Social Learning: Learning Through Imitation

No one learns in a vacuum. People are incredibly social creatures, and the way we learn is very often a direct result of those around us. We learn to speak from hearing our parents, we learn how to interact from everything around us, and we often learn by imitating others. That is true whether it is just direct imitation or even just using the same ideas in a different way. The amazing truth, however, is that we don’t just do this as adults and adolescents. We imitate and discover socially from a very young age.

In 2010, Rebecca Williamson and other researchers dove into the topic of social learning, exploring imitation patterns in 36 month year old children. Eighty of these children were brought into the lab and were split into three groups. One group watched as adults sorted objects by various qualities, whether it was by color, shape, or the sound it made when shook. The “presort” control group simply saw the end result of the sorting, not the process. The “baseline” control group did not provide the children with any sort of prompt, and so the children did not see the objects sorted whatsoever.

The researchers expected that the children would imitate the sorting method of the adult, and they were correct. The children who had seen the presorting had a notably easier time sorting and sorted in a more uniform way. This shows  that the children’s learning was based on their environment and teachers instead of on internal factors. When given the opportunity they would learn by imitation instead of trial and error.

The slightly more surprising result was that the children did not just show these distinctions in familiar situations. Those who were taught by the adults were significantly better at sorting when given the same objects, but also were notably better when the objects were different. They not only imitated directly, but were able to imitate the pattern that the adult used.

This suggests that imitation is in fact a rudimentary form of social pattern building, and further confirms the vital nature that pattern recognition plays in spatial learning. In fact, the researchers mention this form of learning as being very useful in everyday situations. They use the example of judging ripeness of strawberries by color, and being able to use this pattern to extrapolate to judging the ripeness of other fruits in other seasons. The establishment of social imitation and patterns is vital to the survival of a species and to the development of a child, and plays an important role in our understanding of the social nature of human learning as a whole.

Williamson, R. A.; Jaswal, V. K.; Meltzoff, A. N. Learning the rules: Observation and                           imitation of a sorting strategy by 36-month-old children. Developmental                                 Psychology, Vol 46(1), Jan 2010, 57-65.

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