Anthropological evidence has shown that, in many cultures, observational learning and imitation are the major ways by which behaviors unique to that culture are transmitted from one generation to the next. It has been argued that imitation is more efficient than either trial-and-error learning or individual problem solving. Learning by imitation is much more rapid, particularly when the environment of the demonstrator and the observer are similar, the cost of individual learning is high, and in situations when it is not readily apparent how the demonstrator is solving the problem.

Perspective taking and intentionality may develop as a result of imitation, and imitation deficits may lead to impaired social cognitive development. Children with autism, for example, have imitative deficits and imitate much less frequently than typically developing children. It has been argued that such deficits in imitation production are also linked to subsequent deficits in the development of theory of mind.

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Before  language,  imitation  is  an  important  way that adults show and teach the child about how objects work, how to solve problems, and a critical way to communicate with other children. Imitation tasks have, therefore, been used extensively in developmental studies with preverbal infants and young children. Simply put, imitation tasks involve a “monkey see, monkey  do”  procedure  in  which  an  experimenter models a behavior, and the subject is then given the opportunity to reproduce it afterward. Gesture imitation and deferred object imitation have been the focus of most developmental studies.

Gesture Imitation

Piaget proposed that facial gesture imitation does not emerge until 8 to 12 months of age because while infants teach themselves vocal gestures and manual gestures through listening to their own voices or by watching their own hand movements, this intramodal matching process is logistically impossible for facial gestures.

Meltzoff and Moore, however, challenged the traditional Piagetian notion and found that significantly more newborn, 1-month-old, and 3-month-old infants than would be expected by chance responded with a gesture matching the adult display as judged by observers blind to the experimental condition. Furthermore, infants were able to imitate a range of behaviors including mouth opening, tongue protrusion, and head movement displays. Even infants less than 72 hours old were able to imitate facial gestures. More recently, it has been shown that 6-week-old infants remember the specific facial gestures modeled by the experimenter after a 24-hour delay.

The neonate is capable of storing representations of absent objects and events at birth, and can recognize the equivalence between their behavior and the behavior of other humans. Such a “starting state nativisim” allows that infant to come into the world with the ability to imitate, and this early ability also allows for intermodal mapping and, from there, inference to others or detection of “like me.” To extend this notion, neonatal imitation of facial gestures is an early form of perspective taking, and mutual imitation games give infants practice in social interaction and communication. Adults respond to this early imitation by imitating their infants’ behaviors, including object and vocal play and facial gestures. Infants also recognize when they are being imitated.

Neuroscience’s recent discovery of the mirror neuron system adds support to the argument that the imitation system is playing a fundamental role in the emergence of social cognition. Mirror neurons map visual information of actions by others onto motor representations in primates including humans. That is, mirror neurons allow imitation to occur by building the motor plan for action at the time of the demonstration.

Deferred Imitation

The ability to reproduce an action that was previously modeled by another individual after a delay is called deferred imitation. Deferred imitation was originally described by Piaget from observations of his own children. He described how his daughter (Jacqueline) precisely imitated a peer’s temper tantrum that she had seen 24 hours earlier. According to Piaget, Jacqueline watched as a peer tried to get out of his playpen. The boy screamed, moved the playpen backwards, and stamped his feet. The following day when Jacqueline was placed in her playpen, she imitated the same series of actions even though the boy was not there. Deferred imitation has important implications for memory development and learning.

In deferred imitation experiments, target actions involving single or multiple steps are demonstrated by an adult experimenter with an unfamiliar object. Control groups do not see target actions but are often exposed to adult manipulation of the stimuli. Deferred imitation is reported if the imitation score of the demonstration group significantly exceeds that of the control groups.

The  age  at  which  deferred  imitation  emerges has  long  been  debated.  Originally,  Piaget  claimed that deferred imitation did not emerge until infants were 18 to 24 months of age. This finding was challenged when it was demonstrated that 9-month-olds could exhibit deferred imitation. Then neuropsychologists argued that before 9 months of age deferred imitation may not be possible because of the immaturity of the prefrontal cortex or limbic system. Recently, however, studies have demonstrated that even infants as young as 6 months of age exhibit deferred imitation.

Serial learning has also been studied using an imitation procedure in which an experimenter models a specific sequence of actions with a set of props and then children are allowed to imitate the sequence. With increasing age, infants correctly reproduce increasingly longer ordered sequences. Thus, they can correctly reproduce familiar and novel sequences that contain two steps at 11 months, three steps at 13½ months, and eight steps at 30 months of age.

Recall of sequences is consistently influenced by the structure of the target event. Without exception, infants’ recall of a series of actions that can only be performed in a specific temporal order (“enabling” or “causal” events such as making a rattle by placing a ball in a container, putting a lid on it, and shaking it) is superior to their recall of actions that can be performed in any order (“arbitrary” events such as dressing a teddy bear by putting on trousers, a scarf, and a cap). The finding occurs even when the enabling and arbitrary events have been matched on the basis of target actions and event goals, and is identical to findings with older children and adults.

Further evidence that toddlers understand the causal nature of the enabling event has been found when irrelevant components have been added to event sequences. The irrelevant components are reliably omitted or displaced to the end of the sequence during reenactment by children between the ages of 19 months and 7 years. That is, imitation is flexible and adaptive; when the sequence requires a specific order, that order is imitated but when the actions are arbitrary order is not imitated.

A somewhat related issue is how an imitation mechanism may interact with other learning mechanisms. If an imitation task, typically remembered for 1 day by 6-month-olds, is associated with an operant task that is remembered for 2 weeks, the imitation task can also be remembered for 2 weeks, and once both tasks are forgotten both equally serve as reminders for the other task. This finding suggests that imitation may be combined with other learning mechanisms to increase retention of otherwise rapidly forgotten information.

Deferred imitation is particularly appealing to study because it is so commonplace in real-world settings. A particularly rich source of imitation is television. Overall, infants imitate fewer behaviors from television than from live demonstrations. When televised demonstrations are repeated, however, even 6-month-olds can imitate simple actions from television. This finding has important applied implications for television programmers. Siblings are another rich source of information for infants and toddlers. Diary studies have shown that infants with older siblings imitated more behaviors without explicit instruction than did infants without siblings, and imitation was characterized by a higher level of pretense and rough and tumble play. Taken together, these studies indicate that imitation is a powerful mechanism by which infants acquire new behaviors in the course of their everyday lives.


The range of behaviors that infants imitate after a  delay  expands  with  age  from  facial  and  body movements, to actions on and generalization across objects, to intended actions and social goals. By 12 months of age, infants imitate new actions frequently and generalize imitation across different environmental contexts. Cognitive flexibility in imitation continues to increase between 12 and 18 months. Infants can generalize across different objects as well as different environmental contexts. Furthermore, imitation of pretend play emerges between 12 and 18 months. This gradual developmental progression is thought to reflect developmental increases in infants’ motor competence and cognitive abilities as well as age changes in their social niche. Cognitive neuroscience is providing exciting insights into the underlying neural correlates that govern imitation production. Studies of deficits in imitation in children with autism indicate the important developmental role that imitation has in social cognition. It is, however, not possible to consider the development of imitation in isolation without considering cognitive development as a whole. The development of imitation is also undoubtedly linked to the development of an increasingly flexible representational system.


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