In my last couple of posts I’ve been talking about a curious quirk of children’s learning that I call overimitation. Basically, when kids see an adult operating an unfamiliar object in a noticeably roundabout, inefficient way (for example, mixing unnecessary, nonsensical actions in with the actions that are actually needed), the kids are much more likely to copy those unnecessary actions than to edit them out. They overimitate by copying things that they could just as easily ignore and still accomplish their goal. Though it’s easy at first to chalk this persistent copying up to the fact that kids just enjoy imitating others, the sheer persistence with which most kids overimitate quickly becomes surprising. In fact, as I talked about in some of my last posts, the majority of preschool-aged kids will precisely copy actions that are so inefficient that even chimpanzees know to ignore them!
So here’s the big question: does overimitation tell us anything new and important about the way children learn? Or do kids overimitate just because they find it fun to copy others, even when the actions that they are copying aren’t very useful?
When my colleague Andrew Young and I started pondering this question, we decided that there was a simple and direct way of telling these two possibilities apart. Namely, we’d simply teach kids not to overimitate. If kids could get the idea right away, and start imitating only the useful parts of an adult’s demonstration, this would indicate that overimitation was something kids did just for fun. On the other hand, if kids couldn’t get the idea, and were pretty much unable to stop copying the unnecessary parts of an adult’s demonstration even when they were trying to do so, this would suggest that overimitation was a lot more important than psychologists had realized.
So we decided to put our idea to the test with what is arguably the most important tool in the developmental psychologist’s tool belt: plastic dinosaurs. In both our lab at Yale and in several dozen preschools all around Connecticut, we introduced preschoolers to a rather hapless adult psychologist, who needed help figuring out how to best get plastic dinosaurs out of a bunch of different household containers, shown below. With the jar item in panel (A), for example, the adult got the dinosaur out by first tapping on the jar with the feather (an irrelevant action), and then unscrewing the lid (a relevant action). The adult then asked the child to help troubleshoot his strategy, asking them questions like “Did I have to tap on the jar to get the dinosaur out? Or was tapping something extra?” Kids were asked these questions about both steps in the procedure, both the unnecessary feather tap and the necessary removal of the lid.
Unsurprisingly, by the age of 4 or so most children are able to easily identify the feather tap as “silly.” Actually, they often find the question easy enough so as to be rather amusing, and are very good at explaining to the clearly confused adult why the feather tap is not at all necessary for getting the dinosaur. We went through this whole procedure about seven times in total with each child, giving them a chance to observe the adult open each of the training objects shown above, and then to point out which parts of his actions were silly.
Right then – so preschoolers are clearly able to distinguish between things someone has to do to accomplish a goal, and things that are extra. At least, that is, when accomplishing the goal involves manipulating an object that they are familiar with. But what about objects that they are less familiar with?
When each child finished the dinosaur game, they then moved on to playing the closely related turtle game. Just as in the dinosaur game, in the turtle game kids first watched as the adult retrieved a toy turtle from inside an object. This time, however, the object in question wasn’t a familiar household container, but rather a spectacularly unfamiliar Puzzle Object such as the ones shown here.
Now here’s the important part: the exact way in which the adult retrieved the turtle was very inefficient, incorporating lots of superfluous, unnecessary, and generally “silly” actions. For example, on the Puzzle Box the adult first went to great pains to remove the red wooden bolt, then tapped carefully in the visibly empty top part of the box, and only then actually did the one thing that was obvious from the start, namely removing the shiny red door on the front of the object.
So children saw the adult retrieve a turtle from the Puzzle Object, but in a way that included lots of the same kinds of “silly” unnecessary actions they had just been trained to be on the lookout for. Then the moment of truth arrived: explaining that she needed to check on something in the other room, the adult left the child alone with the object. On her way out, she casually suggested to the child, “If you want, you can get the turtle out while I’m gone. You can get it however you want.”
How did children operate the puzzles for themselves? Remember, just moments before playing with the puzzles they had gone through a long (very long, if you’re four years old!) teaching exercise in which:
- They were shown over and over that the adult frequently does things that are rather silly, and not actually necessary for her goals.
- They were given lots of praise and encouragement for identifying those unnecessary actions, and explaining exactly why they were silly and did not really need to be done!
The amazing thing is, despite all of this teaching, the vast majority of the preschoolers that we tested continued to overimitate the adult’s unnecessary actions. Rather than just getting the turtle out in a simple direct way, they expended considerable time and energy meticulously copying all of the adult’s actions, even those that should have been clearly unnecessary.
This result was very unexpected to us – and extremely interesting. It suggested that overimitation wasn’t something that kids were doing “just for fun,” but rather – it seems – something that they really might not be able to avoid doing, even when they wanted to! It’s as though having watched the adult perform her unnecessary actions on the puzzles, kids became firmly rooted in the notion that those actions were actually necessary to get the turtle out.
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