Deferred imitation tasks are also used to examine infant’s ability to generalize information. Generalization is the ability to apply something learned in one situation to a new situation.
In imitation tasks measuring generalization, a child watches an action demonstrated with one object. Then the child is given a similar object that has one different feature. A different feature might be a different color, form, or size, but the object still functions in the same way. For example, a toddler might watch a caregiver build a tower with plain wood blocks. Then she is given multi-colored blocks, similar objects that differ in color. The question is whether or not the child imitates the action she saw with the plain wood blocks. If the child imitates the original action on the novel object, she successfully generalized the information. Another type of generalization is imitation across contexts. In this case a child may see an action demonstrated in one context, such as an unusual polka dot room in a research lab. Then the child encounters the exact same object in a completely different context, such as their daycare center or at home.
Infant’s memory is not as flexible as ours is as adults. Just as an infant’s ability to imitate an action after a delay increases with age, so does their ability to generalize across different objects and places. The ability to generalize information to novel situations is important for children’s development. Young children experience new places and new objects daily. Learning how to do things with objects would be very time consuming if children had to re-learn a behavior every time they encountered an object in a new setting.