Kids Just Want to Have Fun. Right?
Thinking Through Possible Explanations for Overimitation.
It’s certainly a fun factoid that children will overimitate irrelevant actions that chimpanzees ignore. But is this really cause for any scientific fuss? Anyone who has ever spent time with kids, or can even remember being a kid for that matter, knows that children love to imitate. Imitation isn’t just a means of learning, it’s also a way in which children play, and overimitation might be simply that. Children might overimitate for the decidedly non-profound reason that it’s fun to copy adults.
Once you start thinking along these lines, it doesn’t take long to come up with a fair number of scientifically humdrum explanations for overimitation. For example, here are some possibilities that I find particularly compelling.
Why Do Kids Overimitate?
- Children may make the reasonable assumption that they are supposed to be copying the adult. After all, why would the adult be performing the actions in front of the child if they weren’t supposed to imitate them? In psychology parlance, this is what is termed a task demand – the situation may imply to the child that imitation is called for, even though the adult never explicitly says so.
- Children might be reluctant to “contradict” an adult by ignoring some of her actions. It’s much like if you were in an important meeting with your supervisor and noticed that he mispronounced a word. Even if you knew better, you might go along with it, repeating the incorrect pronunciation yourself rather than creating a socially awkward moment. Kids could well be doing much the same thing, going through the motions of copying the adult’s unnecessary actions even though know that those actions are silly and unproductive.
- When I was a graduate student at MIT, I would sometimes ask one of my more senior and experienced lab mates to help me debug thorny programming issues. When my friend sat down to help me, I’d keep careful track of what he was doing, even if at times I didn’t fully understand why he was doing it. Later, if I had seen him select, for example, the “invoke real build tools instead of faking them” menu option, I’d be sure to pick it too, despite not having the faintest idea what that might mean. In other words, I assumed that he must have a good reason for doing what he was doing, even if I couldn’t put my finger on it. Children might be doing the same thing when they overimitate – they may assume that the adult understands something important about the Puzzle Box that isn’t obvious, and thus that they should copy all of her actions even if some of them seem appear unnecessary.
- Children learn a great deal by imitating, so much so that it’s possible imitation may be something of a habit. It might simply be less effortful for children to go with their tried-and-true imitation routine (even if it is a bit inefficient in this case) rather than trying to figure out which parts of the adult’s actions to copy and which parts to ignore.
- Finally, children may just want to please the adult by copying her actions.
All of these explanations are quite plausible - and none of them are all that interesting from a scientific perspective. There is, however, another possibility, one that if true would say something a good deal more interesting about the way children learn.
Take a look at the horizontal line segments in this image. Excluding the arrow points on the ends, which line is longer?
It seems clear that the bottom line is a bit longer than the top, yet…
It’s not true - the horizontal segments are the same length. This is a well-known optical illusion called the Muller-Lyer effect. Because of the way our brains process visual information, we can’t help but feel that the bottom line is longer, even when we know intellectually that the lines are really the same length.
Here then is an interesting question: just as the visual system is tricked by the Muller-Lyer illusion, might children be being misled by the way their brains processed and encoded the adult’s actions on the Puzzle Box? Might children be being misled by a similar kind of cognitive illusion, one that leaves them with the strong impression that all of the adult’s actions – even the irrelevant ones – are really somehow important for getting the turtle out of the Puzzle Box?
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