Developmental trajectories provide the empirical foundation for theories about change processes during development. However, the ability to distinguish among alternative trajectories depends on how frequently observations are sampled. This study used real behavioral data, with real patterns of variability, to examine the effects of sampling at different intervals on characterization of the underlying trajectory. Data were derived from a set of 32 infant motor skills indexed daily during the first 18 months. Larger sampling intervals (2-31 days) were simulated by systematically removing observations from the daily data and interpolating over the gaps. Infrequent sampling caused decreasing sensitivity to fluctuations in the daily data: Variable trajectories erroneously appeared as step functions, and estimates of onset ages were increasingly off target. Sensitivity to variation decreased as an inverse power function of sampling interval, resulting in severe degradation of the trajectory with intervals longer than 7 days. These findings suggest that sampling rates typically used by developmental researchers may be inadequate to accurately depict patterns of variability and the shape of developmental change. Inadequate sampling regimes therefore may seriously compromise theories of development.
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