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Copycat. A young participant needlessly wipes a blue stick along a box's edge before using it to open the lid, just as his adult instructor did.

Mark Nielsen

Kids Overimitate Adults, Regardless of Culture

Whether they’re preschoolers from Australian suburbs or Kalahari Bushmen, children copy adults to a fault, according to a new study. The findings suggest that overimitation—in which a child copies everything an adult does, even irrelevant or silly actions—is a universal human trait that may contribute to our complex culture.

Researchers already knew that overimitation was a human-specific quirk. In previous studies, dogs and chimps taught to open a box and retrieve a toy copied their teacher’s toy-seeking behavior only when it proved efficient. When the instructing adult added irrelevant actions, such as brushing a feather along the edge of the box before opening it, the animal trainees skipped them, doing only what was necessary to get to the hidden toy. But human children copied every detail, even the pointless brush of the feather.

“Animals focus on getting the job done,” explains Mark Nielsen, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia. “Humans seem to almost forget about the outcome and copy everything we see.”

Nielsen harbored doubts, however, that the overly faithful copycatting was really universal to all humans, because all the experimental subjects were the middle- to upper-class kids of Western-educated parents. Such parents tend to regularly teach and model behaviors for their children: for example, they frequently point out objects and explain what they are used for, or instruct their children step-by-step through a new activity, thus encouraging their children to view them as experts and overimitate them. So he turned to a culture with a distinctly different parenting style: the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Whereas a Western parent might teach a youngster to use a bow and arrow by standing behind her and guiding her motions, a parent from the indigenous African Bushmen culture would allow the child to come along for a hunt and learn by observation and through trial and error. Nielsen hypothesized that a child taught in this hands-off manner would have less reason to overimitate adults and would do so less often.

To test his idea, Nielsen taught more than 90 children aged 2 to 13 in multiple Bushmen communities and in Brisbane to open a set of opaque boxes that each contained a hidden toy. Each box could be easily opened by lifting a knob, sliding a switch, or removing two dowels that latched a lid into place. Sixty-two of the children were allowed to play with the boxes first, and 10 of these figured out how to open them on their own. Then Nielsen or an instructing adult from the community showed the children how to open the box, incorporating an impractical action into the process: tracing circles over the box with a stick and using the stick to pull the knob, for example. To Nielsen’s surprise, all the kids overimitated equally (see video).

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Learning the ropes. A young participant overimitates his adult teacher and uses a blue stick to inefficiently open a box.
Credit: Mark Nielsen

“I was gobsmacked,” says Nielsen. “Their approaches were the same—there was no difference at all.”

The results support the idea that overimitation is a fundamentally human, cross-cultural phenomenon, one that may be critical to the transmission of human culture. For humans, “it is knowing the way things are done, not what gets done, that is important,” Nielsen reported online on 16 April in Psychological Science. That focus on means over ends gives humans a leg up on learning the complicated behaviors that make up a culture, he adds.

“This is a very interesting and important study,” says Andrew Whiten, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of St. Andrews in the United Kingdom. He cautions, however, against concluding overimitation is universal based on a single African study.

Cognitive scientist Laura Schulz, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, also sounds a note of caution. The study doesn’t explain why children overimitate, she says. It could be that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitating, or that they assume adults do things a certain way for a reason, such as politeness. “We have a very strong bias to assume others are acting rationally,” she says. “I think this is good, robust evidence that children around the world treat adults as rational and imitate them even if they don’t understand what the adult is doing—especially if they don’t know what the adult is doing.”