Skip to content

Research at St Andrews

Developmental changes in the influence of conventional and instrumental cues on over-imitation in 3- to 6-year-old children

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


Previous studies have shown that children in the preschool period are fastidious imitators who copy models with such high levels of fidelity that task efficiency may be compromised. This over-imitative tendency, and the pervasive nature of it, has led to many explorations and theoretical interpretations of this behavior, including social, causal, and conventional explanations. In support of the conventional account, recent research has shown that children are more likely to over-imitate when the task is framed using conventional verbal cues than when it is framed using instrumental verbal cues. The aim of the current study was to determine whether 3- to 6-year-old children (N = 185, mean age = 60 months) would over-imitate when presented with instrumental and conventional verbal cues, which varied only minimally and were more directly comparable between instrumental and conventional contexts than those used in previous studies. In addition to varying the overall context, we also varied the instrumental prompt used such that the cues provided ranged in the extent to which they provided explicit instruction to omit the irrelevant actions. Counter to our predictions, and the high levels of over-imitation witnessed in previous studies, the older children frequently over-imitated irrespective of the context provided, whereas the youngest children over-imitated selectively, including the irrelevant actions only when the task was presented in a conventional frame. We propose that the age differences found following an instrumental presentation are a result of the youngest children being more open to the motivation of learning the causality of the task, whereas the older children were more strongly motivated to adopt a social convention.


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)34-47
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Early online date8 Jan 2016
StatePublished - May 2016

    Research areas

  • Over-imitation, Conventional frame, Instrumental frame, Conventional verbal cues, Instrumental verbal cues, Social learning

Discover related content
Find related publications, people, projects and more using interactive charts.

View graph of relations

Related by author

  1. A gestural repertoire of 1-2year old human children: in search of the ape gestures

    Kersken, V. A., Gómez, J-C., Liszkowski, U., Soldati, A. & Hobaiter, C. 8 Sep 2018 In : Animal Cognition. In press, 19 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalSpecial issue

  2. Exploring the role of self/other perspective-shifting in theory of mind with behavioural and EEG measures

    Bradford, E. E. F., Gomez, J-C. & Jentzsch, I. 27 Aug 2018 In : Social Neuroscience. In press

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  3. Wearable assistive technologies for autism: opportunities and challenges

    Mansouri Benssassi, E., Gomez, J-C., Boyd, L. E., Hayes, G. R. & Ye, J. Jun 2018 In : IEEE Pervasive Computing. 17, 2, p. 11-21

    Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

  4. Listeners can extract meaning from non-linguistic infant vocalisations cross-culturally

    Kersken, V., Zuberbühler, K. & Gomez, J-C. 25 Jan 2017 In : Scientific Reports. 7, 7 p., 41016

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Related by journal

  1. Comprehension of iconic gestures by chimpanzees and human children

    Bohn, M., Call, J. & Tomasello, M. Feb 2016 In : Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 142, p. 1-17 17 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  2. I won't tell: Young children show loyalty to their group by keeping group secrets

    Misch, A., Over, H. & Carpenter, M. Feb 2016 In : Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 142, p. 96-106

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  3. “Model age-based” and “copy when uncertain” biases in children’s social learning of a novel task

    Wood, L. A., Harrison, R. A., Lucas, A. J., McGuigan, N., Burdett, E. R. R. & Whiten, A. Oct 2016 In : Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 150, p. 272-284 13 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

  4. Comparing humans and nonhuman great apes in the broken cloth problem: is their knowledge causal or perceptual?

    Albiach-Serrano, A., Sebastián-Enesco, C., Seed, A., Colmenares, F. & Call, J. Nov 2015 In : Journal of Experimental Child Psychology. 139, p. 174-189 16 p.

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

ID: 240524381