Natural-Born Copycats

In an essay arguing that innovation “has been fueled and sustained by imitation,” Kat McGowan notes that “only humans ‘overimitate,’ copying an action with precision even when it’s obviously a poor technique”:

We overimitate even when told not to – it seems to be part of the way we think. In experiments conducted in 2007 by the psychologist Derek Lyons when he was a graduate student at Yale, children were shown a jar with a toy dinosaur inside.

An experimenter then demonstrated a ridiculous way to open the jar: first tapping it with a feather, then unscrewing the lid. In a video of this experiment, the psychologist emphasises how useless his actions were: ‘Josh, did I have to tap on the jar with this feather to get the dinosaur out?’ he asks. The little boy shakes his head: ‘NO!’ Then the researcher asks Josh to name the gestures that were ‘silly’ and ‘extra,’ and praises him when he answers correctly.

Clearly, Josh gets the point. So when the psychologist tells him to take the toy out however he wants, and then leaves the room, what does Josh do? He picks up the feather, taps the jar, and then unscrews the lid.

In variations of this experiment, children were explicitly forbidden to make any of the ‘silly extra’ gestures that researchers used; even so, between 75 and 94 per cent of the time, they copied the precise sequence of motions. Lyons argues that this is a perfectly rational way to behave, especially for children: puzzling out how something works through casual reasoning requires time, energy and knowledge about the world that they don’t yet have. Copying is heuristic – a smart shortcut that, outside of a psychologist’s lab, usually yields the right answer. ‘Imitation is a remarkably potent learning strategy,’ writes Lyons.