Children learn a lot from imitating the actions of adults, with recent research suggesting that infants as young as 14 months are selective imitators – taking cues from our behaviour in order to decide which of us adults to learn from and which to ignore.
In a studyÂ where researchers expressed delight before either presenting an infant with a toy (the reliable condition) or not presenting the infant with a toy (the unreliable condition), they discovered that infants detect “unreliable” people and choose not to learn from then, opting instead for adults that appear confident and knowledgeable – the reliable group.
“Infants seem to perceive reliable adults as capable of rational action, whose novel, unfamiliar behaviour is worth imitating,” the researchers said. “In contrast, the same behaviour performed by a previously unreliable adult is interpreted as irrational or inefficient, thus not worthy of imitating.” [â€¦]
The new finding adds to a growing body of research showing children’s selectivity in who they choose to learn from. For example, children prefer to learn from adults as opposed to their peers, and they prefer to learn from people they are familiar with and who appear more certain, confident and knowledgeable.
In 2004 UK TV chef Jamie Oliver ran an experiment at a school in Greenwich, London for an upcoming show of his,Â Jamie’s School Dinners. By various means Oliver attempted to improve the eating habits of the school’s students and, by-and-large, succeeded.Â Tracking his progress–and that of the children–were two Oxford economists, Michele Belot and Jonathan James.
The two noted how Oliver’s campaign had inadvertently created “a near-perfect experiment” and so began following the academic achievements of the children with much superior eating habits than their peers and the school as a whole.
Five years later the experiment started to show results: specifically, thatÂ the eating habits of school children has a profound positive effect on their education.
Their answer â€“ a provisional one, since they are still refining the research â€“ is that feeding primary school kids less fat, sugar and salt, and more fruit and vegetables, has a surprisingly large effect. Authorised absences, the best available proxy for illness, fell by 15 per cent in Greenwich, relative to schools in similar London boroughs. And relative to other boroughs, the proportion of children reaching Level Four* in English rose by four and a half percentage points (more than six per cent), while the proportion of children achieving Level Five* in Science rose by six points, or almost 20 per cent.
* I freely admit my ignorance: I’ve no idea what these levels refer to. (And I’m not a fan of Jamie Oliver, if you were wondering.)
An interesting follow-up if you enjoyed reading about the development of the infant brain last week: Seed Magazine interviews Alison Gopnik, asking about her research and “why everything we think we know about babies is wrong”.
Seed: You describe children as being “useless on purpose.” What do you mean by that?
AG: It’s related to one of the basic things that came out of our research: Why do children exist at all? It doesn’t make tremendous evolutionary sense to have these creatures that can’t even keep themselves alive and require an enormous investment of time on the part of adults. That period of dependence is longer for us than it is for any other species, and historically that period has become longer and longer.
The evolutionary answer seems to be that there is a tradeoff between the ability to learn and imagineâ€‰â€”â€‰which is our great evolutionary advantage as a speciesâ€‰â€”â€‰and our ability to apply what we’ve learned and put it to use.
The article also mentions how Gopnik believes “Freud’s and Piaget’s conceptions of young children’s theory of mind are wrong”. A recent (correlative) study has shown that she may be correct.
Looking primarily at the research of Alison Gopnik, Jonah Lehrer looks at the development of the infant brain.
Gopnik argues that, in many respects, babies are more conscious than adults. She compares the experience of being a baby with that of watching a riveting movie, or being a tourist in a foreign city, where even the most mundane activities seem new and exciting. “For a baby, every day is like going to Paris for the first time,” Gopnik says. “Just go for a walk with a 2‑year-old. You’ll quickly realize that they’re seeing things you don’t even notice.”
via Mind Hacks, which itself has a word of caution about the claim that babies have more neurons than adults.