Video S3 from The scope and limits of overimitation in the transmission of artefact culture

Children are generally masterful imitators, both rational and flexible in their reproduction of others' actions. After observing an adult operating an unfamiliar object, however, young children will frequently overimitate, reproducing not only the actions that were causally necessary but also those that were clearly superfluous. Why does overimitation occur? We argue that when children observe an adult intentionally acting on a novel object, they may automatically encode all of the adult's actions as causally meaningful. This process of automatic causal encoding (ACE) would generally guide children to accurate beliefs about even highly opaque objects. In situations where some of an adult's intentional actions were unnecessary, however, it would also lead to persistent overimitation. Here, we undertake a thorough examination of the ACE hypothesis, reviewing prior evidence and offering three new experiments to further test the theory. We show that children will persist in overimitating even when doing so is costly (underscoring the involuntary nature of the effect), but also that the effect is constrained by intentionality in a manner consistent with its posited learning function. Overimitation may illuminate not only the structure of children's causal understanding, but also the social learning processes that support our species' artefact-centric culture.