has been covered up so that only a small part of it is identifiable and, regardless of their guesses, revealing the image to them and asking if a puppet, who had never seen the image before, would know what the image is once it has been covered up again. This is a measure of the childrens understanding of the effect of ambiguity on others mental states.

The results from this experiment suggested that the ability to acknowledge two different interpretations from an ambiguous figure develops rapidly around the age of 4- years old and is linked to the ability to understand belief (as revealed by the results of the False Belief and Droodle tasks). Put differently, this means that children will only attempt to reverse once they have developed an understanding of the representational relationship between the figure and its two interpretations.

Watch the video below to see 5 – year old, Amber, succesfully use reversal to reveal the different interpretations of the ambiguous figure presented to her.


Girgus, J., Rock, I., & Egatz., R. (1977). The effect of knowledge of reversibility on the reversibility of ambiguous figures, Perception & Psychophysics, 22, 550-556.

Jastrow, J. (1900). Fact and Fable in Psychology. Oxford, England: Houghton, Mifflin.

Rock, I., & Mitchener, K. (1992). Further evidence of failure of reversal of ambiguous figures by uninformed subjects. Perception, 21, 39-45.

Rock, I., Hall, S., & Davis, J. (1994). Why do ambiguous figures reverse? Acta Psychologica, 87, 33-59.

Rock, I., Gopnik, A., & Hall, S. (1994). Do young children reverse ambiguous figures? Perception, 23, 635-644.

Doherty, M. J., & Wimmer, M. C. (2005). Children’s understanding of ambiguous figures: Which cognitive developments are necessary to experience reversal?. Cognitive development, 20(3), 407-421.


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