Irrelevant-action imitation is short-term and contextual: Evidence from two under-studied populations

Michelle A. Kline, Matthew M. Gervais, Cristina Moya, Robert T. Boyd

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

5 Scopus citations


Across the lifespan and across populations, humans ‘overimitate’ causally unnecessary behaviors. Such irrelevant-action imitation facilitates faithful cultural transmission, but its immediate benefits to the imitator are controversial. Over short time scales, irrelevant-action imitation may bootstrap artifact exploration or interpersonal affiliation, and over longer time scales it may facilitate acquisition of either causal models or social conventions. To investigate these putative functions, we recruited community samples from two under-studied populations: Yasawa, Fiji, and Huatasani, Peru. We use a two-action puzzle box: first after a video demonstration, and again one month later. Treating age as a continuous variable, we reveal divergent developmental trajectories across sites. Yasawans (44 adults, M = 39.9 years, 23 women; 42 children, M = 9.8 years, 26 girls) resemble documented patterns, with irrelevant-action imitation increasing across childhood and plateauing in adulthood. In contrast, Huatasaneños (48 adults, M = 37.6 years, 33 women; 47 children, M = 9.3 years, 13 girls) evince a parabolic trajectory: adults at the site show the lowest irrelevant-action imitation of any demographic set in our sample. In addition, all age sets in both populations reduce their irrelevant actions at Time 2, but do not reduce their relevant-action imitation or goal attainment. Taken together, and considering the local cultural contexts, our results suggest that irrelevant-action imitation serves a short-term function and is sensitive to the social context of the demonstration.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere12903
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 1 2020


  • culture and development
  • overimitation
  • social learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


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