Evidence for a dual-process account of over-imitation: Children imitate anti- and prosocial models equally, but prefer prosocial models once they become aware of multiple solutions to a task.PLoS One. 2021; 16(9):e0256614.Plos
Children imitate actions that are perceivably unnecessary to achieve the instrumental goal of an action sequence, a behavior termed over-imitation. It is debated whether this behavior is based on the motivation to follow behavioral norms and affiliate with the model or whether it can be interpreted in terms of a behavioral heuristic to copy observed intentional actions without questioning the purpose of each action step. To resolve this question, we tested whether preschool-aged children (N = 89) over-imitate a prosocial model, a helper in a prior third-party moral transgression, but refuse to over-imitate an antisocial model, the perpetrator of the moral transgression. After first observing an inefficient way to extract a reward from a puzzle box from either a perpetrator or a helper, children over-imitated the perpetrator to the same degree as they over-imitated the helper. In a second phase, children were then presented the efficient solution by the respective other model, i.e. the helper or the perpetrator. Over-imitation rates then dropped in both conditions, but remained significantly higher than in a baseline condition only when children had observed the prosocial model demonstrate the inefficient action sequence and the perpetrator performed the efficient solution. In contrast, over-imitation dropped to baseline level when the perpetrator had modelled the inefficient actions and the prosocial model subsequently showed children the efficient solution. In line with a dual-process account of over-imitation, results speak to a strong initial tendency to imitate perceivably irrelevant actions regardless of the model. Imitation behavior is then adjusted according to social motivations after deliberate consideration of different options to attain the goal.