• By Laura Whybra
  • Posted on Tuesday 29th October, 2013

The most pro-social form of flattery

strong> Imitation serves an important social function starting in infancy, a new study claims. Toddlers who were mimicked by a researcher went on to offer more help to an adult – regardless of whether that adult was the researcher or someone new. Adults routinely and automatically imitate the behaviors of those around them. Our conversation partner leans forward across a table; we lean, too. They brush their hair from their eyes, and we automatically do the same.These gestures are often subtle, but can have a far-reaching effect. Imitation allows us to associate and communicate with others, creating a sense of “likeness” and unity with those around us. Studies have shown that when someone mimics us, we like the mimicker more. After having our behavior mimicked, we behave more helpfully and generously towards others. We’re more likely to pick up someone’s dropped belonging or give more to charity. But adult behavior is one thing. What about children? Children use imitation and mimicking to learn new skills, like smiling. Children as young as nine months recognize when someone is imitating them and smile back. Now, the results of a new study show that imitation encourages toddlers to be helpful, too. A helping experiment Recent research carried out in Germany looked at the impact imitation had on children’s pro-social behavior. Children are able to help others – for instance, by picking up something that has fallen on the floor – from around the age of 18 months. The researchers wanted to see if mimicking the child would change how likely the child was to help an adult. The researchers split 48 18-month-olds into two groups – a mimic condition and a non-mimic condition. These groups were spilt again into one group who were encouraged to help the adult who mimicked them, and one group who were encouraged to help a new adult. At the start of the experiment, all children took part in a play session with a researcher. In the mimic condition, the researcher immediately copied the child’s actions. For example, if the child pointed at a toy, the researcher would do the same. In the non-mimic condition, the researcher would perform a different friendly action, like squatting near the child. After the play session, the researcher left the room for a few seconds. Then either the same researcher or a new researcher entered the room holding six sticks, which they “accidentally” dropped on the floor. If the child did not immediately try to help with the sticks, the researcher would give up to three verbal prompts, finally asking directly, “Could you please help me?” In a second, similar task, the researcher apparently needed help to open a cabinet to put the sticks in. The imitation effect The researchers found the toddlers helped an adult more quickly, more often, and more spontaneously if they had just been imitated. When the researcher who mimicked the child then dropped the sticks, more than 90% of children helped the adult pick up the dropped sticks, and more than 60% did so without any prompting. Interestingly, toddlers also helped a different adult more often after having been mimicked by the first adult. More than 80% of who were mimicked helped another adult open the cabinet, with more than 50% doing so spontaneously. Being mimicked increased infants’ pro-social behavior overall, and not just their friendliness to the person who imitated them. Mimicry put the toddlers in an affable mood, which made them more likely to help the next person they encountered. However, there are limits to these findings. Overt, obvious mimicry can been seen as mocking or teasing. The researchers discovered that some toddlers found the mimicry condition unpleasant, even though the imitation was designed to be friendly. Therefore, the results apply only to those toddlers who enjoy being mimicked. Despite this limitation, the results indicate that imitation useful not just for learning behaviors, but also for increasing helping and pro-social behavior. *********** Reference: Carpenter, M., Uebel, J., & Tomasello, M. (2013). Being Mimicked Increases Prosocial Behavior in 18-Month-Old Infants. Child Development , DOI: 10.111/cdev.12083

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