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Dev Psychol. 2008 Jan;44(1):275-85. doi: 10.1037/0012-1649.44.1.275.

Prior experiences and perceived efficacy influence 3-year-olds' imitation.

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Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, Box 357988, University of Washington, Seattle, WA 98195, USA.


Children are selective and flexible imitators. They combine their own prior experiences and the perceived causal efficacy of the model to determine whether and what to imitate. In Experiment 1, children were randomly assigned to have either a difficult or an easy experience achieving a goal. They then saw an adult use novel means to achieve the goal. Children with a difficult prior experience were more likely to imitate the adult's precise means. Experiment 2 showed further selectivity--children preferentially imitated causally efficacious versus nonefficacious acts. In Experiment 3, even after an easy prior experience led children to think their own means would be effective, they still encoded the novel means performed by the model. When a subsequent manipulation rendered the children's means ineffective, children recalled and imitated the model's means. The research shows that children integrate information from their own prior interventions and their observations of others to guide their imitation.

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