Young children use imitation communicatively

Nazli Altinok*, Harriet Over, Malinda Carpenter

*Corresponding author for this work

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There is growing evidence that children imitate not just to learn from others but also to affiliate socially with them. However, although imitation can convey a wealth of affiliative information to others, it is not yet known whether imitators intend for this to be the case. In particular, we do not know whether children imitate communicatively in some contexts, expending extra effort to make sure that the demonstrator sees their imitation. Here, in two experiments (N = 20 and N = 48, respectively), we tested whether preschool-age children modify their imitation when needed to ensure that the demonstrator sees it. In each trial, children were shown a demonstration. Then, for their response, in one condition a barrier obscured the demonstrator’s view of children’s imitation unless children raised their arms above the barrier while imitating. In the other condition the demonstrator was able to see children’s imitation without any additional effort from children. Results from both experiments showed that children were significantly more likely to imitate with their arms raised when their actions would otherwise be obscured from view. In the second experiment, we also coded for other communicative behaviors (e.g., social smiles, eye contact, showing gestures) and found that children often displayed communicative behaviors while imitating, as expected, in both conditions. Thus, young children actively use imitation communicatively in some contexts.
Original languageEnglish
Article number105654
Number of pages14
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date15 Mar 2023
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2023


  • Imitation
  • Social imitation
  • Showing
  • Communication
  • Affiliation
  • Social motivation


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