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Imitating to Survive

How children use rituals to learn values

My father was a proud Army officer and on a regular basis he would get out the Brasso and polish up the uniform. Belt buckles, buttons, pins, metals – anything that was supposed to have a metallic shine got vigorously shined. The odd thing about it was that to my uncritical eye, most of the stuff being shined looked pretty shiny before he started. The same could be said about washing the car, another regular ritual around my house. Every Sunday, it seemed, the car endured a good sudsing, whether it needed it or not. By the time I figured out that weekly car-washing had more to do with keeping boys busy than keeping cars clean, I was in possession of both my license and a far more willing attitude.

The uniform-shining and car-washing are examples of what University of Texas psychologist Cristine Legare describes as action sequences where the “end state” doesn’t differ noticeably from the “start state.” One might suspect that when children observe such action sequences, their reaction would be confusion (“what’s the point?”). But something far more intriguing takes place. Instead of dismissing the seemingly useless actions, children very carefully and precisely imitate them.

For example, suppose 3-6 year-olds watch a model pick up an object, use it to open a box, then close the box and return the object to its original place. In a second scenario, the model picks up the object, uses it to open the box, then places the object in the box and closes it. Only in the second scenario is the end state (object in the box) different from the start state. (Using the object to open the box, by the way, is not essential to getting the box open; it could just as easily be opened with one’s hands).

In one of Legare’s studies, kids watched these scenarios and were later scored on their imitation fidelity – how accurately did they reproduce the model’s actions? Kids watching scenario one had significantly higher scores than those watching scenario two. Thus, when the actions seem to have no practical aim, kids are even more likely to precisely imitate them. Even more interesting is that kids’ imitation improves even more if just prior to the watching the model, they watched an animated video depicting social exclusion (a group of three little geometric forms actively avoided associating with a fourth one). What this suggests is that a child’s motivation to imitate accurately is heightened if he or she is just a tad bit worried about being excluded from the group.

All of this fits nicely with an evolutionary perspective on child development. From an adaptive standpoint, job one for kids is to get deeply integrated into their social worlds. As the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable members of their communities, children need to get adult caregivers so emotionally attached to them that those caregivers will willingly protect them, nurture them, feed them, carry them, and gladly sacrifice (lives, if necessary) for them. Critical to this process is learning what the community values, and ritual is the means by which information about values is conveyed.

By design, ritual actions are non-utilitarian – they have no practical goal. Thus, if the kid watches Dad wash a dirty uniform; the kid interprets the actions mundanely (“he did it because it was dirty). If the kid watches Dad wash a clean uniform; the kid interprets the actions morally (“he did it because he values the uniform”). Then by imitating the non-utilitarian actions, the kid shows that he values what Dad values.

As a parent, I’m sure I have developed my own set of ineffectual behaviors that my kids have witnessed repeatedly. I love sitting on my patio with my laptop, looking out over our shady back yard and the woods beyond. I sweep the patio and clean off the furniture every Saturday even though often it is quite unnecessary. But maybe this little functionless ritual conveys something about caring for one’s property or appreciating beauty that’s close by or the joy of working in a sylvan environment or something similarly positive (hopefully). Strange to think that when it comes to demonstrating what is most important in life, it’s the useless things we do that are the most critical.

Ref: Watson-Jones, R. E., Legare, C. Whitehouse, H. & Clegg, J. M. (in press). Task-specific effects of ostracism on imitative fidelity in early childhood. Evolution and Human Behavior, link: