Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 101 (2008) 225–227
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Journal of Experimental Child
Tools, TV, and trust: Introduction to the special issue on
imitation in typically-developing children
Man is a toolmaking animal. Certainly, as with other traits once considered to be solely human do-
mains, we cannot claim exclusive right to the ‘‘toolmaker” moniker. Yet we use tools with a depth,
breadth, and remarkable inventiveness that no other animal comes close to showing. Our environ-
ment, no matter where that might be, is saturated with tools, and one way or another, children must
learn to use these tools. One of the most ef?cient ways they can do so is by copying others. It thus
came as no surprise to us that the vast majority of manuscripts that were submitted for publication
in our special issues on the functions and mechanisms of imitation in childhood presented studies
of children learning to use tools and other artifacts. Some manuscripts were more explicitly about this
topic than others, but it is clear that learning to use tools and artifacts is inextricably linked to the
developmental study of imitation.
In the ?rst special issue we introduced a series of papers focused on imitation in children with aut-
ism (Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 101(2) November 2008). The present issue comprises
three papers on imitation in typically-developing children. Each of these papers offers novel insights
into how young children learn about the objects they are confronted with, day in and day out. Each
touches on some or all of three main trends that have emerged in the developmental imitation liter-
ature in recent years.
One of the more fascinating and perhaps the most pervasive of these trends is the growing body of
experimental evidence that characterizes children as selective, ?exible imitators on the one hand (e.g.,
Carpenter, Akhtar, & Tomasello, 1998; Gergely, Bekkering, & Király, 2002; Meltzoff, 1995) but as high-
?delity over-imitators on the other (e.g., Lyons, Young, & Keil, 2007; Nagell, Olguin, & Tomasello, 1993;
see Nielsen, 2006). Thus one of the primary challenges currently facing imitation researchers is to
determine when children will copy others’ actions and when they will choose to perform their own
alternative actions instead.
This leads us to a second trend. Picking up on Uz?giris’ (1981) distinction between the two functions
of imitation, recently several researchers (ourselves included) have begun to focus on less instrumen-
tal, more social reasons for copying others (e.g., Carpenter, 2006; Nielsen, 2008; see Rogers & Williams,
2006). Both are themes that run through the articles in this issue. A third trend is that demonstrations
in imitation studies are being increasingly presented on video, and this is happening for a number of
reasons. There is an obvious practical utility to using video: It is a mechanism by which demonstra-
tions can be standardized across participants while also allowing speci?c aspects of the demonstration
to be edited (e.g., Huang & Charman, 2005). Further, because the demonstrator cannot be interacted
with, video affords a means of investigating social functions of imitation more directly (e.g., see
Nielsen, Simcock, & Jenkins, 2008). Finally, documenting what and how children learn from television
and videos has become critical in certain cultures where children spend considerable portions of their
day watching these (e.g., see Anderson & Pempek, 2005). This, too, is a theme that runs through two of
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Introduction / Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 101 (2008) 225–227
the articles in this special issue. Below we brie?y summarize each of the articles; then, we ?nish by
speculating on the role of children’s imitative behavior in the development of our propensity for tool
use and the transmission of cultural information.
In the ?rst article, Flynn and Whiten explore children’s ability to imitate in a complex tool-use task
with multiple component actions. Expanding on their previous studies (e.g., Whiten, Flynn, Brown, &
Lee, 2006), Flynn and Whiten investigate developmental differences in 3- and 5-year-old children’s
ability to imitate hierarchical action structure, and they look for relations between this kind of imita-
tion and imitation of the demonstrator’s action styles. They use a video demonstration in this study
and compare their results to those of a previous study that used a live demonstration. Their ?ndings
emphasize several key points. The ?rst is that children are not slavish copiers, mindlessly reproducing
everything they see an adult do. Rather, they are capable of making judgments about what to replicate
based on what they consider to be the overall structure of the demonstration. This work also shows
that children are able to acquire relatively complex skills from a videotaped model, though the ?delity
of their reproduction is diminished when compared with learning from a live model.
In the second article, DiYanni and Kelemen investigate children’s imitation of an adult’s tool use
when the adult’s choice of tool is not an optimal one for achieving her goal. This study thus pits chil-
dren’s understanding of others’ intentional action and their motivation to copy others against their
understanding of causal ef?ciency and design. DiYanni and Kelemen ?nd interesting developmental
differences in children’s choices of tools in 2-, 3-, and 4-year-olds across their three studies. These re-
sults contribute not only to the imitation literature, in highlighting once again the tension between
copying others and doing things one’s own way, but also to the growing literature on reliability and
selective trust (see Harris, 2007, for a review) and children’s understanding of the design stance
(e.g., see German & Johnson, 2002).
Finally, in the third article, Strouse and Troseth investigate the conditions under which 2-year-olds
are able to learn from video demonstrations. In a series of three studies, Strouse and Troseth examine
contextual factors (i.e., whether the video was ?lmed in the same versus a different setting as that in
which the test took place), whether ‘‘cuts” in the videos negatively affect children’s imitation, whether
the duration and number of repetitions of the demonstration affect children’s performance, and
whether children learn equally well from video demonstrations when they are presented in their
own home versus in a laboratory. In all cases, children’s responses to video demonstrations are com-
pared with their responses to live demonstrations. These results provide important information for
researchers considering using video demonstrations in imitation tasks.
Together, these studies show that children do not copy others without processing a host of vari-
ables that determine exactly what they will reproduce. These papers document how the hierarchical
structure of the modeled actions, the logic of the actions given their intended outcomes, and the nat-
ure of the presentation medium affect what children copy. Clearly, children do not blindly mimic. If we
return to the issue of human tool use, this may prove a crucial point.
Consider the suggestion that tool use, per se, is not what separates us from other species but rather
it is the proliferation, adaptation, complexity, and variation of our tools and the ways we use them that
distinguish us. The seemingly contradictory ?ndings of selective imitation and overimitation in chil-
dren—a combination that our nearest primate relatives lack—may help explain our species-speci?c ap-
proach to the use and development of tools. That is, past research has established a strong propensity
in children for faithfully imitating others’ object-directed actions, sometimes even when this results in
a failure to bring about the demonstrated outcome (for a review see Flynn & Whiten, this issue).
Though at ?rst glance such behavior may seem maladaptive it likely re?ects the value of adopting imi-
tation as a default strategy: It affords the rapid acquisition of novel behaviors while at the same time
avoiding the potential pitfalls and false end-points that can come from trial-and-error learning. Along
with its instrumental skill-acquisition function, imitation also has a crucial social–cultural function:
Faithfully copying others is absolutely indispensible in the acquisition of arbitrary, conventional/cul-
tural skills and when identifying with and aligning oneself with one’s cultural in-group. Overimitation
thus serves many important functions for human children. However, if children only overimitated,
opportunities for adaptation, reinvention, and improvement would be limited. In this context, selec-
tive imitation is crucial for prior information to be re?ned and built upon. As previously alluded to,
the papers included in this issue show that children do not always blindly imitate. They are keen
Introduction / Journal of Experimental Child Psychology 101 (2008) 225–227
replicators, but they are ?exible too. They attend to and prioritize different aspects of a demonstration
and adjust their imitative behavior accordingly. This combination of selective imitation and overimi-
tation is precisely the kind of approach we would want if we were to build a premium tool-using
The study of how and why children copy others’ object-directed actions is critical to our broader
understanding of children’s social and cognitive development. It can tell us much about strategies
for learning, teaching, communicating, and much more. It may also provide insight into the origins
of our astonishing propensity for using and developing tools, a trait that has no doubt impacted
immeasurably on our colonization of the planet. The papers featured in this special edition make a ?ne
foundation for work that can continue to do this.
We once again thank David Bjorklund for inviting us to edit these special issues and for his guid-
ance and patience in helping us to get them together. We again also thank all the reviewers who took
the time to provide such helpful comments on the submissions.
Anderson, D. R., & Pempek, T. A. (2005). Television and very young children. The American Behavioral Scientist, 48, 505–522.
Carpenter, M. (2006). Instrumental, social, and shared goals and intentions in imitation. In S. J. Rogers & J. H. G. Williams (Eds.),
Imitation and the social mind: Autism and typical development (pp. 48–70). New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Carpenter, M., Akhtar, N., & Tomasello, M. (1998). Fourteen- to 18-month-old infants differentially imitate intentional and
accidental actions. Infant Behavior and Development, 21, 315–330.
Gergely, G., Bekkering, H., & Király, I. (2002). Rational imitation in preverbal infants. Nature, 415, 755.
German, T., & Johnson, S. (2002). Function and the origins of the design stance. Journal of Cognition and Development, 3, 279–300.
Harris, P. L. (2007). Trust. Developmental Science, 10, 135–138.
Huang, C., & Charman, T. (2005). Gradations of emulation learning in infants’ imitation of actions on objects. Journal of
Experimental Child Psychology, 92, 276–302.
Lyons, D. E., Young, A. G., & Keil, F. C. (2007). The hidden structure of overimitation. Proceedings of the National Academy of
Sciences, United States of America, 104, 19751–19756.
Meltzoff, A. N. (1995). Understanding the intentions of others: Re-enactment of intended acts by 18-month-old children.
Developmental Psychology, 31, 838–850.
Nagell, K., Olguin, R., & Tomasello, M. (1993). Processes of social learning in the tool use of chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and
human children (Homo sapiens). Journal of Comparative Psychology, 107, 174–186.
Nielsen, M. (2006). Copying actions and copying outcomes: Social learning through the second year. Developmental Psychology,
Nielsen, M. (2008). The social motivation for social learning. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 31, 33.
Nielsen, M., Simcock, G., & Jenkins, L. (2008). The effect of social engagement on 24-month-olds’ imitation from live and
televised models. Developmental Science, 11, 722–731.
Rogers, S. J., & Williams, J. H. G. (2006). Imitation and the social mind: Autism and typical development. New York, NY: Guilford
Uz?giris, I. C. (1981). Two functions of imitation during infancy. International Journal of Behavioral Development, 4, 1–12.
Whiten, A., Flynn, E., Brown, K., & Lee, T. (2006). Imitation of hierarchical structure in actions by young children. Developmental
Science, 9, 575–583.
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- Tools, TV, and trust: Introduction to the special issue on imitation in typically-developing children