A dual-process perspective on over-imitation

Hanna Schleihauf, Stefanie Hoehl

Children and adults tend to imitate actions that are causally irrelevant to accomplishing a goal; they “over-imitate.” It has been discussed that humans over-imitate either because of erroneous causal reasoning, meaning that they do not recognize demonstrated actions as being irrelevant, or because of social motivation, for example, because they want to follow a norm or affiliate with the demonstrator. Recent findings give reason to believe that neither of these accounts alone is sufficient to explain this phenomenon. Here, we introduce a dual-process framework that integrates existing explanatory accounts for over-imitation and indicates when which of these accounts is applicable. According to this integrative framework, over-imitation can be based on different underlying motivations. We introduce two distinct processes: First, blanket copying, which is based on type 1 processing that is less cognitively demanding. When children perform blanket copying, they imitate irrelevant actions without questioning their necessity. Second, deliberate considerations whether or not to copy, based on type 2 processing that requires more cognitive resources. When children are aware that some of the demonstrated actions have no functional purpose, they can deliberately consider whether or not to copy. Then, it depends on the children’s goals in a given situation whether they over-imitate or not. Which of these two processes is activated depends on whether children are informed about or recognize the functional irrelevancy of demonstrated actions. Different irrelevant actions vary in how easily they are recognized as being functionally irrelevant. Thus, we propose that some actions rather lead to blanket copying and others to deliberate considerations whether or not to copy. Therefore, we propose a categorization system for irrelevant actions, intended to help unravel contradicting findings on over-imitation.

Department of Developmental and Educational Psychology
External organisation(s)
University of California, Berkeley, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen, Cognitive Ethology Laboratory, German Primate Center
Developmental Review
No. of pages
Publication date
Peer reviewed
Austrian Fields of Science 2012
501005 Developmental psychology
ASJC Scopus subject areas
Experimental and Cognitive Psychology, Psychiatry and Mental health, Education, Developmental and Educational Psychology, Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
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