Six-month-olds recognize (and like) when they’re being imitated

A new study may help us better understand how children build social cognition through caregiver interaction.

man and woman playing with baby and wood blocks
  • Scientists speculate imitation helps develop social cognition in babies.
  • A new study out of Lund University shows that six-month-olds look and smile more at imitating adults.
  • Researchers hope the data will spur future studies to discover what role caregiver imitation plays in social cognition development.

    • The human mind is one of evolution's marvels, and it's never more marvelous than in our youth. In our first few years of life, our brains create more than a million new neural connections per second. Three months after birth, our cerebellums double in volume to manage those tricky motor functions. We acquire language with no formal instruction. By the time we're toddlers, we develop the realization that oneself and others have desires, emotions, experiences, and intentions.

      That last one may seem a heavy lift for munchkins still grappling with the fact that cows go moo, but research has shown that we come to that realization young. It's a critical piece in the development of our social cognition, our ability to analyze and apply our knowledge of other people and ourselves within social situations.

      Where things become difficult is understanding when and how social cognition develops in children. Because researchers can't ask infants questions directly, they have to conceive of experiments to perceive thought by way of action. This leads to questions of interpretation. Some researchers think babies are already aware of others, while some argue that our theory of mind solidifies during the social hazing of preschool.

      A new clue comes from research recently published in PLOS One, which shows that six-month-olds can recognize when they are being imitated.

      Adults see, adults do?

      Babies imitated by the researcher (shown in green) gave their imitator more attention, smiles, and approaching behavior than babies who received a non-imitative response (blue).

      (Photo: PLOS One)

      According to the study, the experience of being imitated provides infants the scaffolding for their social cognition. When infants see their actions mimicked, it leads them to realize that these actions have social consequences. They learn that movements, vocalizations, and facial expressions cause others around them to behave in certain ways. It's much like how they'll later experiment with cause and effect by banging about blocks.

      To measure the effects imitation has on infants, the researchers set up an experiment with six-month-old babies. A researcher would go to the baby's home and play with them in four different ways. They would either:

      • Imitate everything the baby did (green/MI on the graph),
      • Imitate the reverse of the baby's actions (red/CI).
      • Imitate the baby but remain expressionless (orange/BI), or
      • Respond with a "contingent response" action (blue/CR).

      A contingent response means the researcher acted as most adults would. Instead of imitating the act of reaching for a toy, they would pick it up and hand it to the baby.

      The researchers found that the closer they emulated a baby, the longer they held his or her attention. Such imitation was also correlated with more smiling and a greater desire to approach the researcher.

      "Imitating young infants seems to be an effective way to catch their interest and bond with them. The mothers were quite surprised to see their infants joyfully engaging in imitation games with a stranger, but also impressed by the infants' behaviours," Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, a researcher at Lund University and the study's lead author, said in a press release.

      According to the release, the babies being imitated also initiated testing behavior. If a baby smacked the table and the research imitated the action, the baby would then repeat the action several times to see how the adult responded.

      "This was quite interesting. When someone actively tests the person who is imitating them, it is usually seen as an indication that the imitated individual is aware that there is a correspondence between their own behaviour and the behaviour of the other," Sauciuc said.

      The sincerest form of flattery

      The study had 16 baby participants, five girls and 11 boys, a small but meaningful sample size. In the study, the researchers note that they hope their data will spur additional research into imitation recognition as well as how infants perceive body language and their awareness of another's intentions toward them.

      "By showing that 6-month-old infants recognise when they are being imitated, and that imitation has a positive effect on interaction, we begin to fill up this [research] gap. We still have to find out when exactly imitation begins to have such effects, and what role imitation recognition actually plays for babies," Sauciuc noted in the same release.

      Those are important questions to answer as early caregiver interactions provide the foundation for many social traits. These may include empathy, self-awareness, reading others' intentions, and cultural norms like turn-taking. They may further expand to other areas of social competency like creativity and confidence. Best of all, for babies and caregivers, imitation provides a fun, and fruitful, way to play.

      A brief history of human dignity

      What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

      Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
      Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
      • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
      • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
      • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
      Keep reading Show less

      Astrophysicists: Gamma-ray jets exceed the speed of light

      Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.

      An artist's drawing of a particle jet emanating from a black hole at the center of a blazar.

      Credit: DESY, Science Communication Lab (used with permission by Astronomy Picture of the Day, which is co-managed by Robert Nemiroff at Michigan Tech).
      Surprising Science
      • Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
      • The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
      • The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
      Keep reading Show less

      Scientists find the "magic number" that links forces of the universe

      Researchers dramatically improve the accuracy of a number that connects fundamental forces.

      The Universe and the fine-structure constant.

      Credit: Adobe
      Surprising Science
      • A team of physicists carried out experiments to determine the precise value of the fine-structure constant.
      • This pure number describes the strength of the electromagnetic forces between elementary particles.
      • The scientists improved the accuracy of this measurement by 2.5 times.
      Keep reading Show less

      A new system separates oxygen and hydrogen from Mars’ water

      Scientists at Washington University are patenting a new electrolyzer designed for frigid Martian water.

      Illustration of Mars' long-gone Jezero Lake

      Technology & Innovation
      • Mars explorers will need more oxygen and hydrogen than they can carry to the Red Planet.
      • Martian water may be able to provide these elements, but it is extremely salty water.
      • The new method can pull oxygen and hydrogen for breathing and fuel from Martian brine.
      Keep reading Show less
      Coronavirus

      How officials will ensure the COVID-19 vaccine stays cold enough in transit

      Pfizer's vaccine needs to be kept at -100°F until it's administered. Can caregivers deliver?

      Scroll down to load more…
      Quantcast