Children Learn When Adults Imitate ThemChildren often mimic each other, with one repeating everything the other says. Young children may concur with an older sibling’s every decision. Although it’s usually a way to tease another, on the whole, imitation seems to have a positive social impact.

Parents also imitate their children in a playful way. We tend to think of people who imitate us (maybe not in the annoying way a younger sibling does) as being “like us” or “one of us.” On the other hand, when observing an interaction, the person who mirrors actions can be perceived as a follower, and the other person is perceived as a leader or an expert. In other words, imitation also can have a negative social impact under some circumstances.

It turns out that imitation can influence what preschoolers prefer and maybe even whom they trust.

Researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology introduced 5- and 6-year old children to two confederates: one person imitated all of the children’s choices and another did not.

Half of the children met the adults in a scenario where they chose their favorite animal out of three unfamiliar animals such as an echidnae. One adult agreed with (mimicked) the children, and the other did not. The other half of the children were asked a question about three different unfamiliar animals. The answer was not obvious by looking at the picture (e.g., which animal has a poisonous spine?), thus children had to choose an animal at random. The mimicking adult selected the same answer as the child, whereas the non-mimic chose another picture.

In both scenarios, children were introduced to someone who mimicked their preference or “knowledge” of factual claims and one adult who did not. Over, Carpenter, Spears, and Gattis (2013) wanted to know whether these interactions would influence children’s future preferences and choices.

The first question was whether children tended to share preferences with someone who previously imitated them. Children watched the two adults choose a “favorite” box, and play with an object inside. When asked which box they preferred, the children were more likely to choose the box that the mimicking adult selected.

To explore whether children are more likely to trust an individual who imitated them previously, children took part in a labeling activity. The adults gave the same nonsense label, “Danu,” to two different unfamiliar objects. Children were asked which object they thought was the “Danu.” Again, children were more likely to choose the object labeled by the adult who previously mimicked them over the adult who did not.

Interestingly, the type of situation under which the children were imitated did not matter. Regardless of whether the adult previously imitated a preference or an answer to a factual claim, children preferred the same box and selected the object labeled by the mimicking adult. In this particular situation, children did think that the adult mimicking them was more knowledgeable than the other adult.

The findings, which are published in Social Development, are presented as further evidence that imitation is a type of social influence and preschoolers, like adults, prefer and trust individuals who mirror their behaviors and preferences.

It is yet to be determined if children would respond the same way if the person imitating them was a same-aged peer, or someone they have a relationship with, such as a sibling.