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J Exp Child Psychol. 2013 Oct;116(2):532-44. doi: 10.1016/j.jecp.2012.12.005. Epub 2013 Feb 15.

Preschoolers' encoding of rational actions: the role of task features and verbal information.

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  • 1Department of Psychology, University of Potsdam, D-14476 Potsdam, Germany.


In the current study, we first investigated whether preschoolers imitate selectively across three imitation tasks. Second, we examined whether preschoolers' selective imitation is influenced by differences in the modeled actions and/or by the situational context. Finally, we investigated how verbal cues given by the model affect preschoolers' imitation. Participants (3- to 5-year-olds) watched an adult performing an unusual action in three imitation tasks (touch light, house, and obstacle). In two conditions, the model either was or was not restricted by situational constraints. In addition, the model verbalized either the goal that was to be achieved, the movement, or none of the action components. Preschoolers always acted on the objects without constraints. Results revealed differences in preschoolers' selective imitation across the tasks. In the house task, they showed the selective imitation pattern that has been interpreted as rational, imitating the unusual action more often in the no-constraint condition than in the constraint condition. In contrast, in the touch light task, preschoolers imitated the unusual head touch irrespective of the model's constraints or of the verbal cues that had been presented. Finally, in the obstacle task, children mostly emulated the observed goal irrespective of the presence of the constraint, but they increased their imitation of the unusual action when the movement had been emphasized. Overall, our data suggest that preschoolers adjust their imitative behavior to context-specific information about objects, actions, and their interpretations of the model's intention to teach something.


Context-specific task features; Ostensive communication; Preschoolers; Rational imitation tasks; Social cognition; Verbal cues

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