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The Hidden Structure Of ‘Over-imitation’

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Children learn by imitating adults–so much so that they will rethink how an object works if they observe an adult taking unnecessary steps when using that object, according to a new Yale study.

Adult retrieves turtle from puzzle box as part of experiment that determined children “over-imitate” adult behavior. (Credit: Yale Department of Psychology)

“Even when you add time pressure, or warn the children not to do the unnecessary actions, they seem unable to avoid reproducing the adult’s irrelevant actions,” said Derek Lyons, doctoral candidate, developmental psychology, and first author of the study. “They have already incorporated the actions into their idea of how the object works.”

Learning by imitation occurs from the simplest preverbal communication to the most complex adult expertise. It is the basis for much of our success as a species, but the benefits are less clear in instances of “over-imitation,” where children copy behavior that is not needed, Lyons said.

It has been theorized that children over-imitate just to fit in, or out of habit. The Yale team found in this study that children follow the adults’ steps faithfully to the point where they actually change their mind about how an object functions.

The study included three-to-five-year-old children who engaged in a series of exercises. In one exercise, the children could see a dinosaur toy through a clear plastic box. The researcher used a sequence of irrelevant and relevant actions to retrieve the toy, such as tapping the lid of the jar with a feather before unscrewing the lid.

The children then were asked which actions were silly and which were not. They were praised when they pinpointed the actions that had no value in retrieving the toy. The idea was to teach the children that the adult was unreliable and that they should ignore his unnecessary actions.

Later the children watched adults retrieve a toy turtle from a box using needless steps. When asked to do the task themselves, the children over-imitated, despite their prior training to ignore irrelevant actions by the adults.

“What of all of this means,” Lyons said, “is that children’s ability to imitate can actually lead to confusion when they see an adult doing something in a disorganized or inefficient way. Watching an adult doing something wrong can make it much harder for kids to do it right.”

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. USA, 10.1073/pnas.0704452104

The hidden structure of overimitation

Derek E. Lyons*,{dagger}, Andrew G. Young{ddagger}, and Frank C. Keil*

*Department of Psychology, Yale University, Box 208205, New Haven, CT 06520; and {ddagger}Department of Psychology, University of Wisconsin, Brogden Hall, Madison, WI 53706

Edited by Susan E. Carey, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, and approved October 18, 2007 (received for review May 11, 2007)


Young children are surprisingly judicious imitators, but there are also times when their reproduction of others’ actions appears strikingly illogical. For example, children who observe an adult inefficiently operating a novel object frequently engage in what we term overimitation, persistently reproducing the adult’s unnecessary actions. Although children readily overimitate irrelevant actions that even chimpanzees ignore, this curious effect has previously attracted little interest; it has been assumed that children overimitate not for theoretically significant reasons, but rather as a purely social exercise. In this paper, however, we challenge this view, presenting evidence that overimitation reflects a more fundamental cognitive process. We show that children who observe an adult intentionally manipulating a novel object have a strong tendency to encode all of the adult’s actions as causally meaningful, implicitly revising their causal understanding of the object accordingly. This automatic causal encoding process allows children to rapidly calibrate their causal beliefs about even the most opaque physical systems, but it also carries a cost. When some of the adult’s purposeful actions are unnecessary—even transparently so—children are highly prone to mis-encoding them as causally significant. The resulting distortions in children’s causal beliefs are the true cause of overimitation, a fact that makes the effect remarkably resistant to extinction. Despite countervailing task demands, time pressure, and even direct warnings, children are frequently unable to avoid reproducing the adult’s irrelevant actions because they have already incorporated them into their representation of the target object’s causal structure.

Written by huehueteotl

December 6, 2007 at 4:15 pm

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