In the early decades of psychology, researchers assumed that imitation was a natural process based on instinct or an inherited predisposition. However, later writers have viewed imitation as a process of social learning. Albert Bandura, for instance, studied the behavior of encouraged and rewarded individuals to understand how people learn by imitation. He distinguished two types of imitation: direct reinforcement and common trial and error learning. The former involves a learned response to the model’s behavior.
Children are most likely to imitate actions that result in a clear outcome. For instance, pushing a box to turn on a light is different from pushing a light switch. As children grow, imitation not only serves as a way to learn social cues, it also fosters a sense of belonging. Through observation, children learn about the world and about other people, which allow them to build relationships with others and become part of their community.
While there is little evidence to support the view that newborn infants can’t imitate, it is nevertheless important to understand that infants can imitate their parents’ actions. For this reason, nativist theories about the origins of knowledge rely on the observation of infants’ imitative skills. For example, infants must inherit considerable knowledge about their own bodies and how their actions map onto those of others. It is therefore possible for infants to imitate their parents, relatives, and peers based on the same knowledge or behavior.
There are a number of studies that show infants imitating certain actions in the context of social situations. However, the results of these studies are not consistent. There are clusters of studies, which focus on a range of different theoretical issues. While many studies use imitation as a proxy for other cognitive competencies, few have investigated it beyond the first two months. In addition, most of these studies have failed to examine specific actions that may be learned through imitation.
However, studies of infant imitation have revealed that they are capable of imitating simple actions such as tongue protrusion and opening the mouth. While both of these behaviors are normally produced by newborns outside of the imitation experiments, there is a difference between them. Among these infants, some selectively increase production of one of these behaviors over the baseline rate. Several of these experiments have been reported by Meltzoff and Moore, and further studies are needed to establish a plausible mechanism of newborn imitation.
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