Think again if you thought human babies are capable of imitating facial gestures, hand gestures, facial expressions, or vocal sounds right from their first weeks of life after birth. New research suggests that just is not so.
After testing young infants repeatedly over their first couple of months, researchers found no evidence at all that very young infants are capable of imitation. “Numerous studies from the 1980s and 90s indicated no imitation by newborns, while others claimed it was there,” said one of the researchers Virginia Slaughter from University of Queensland in Australia.
‘Infants aren’t born with the ability to copy what other people do, but they acquire that skill during the first months of life.’
“We wanted to clear up the confusion because the ‘fact’ that newborns imitate is widely cited, not just in the fields of psychology, neuroscience, and pediatrics, but also in popular sources for parents,” Slaughter noted.
The findings now suggest that imitation is not an innate behaviour, but one that is learned in babies’ first months. In fact, babies might learn to imitate other people based on watching other people imitate them. “Infants aren’t born with the ability to copy what other people do, but they acquire that skill during the first months of life,” Slaughter said.
If the youngest babies cannot imitate, then how did so many studies suggest that they could? The main limitation of earlier work is that researchers presented infants with a limited number of gestures, Slaughter said. For example, in most studies, researchers only tested infants’ responses to an adult poking out her tongue and opening her mouth, she said.
To do that, they measured infants’ levels of tongue protrusion and mouth opening before the adult did anything and then assessed changes in the infants’ behaviours after the adult showed one of those two gestures. In many cases, the babies did poke their tongues out more after they saw an adult’s tongue poking compared to mouth opening. However, the researchers did not have adults make any additional gestures or expressions, to see whether infants were truly imitating the adult’s behaviour.
“We eliminated this problem by assessing infants’ responses to a wide range of different models,” she noted. In the new study, the researchers presented 106 infants with nine social and two non-social models and scored their responses at one, two, six, and nine weeks of age. The results were quite clear: the infants did not imitate any of the behaviours that they observed. In response to the grownups they saw, they were just as likely to produce a different gesture as they were to produce a matching one.