“Over-imitation” in Humans [...]

A strange finding — children, unlike apes, tend towards replication of all actions when copying action sequences, even when those actions are obviously irrelevant to the outcome. An example of an irrelevant action might be tapping the side of a jar from which you will extract a prize with a stick.

Here’s an example of the behavior in a small child:

Interestingly, chimps only copy the relevant actions, making them seem, in this instance, better primed for learning.

There are three main accounts.

“Causal Confusion” accounts propose that children wrongly see such actions as causal, and necessary to the outcome.

“Affiliation” accounts propose that the child executes the non-necessary pieces of the routine to be more like the model.

“Normativity” accounts propose that the child executes the uneccessary actions because it is seen as “playing by the rules”. In this account the child knows the actions are not causally necessary, but believes they must be socially necessary.

In my own opinion, the easiest way to explain this is Relevance Theory, which cuts across all three accounts to explain why a child even needs to explain the behavior.

Some more detail:

Horner & Whiten (2005) discovered that unlike chimpanzees, which, as noted above, copied less of a model’s actions when they appeared causally irrelevant, young children, surprisingly, copied these with high fidelity. These results have been replicated for a larger sample of 3-year-old children by McGuigan et al. (2007). Moreover, McGuigan et al. extended the study to include 5-year olds, suspecting that as children mature cognitively, the susceptibility to blanket copying would decline. Results were to the contrary: 5-year olds were even more likely than the 3-year olds to copy all they saw, even with the transparent box.

Lyons et al. (2007) have replicated these results with a similar task, as well as others that incorporate both causally relevant and irrelevant actions, the latter transparent to view. Lyons et al. checked that the children’s responses are not merely to please the experimenter, both by allowing the child to complete the task while the experimenter was out of the room (see also Horner & Whiten 2005), and then asking the child to check the reward object had been put in place for the next child. A strong tendency to copy the irrelevant modelled actions remained evident even in this more rushed, ‘real-world’ context (figure 5). Lyons et al. further demonstrated how surprisingly inflexible is young children’s conformity, which the authors dubbed over-imitation. Children were exposed to a training programme in which the experimenter extracted reward objects from eight transparent containers, in each case using both relevant and irrelevant actions, and asking the child which actions the experimenter ‘had to do’ and which were ‘silly and unnecessary’ (e.g. tapping the side of a container with a feather). Children were effusively praised for correctly identifying irrelevant actions. Nevertheless, these children continued to over-imitate when tested later. With Lyons et al.’s version of the Horner and Whiten test box, children copied the irrelevant actions in over 90 per cent of cases versus under 10 per cent in baseline tests. (Source)

The mystery is an old one:

The mystery of overimitation has been a long-standing one in developmental psychology. How is it that young children, who are able to learn and reason in so many impressively agile ways, can be utterly stumped by something as simple as the transparent Puzzle Box shown above? Specifically, when kids see an adult getting a prize out of that box in a way that adults – and even chimpanzees – can easily identify as clumsy and inefficient, they seem to lose the ability to figure out how to open the box “correctly”. Watching an adult doing it wrong, in other words, effectively blocks children from figuring out how to do it right. Children become stuck overimitating – or copying the adult’s wasteful strategy, even when doing so leads to bad outcomes. (Source)

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