Babies know when you imitate them, and like it

This shows an adult and baby
The researchers found that the babies looked and smiled longer, and tried to approach the adult more often, during the close mirroring of their actions. Image is credited to Lund University.

Summary: By the age of six months, infants can recognize when an adult imitates them and perceive the imitator as more friendly.

Source: Lund University

Six-month old infants recognize when adults imitate them, and perceive imitators as more friendly, according to a new study from Lund University in Sweden. The babies looked and smiled longer at an adult who imitated them, as opposed to when the adult responded in other ways. Babies also approached them more, and engaged in imitating games. The research is published in PLOS ONE.

In the study, a researcher met six-month old babies in their homes and played with them in four different ways. The researcher either: imitated everything the babies did as a mirror, or as a reverse mirror, imitated only the bodily actions of the babies while keeping an immobile face, or responded with a different action when the babies acted. The latter is called contingent responding and is how most parents would respond to their baby—when the baby does or needs something, you react accordingly.

The researchers found that the babies looked and smiled longer, and tried to approach the adult more often, during the close mirroring of their actions.

“Imitating young infants seems to be an effective way to catch their interest and bond with them. The mothers were quite surprised to see their infants joyfully engaging in imitation games with a stranger, but also impressed by the infants’ behaviors,” says Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc, researcher at Lund University and main author of the study.

There was also much testing behavior during imitation. For example, if the baby hit the table and the researcher imitated that action, the baby would then hit the table several times, while carefully watching the researcher’s responses. Even when the researcher did not show any emotions at all while imitating, the babies still seemed to recognize that they were being imitated—and still responded with testing behavior.

Credit: Lund University.

“This was quite interesting. When someone actively tests the person who is imitating them, it is usually seen as an indication that the imitated individual is aware that there is a correspondence between their own behavior and the behavior of the other,” Sauciuc says.

Scientists have long speculated that, through frequent exposure to being imitated, babies learn about cultural norms and interactional routines, or that shared actions are accompanied by shared feelings and intentions. But the empirical evidence to back up such theories is largely missing.

“By showing that six-month-old infants recognize when they are being imitated, and that imitation has a positive effect on interaction, we begin to fill up this gap. We still have to find out when exactly imitation begins to have such effects, and what role imitation recognition actually plays for babies,” Sauciuc concludes.

About this neuroscience research article

Lund University
Media Contacts:
Press Office – Lund University
Image Source:
The image is credited to Lund University.

Original Research: Open access
“Imitation recognition and its prosocial effects in 6-month old infants”. by Gabriela-Alina Sauciuc et al.
PLOS ONE doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0232717


Imitation recognition and its prosocial effects in 6-month old infants

The experience of being imitated is theorised to be a driving force of infant social cognition, yet evidence on the emergence of imitation recognition and the effects of imitation in early infancy is disproportionately scarce. To address this lack of empirical evidence, in a within-subjects study we compared the responses of 6-month old infants when exposed to ipsilateral imitation as opposed to non-imitative contingent responding. To examine mediating mechanisms of imitation recognition, infants were also exposed to contralateral imitation and bodily imitation with suppressed emotional mimicry. We found that testing behaviours—the hallmark of high-level imitation recognition—occurred at significantly higher rates in each of the imitation conditions compared to the contingent responding condition. Moreover, when being imitated, infants showed higher levels of attention, smiling and approach behaviours compared to the contingent responding condition. The suppression of emotional mimicry moderated these results, leading to a decrease in all social responsiveness measures. The results show that imitation engenders prosocial effects in 6-month old infants and that infants at this age reliably show evidence of implicit and high-level imitation recognition. In turn, the latter can be indicative of infants’ sensitivity to others’ intentions directed toward them.

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