Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Task-Specific Variables Influence Preschool Children's Faithful versus Selective Imitation

Academic journal article Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal

Task-Specific Variables Influence Preschool Children's Faithful versus Selective Imitation

Article excerpt

Imitation plays an extremely important role in early cognitive development (Meltzoff, 1988; Tomasello, Carpenter, Call, Behne, & Moll, 2005). It helps children to be more efficient in learning by observing other people rather than learning through overt trial and error (Bandura & Whalen, 1966; Tomasello, 2009). Even very young children are adept at imitating new acts that they see others perform, including opening boxes, activating lights and sounds, and using simple tools (e.g., Carpenter, Call, & Tomasello, 2002; Meltzoff, 1988; Nielsen, 2006). Recent researchers have documented that children are sometimes surprisingly faithful in their reproduction of a model's actions, even those that are unnecessary or counterproductive for completing an outcome. This phenomenon has recently been dubbed over-imitation (e.g., Horner & Whiten, 2005; Lyons, Young, & Keil, 2007; Nielsen & Tomaselli, 2010).

Faithful imitation allows new generations to learn the social conventions, norms, and traditions of a culture (Herrmann, Legare, Harris, & Whitehouse, 2013; Legare & Nielsen, 2015; Watson-Jones, Legare, Whitehouse, & Clegg, 2014) to become competent members of their communities. However, faithful imitation is not without costs. First, copying the model's unnecessary actions with high fidelity reduces the efficiency of children finishing a task. Second, copying the model's manipulating of an object in a certain way hinders children from being able to explore it using new approaches. Therefore, selective imitation is also necessary to develop new skills, techniques, and inventions.

Findings from a large body of research indicates that children are indeed selective imitators (Brugger, Lariviere, Mumme, & Bushnell, 2007; Carpenter, Akhtar, & Tomasello, 1998; DiYanni, Corriveau, Kurkul, Nasrini, & Nini, 2015; Williamson, Meltzoff, & Markman, 2008). According to these researchers, preschoolers consider the intention of the demonstrator (Carpenter et al., 1998; Meltzoff, 1995) and the efficiency of the demonstrated actions (Brugger et al., 2007; Williamson et al., 2008) in deciding whether or not to imitate. Children also vary how precisely they imitate depending on whether the actions are performed by a single or a majority model (DiYanni et al., 2015; Herrmann et al., 2013), whether or not the action of the model successfully achieves the goal (Wilks, Collier-Baker, & Nielsen, 2015; Williamson et al., 2008), and who is present when children are asked to copy a task that has been previously demonstrated (Nielsen & Blank, 2011).

However, we currently know very little about the potential influences that task-specific variables may have on children's faithful or selective imitation. Theoretical reasoning suggests that task-specific variables may influence how children perceive and interpret events differently. Specifically, how the actions of the task are organized and in which context the actions are presented to children may influence how the children memorize and segment these actions. For example, in one study, children in one group saw the experimenter use slightly unusual manners to place an object on a mat, whereas children in the other group saw the same actions, but the object was placed on the mat to make a flower (the object become a part of the flower). The children in the latter condition reproduced the novel manners significantly less than the former condition (e.g., Williamson & Markman, 2006). Therefore, we were primarily interested in whether children would imitate faithfully or selectively according to task-specific variables.

We presented two contexts to the children in our study with different task-specific components. The first context, the window and door context, had two features: (a) the causally unnecessary and necessary actions of the task were different from each other physically, and (b) children had only one chance to retrieve the target object when they reproduced the actions, specifically, at the end of the copying actions. …

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