Mimicking infants rather than adults – how infants choose their models.

The infant academy by Joshua Reynolds

The infant academy by Joshua Reynolds

Parents are often afraid of what happens once their children hit puberty and stop emulating their parents. Recent research suggests that this fear should start a lot earlier: in infancy. Of course, infants need their parents to learn but they need other infants when it comes to imitating things they already know.

Two recent articles by Zmyj from the Ruhr university in Bochum and colleagues present convincing evidence to back up infants’ occasional preference for peer imitation. First, when presented with videos of people playing with novel toys in familiar ways, fourteen month olds imitate a peer more than an older child aged 3.5 or an adult. Secondly, when presented with similar videos of people performing simple gestures (banging on the table, waving, clapping…) they again imitated a 14 month old more often than an older child or an adult.
These results are curious because at this age infants typically spend more time with their parents than with other infants. Furthermore, as far as imitation is used to learn new things the infants should prefer adults who are more knowledgeable. When it comes to novel actions the learning objective does actually prevail. Switching on a new lamp with the head or building a rattle is more likely to be copied from an adult model rather than an infant model (Seehagen & Herbert, 2011; Zmyj, Daum et al., 2012).
When it comes to infant-infant imitation, it may come out of a desire to belong to the same social group as the model, a sort of precursor to facebook’s Like button. Infant-adult imitation, on the other hand, may be more like a student-teacher relationship.
This set of studies powerfully shows that age matters to infants. They copy the behaviour of others depending on how old the model is and what sort of behaviour is shown. This sort of reasoning was long thought to be beyond 1 ½ year olds. Recent evidence, however, shows that infants play a more active part in choosing who to emulate than you may think.

Seehagen, S.,, & Herbert, J.S. (2011). Infant Imitation From Televised Peer and Adult Models Infancy, 16 (2), 113-136 DOI: 10.1111/j.1532-7078.2010.00045.x

Zmyj, N., Aschersleben, G., Prinz, W., & Daum, M. (2012). The Peer Model Advantage in Infants’ Imitation of Familiar Gestures Performed by Differently Aged Models. Frontiers in psychology, 3 PMID: 22833732

Zmyj, N., Daum, M.M.,, Prinz, W.,, Nielsen, M.,, & Aschersleben, G. (2012). Fourteen-month-olds’ imitation of differently aged models Infant and Child Developement, 21 (3), 250-266 DOI: 10.1002/icd.750

image: By Joshua Reynolds ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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Infants choose their teachers


Infants choose their teachers

By Hardeep Singh from Vancouver, Canada (Mohkam Mopping) [CC-BY-2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
My father has seen his four children grow up and is still fascinated with the things that children do NOT know. He likens them to a new computer whose hard drive is still void of information and needs to be filled by a user, i.e. by their parents or other care takers. The computer metaphor is a very widely used one in the cognitive sciences. It turns out that for infant learning it is a misleading one. Rather than being like an empty disc which accumulates knowledge, infants act like explorers who use every bit of information they have in order to make sense of the unknown, to evaluate new inputs and ultimately to decide for themselves what to learn.
Zmyj and colleagues have an article in press in the journal Infant and Child Development which illustrates this nicely. 14 month old infants were presented with a new object: a lamp. Ordinarily lamps are switched on with hands (you knew that, right?) but infants were shown videos in which another person switches the lamp on using the head. Will children imitate them and, thus, show evidence for learning in terms of how to use a new object? They will, but it depends on how old the person in the video is. Most infants imitated an adult, less infants imitated a child aged three and a half, even less imitated another infant. This pattern of results makes intuitive sense. Instead of imitating any person blindly, infants trust people more who tend to be more knowledgeable given that they are older.
Previously, Seehagen and Herbert (2011) had found similar results for infants asked to imitate a person building a rattle. However, Zmyj and colleages went further and showed that a different pattern emerges when children see a person use toys in a rather intuitive way. Now, the infant peer was imitated most and the older child or the adult less. Infants appear to imitate people differently depending on whether they want to acquire knowledge (adults have more knowledge than infants) or whether they want to have fun (infants know better how to have fun than adults). Even before their second birthday, children decide for themselves who they turn to for learning.
Infants deciding what to learn? At 14 months they can hardly speak. They just started walking. Toilet training is still an issue. And they should decide for themselves? The aforementioned studies could perhaps be reinterpreted in a less extreme way. Perhaps appearances drive the effect. By 14 months the child could find an adult more like parents and, thus, trust an adult more for learning novel things. It is imaginable that the child identified better with fellow infants when there is nothing to learn and, thus, imitates them more. This argument is not only a bit constructed, it is also contradicted by a bunch of publications contrasting two adults rather than an adult and an infant.
Chow and colleagues presented infants with either an adult who is reliable or an adult who is not. The unreliable adult would express great happiness when looking into a container even though the container is empty. Children may find such an adult a bit odd. His actions do not really match expectations. Chow and colleagues (2008) found infants to be more hesitant in exploring a container which an unreliable informant claimed contained a nice object. They followed a reliable adult’s information faster. The same or a similar manipulation of an adult’s reliability also changes other infant behaviours:
– their looks behind a barrier to see what the adult is going on about (Chow et al., 2008)
– their surprise at seeing the adult look in the wrong direction in order to find an object (Poulin-Dubois and Chow, 2009)
– their imitation of the head movement to switch on the aforementioned new lamp (Poulin-Dubois et al., 2011; Zmyj et al., 2010).
Infants are not like a container which you can fill with knowledge. The computer metaphor of an empty hard drive simply does not hold. Every new bit of information is evaluated in terms of where it comes from. This evaluation itself is driven by what the infant already knows. It is as if children try to coat themselves against unreliable information. Before toddlers have seen their second birthday cake they show a higher level of self-guided learning than parents realise. You better don’t act unreliable in front of them!
Chow, V., Poulin-Dubois, D., & Lewis, J. (2008). To see or not to see: infants prefer to follow the gaze of a reliable looker. Developmental Science, 11, 761-770. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2008.00726.x
Poulin-Dubois, D., & Chow, V. (2009). The Effect of a Looker’s Past Reliability on Infants’ Reasoning About Beliefs. Developmental Psychology, 45, 1576-1582. doi: 10.1037/a0016715
Poulin-Dubois, D., Brooker, I., & Polonia, A. (2011). Infants prefer to imitate a reliable person. Infant Behavior and Development, 34, 303-309. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2011.01.006
Seehagen, S., & Herbert, J.S. (2011). Infant Imitation From Televised Peer and AdultModels. Infancy, 16, 113-136. doi: 10.1111/j.1532-7078.2010.00045.x
Zmyj, N., Buttelmann, D., Carpenter, M., & Daum, M.M. (2010). The reliability of a model influences 14-moth-olds’ imitation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 106, 208-220. doi:10.1016/j.jecp.2010.03.002
Zmyj, N., Daum, M.M., Prinz, W., Nielsen, M., & Aschersleben, G. (in press). Fourteen-month-olds’ imitation of differently aged models. Infant and Child Development. doi: 10.1002/icd.750