Do Children Imitate Differently Across Cultures?

Children have a lot to learn, and one of the ways they meet that formidable challenge is by imitating others. They’ll imitate the good things see. They’ll imitate the bad things they see. As I’ve written about before, they’ll even imitate robots.

What’s less clear is whether children in different cultures practice the art of imitation in different ways. Is imitation an intrinsic human behavior that is a universal part of childhood, or is it influenced by cultural factors?

Some new findings from researchers in Germany suggests it might, in fact, be both of those.

In their study, the researchers looked at how imitation was used by children from urban Germany and children from a hunter-gatherer population in Namibia. The researchers were especially interested in overimitation, which is when children imitate actions that are not actually relevant or helpful to the task at hand.

To study overimitation in these two groups of children, the researchers did an experiment in which children retrieved candy from a box after watching an adult do the same. In some version of the task, the adult model performed pointless actions such as repeatedly opening and closing the lid of the box, to see if the children would copy those behaviors.

It turned out that the number of children who imitated at least some of the pointless behaviors was the same across cultures. That result is consistent with the idea that children have a tendency toward overimitation regardless of cultural context.

However, even though the same number of children engaged in overimitation in both groups, the children from urban Germany imitated more pointless behaviors. To put it another way, a child chosen at random from either group would be equally likely to engage in overimitation, but a child from the German group would be more likely to overimitate a wider variety of behaviors.

It’s not possible to say specifically why children in the German group tended to overimitate more irrelevant actions because there are so many possible factors that could be involved. But the study does suggest that, even if the phenomenon of childhood imitation and overimitation is prevalent around the world, culture could influence the degree to which children imitate the adults they encounter.