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.

  • Control group
    a group in a study who does not receive the treatment. The group serves as a comparison for the experimental group.
    Deferred imitation
    reproducing a behavior after a delay from its initial demonstration
    Electroencephalography (EEG)
    a method used to measure electrical activity in the brain
    the ability to apply something learned in one situation to a new situation
    observing then reproducing, or copying, a behavior
    Mirror neurons
    a type of brain cell. Mirror neurons respond when an animal produces an action and when they observe another animal produce the same action.
    Theory of mind
    the awareness that other people can have different thoughts and feelings from one’s own
    Trial-and-error learning
    trying different actions until you perform the right one