Children, Chimps and Overimitation

Courtesy of Neuroanthropology and Abnormal Interests, I came across the video below from a National Geographic show about how humans learn. The video features an experiment that gauges differences in learning styles between human children and chimps, with some fascinating results.

Several possible conclusions can be taken away from this experiment. One, as discussed at Abnormal Interests, is that the experiment captures something essential about how rituals are learned and subsequently repeated. The children in the experiment consistently repeated the adult’s actions even when it was clear that they were not needed to reach the goal — definitely smacks of ritualistic behavior. Once engrained, the repeated action reinforces itself, as do rituals.

Another overlapping possibility is that when the children are instructed to repeat the adult’s behavior, they aren’t doing so only to reach the goal — the behavior itself becomes as important as the goal.  This touches on what’s evidently the uniquely human trait of “overimitation.”  Even when the kids can plainly see the treat inside the clear box, they still repeat the behavior they’d learned to imitate; the act of imitating itself trumps the treat. 

This may be because human children can be easily persuaded to believe what adults tell them even when it contradicts their own senses, or because our most potent, hard-wired learning strategy is imitation, even when such imitation seems illogical.

A study entitled “The Hidden Structure of Overimitation”  in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences focused on that last point.  Using a repeat-this-action method similar to that shown in the video, researchers tried to gain a better understanding as to why children will repeat irrelevant adult actions, something chimps aren’t prone to do.  They determined that this tendency is more than a human social dynamic in the making — it’s a cognitive encoding process at the core of how we learn, but it comes at a cost. From the study abstract:

Children who observe an adult intentionally manipulating a novel object have a strong tendency to encode all of the adult’s actions as causally meaningful, implicitly revising their causal understanding of the object accordingly. This automatic causal encoding process allows children to rapidly calibrate their causal beliefs about even the most opaque physical systems, but it also carries a cost. When some of the adult’s purposeful actions are unnecessary-even transparently so-children are highly prone to mis-encoding them as causally significant.

So this study suggests that the same encoding process that allows us to develop a sense of an action’s causal significance also makes us prone, as children, to mis-encoding purposeless actions as casually significant.  (Why are humans plagued with these sorts of “too much of a good thing” tics?) This effect is so potent that once engaged it’s extremely difficult to break. From the study:

The resulting distortions in children’s causal beliefs are the true cause of overimitation, a fact that makes the effect remarkably resistant to extinction. Despite countervailing task demands, time pressure, and even direct warnings, children are frequently unable to avoid reproducing the adult’s irrelevant actions because they have already incorporated them into their representation of the target object’s causal structure.

Perhaps the moral of the story is this: be careful when you’re modeling a behavior in front of your kids — they may be learning it more intensely than you think.

1 Comment

Filed under About Neuroscience, About Research

One response to “Children, Chimps and Overimitation

  1. It would be interesting to see at what age the uncritical encoding process begins to tail off. As a scientist (or any other profession for that matter) it’s essential to good interpretation of data that critical thinking is exercised.
    If I had to guess I’d say that even this process itself is probably a learned/encoded behavior.


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