Optimizing imitation: Examining cognitive factors leading to imitation, overimitation, and goal emulation in preschoolers

J Exp Child Psychol. 2021 Mar;203:105036. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2020.105036. Epub 2020 Dec 3.


Humans imitate patently irrelevant actions known as overimitation, and rather than decreasing with age, overimitation increases with age. Whereas most overimitation research has focused on social factors associated with overimitation, comparatively little is known about the cognitive- and task-specific features that influence overimitation. Specifically, developmental contrasts between imitation and overimitation are confounded by the addition of irrelevant actions to causally necessary actions, increasing sequence length, cognitive load, and processing costs-variables known to be age dependent. We constructed a novel puzzle box task such that a four-step imitation, four-step overimitation, and two-step efficient sequence could be demonstrated using the same apparatus on video. In Experiments 1 and 2, 2.5- to 5-year-olds randomly assigned to imitation and overimitation groups performed significantly more target actions than baseline control groups. Rates of imitation and overimitation increased as a function of age, with older preschoolers outperforming younger preschoolers in both conditions. In Experiment 3, preschoolers were shown a video of an efficient two-step demonstration prior to testing. After they responded, they were shown a four-step overimitation video and were tested on the same puzzle box. Children imitated the efficient demonstration, but after watching the overimitation video, they also overimitated the irrelevant actions. Once again, older children overimitated more than younger children. Together, results show that preschoolers are faithful, flexible, and persistent overimitators. The fidelity and flexibility of overimitation are constrained not only by social factors but also by basic cognitive processes that vary across age groups. As these constraints diminish, overimitation and flexible (optimal) imitation increases.

Keywords: Cognitive constraints; Efficient learning; Goal emulation; Imitation; Optimal imitation; Overimitation; Preschoolers.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial

MeSH terms

  • Child Behavior
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cognition
  • Goals*
  • Humans
  • Imitative Behavior*
  • Infant
  • Learning