Preverbal Infants' Third-Party Imitator Preferences: Animated Displays versus Filmed Actors

TitlePreverbal Infants' Third-Party Imitator Preferences: Animated Displays versus Filmed Actors
Publication TypeConference Poster
Year of Publication2016
AuthorsKosakowski, HL, Powell, LJ, Spelke, ES
Conference NameInternational Conference on Infant Studies (ICIS)
Date Published05/2016
Place PublishedNew Orleans, Louisiana

Research on social imitation shows that, from toddlerhood to adulthood, individuals respond more positively to social partners who imitate them compared to those who do not (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999; Meltzoff, 1990; Agnetta & Rochat, 2004). It is unknown, however, whether (i) positive responses to imitation are present in the first year of life, before infants engage in robust social imitation themselves and (ii) whether positive evaluations of imitators are restricted to direct, 1st person interactions. A recent study found that infants 13 months old and younger who observed imitative and non-imitative interactions between animated, geometric figures looked at and reached for imitators more than non-imitators, but found no difference in looking to targets of imitation versus non-targets (Powell & Spelke, in prep). These data suggest infants may recognize and prefer imitators on the basis of 3rd party observation. However, it is unknown whether this pattern would generalize from simplified, animated displays to more ecologically valid stimuli (e.g. videos of complex human movement).

In our current study, we tested 4- to 5.5-month-old infants (N = 112) using animations and videos of human actors. For both stimulus types, infants saw either two individuals take turns responding to a third, one imitating and one not (responders condition), or one individual respond to two others, imitating one but not the other (initiators condition; Figure 1). In the animated stimuli, each character jumped and made either a high- or low-pitched sound. In the video stimuli each actor made one of two hand motions modified from American Sign Language. The sound or motion matched in imitative interactions but not in non-imitative ones. Depending on condition, the experiment concluded with a differential looking test between either the imitating and non-imitating responder or the imitated and non-imitated initiator. A repeated measures ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of condition (F(1,97) = 6.58; P < .05) but not of stimulus type (P > 0.8) on infants’ looking during the preference test. Regardless of stimulus type, infants in the responders condition looked longer to imitators (M = 6.79 s) than non-imitators (M = 4.38 s; t(47) = 4.05 P < 0.001), while infants in the targets condition did not differentiate between targets (M = 5.89 s) and non-targets of imitation (M = 6.09 s; t(48) = 0.80; P > 0.2). We are replicating the responders condition using videos of new actors performing simpler actions. Preliminary results indicate infants (N = 14 of an intended 32) continue to look longer at imitators than non-imitators. The congruent results obtained with both animated and video stimuli confirm the validity of the use of animated stimuli for studying infant social cognition. Additionally, these results demonstrate that young infants recognize imitation as 3rd party observers and are biased to attend more to those who have imitated others. Consistent with social imitation research, our results suggest infants may have an early-emerging preference for imitators. This potential preference may lay the foundation for the capacity to engage in socially guided learning. 

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