We’ve all taken pleasure in enticing babies to imitate us. It turns out that very young children are much more discriminating than previously thought at deciding who to copy. According to a study by Diane Poulin-Dubois and her colleagues at Concordia University, Montreal, children as young as 14 months are skeptical of people with an unreliable track record.
Researchers were paired with 60 babies, aged 13 to 16 months. Each adult exclaimed excitedly while peering inside a container. Upon further exploration of the container, babies either found a desirable toy (reliable adult) or nothing inside (unreliable adult). Having thus established their credibility, the same experimenters then demonstrated turning on a light with their foreheads, rather than with their hands. 61% of the babies who had been paired with a reliable adult imitated the forehead technique. In contrast, only 34% of the children who had been misled were willing to copy their adult’s behavior.
Next time I find one of my young nieces or nephew eyeing me suspiciously when I try to get them to do something, I’ll have to think back to see how often I’ve misled them in the past.