Dinosaurs, Turtles, and Getting to the Bottom of Overimitation
Weve now talked about two ways of conceptualizing overimitation:
- On the one hand, its possible that overimitation might not actually be all that scientifically important. Kids might overimitate because they think theyre supposed to copy the adult, because they think it would be fun to copy, or simply because its just easier for them to copy, among other reasons.
- On the other hand, our new theory is that overimitation actually tells us something important about the way kids learn about their world. That is, children may automatically perceive the actions that adults perform on novel objects as causally meaningful even when some of those actions should be visibly irrelevant. On this view, children overimitate not because they want to, but instead because they have no other choice; they cant ignore the adults unnecessary actions because they think all of the actions are necessary.
Which theory of overimitation is correct? When my colleague Andrew Young and I started pondering this question, we decided that there was a simple and direct way of telling the two possibilities apart. Namely, wed simply try to teach kids not to overimitate. If kids could get the idea right away, and thus imitate only the useful parts of an adults demonstration, this would indicate that overimitation was something kids did just for fun. On the other hand, if kids couldnt get the idea, and were pretty much unable to stop copying the unnecessary parts of an adults demonstration even when they were trying to do so, this would suggest that overimitation might be automatic in the way we theorized.
So we decided to put our idea to the test using what is arguably the most important tool in the developmental psychologists 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.
The Dinosaur Game
(Click on the image for a larger view.)
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.
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 a familiar object. But what about unfamiliar objects?
Remember, our theory of overimitation says that unfamiliar objects are special, and that children may trust the actions that adults perform on such objects in a surprisingly strong way. We hypothesized that children might automatically perceive the actions that an adult performs on a novel object as necessary and functionally important, even when there is visible evidence to the contrary. To put it another way, we hypothesized that kids would be lose the ability to distinguish between necessary actions and extra actions when a new and unfamiliar object was involved. Rather than easily distinguishing between these two categories of action as they did in the dinosaur game, we thought children might believe that all of the actions that they saw an adult perform were actually necessary to open the object.
When each child finished the dinosaur game, they then moved immediately 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 wasnt a familiar household container, but rather a spectacularly unfamiliar Puzzle Object such as the ones shown here.
The Puzzle Objects
(Click on any image for a larger view, then use the arrow keys to move between objects.)
Now heres the important part: when the adult got the turtle out of these Puzzle Objects, he did so in a very inefficient way, 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. Similarly, on the Cage object the adult performed the irrelevant action of rotating the basket 180 degrees before getting the turtle out from under the blue and white lid; on the Thunderdome, the adult unnecessarily paused to pull the wooden bolt out from the base of the object before fetching the turtle from under the red cover. On each Puzzle Object then, the child saw the adult retrieve the turtle in a roundabout manner 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 Im 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 youre 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 adults 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 adults actions, even those that should have been clearly unnecessary. Kids continued to overimitate, in other words, even in a situation where it was quite clear that they werent supposed to, nor did the adult want them to.
This result was very unexpected to us and also quite fascinating. It suggested that overimitation wasnt 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! Its 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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