Infants Imitate Others When Only Weeks Old

What do infants understand about the social world?

What do infants understand about the social world?

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 article is part of a series on 10 crucial developmental psychology studies:

  1. When infant memory develops
  2. How self-concept emerges in infants
  3. How children learn new concepts
  4. The importance of attachment styles
  5. When infants learn to imitate others
  6. Theory of mind reveals the social world
  7. Understanding object permanence
  8. How infants learn their first word
  9. The six types of play
  10. Piaget’s stages of development theory


How Children Learn the Earth Isn’t Flat

A classic study of childhood learning suggests true understanding comes from letting go of established preconceptions.

A classic study of childhood learning suggests true understanding comes from letting go of established preconceptions.

Imagine the revelations we all once absorbed: humans are descended from apes, numbers can be usefully replaced by letters to solve problems and the Earth is (near-enough) a sphere which rotates around the sun.

Despite their momentous importance for our understanding of everything around us, these facts can seem relatively trivial now, just as they were all in a day’s work when we learnt them back in school.

However obvious these ideas might seem now, there was once a time when we just didn’t get it, a time when maths was just numbers, humans were a species apart and the Earth was flat.

How children revise their understanding of the world is one of the most fascinating areas of child psychology.

But it is not just relevant to children; we all have to take on new concepts from time-to-time – even though they may not be as profound as the origin of the species.

It’s tempting to think that learning is largely about memory – especially since in the bad old days of education learning was largely accomplished by rote.

Of course fully appreciating complex ideas is about more than just memory, it’s about understanding.

But what mental processes take us from mere rote learning to genuine understanding?

A classic child psychology study carried out by Professors Stella Vosniadou and William Brewer provides a central insight into how we reach genuine understanding.

They used a cognitive psychological theory called ‘mental models’ which suggests we create, and then test, mental models of the way the world works in order to build up our understanding.

This theory implies there might be a series of intermediate points where we have some grasp of a concept, but it isn’t yet complete.

It’s these intermediate mental models that Vosniadou and Brewer wanted to look at for evidence of understanding in progress.

What shape is the Earth?

For their study Vosniadou and Brewer (1991) interviewed sixty children who were between 6 and 11-years-old.

Each was asked 48 questions, starting with the relatively innocuous: “What shape is the Earth?”, and then moving on to more probing questions designed to reveal the mental model of the Earth they were using.

While most of the children started off well by representing the Earth as a circle, it soon became clear to the researchers that children had all kinds of different mental models.

When asked what would happen if you kept walking and walking for ages and ages, many replied that you would fall off, which was surprising given that they thought the Earth was a sphere.

Some even said you would fall off onto another planet.

Others said that while the Earth was round we live on a flat surface inside it.

At first the answers seemed rather haphazard and inconsistent, as though children were just making them up.

But then, with further questioning, a clear pattern of responses began to emerge (brackets contain the number of children displaying this mental model):

  • Rectangular Earth: thought the Earth was a flat rectangle which you could fall off (1/60).
  • Disc Earth: thought the Earth was a flat disc which you could fall off (1/60).
  • Dual Earth: thought that one ‘Earth’ is flat which we are standing on and there is another ‘Earth’ in the sky that is round. Their answers revealed they saw the planet as flat when asked about ‘the ground’, but round when asked about ‘the Earth’ (8/60).
  • Hollow sphere: thought we live inside the Earth on a flat area (12/60).
  • Flattened sphere: thought that the Earth was a flattened sphere so that there were areas on the top (and the bottom) where people could live (4/60).
  • Sphere: the amount of children demonstrating the conventional view steadily increased across the age ranges examined (23/60).
  • Mixed models: the rest of the children either did not give consistent answers or models could not be constructed for them (11/60).

The fact that four-fifths of the children could be fitted into clearly defined categories shows how we are likely to construct the same types of mental models as each other, both accurate and inaccurate.

Understanding in progress

These results show the mind working to come to terms with a brand new concept that is fundamentally alien to the senses.

Our everyday experience suggests the Earth must be flat, otherwise, as gravity pulls us down, we’d slide off it.

This is our first ‘mental model’ of the Earth.

Then we are taught the Earth is approximately spherical and we try to update our original model but, it appears, for a period we get stuck in between.

It’s these intermediate mental models that point to how we try to make sense of new concepts by first trying to integrate them into our current understanding in some way.

The hollow sphere and the dual Earth models that children adopted are two examples of this.

Both are ways of trying to hold both the flat Earth and spherical Earth models at the same time.

What was holding back the children’s learning was their presupposition, coming from everyday experience, that the Earth is flat.

Until they let go of this old way of looking at the Earth, they can’t fully embrace a new view; they can only create an ugly, if occasionally ingenious, compromise.

Established presuppositions from personal experience are powerful factors which are difficult to let go of, even when contradictory evidence is staring us right in the face.

Sometimes real understanding is less about learning new concepts than letting go of old ones.

→ This article is part of a series on 10 crucial developmental psychology studies:

  1. When infant memory develops
  2. How self-concept emerges in infants
  3. How children learn new concepts
  4. The importance of attachment styles
  5. When infants learn to imitate others
  6. Theory of mind reveals the social world
  7. Understanding object permanence
  8. How infants learn their first word
  9. The six types of play
  10. Piaget’s stages of development theory


Childhood Cynicism Develops Early

After findings about the brain areas responsible for understanding sarcasm and irony earlier in the week, we now have new research into the development of cynicism.

In this research, children of ages 6, 8 and 10 were told a story with an ambiguous ending that was open to multiple interpretations. These endings directly reflected the character’s motivation. As expected, the ten-year-olds were most likely to ascribe a self-interested motivation to the central character, indicating a well-developed sense of cynicism.

What surprised researchers was that even the six-year-olds were more likely, on average, to interpret the character’s behaviour as self-interested. This suggests that the seeds of a cynical outlook are sown earlier than had previously been thought.
Mills, C.M. & Keil, F.C. (2005). The development of cynicism. Psychological Science, 16, 385-390

Children create new language

Is language acquistion an innate function of the brain? This is a favourite question among psychologists and boils down to: do humans have specific ‘circuitry’ built into their brains to learn language? Or alternatively is it something that as our brains are so big, we can do in the same way as the other skills that we pick up? Many psychologists are now happy to agree that there are some parts of the brain that are specialised for language acquisition, the question is over the degree and the mechanism.

Imagine how much we could learn about language acquisition if we could watch a language developing in real time instead of picking apart its history centuries or millenia after the event. Imagine no longer. Deaf Nicaraguan children have, over the last 15 years, developed a sign language from scratch. Not only does it follow basic rules that are common to all language but as the language was passed down to the next generation it clearly evolved in complexity. This strongly supports the innatist viewpoint.

> Go to BBC News

New National Service Framework for children

John Reid’s speech contains all the usual buzzwords: integrated approach, early assessment, child centred, needs led. But my favourite is: no extra money. Oh no, sorry, that isn’t the exact turn of phrase that he used. I’ve always thought that hard currency is the only way to tell if a politician thinks a particular issue is important. It’s the same old question every time: what’s the bottom line?

This old cynic has one thing to say to you: kids can’t vote. Here are the jargon-filled word-bites:

> From The Guardian, and again

Newsflash: Children are humans too!

Adults are always a bit sniffy about the latest trends in children’s fashions. One of the newest is apparently the popularity of tatoos – not real ones but spray on. This article ends with a child psychologist claiming that spray on tatoos might encourage real tatoos in the future. Whereas of course forbidding the child to have any sort of tatoo will automatically make it less likley to have a tatoo, right? Errr. No.

The article continues: “This is part of a general trend where younger and younger children are emulating teenagers and adults in clothes and make-up.” This article is part of a general trend of treating children as though they were from another species rather than members of the human race. Adults spend much of their waking lives copying other, higher status, humans so what is so unusual about children doing the same?

> From The Telegraph (free registration required)

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