Do infants like being imitated?

The desire to imitate is generally considered a major driver of social cognition in infants. Nevertheless, this “finding” has been largely theoretical until now. The current study from Lund University in Sweden aimed to provide concrete evidence of the effects of imitation on social interaction between babies and adults. Do babies like being imitated?

For babies, the theoretical benefits of being imitated has been widely touted. Imitation by adults encourages the development of socio-cognitive skills, including self-awareness, theory of mind (understanding the intentions and mental states of others) and the acquisition of cultural norms. But as the authors of this study published in Plos One point out, there was no convincing data demonstrating first, that infants known when they are imitated and second, that it has any effect on them. To remedy this lack of empirical evidence, the Swedish researchers decided to conduct a study with babies of around 6 months of age (5 girls and 11 boys; average age = 6.5 months).

One of the experimenters interacted with the babies in four different ways: she would imitate the infant and his or her movements (both like a reflection in a mirror or as an inverted reflection, known as contralateral imitation), as well as facial expressions and vocalizations. She would imitate the baby’s movements while maintaining a neutral facial expression (absence of emotional facial and vocal mimicry). And finally, she would respond to the baby's actions with a different action. This last type of behavior, known as “contingent responding,” is the most commonly adopted behavior by those close to the baby.

Thanks to the filmed interactions and the analysis of the babies’ behavior, the scientists were able to establish that the infants spent more time smiling and watching the adult who imitated them. They also tended to reduce the physical distance between them. And as we can see in the video sequence that the authors of the study published, (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=63u7l5-x1Hk&feature=youtu.be), the infants even tested the researcher. For instance, when the baby banged on the table and the experimenter imitated the action, the baby would hit the table again several times while carefully monitoring the experimenter’s response (even if she kept a neutral face). This behavior (speeding up or slowing down movements to see if the other person does the same) shows that the babies recognized they were being imitated.

According to the authors, “The results show that imitation engenders prosocial effects in 6-month old infants and that infants at this age reliably show evidence of implicit and high-level imitation recognition.” Insofar as they like to be imitated, even by a person they do not know, imitating young babies represents “an effective way to catch their interest and bond with them,” says Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, one of the members of the research team.
Source: Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, Jagoda Zlakowska, Tomas Persson, Sara Lenninger, Elainie Alenkaer Madsen. Imitation recognition and its prosocial effects in 6-month old infants, in PLOS ONE , May 2020 // Lund University website: “watch-babies-know-when-you-imitate-them-and-like-it” - https://www.lunduniversity.lu.se/article/watch-babies-know-when-you-imitate-them-and-like-it

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