“Imitation is about learning and a sense of belonging”

Developmental psychologist Moritz Daum explains the various purposes that imitation serves during childhood and how this behavior is learned
Moritz Daum, image: Frank Bruederli
Moritz Daum, Image: Frank Bruederli

Eveline von Arx: When do children first start to imitate others?

Moritz Daum: Infants are believed to understand purposeful behavior at the age of about six months, if not even earlier. Several factors provide a basis for this ability. For one thing, their own – still relatively limited – motor repertoire is helpful in this context. Children also make use of inferential thinking to interpret the actions they observe. They see that when a certain action is taken, something else happens. One important basis for making inferences is found in the observation of statistical regularities; they help infants understand their environment – particularly when they are not yet able to perform certain actions themselves.

Imitation requires comprehending what someone else is doing, at least to a certain extent. We translate what we observe into our own actions. When we have never encountered a certain behavior, imitation also helps us find out why someone does something.

EvA: Do children choose which individuals they are going to imitate?

MD: Yes, imitation is selective, and it has a variety of functions. An interesting question is whether children more often, or more successfully, imitate same-age peers, older children or adults. There are several hypotheses that can be formulated and that are based on different theoretical assumptions: For example, children show a preference for same-age peers in certain situations. Peers are similar in appearance and physical proportions, as well as in their stage of development, and it may therefore be easier for a child to imitate them than an adult.

Research suggests that the so-called “mirror neurons” are more strongly activated when we observe a familiar rather than an unfamiliar activity. So it may be that children are best able to understand the behavior of their peers and imitate it most often.

EvA: What other hypotheses are there?

MD: The hypothesis of Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky of a „zone of proximal development“ is likewise important. Children are at a particular stage of development and moving toward the next level. With appropriate support, they can carry out tasks that they have not yet fully mastered and reach the next level that they are not yet able to reach alone.

According to the second hypothesis, slightly older children are an attractive object of imitation because they are perceived to be relatively similar, but have mastered something the child is not yet able to do – but hopefully will master in the near future.

EvA: But children imitate adults, too.

The third hypothesis suggests that children choose to imitate adults because they generally perceive adults to be competent.

“In seeking to learn new, unfamiliar skills, children prefer to imitate adults.”

EvA: What empirical evidence is available about imitative behavior in children?

MD: In collaboration with my colleague Norbert Zmyj of TU Dortmund University, we have tested these hypotheses in several studies. One example: A lamp was placed on a table. The task was for the test subjects (14-month-old toddlers) to turn it on using their foreheads – a method they were not familiar with. It was a so-called “head-touch lamp.” We found that these children were more likely to imitate adults than same-age or slightly older children. In seeking to learn new, unfamiliar skills, children prefer to imitate adults.

EvA: How about skills with which they are already familiar?

MD: When it comes to actions that children are already familiar with, such as clapping or waving, they are most likely to imitate their peers. The principle of similarity is important here, since it is the social aspect of imitation that plays the major role in this context. Children imitate their peers because they want to communicate nonverbally and achieve a sense of belonging and closeness.

This social function of imitation becomes less important as children grow older, since their language skills improve over time and they have other ways of expressing their affinity.

EvA: Adults, too, sometimes take on the same physical posture as the person they’re interacting with.

MD: We call this the chameleon effect. This effect is evidence that conveying nonverbal information is another important social function of imitation. We unconsciously empathize with and imitate people we interact with, and may be more sensitive to their movements. Our sensors focus on the person we’re talking with, and our motor cortex leads us to mirror their physical position.

In my lectures, I frequently see students sitting next to each other whose bodies – arms and legs – are in exactly the same position. If I point this out, they are often startled and shift immediately to a different position – which sometimes turns out to be identical as well.

“Children imitate their peers because they want to communicate nonverbally and achieve a sense of belonging and closeness.”

EvA: To come back to the question of who is imitated: Do children imitate incompetent adults?

MD: The young children in our study observed a variety of adults performing actions that the children were familiar with, either “correctly” or “incorrectly.” The adults put hats on their heads, correctly, or on their ears; they put shoes on their feet or their hands, and so on. In the head-touch lamp experiment, the adults who had previously performed such actions “correctly” were imitated much more often than the others. Whether a potential role model is perceived to be competent also plays a significant role in the context of language learning.

EvA: In what way?

MD: If a person calls objects that are familiar to the child by the wrong name, the child is less likely to learn new words from that person. This has been shown in a number of different experiments. In one of our recent studies, we have shown that this competence effect generalizes. Language learning is similarly affected when children have previously observed a model acting incompetently or competently, or naming objects wrongly or correctly. Thus, the assumed competence seems to be transferred across the domains of language and action.

EvA: Is imitative behavior inborn?

MD: Almost forty years ago, the American psychologist Andrew Meltzoff published an influential paper about a kind of inborn imitative behavior found in newborns. He showed that newborns stick out their tongues after watching an adult do the same, which he interpreted as proof that human beings have an inborn ability to imitate. An extensive longitudinal study by Janine Oostenbroek and colleagues has now concluded that in all likelihood there is no such inborn capacity. The fact that three-month-olds infants stick out their tongues, seemingly in response to someone else doing the same, appears not, in fact, to be imitative behavior.

EvA: Why not?

MD: Infants use their mouths and tongues as a tool for exploration. They put nearly everything into their mouths, and sticking out their tongues may simply be a kind of exploratory response to an observed stimulus. Arguing in favor of this explanation is the fact that infants respond in the same way in a wide variety of situations they find stimulating.

EvA: What questions remain to be answered about imitative behavior and child development?

MD: Many. If at all possible, developmental psychology needs more longitudinal studies using large samples. This will make it possible to look more closely at developmental processes while also focusing on interindividual differences in how human behavior changes at different ages. It will be important for future research to examine developmental processes at the individual level, in order to gain a better understanding of how children develop, and how their development interacts with various external factors (e.g. family and non-family social structures).

Prof. Moritz Daum, PhD, is chair of the Developmental Psychology: Infancy and Childhood unit at the University of Zurich, Switzerland. He studies imitative behavior in small children as well as how children understand the social world and the relationship between perceptions and actions.

“Kleine Weltentdecker” Website (in German)

University of Zurich, Developmental Psychology: Infancy and Childhood (in German)