Multiple imitation mechanisms in children

Dev Psychol. 2012 Jul;48(4):1165-79. doi: 10.1037/a0026646. Epub 2011 Dec 26.


Four studies using a computerized paradigm investigated whether children's imitation performance is content-specific and to what extent dependent on other cognitive processes such as trial-and-error learning, recall, and observational learning. Experiment 1 showed that 3-year-olds could successfully imitate what we call novel cognitive rules (e.g., first → second → third), which involved responding to 3 different pictures whose spatial configuration varied randomly from trial to trial. However, these same children failed to imitate what we call novel motor-spatial rules (e.g., up → down → right), which involved responding to 3 identical pictures that remained in a fixed spatial configuration from trial to trial. Experiment 2 showed that this dissociation was not due to a general difficulty in encoding motor-spatial content, as children successfully recalled, following a 30-s delay, a new motor-spatial sequence that had been learned by trial and error. Experiment 3 replicated these results and further demonstrated that 3-year-olds can infer a novel motor-spatial sequence following observation of a partially correct and partially incorrect response-a dissociation between imitation and observational learning (or emulation learning). Finally, Experiment 4 presented 3-year-olds with "familiar" motor-spatial sequences that involved making a linear response (e.g., left → middle → right) as well as "novel" motor-spatial sequences (e.g., right → up → down) used in Experiments 1-3 that were nonlinear and always involved a change in direction. Children had no difficulty imitating familiar motor-spatial sequences but again failed to imitate novel motor-spatial sequences. These results suggest that there may be multiple, dissociable imitation learning mechanisms that are content-specific. More importantly, the development of these imitation systems appears to be independent of the operations of other cognitive systems, including trial and error learning, recall, and observational learning.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Age Factors
  • Child, Preschool
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior*
  • Learning / physiology*
  • Male
  • Mental Recall / physiology*
  • Motor Activity / physiology*
  • Neuropsychological Tests
  • Probability
  • Sex Factors
  • Spatial Behavior / physiology
  • Time Factors