, Volume 21, Issue 5, pp 1139-1156
Date: 28 Feb 2014

How and why do infants imitate? An ideomotor approach to social and imitative learning in infancy (and beyond)

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It has been proposed that already in infancy, imitative learning plays a pivotal role in the acquisition of knowledge and abilities. Yet the cognitive mechanisms underlying the acquisition of novel action knowledge through social learning have remained unclear. The present contribution presents an ideomotor approach to imitative learning (IMAIL) in infancy (and beyond) that draws on the ideomotor theory of action control and on recent findings of perception–action matching. According to IMAIL, the central mechanism of imitative and social learning is the acquisition of cascading bidirectional action–effect associations through observation of own and others’ actions. First, the observation of the visual effect of own actions leads to the acquisition of first-order action–effect associations, linking motor codes to the action’s typical visual effects. Second, observing another person’s action leads to motor activation (i.e., motor resonance) due to the first-order associations. This activated motor code then becomes linked to the other salient effects produced by the observed action, leading to the acquisition of (second-order) action–effect associations. These novel action–effect associations enable later imitation of the observed actions. The article reviews recent behavioral and neurophysiological studies with infants and adults that provide empirical support for the model. Furthermore, it is discussed how the model relates to other approaches on social-cognitive development and how developmental changes in imitative abilities can be conceptualized.