Humans appear hardwired to learn by 'over-imitation'

Humans appear hardwired to learn by 'over-imitation'
Adult retrieves turtle from puzzle box as part of experiment that determined children "over-imitate" adult behavior. Credit: Yale Department of Psychology

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 Yale study today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“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.”

Citation: Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: online publication week of December 3, 2007 (doi/10.1073/pnas.0704452104)

Source: Yale University

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Dec 05, 2007
This behaviour is not limited to kids, by any stretch. I have users of my software whom I have trained and there are others who've been trained by other users. Not only do I frequently find that the user-trained users have adopted the bad and unnecessary habits of the users who trained them, but I find it largely impossible to get them to drop the bad habits because they don't like having to relearn the skill, even when doing things the right way is demonstrably easier and quicker.

Dec 06, 2007
I can't help but wonder if ALL the children in the study did this. Just as in adults, some are more inclined to imitate and be concerned about fitting in while others are more observant, more critical and/or are problem solvers.

Dec 06, 2007
Hi, this is Derek Lyons, first author of the study. I really liked the comment about adult software users "overimitating" one another and propagating inefficiencies. We've been really curious about examining this in adults for that very reason. Intuitively, it seems clear that kids aren't the only ones who fall into this error.

As for legendmoths post, the answer is that not all kids overimitate, but a truly astonishing proportion do. I would say probably only about 1 in 10 children that we studied didn't overimitate at all. We've put together a website with all kinds of more detailed information on the study for anyone who is interested in learning more (and especially for parents who'd like to understand what it means for child development). The URL is:

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