Rethinking 'Rational Imitation' in 14-Month-Old Infants: An attentional competition Approach

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Fourteen-month-old infants imitate an unusual action (i.e. illuminating a lamp using the head) only if the model freely chose to perform this action and not if the action could be ascribed to external constraints. This selective imitation was attributed to the infant’s understanding of the principle of rational action (Gergely, Bekkering, & Király, 2002, Nature, 415, 755). In the present project, we present evidence that a simpler approach of attentional competition may be more appropriate to explain these results: Seeing a model being wrapped in a blanket might distract the infants’ attention away from the target action resulting in a lower likelihood of imitation. We tested this idea with two conditions: 1) We reduced attentional competition by familiarizing the infants to the sight of the model being wrapped in a blanket (hands-occupied-familiarization; HO-Fam). 2) We enhanced attentional competition by adding two big smileys next to the model (hands-free-competition; HF-Comp) – see Fig. 5.5.6.1. In addition, we conducted the two original conditions (hands-free; HF; hands-occupied; HO). The two accounts make opposing predictions for the two new conditions. The rational-imitation account predicts that the likelihood of infants imitating the head touch would be low in the HO-Fam condition and high in HF-Comp. In contrast, the attentional-competition account predicts a high likelihood of imitation in HO-Fam (because infants are familiarized to the unusual sight of the model). In HF-Comp, the smileys compete with the infants’ attention to the target action which reduces the likelihood of imitation. Our study replicated the original findings. Infants imitated the head touch in the HF but not in the HO condition (Fig. 5.5.6.2). More notably, in HO-Fam, the head touch was imitated as often as in the original HF condition. In HF-Comp, the likelihood of imitation was intermediate compared to the two original ditions, d= .32; p< .05 (Somer’s d coefficient). Thus, likelihood of imitation increases when infants are familiarized with an unusual sight of a model, and is reduced when infants’ attention is distracted. Selective imitation in 14-month-old infants does not require a demanding understanding of rationality, but can be explained more simply with attentional competition.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationResearch Report
Publication date2011
Pages200-201
Publication statusPublished - 2011

ID: 2918292

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