Monkey See, Monkey Help

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I love it when my kids play together. Typically, one of them starts something (say, run around the room in circles). The other one would join in, making it a party. Monkeys see and monkeys do, and my little monkeys love to mimic each other (and us, but that’s a different story). Kids and even babies mimic other kids and adults (as I’m sure many parents notice) – it’s how they learn and practice their skills. Our mimicry skills are so advanced, that babies, after watching an adult trying but not succeeding to do something, would actually mimic the intended action rather than the action they actually witnessed. If that’s not cool, I don’t know what is.

Researchers have long been interested in mimicry in children – especially infants – but they mostly investigated how infants mimic others’ actions. A new study that’s just been published looked at the effects that being mimicked has on infants.

What They Did

In a brilliant twist on regular mimicking studies, Malinda Carpenter and her colleagues randomly assigned babies (18-month-olds) to a mimicked and a non-mimicked group. In the mimicked group, the experimenter spent a few minutes following the baby around and mimicking their actions (stretching, sitting, running around, etc.). In the non-mimicked group (the control group) the experimenter spent the same amount of time not mimicking the babies. That is, for every action the baby did, the experimenter did a different action (sitting when the baby stood up, stretching up when the baby bended to pick something up, etc.). So the difference between the groups was only whether they were mimicked or not, with the experimenter-baby interaction carefully controlled (I love it when researchers carefully control other variables. It makes me happy).

After the “set-up” stage, they started the test phase. The experimenter (either the same one who mimicked the kids or a different one) “accidentally dropped” some sticks, and the researchers recorded whether the babies helped her gather her sticks back into the box (I wrote about a similar procedure here). Then she took the box to a cupboard but couldn’t open the cupboard door since her hands were full. The researchers recorded whether the babies helped her open the door.

What They Found

Interestingly, they found that babies that were mimicked were significantly more likely to help both the experimenter who mimicked them and the experimenter who didn’t mimic them. In other words, babies who were mimicked showed more pro-social behaviour and were generally more helpful. This experiment, by the way, is a replication of an experiment that found similar results with adults.

What It Means

First, this sounds like a fantastic way to get your toddler to cooperate! Just mimic them a bit before you ask them to do something. I’m definitely trying this with my own little rebellious devil (also known as my 2-year-old daughter). Another interesting implication is that this puts our natural tendency to mimic other people in a whole new light. If this exists in babies, there must be some innate roots, which means that we are wired to respond more helpfully to people (or creatures) who we think of as similar to us – who behave like us. Definitely food for thought.

@2015 - Gal Podjarny