Kids are selective imitators, not extreme copycats

kid mimicking an adult

COPY THAT  New research challenges the idea that young children blindly copy everything adults do to complete a task, including irrelevant actions. It all depends on whether kids see one or, more realistically, several adults perform the same task.


Psychologists generally regard preschoolers as supreme copycats. Those little bundles of energy will imitate whatever an adult does to remove a prize from a box, including irrelevant and just plain silly stuff. If an experimenter pats a container twice before lifting a latch to open it, so will most kids who watched the demonstration.

There’s an official scientific name for mega-mimicry of this sort: overimitation. Maybe copying everything helps youngsters learn rituals and other cultural quirks. Maybe kids imitate to excess so that an adult who appears to possess special knowledge will like them.

Or maybe overimitation is overrated. In realistic learning situations — where children can gauge whether a majority of adults are patting a box or otherwise going off course before getting down to business — copycat fever cools off dramatically.   

That’s the conclusion of a team led by psychologist Cara Evans of the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History in Jena, Germany. “The term ‘overimitation’ misleadingly suggests that children mindlessly and inefficiently copy irrelevant actions,” Evans says. “Instead, children imitate adults in highly flexible, selective and adaptive ways.”

The researchers tested 252 British children, ages 4 to 6, who were visiting science centers with their parents. Of those, 201 kids watched a video showing four adults consecutively demonstrate how to remove a capsule containing a sticker from a clear plastic box. Either all, 3 of 4, 1 of 4, or none of the demonstrators performed an irrelevant action — sliding open a small door in the box to reveal an empty space — before using one of two levers to move the capsule in front of the door. The other 51 kids saw no demonstrations.

Each child then had a chance to get a sticker, previously chosen as his or her favorite, out of the box. Those who succeeded got two more tries at extracting new stickers.

In line with past overimitation studies, nearly all kids who saw all four adults demonstrate the superfluous door-opening routine copied that behavior on all trials. But only about 40 percent of those who saw three of four adults open the door to nowhere did the same on their first try. That percentage dropped by nearly half on second and third go-rounds with the box. All it took was one adult demonstrating a better prize-releasing technique to elicit that behavior in kids. The results will be published later this year in Developmental Science.

As with children who saw no demonstrations, the kids who saw the irrelevant door-opening performed by only one adult rarely imitated the action.

In short, preschoolers did not blindly follow the crowd, Evans says. If only one out of four adults showed how to extract a prize efficiently, then the kids were alright with that and copied the outlier. Evans suspects that children copied unanimous demonstrations of a useless procedure because they figured “this is the way it is done,” even if the extra step seemed unnecessary.

Evans sees a connection between her findings and the results of social psychologist Solomon Asch’s famous conformity experiments from the 1950s. Ash observed that individual college students went along with groups of peers who, in league with Asch, unanimously said that lines of different lengths were actually the same length. But volunteers resisted peer pressure if just one other person, at Asch’s direction, dissented from the crowd.

When it comes to deciding whom to imitate and whom to ignore, kids and adults can be equally discriminating.

Laura Sanders is on maternity leave. Bruce Bower reports on behavioral sciences for Science News. He is also a parent who has learned more from his son, now an adult, than he thought possible.

Bruce Bower has written about the behavioral sciences for Science News since 1984. He writes about psychology, anthropology, archaeology and mental health issues.

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