When it comes to how babies learn, the phrase “monkey see, money do” gets tossed around a lot. Traditional thinking is that babies are like little monkeys, mimicking what their parents do, but a new study published in Current Biology suggests we have that backwards.
This whole time we thought our kids were mimicking us, but noooooooo, it’s been us mimicking them all along.
Turns out, newborn babies learn to imitate by watching adults mimic their movements and actions.
The finding comes to us from the smart people at the University of Queensland’s School of Psychology in Australia, who set out to discover whether babies who mimic earlier become more precocious later on. But when the results pointed in a different direction, they did what good scientists do and continued their pursuit of the Truth, even if it wasn’t the same Truth they set out for.
The subjects: 106 newborns, tested at age one month, three months and six months. The study showed that newborns up to two months old are incapable of mimicing any body movement or facial expression made by their parents. Babies making actions like opening and closing their mouths, sticking their tongues out, or clenching their fists aren’t in response to the actions they’re seeing their parents do, but simply a way to show excitement for the interaction being had.
And here’s the fun part: In turn, parents begin making the gestures back at the baby.
“[Babies] tend to produce a lot of behaviours themselves and it can seem there is imitation going on, but it is, in fact, accidental concordance,” says Professor Virginia Slaughter, Head of the School of Psychology at the University of Queensland..
So, if the teensy subject happens to stick its tongue out, mom and dad will naturally respond by sticking their tongues out thus teaching the baby to imitate their actions.
“If infants also increase their tongue protrusions when an adult models a happy face or finger pointing, then it’s not a case of imitation, but probably excitement at seeing an adult do something interesting,” says Slaughter.
And back and forth mimicking happens frequently. “We found that parents imitate their babies once every two minutes on average; this is a powerful means by which infants can learn to link their gestures with those of another person,” adds Slaughter.
Turns out we’ve been the monkeys all along.