Baby imitation works like ‘social glue’

CARDIFF U. (UK) —Babies mimic other people more faithfully at 15 months old than they do three months before—which suggests social bonding motivates the copycat behavior.

“In the past, some scientists have proposed that children copy faithfully because they do not understand how things work, with others arguing that children copy other people faithfully because they are interested in social relationships,” says Merideth Gattis of the School of Psychology at Cardiff University.

The new study demonstrates that faithful imitation begins earlier than previous scientific studies had indicated—and also shows that faithful imitation is socially motivated.

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“Our study shows that babies copy faithfully because of their social motivation to interact with other people. We call this the King Louie Effect. Much like the orangutan in The Jungle Book, when babies copy you, they are communicating: ‘I wanna be like you, I wanna walk like you, talk like you.’

“So there seems to be a bit of King Louie in all of us. As children develop and become more aware of social relationships, they copy what others do in more detail, including the unnecessary things.”

This newly-identified social motivation to learn through shared experiences creates important educational opportunities. Social relationships are important throughout life, but the new findings indicate that the second year is an especially important time for relationships to influence learning.

The study is the first of its kind to use babies’ personality traits to investigate whether social motivations lead to faithful imitation—or copycatting.

For the study, published in Developmental Science, the researchers had three specific aims. First, they sought to identify the age at which babies showed selectivity in their imitating behavior by reproducing actions that lead to specific goals. Secondly, they sought to identify the age at which babies imitate indiscriminately, by reproducing actions that are not causally necessary.

By comparing these two ages, they could identify which pattern of imitation developed first. The third aim of the researchers was to understand why babies imitate faithfully, or indiscriminately.

‘Social glue’

Scientists played simple games with 39 babies at 12 months and again at 15 months. One of the games involved an interesting toy that the babies had never seen before: a box with a toy rabbit hidden inside. To open the box, the researcher demonstrated some actions that were necessary and some actions that were not necessary.

If the babies did the unnecessary actions at 12 months, but not 15 months, that would be consistent with the hypothesis that children imitate faithfully because they do not understand how things work, and then as they get older and understand more, they are more selective about what they copy.

If the babies did the unnecessary actions at 15 months but not 12 months, that would indicate instead that they do understand how things work, but later in development they begin to copy faithfully anyway—which is precisely what the researchers found.

Extraversion—the desire to interact with other people—was also measured in the study; babies who were more extroverted were more likely to imitate faithfully than introverted babies.

“This is exciting new work that shows just how socially attuned and motivated very young children are,” says Malinda Carpenter of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology.

“This type of imitation is thought to be a sort of ‘social glue’ that connects people to each other. This research shows that even infants are beginning to use imitation to connect with others in this way.”

This research is part of larger project called First Steps, which investigates important milestones in development from birth onwards. Future analyses will focus on how imitation influences language and reasoning in the preschool years.

The study is funded by the The Leverhulme Trust and by the Economic and Social Research Council.

Source: Cardiff University