Thursday, June 03, 2010

Overimitation of adults by kids is a cultural universal.

Most studies showing overimitation of adults by children during learning have been conducted on middle- to upper-class kids of Western-educated parents. Nielsen and Tomaselli studied (from Telis's review)
...a culture with a distinctly different parenting style: the Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert. Whereas a Western parent might teach a youngster to use a bow and arrow by standing behind her and guiding her motions, a parent from the indigenous African Bushmen culture would allow the child to come along for a hunt and learn by observation and through trial and error. Nielsen hypothesized that a child taught in this hands-off manner would have less reason to overimitate adults and would do so less often.
The Nielsen and Tomaselli abstract:
Children are surrounded by objects that they must learn to use. One of the most efficient ways children do this is by imitation. Recent work has shown that, in contrast to nonhuman primates, human children focus more on reproducing the specific actions used than on achieving actual outcomes when learning by imitating. From 18 months of age, children will routinely copy even arbitrary and unnecessary actions. This puzzling behavior is called overimitation. By documenting similarities exhibited by children from a large, industrialized city and children from remote Bushman communities in southern Africa, we provide here the first indication that overimitation may be a universal human trait. We also show that overimitation is unaffected by the age of the child, differences in the testing environment, or familiarity with the demonstrating adult. Furthermore, we argue that, although seemingly maladaptive, overimitation reflects an evolutionary adaptation that is fundamental to the development and transmission of human culture.
The Telis review has an interesting video of overimitation in a Bushmen child.

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