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Kids learn a lot by imitating adults

A particular kind of imitation in which a child copies everything an adult shows them appears to be a universal human activity, says psychologist.

india Updated: May 06, 2010 16:30 IST

A particular kind of imitation in which a child copies everything an adult shows them appears to be a universal human activity rather than something the children of middle-class parents pick up.

This has been borne out by a new study of Australian pre-schoolers and Kalahari Bushman children and helps shed light on how humans develop and transmit culture.

Scientists "have been finding this odd effect where children will copy everything that they see an adult demonstrate to them, even if there are clear or obvious reasons why those actions would be irrelevant," says psychologist Mark Nielsen, University of Queensland (UQ).

This is something other primates don't do. If a chimpanzee is shown an irrelevant action, they won't copy it - they'll skip right to the action that makes something happen.

But it was not clear that the results found in child psychology research apply to all people, Nielsen says. This research is usually done with children who live in Western cultures, whose parents are well educated, and constantly teaching their children. But parents in indigenous cultures generally don't spend a lot of time teaching.

"They may slow what they're doing if the child is watching, but it's not the kind of active instruction that's common in Western cultures," says Nielsen.

So he teamed up with Keyan Tomaselli, anthropologist at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, who has worked for decades in Bushman communities in southern Africa.

For the experiments, the children were shown how to open a box - but in a complicated way, with impractical actions thrown in.

For example, the adult would drag a stick across a box, then use it to pull a knob to open the box - which could be done a lot easier by using fingers.

Most of the children copied what the adults did, even if they'd been given the opportunity to play with the box first and figure out how it worked. This was just as true for Bushman children as for the Australian children.

But aren't the children just following the rules of what appears to be a game? "That kind of is the point," says Nielsen, according to an UQ release.

"Perhaps not a game, but certainly, when I demonstrate the action, it's purposeful. So from the mind of a child, perhaps there's a reason why I'm doing this."

This willingness to assume that an action has some unknown purpose, and to copy it, may be part of how humans develop and share culture, he says.

The study was published in Psychological Science.