Imitation and Problem Solving: More Complicated Than It Seems

Rubik's Cube

This week I have an unusual post. I’m going to talk to you about an article that I think has not managed to answer the question it was asking. I haven’t posted about these kinds of articles, because I didn’t think it would be useful. However, this is part of being scientifically literate: recognizing when the article hasn’t done what it said it would. So I figured I’ll walk you through my thought process on this one.

The authors set out to examine whether children can combine (by imitating) two different actions in order to solve a novel problem. The authors argue that it’s possible that problem solving, rather than being an individual generation of ideas, is really about combining different previously witnessed actions in order to create a solution. This idea is really neat, because it directly challenges the (widely common) concept that we come up with ideas in a vacuum (see this oldie-but-goodie).

What They Did

So, the authors gave preschoolers a problem box with two stickers in it. Children had to open two compartments in order to get the two stickers (stickers are thought to be fantastic motivators among researchers who study preschoolers). Then, some children were randomly assigned to a baseline condition—they were given no instructions, and were allowed to explore the box. Other children were randomly assigned to a single model condition, in which one model showed children the four actions needed to solve the box (removing two Velcro “defenses” and opening two compartments). They also had a dual-model condition, in which two different models showed the children various parts of the solution.

What They Found

Not-so-shockingly, children were more likely to open both compartments when they were shown what to do as compared with the baseline, in which they were not shown what to do. Sometimes it looks like researchers think that children are complete idiots. In our defense, children sometimes behave like complete idiots. But that’s not the point. By the way, children were more likely to open the two compartments when they saw two models as compared with a single model. The authors suggest that this is because children made fewer errors when they saw two models as compared with a single model, but that’s not an explanation. I would have hypothesized that it would be something about the memory, since using two models provided a more salient break and breaks help us remember what we saw.

What It Means

Yes, children imitated the actions shown to them by the models. So, the researchers found significant results and published them, and that’s fantastic. But, my problem with this study is that each compartment of the box was independent. That is, children didn’t have to combine the actions in order to open both compartments, they just had to repeat these actions, and then both compartments would be open. So, children didn’t really aggregate the different actions, they just imitated a longer sequence. And that’s not really new: we know that children are great imitators. So the article says they want to examine children’s ability to aggregate actions into a novel solution, but then they had a methodology that didn’t quite test this. It doesn’t mean that this study is not neat; it is. It just doesn’t answer the question it’s asking. And that’s a shame because it’s a fantastic question.

@2015 - Gal Podjarny