Children's imitation of causal action sequences is influenced by statistical and pedagogical evidence

Daphna Buchsbaum, Alison Gopnik, Thomas L. Griffiths, Patrick Shafto

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

162 Scopus citations


Children are ubiquitous imitators, but how do they decide which actions to imitate? One possibility is that children rationally combine multiple sources of information about which actions are necessary to cause a particular outcome. For instance, children might learn from contingencies between action sequences and outcomes across repeated demonstrations, and they might also use information about the actor's knowledge state and pedagogical intentions. We define a Bayesian model that predicts children will decide whether to imitate part or all of an action sequence based on both the pattern of statistical evidence and the demonstrator's pedagogical stance. To test this prediction, we conducted an experiment in which preschool children watched an experimenter repeatedly perform sequences of varying actions followed by an outcome. Children's imitation of sequences that produced the outcome increased, in some cases resulting in production of shorter sequences of actions that the children had never seen performed in isolation. A second experiment established that children interpret the same statistical evidence differently when it comes from a knowledgeable teacher versus a naïve demonstrator. In particular, in the pedagogical case children are more likely to " overimitate" by reproducing the entire demonstrated sequence. This behavior is consistent with our model's predictions, and suggests that children attend to both statistical and pedagogical evidence in deciding which actions to imitate, rather than obligately imitating successful action sequences.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)331-340
Number of pages10
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2011
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language


  • Bayesian inference
  • Causal inference
  • Cognitive development
  • Imitation
  • Pedagogy
  • Statistical learning


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