Automatic imitation effects are influenced by experience of synchronous action in children


O'Sullivan EP, Bijvoet-van den Berg S & Caldwell CA (2018) Automatic imitation effects are influenced by experience of synchronous action in children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 171, pp. 113-130.

By their fourth year children are expert imitators but it is unclear how this ability develops. One approach suggests that certain types of experience might forge associations between the sensory and motor representations of an action that might facilitate imitation at a later time. Sensorimotor experience of this sort may occur when an infant’s action is imitated by a caregiver or when socially synchronous action occurs. This learning approach therefore predicts that the strength of sensory-motor associations should depend on the frequency and quality of previous experience. Here, we tested this prediction by examining automatic imitation; i.e., the tendency of an action stimulus to facilitate the performance of that action and interfere with the performance of an incompatible action. We required children (aged between 3:8 and 7:11) to respond to actions performed by an experimenter (e.g., two hands clapping), with both compatible actions (i.e., two hands clapping) and incompatible actions (i.e., two hands waving) at different stages in the experimental procedure. As predicted by a learning account, actions thought to be performed in synchrony (i.e., clapping/waving) produced stronger automatic imitation effects when compared to actions where previous sensorimotor experience is likely to be more limited (e.g., pointing/hand closing). Furthermore, these automatic imitation effects were not found to vary with age, as both compatible and incompatible responses quickened with age. These findings suggest a role for sensorimotor experience in the development of imitative ability.

automatic imitation; synchrony; associative sequence learning; social learning; sensorimotor experience.

Journal of Experimental Child Psychology: Volume 171

Publication date31/07/2018
Publication date online27/03/2018
Date accepted by journal22/01/2018