Do children imitate even when it is costly? New insights from a novel task

Mingxuan Zhao*, Frankie T K Fong, Andrew Whiten, Mark Nielsen

*Corresponding author for this work

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Children have a proclivity to learn through faithful imitation, but the extent to which this applies under significant cost remains unclear. To address this, we investigated whether 4- to 6-year-old children (N = 97) would stop imitating to forego a desirable food reward. We presented participants with a task involving arranging marshmallows and craft sticks, with the goal being either to collect marshmallows or build a tower. Children replicated the demonstrated actions with high fidelity regardless of the goal, but retrieved rewards differently. Children either copied the specific actions needed to build a tower, prioritizing tower completion over reward; or adopted a novel convention of stacking materials before collecting marshmallows, and developed their own method to achieve better outcomes. These results suggest children's social learning decisions are flexible and context-dependent, yet that when framed by an ostensive goal, children imitated in adherence to the goal despite incurring significant material costs.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
JournalBritish Journal of Developmental Psychology
VolumeEarly View
Early online date6 Oct 2023
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 6 Oct 2023


  • Children
  • Social learning
  • High-fidelity imitation
  • Flexible imitation
  • Goals
  • Cost


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