Researchers find that infants mimic unusual behavior when accompanied by language

by Hilary Hurd Anyaso

(Medical Xpress)—A new Northwestern University study shows the power of language in infants' ability to understand the intentions of others. 

As the babies watched intently, an experimenter produced an unusual behavior—she used her forehead to turn on a light. But how did babies interpret this behavior? Did they see it as an intentional act, as something worthy of imitating? Or did they see it as a fluke? To answer this question, the experimenter gave 14-month-old infants an opportunity to play with the light themselves.

The results, based on two experiments, show that introducing a novel word for the impending novel event had a powerful effect on the infants' tendency to imitate the behavior. Infants were more likely to imitate behavior, however unconventional, if it had been named, than if it remained unnamed, the study shows. 

When the experimenter announced her unusual ("I'm going to blick the light"), infants imitated her. But when she did not provide a name, they did not follow suit. 

This revealed that infants as young as 14 months of age coordinate their insights about and their intuitions about human language in the service of discovering which behaviors, observed in others, are ones to imitate.

"This work shows, for the first time, that even for infants who have only just begun to 'crack the language code,' language promotes culturally-shared knowledge and actions – naturally, generatively and apparently effortlessly," said Sandra R. Waxman, co-author of the study and the Louis W. Menk Professor of Psychology at Northwestern.

"This is the first demonstration of how infants' keen observational skills, when augmented by human language, heighten their acuity for 'reading' the underlying intentions of their 'tutors' (adults) and foster infants' imitation of adults' actions."

Waxman said absent language and its power in conveying meaning, infants don't imitate these "strange" actions.

"This means that provides infants with a powerful key: it unlocks for them a broader world of social intentions," Waxman said. "We know that , and especially the shared meaning within a linguistic community, is one of the most powerful conduits of the cultural knowledge that we humans transmit across generations."

The study "Shall We Blick?": Novel Words Highlight Actors' Underlying Intentions for 14-Month-Old " was published in Developmental Psychology in July. Marian L. Chen, a post-doctoral researcher in the Child Cognition Lab at Boston University, is also co-author of the study.

Related Stories

English or Greek, toddlers watch the tone

date Jan 10, 2012

(Medical Xpress) -- Infants can understand the difference between intentional and accidental actions from tone of voice alone, new research by the Cardiff University School of Psychology has shown.

Recommended for you

The new normal? Addressing gun violence in America

date 57 minutes ago

Article Spotlight features summaries written in collaboration with authors of recently published articles by the Journals Program of the American Psychological Association. The articles are nominated by the editors as noteworthy ...

Demi Lovato gets vocal about mental illness

date 4 hours ago

(HealthDay)—Demi Lovato huddled in the back of her tour bus, eyes wet with tears as she watched a horde of fans streaming into the venue where she was about to play.

Acquiring 'perfect' pitch may be possible for some adults

date 4 hours ago

If you're a musician, this sounds too good to be true: University of Chicago psychologists have been able to train some adults to develop the prized musical ability of absolute pitch, and the training's effects ...

How men and women see each other when online dating

date 6 hours ago

In the world of online dating, nothing is as it seems. But that doesn't stop many of us from leaping to the wrong conclusions about people. A recent paper presented at the Annual Conference of the International ...

We trust kids to know what gender they are

date 7 hours ago

I will start by asking two questions: at what age did you know your gender, and do you think someone else had to tell you what it was? I'm director of mental health at a leading gender clinic in the US. Our clinic is a half-decade old – and in that short pe ...

User comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.