Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

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.

  • 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.

      The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

      Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

      Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
      Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
      • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
      • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
      • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
      Keep reading Show less

      Did Michelangelo Hide Secret Messages in the Sistine Chapel’s Ceiling?

      The painting measures 12,000 sq. ft. and includes over 300 life-like figures. 

      The Sistine chapel. Getty Images.
      Surprising Science

      Visitors have marveled at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel for over five hundred years. It draws millions of tourists annually and holds a special place in Christianity. Besides serving as the Pope’s private chapel, it’s also where a papal enclave takes place, should the pontiff pass on, and the need arise to elect a new one. The last one was in 2013.  

      Keep reading Show less

      Live on Tuesday | Personal finance in the COVID-19 era

      Sallie Krawcheck and Bob Kulhan will be talking money, jobs, and how the pandemic will disproportionally affect women's finances.

      How DNA revealed the woolly mammoth's fate – and what it teaches us today

      Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.

      Ethan Miller/Getty Images
      Surprising Science

      Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.

      Keep reading Show less
      Scroll down to load more…
      Quantcast