The role of context in "over-imitation": Evidence of movement-based goal inference in young children


March J, Rigby Dames B, Caldwell C, Doherty M & Rafetseder E (2020) The role of context in "over-imitation": Evidence of movement-based goal inference in young children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 190, Art. No.: 104713.

Children, and adults, often imitate causally unnecessary actions. Three experiments investigated whether such “over-imitation” occurs because these actions are interpreted as performed for the movement’s sake (i.e., having a “movement-based” goal). Experiment 1 (N = 30, 2- to 5-year-olds) replicated previous findings: children imitated actions with no goal more precisely than actions with external goals. Experiment 2 (N = 58, 2- to 5-year-olds) confirmed that the difference between these conditions was not due to the absence/presence of external goals but was also found when actions brought about external goals in a clearly inefficient way. Experiment 3 (N = 36, 3- to 5-year-olds) controlled for the possibility that imitation fidelity was affected by the number of actions and objects present during the demonstration and confirmed that identical actions were imitated more precisely when they appeared more inefficient towards an external goal. Our findings suggest that movement-based goal inference encourages over-imitation.

Imitation; Goal inference; Children; Context; Intention; Action understanding

These two authors (J. March and B. A. Rigby Dames) contributed equally to this paper. Joshua March is the corresponding author for this paper. All correspondence should be sent to

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology: Volume 190

FundersEuropean Commission (Horizon 2020)
Publication date29/02/2020
Publication date online11/11/2019
Date accepted by journal11/09/2019