One of the most basic forms of social behaviour is copying another person. Although imitation is something we adults take for granted, it’s actually a pretty demanding process for a young infant.
At the heart of imitation is understanding the difference between yourself and others – something that famous Swiss child psychologist Jean Piaget thought didn’t emerge immediately in infants. Consequently he argued that infants could not imitate others until they were 8 to 12 months of age.
Stick your tongue out
In 1977, though, Andrew Meltzoff from Oxford University and M. Keith Moore from the University of Washington published a study that questioned Piaget’s theory and was destined to become a classic in child psychology (Meltzoff & Moore, 1977).
Their study was straightforward enough. An experimenter sat in front of tiny infants who were between 12 and 21-days-old. There he stuck his tongue out, opened his mouth, pursed his lips and moved his fingers, then watched, with a blank face, for the infants’ reactions.
Sure enough the infants seemed to copy him.
The key to their study, though, was in showing that the infants were really imitating the experimenter rather than just sticking their tongues out or opening their mouths for some other reason. In other words: was this true imitation or something much more basic that couldn’t be considered social interaction?
Imitation or something simpler?
Meltzoff and Moore tested all sorts of alternative explanations:
- Were the infants simply getting excited by the experimenter? Probably not: when the experimenter opened his mouth, the infants responded with the same gesture, not by sticking their tongue out. And when the experimenter stuck his tongue out, infants stuck theirs out.
- Was the imitation just a reflex of some kind? Probably not: when infants had a pacifier in their mouths while the experimenter stuck their tongue out, they still imitated him after it was taken out a short time later.
- Had parents been training their children beforehand? No, parents were not told about the purpose of the experiment until afterwards.
- Was the experimenter accidentally signalling the infants after the initial tongue protrusion or mouth purse through further small facial movements? No, the experimenter’s face was videotaped and rated independently as blank in the ‘infant response periods’.
Born with social skills
This study is a major piece of ammunition for those who argue that infants are born into the world partly pre-programmed for social interactions. It has now been replicated many times and suggests infants don’t have to learn to navigate the social world completely from scratch; from a very early age they have some grasp of their bodies and can copy other people.
» This is part of a series on 10 crucial child psychology studies. Read more on the emergence of infant memory, self-concept, learning, attachment, theory of mind, object permanence, language, play and knowledge.
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Meltzoff, A., & Moore, M. (1977). Imitation of Facial and Manual Gestures by Human Neonates. Science, 198(4312), 75-78.