How Do Kids Use What Adults Do to Make Sense of New Objects?
The analogy that I drew in the last chapter, namely that overimitation may result from a kind of cognitive illusion , is a little bit dense, so let me take a moment to unpack it.
When I talk about a cognitive illusion, I don’t mean that children are somehow “seeing” what the adult does to the Puzzle Box incorrectly. When kids see an adult getting a turtle out of the Puzzle Box in a roundabout manner, they see exactly what you or I would see – they see a person tapping on the top of the box, pulling out the red wooden bolt, tapping in the empty top compartment, and then moving the door to get the turtle. The theory that my colleagues at Yale and I have been working on is that children overimitate because of how they process, or make sense out of, this perceptual input.
Where's An Adult When You Need One?
To be more specific, our theory is that when children see an adult operating an object that they haven’t seen before, they may automatically perceive all of the adult’s purposeful actions on that object as causally necessary. In other words, without realizing it, they may implicitly regard the adult’s actions as a kind of special window onto the object's inner workings. Thus, when children see the adult removing the red wooden bolt from the Puzzle Box (an action that isn’t really necessary), they don’t stop and wonder, “why did he do that?” Instead, they automatically conclude “there’s something about the Puzzle Box that means you have to do that.”
To put it another way, our theory is that when children are trying to make sense of an object they haven’t interacted with before, they trust the actions that they see adults performing more than the trust the evidence of their own senses. Children automatically internalize what they see the adult doing as an indicator of how the object works, and that’s why they later overimitate actions that even chimps can tell are unnecessary.
A quick caveat for the detail minded:
I should clarify that I use the terms “think”, “conclude”, and “trust” somewhat metaphorically here, because we don’t believe that all of this cognition is actually taking place within the child’s conscious awareness. That is, we don’t believe that the child is consciously thinking through what he or she saw, or purposefully deliberating about how trustworthy the adult is. Rather, our hypothesis is that all of these processes take place “behind the scenes” as it were, at a level of cognition that the child isn’t necessarily aware of. The end result is that the child winds up convinced that the adult’s unnecessary actions are necessary and important without being able to clearly articulate why they think so.
At first this entire strategy – trusting the actions of others to help you figure out a new object rather than puzzling it through yourself –might sound like a less than stellar means of learning about the world, but stop for a moment to think about your own experience. When trying to figure out some new, complicated device like a computer or a car engine, how often have you taken the actions of a knowledgeable expert on faith? If you’re like me – or most people for that matter – the answer is probably quite a lot. The fact is, we can learn much more about the world around us, and learn it much more quickly, if we simply trust the information we derive from more knowledgeable individuals rather than trying to understand everything ourselves. Much of what we think we know, actually, we “know” only in the sense that we trust someone else’s knowledge.
Our theory of overimitation basically says that children do much the same thing, but that they do so in a more automatic, less critical way. We think that they treat the actions they see adult’s directing towards new objects as a source of highly reliable information, automatically perceiving those actions as necessary and important even when their own eyes might suggest otherwise.
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