Psychology 869
2011. Vol.2, No.8, 869-874
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. doi:10.4236/psych.2011.28132
Children’s Imitation Is Affected by Goals, but the Goals Are
Outstanding Action Characteristics Rather than Action Outcomes
Takashi Mizuguchi1, Ryoko Sugimura2, Ryujiro Suzu ki1, Toshisada Deguchi3
1Childfood Education, Iwaki Junior College, Iwaki, Japan;
2Psychology, Iwaki Meisei University, Iwaki, Japan;
3Comprehensive Educational Science, Tokyo Gakugei University, Tokyo, Japan.
Received August 12nd, 2011; revised September 23rd, 2011; accepted October 29th, 2011.
It has been proposed that imitation in children is strongly affected by goals extracted from others’ movements.
More specifically, imitation-specific goal selection, or a tendency that movement outcomes, rather than means,
are more likely to be selected as goals, has been proposed. Conversely, research on imitation in adults has pro-
posed the generalist hypothesis, or the hypothesis that relatively dominant characteristics in movements are sim-
ply selected as goals, in the recent years. The present study tested the validity of imitation-specific goal selection
with 64 children (M age = 5.2, age range: 4.1 - 6.0) using tasks that were similar to those used in research on
imitation in adults. Movements composed of four elements were presented, and errors were analyzed by com-
ponent. In this process, coloring emphasized one of the four elements, and presentation order of the elements
was changed. Results suggested that relatively accentuating a specific element by coloring reduced the errors on
the element. In the control condition in which coloring was not applied, the fewest errors we re for means. Over -
all, the results did not support validity of imitation-specific goal selection in children, indicative of the validity
the generalist hypo thesis.
Keywords: Imitation-Specific Goal Selection, Generalist Hypothesis, Ch ildren
Imitation plays a central role in acquisition of culture. We
inherit cultural products and imagination of the earlier genera-
tions through imitation. Furthermore, imitation facilitates com-
munication within a group of the same generation (Tomasello,
1999; Tomasello, Kruger, & Ratner, 1993). Therefore, learning
through imitation is essential in the process of adaptation to a
specific culture or a group. Especially, the role that imitation
plays is extremely significant for children who are in the proc-
ess of participating in the culture and group that surround them.
An important research topic concerning the mechanism of
imitation is the transformation process from perception to
movement. To transform movements of others’ that have been
visually input into own movements and to express them as an
action is the most basic unit of imitation. Several theories and
models of the transformation process from perception to move-
ment have been proposed (Rumiati & Bekkering, 2003). They
can be largely grouped into perspectives that support direct and
automatic transformation and those that do not. The former
group asserts that others’ movement is transformed into ones’
own directly and automatically as though they communicated
with each other. The latter asserts that the transformation proc-
ess from others’ movement to ones’ own is mediated by a spe-
cial processing.
The active intermodal mapping theory (e.g., Meltzoff &
Moore, 1997) can be considered to be a representative view of
the former group that supports direct and automatic transforma-
tion. Meltzoff et al. argued that even a newborn infant pos-
sessed an innate, internal representational system. The authors
maintained that imitation took place when the other and the self
were matched by this system, and other’s movements were
directly and automatically transformed into one’s own move-
ment. However, while imitation of relatively simple movements
that Meltzoff addressed, such as sticking out a tongue and
making a face, can be easily explained by direct and automatic
transformation, imitation of complex movements that humans
perform everyday is more difficult to explain.
Perspectives that do not support direct and automatic trans-
formation assert the presence of special processing in the
transformation process. The theory of goal-directed imitation
(GOADI) maintains that, after examining movements that are
more complex than those that were addressed by Meltzoff et al.,
imitation is affected by goals extracted from the movements
(Bekkering, Wohlschlӓger, & Gattis, 2000; Gattis, Bekkerning,
& Wohlschläger, 2002; Gleissner, Meltzoff, & Bekkering, 2000;
Wohlschläger, Gattis, & Bekkerning, 2003). According to
GOADI, during the process of imitating, a movement is de-
composed into elements of movement patterns, followed by
their re-composition. It maintains that the decomposition-re-
composition is strongly affected by goals that are extracted
from the movement. Out of the elements that compose a series
of movement, the elements that are not selected as a goal be-
come less likely to be imitated accurately, often inducing errors,
whereas the element that is selected as a goal will attract suffi-
cient attention and be imitated accurately. While GOADI is a
theory proposed out of research on children, it is claimed to be
applicable to any age group (Wohlschläger, Gattis, & Bekkern-
ing, 2003).
According to GOADI, selection of goals is biased (e.g.,
Wohlschläger, Gattis, & Bekkerning, 2003). Specifically, when
a series of movement is presented, the movement outcome,
rather than the means, is more likely to be selected. For exam-
ple, when operation of a machine is presented as a model, the
*This research was supported by a Grant-in Aid for Japanese Scientific
Research ( No. 21730532 ) to the first author. This res earch was presen ted at
Association for Psychological Science 23rd Annual Convention, Washing-
ton, DC, USA, in May 2011.
action of pressing a switch, instead of the hand that is used or
the trajectory of the movement, will be selected as a goal.
Therefore, the hand that was used and the trajectory of the
movement are less likely to be imitated accurately, whereas and
the action of pressing the switch is. Selection of a goal such as
this is called imitation-specific goal selection. This differs from
the typical processing that is mediated by perception-movement
task, and is considered to be a special processing that is ob-
served only in imitation.
However, research on imitation in adults has recently re-
ported a view that does not support imitation-specific goal se-
lection (Bird, Brindley, Leighton, & Heyes, 2007; Leighton,
Bird, & Heyes, 2010). Bird, Brindley, Leighton, and Heyes
(2007) revealed that when an element was relatively accentu-
ated out of various elements that composed a series of move-
ment, that element was likely to be imitated accurately. In the
experiment, the task of pen-and-cups, which had been devel-
oped as a test of GOADI, was used. For this task, a participant
is asked to imitate a movement of holding a pen in a hand and
moving the pen closer to a cup in front of him or her. This
movement consists of three elements of whether to use the right
hand or left (effecter selection), whether to hold the thumb
upward or downward while holding a pen (grip selection), and
which of the two cups in front to move the pen closer to (object
selection). If imitation-specific goal selection, which GOADI
maintains, is valid, the outcome is more likely to be imitated
accurately than the means is, and thus, the numbers of errors
should form a pattern of cup < hand < grip. However, in the
experiment of Bird et al., when an element was relatively ac-
centuated by coloring, the number of errors on the accentuated
element decreased, breaking the error pattern of cup < hand <
grip. In other words, a special processing associated with imita-
tion was not supported, and instead, it was demonstrated that
when an element was relatively emphasized in the whole, the
movement outcome was not necessarily selected as a goal.
The present study examines the following three points. First
is the applicability of the view of Bird et al. with children. As
stated earlier, GOADI, which maintains imitation-specific goal
selection, was originally proposed based on experiments with
children. Therefore, criticism on validity of imitation-specific
goal selection is not sufficient if it is based on results of ex-
periments with adults, and it should be built on results of ex-
periments with children, who were originally the primary sub-
ject. In addition, Bird et al. have not discussed or tested whether
their view is applicable with children. Thus, the present study
tested the validity of imitation-specific goal selection by apply-
ing tasks that were similar to Bird et al. with children. Next was
reexamination of the effects of coloring. Bird et al. analyzed the
effects of relative accentuation of one of the three elements of
hand selection, grip selection, and selection of a cup. In so do-
ing, they performed coloring on the cup and the hand, but em-
phasized the grip relatively using a method other than coloring.
Hence, the elements that composed the movement were not
emphasized by the same method, and thus, their effects could
not be compared directly. In contrast, the present study per-
formed coloring by using the same method on all of the ele-
ments that composed the movement, and compared their effects
directly. Lastly, the present study dealt with the effects of pres-
entation order. Bird et al. compared a case in which elements
were presented in the order of the hand selection, grip selection,
and the selection of a cup with a case in which elements were
presented in the order of the selection of a cup, hand selection,
and grip selection. In contrast, in the present study, the number
of elements was increased, and the order of component presen-
tation was switched more systematically to further analyze the
effects of different presentation orders on errors on each ele-
A total of 64 children (M age = 5.2, age range: 4.1 - 6.0) par-
ticipated in the study. They were divided into two groups: a
group for ETTE task (M age = 5.2, age range 4.1 - 6.0) and a
group for TEET task (M age = 5.2, age range 4.1 - 5.11). The
mean age and age range of the participants were almost identi-
cal with those in the study by Bekkering, Wohlschlӓger and
Gattis (2000) who conducted imitation tasks with children and
maintained GOADI initially. Incidentally, it was reported that
there was no difference among 4- to 6-years-olds in perform-
ance when imitation tasks that were similar to the ones in the
present study were conducted with children (Perra & Gatttis,
A wooden regular hexahedron (10 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm),
wooden quadrilaterals (13 cm × 3.5 cm × 3.5 cm), circles made of
colored construction paper (5 cm in diameter), and gloves without
finger par ts was used. The gloves were made of a stretchable mate-
rial with rubber-like material on the palm part for traction. Coloring
was applied on these instruments with white, red, and blue.
The movements that were presented had four elements. They
were effecter (hand that was used), tool (instrument that was
used), treatment (how to tap), and end point (how to place the
instrument). These four elements were systematically combined,
and 16 kinds of presentation movements were prepared. That
coloring that was applied on each element was summarized in
Figure 1. In all of the conditions, the table top on which the
experiment was conducted was a white board. In the control
condition, white gloves on two hands, two white tools (quadri-
laterals), and a white object (regular hexahedron) were used. In
other conditions, coloring was applied on one of the elements in
the control condition. In effecter accentuation condition, a red
glove on the left hand and a blue glove on the right hand were
used. In tool ac centuation condition, a red instrument was
placed on the left, while a blue instrument was place on the
right. In treatment accentuation condition, the left half of the
object was colored in red, while the right half in blue. In end
point accentuation condition, a red and a blue circles were
placed on the left and right spots on which the instrument was
to be placed.
Two tasks were prepared with differing orders of movement
presentation. One task was presented in the order of choosing
either the right or left hand (effecter), holding either the right or
left quadrilateral (tool) with the hand, patting either the right or
left end of the object (treatment), and placing the quadrilateral
either on the right or left side (end point; ETTE task). The other
was a task with the presentation order switched around. First,
tool selection was performed by holding either the right or left
quadrilateral (tool) as though wrapping it. Next, either the right
or left hand (effecter) held the tool, while the other hand leav-
ing the tool, and gently placed the tool either on the right or left
side of the object (end point). Finally, without taking the hand
off the tool, tapped either the right or left side of the object with
the tool (treatment; TEET task).
Figure 1.
Placement and coloring of elements in each condition.
Each participant participated in the experiment under all of
the conditions. Each participant was asked to imitate only one
kind of movement model under each condition to avoid the
effects of repeated presentations. The presentation order in each
condition was rotated so that there was no bias. Additionally,
the movement models were presented so that no movement
model of one kind was presented repeatedly under the five con-
ditions executed consecutively. In both tasks, the movement
models were presented for approximately 5 s. After presenta-
tion, participants were asked to imitate the movement, wearing
the same gloves that had been used by the model and using the
instruments that were arranged in the same manner as in the
model presentation. The imitation responses of the participants
were recorded with two video cameras. The presented move-
ments and participants’ imitation responses were compared on
each element, and agreement and disagreement on the right and
left were analyzed. When the response did not match the pre-
sented movement, it was judged as an error.
Figure 2 summarizes errors on each element on each task
under each condition. Some elements induced few errors, and
normality of distribution and homogeneity of variance were not
obtained. Therefore, nonparametric tests were applied for
First, errors were compared across tasks; errors on one ele-
ment under one condition were compared across the ETTE task
and the TEET task. Mann-Whitney tests yielded no difference
across tasks on any element.
Second, errors were compared across conditions, starting
with the ETTE task; errors on one element on the ETTE task
under the five conditions were compared. Friedman tests re-
sulted significant differences on tool (χ2 = 38.03, p < .01) and
end point (χ2 = 19.79, p < .01) on the ETTE task. Signed rank
sum tests revealed that for tool, tool accentuation condition <
end point accentuation condition treatment accentuation
condition effecter accentuation condition c≒≒ontrol condi-
tion (p < .01) and for end point, end point accentuation condi-
tion tool accentuation condition < control condition (p < .01)
and end point accentuation condition < treatment accentuation
condition (p < .01). On the TEET task, a significant difference
was found with end point (χ2 22.87, p < .01). Signed rank
tests resulted in a pattern of end point accentuation condition <
effecter accentuation condition treatment accentuation con-
dition control condition (p < .01).
Control Condition Effecter Accentuation Condition
In addition, errors on each element was compared with con-
trol condition on each task, in other words, errors on each ele-
ment under the control condition was paired with errors on the
element under other conditions for comparison. Signed rank
tests revealed on the ETTE task that tool under the tool accen-
tuation condition, compared to tool under the control condition,
induced significantly fewer errors (Z = –4.58, p < .01), end
point under the tool accentuation condition, compared to end
point under the control condition, induced significantly fewer
errors (Z = –2.71, p < .01), and that end point under the end
point accentuation condition, compared to end point under the
control condition, induced significantly fewer errors (Z = –3.21,
p < .01). On the TEET task, it was shown that end point under
the end point accentuation condition, compared to end point
under the control condition, had induced significantly fewer
errors (Z = –3.21, p < .01).
Effecter Accentuation Condition Treatm ent Accentuati on Con
End Point Accentuation Con
Thirdly, errors were compared across elements. Friedman
tests yielded significant differences in the control condition (χ2
= 35.96, p < .01), the effecter accentuation condition (χ2 =
19.96, p < .01), and the tool accentuation condition (χ2 = 18.27,
p < .01). Signed rank tests revealed that effecter < tool
treatment end point (p < .01) under the control condition,
effecter < tool end point treatment (≒≒ p < .01) under the
effecter accentuation condition, and that tool < treatment
end point hand (p < .01) under the tool accentuation condi-
tion. On the TEET task, there were significant differences in the
control condition (χ2 = 16.52, p < .01) and the effecter accen-
tuation condition (χ2 = 16.02, p < .01). Signed rank sum tests
revealed that effecter < treatment end point (p < .01) under
the control condition and effecter < end point (p < .01) under
the effecter accentuation condition.
First, we will discuss the validity of imitation-specific goal
selection. Wohlschläger, Gattis, and Bekkerning (2003) argued
that the outcome was more likely to be imitated accurately
when compared to the means, and suggested that there was a
special processing associated with imitation that differed from
regular processing that mediated perception-movement tasks.
For example, they reported that when participants were asked to
mitate a movement of using either the right or left hand (ef- i
End Point Accentuation Condition
Treatment Accentuation Condition
Tool Accentuation Condition
Effecter Accentuation Condition
Control Condition
Figure 2.
Errors on elements by condition and task.
fecter selection), directing the thumb upward or downward
(grip selection), and choose a cup out of two (object selection),
an error pattern of cup < hand < grip resulted. In sum, selection
of a cup, which was the outcome of the movement, was seen as
the goal and imitated accurately, while the remaining elements
were left less likely to be imitated accurately. However, the
results of the present study did not support their argument. On
the ETTE task under the control condition, hand, which was the
effecter, induced fewer errors than any other components did.
On the TEET task under the control condition, in other words,
when the order of the element presentation was switched
around, hand induced the fewest errors also. Put differently,
when a regular movement was imitated without emphasis on
any elements, the outcome was not imitated any more accu-
rately than the means was. These results are not consistent with
the view of imitation-specific goal selection.
Second, we will discuss the effects of coloring. The present
study analyzed the effects of accentuating an element that
composed a movement by coloring, as did Bird, Brindley,
Leighton, and Heyes (2007). The results endorsed effects of
coloring. Comparisons of errors across elements showed that on
the ETTE task, hand under the effecter accentuation condition
and tool under the tool accentuation condition had induced
fewer errors. On the TEET task, hand errors under the effecter
accentuation condition was shown to be fewer. Further, com-
parisons of elements across conditions suggested that on both
tasks, end point under the end point accentuation condition was
fewer. Nonetheless, the effects of coloring were not necessarily
clear. As stated earlier, some elements induced fewer errors
when accentuated with coloring, but some did not induce fewer
errors even when accentuated with coloring. The possible rea-
sons for this are as follows.
First possible reason is that coloring affects children and
adults differently. Applying a similar method to the method
used by Bird et al., the present study attempted to emphasize
elements by coloring, but it is possible that its effects on the
participating children were not similar to those on adults. Mi-
zuguchi, Suzuki, Sugimura, and Deguchi (2010) directly com-
pared the error patterns of children and adults who each per-
formed imitation tasks that had been designed based on, but a
little more complex than, the pen-and-cups task. The results
suggested an error pattern that was not different in children and
adults although more errors were induced in children than in
adults. Judging from this, ease of perceptual processing of each
element that composed the movement model, at least, can be
considered to be not very different for children and adults. Thus,
it can be inferred that the likelihood that coloring affected chil-
dren and adults differently was low.
Next possibility concerns the effects of the presented move-
ments and the manner of presentation. Surely, the present study
applied the method that was similar to the one used by Bird et
al., but the presented movements, the manner of presentation,
and the method of coloring on elements were not exactly iden-
tical. They themselves indicated that imitation was flexible in
nature so that depending on how a model was presented, dif-
ferent elements were imitated accurately. Additionally, the
research on imitation in children reported that when a move-
ment was presented in a different manner of presentation or
with a clue associated with imitation, it resulted in a different
imitation performance (Mizuguchi, Sugimura, & Deguchi, 2009;
Williamson & Markman, 2006; Williamson, Meltzoff, &
Markman, 2008). Taking this point into consideration, it is
possible that due to some difference in procedures between
Bird et al. and the present study, the effects of coloring were
not thoroughly revealed. However, there was little difference
between error patterns on the ETTE and TEET tasks in the
present study. The ETTE and TEET tasks contained the identi-
cal elements but in different orders of element presentation, and
thus, the impressions that were received from the presented
movements were not identical on ETTE and TEET tasks even
under the same conditions. If different movements and presen-
tation manners induce different error patterns, as stated above,
it is conceivable that error patterns are different between ETTE
and TEET tasks. On the contrary, the results of the present
study showed that under any conditions, there was no differ-
ence in the error patterns between the tasks. Therefore, it should
be inferred that the movement and the presentation manner
were not the direct cause.
Instead, the fact that coloring did not result in effects similar
to Bird et al. can be attributed to the difference in number of
imitation trials that were required of the participants. Following
Wohlschläger, Gattis, and Bekkering (2003), the participants in
the present study were asked to imitate only once under each
condition to avoid effects of repeated presentations. In other
words, each participant performed imitation only five times. In
contrast, in Bird et al., a participant was asked to perform imi-
tation 80 times. The participants presumably gradually grew to
pay attention more easily to colored elements as they repeated
trials. When imitation was requested only five times in the pre-
sent study, although the imitation may have been natural and of
high ecological validity, the coloring of the elements may not
have stood as outstanding as in Bird et al. Thus, it is presumed
that coloring did not take effect as easily. If this is a valid inter-
pretation, to obtain the effects that are equivalent to those ob-
tained by Bird et al., it may be necessary to repeat imitation of
similar movements that is not very likely to be performed in
everyday life approximately 80 consecutive times. Stated oth-
erwise, it is possible that the thorough effects of coloring do not
depend on the tasks themselves but on the procedure of the
Wohlschläger, Gattis, and Bekkerning (2003) proposed imi-
tation-specific goal selection based on the research on imitation
primarily in children and maintained that outcomes, rather than
means, were more likely to be imitated accurately. This is not
observed in the typical perception-movement system, and their
perspective suggested the presence of a perception-movement
system that was specialized for imitation. On the other hand,
Bird et al. reported the results that supported the general hy-
pothesis that simply, parts that relatively stood out were imi-
tated accurately in college students.
The authors argued against the presence of a goal-related,
special mechanism in imitation. In contrast, the present study
analyzed error patterns in children who performed tasks that
were similar to Bird et al. because the experiments that guided
the development of the GOADI and imitation-specific goal
selection were conducted with children. The results did not
endorse the validity of imitation-specific goal selection even in
children. Instead, the results were consistent with the general
hypothesis that outstanding characteristics of a movement are
more likely to be imitated accurately although not exactly iden-
tical with the results of Bird et al. Hence, it has been demon-
strated that this view is applicable in children as well. Simulta-
neously, it has been indicated that a perception-movement sys-
tem that is specialized for imitation does not exist in children
Finally, we will discuss implications for the future. Rumiati
and Tessari (2002) revealed that different routes were utilized
for processing when the movements to be imitated were mean-
ingless and meaningful, reflecting different availability of ex-
isting knowledge. In Wohlschläger, Gattis, and Bekkering
(2003) and Bird et al. (2007), participants were asked to imitate
operations of everyday tools, such as cups and pens. To the
contrary, in the present study, participants were asked to imitate
movements that involved solids such as quadrilaterals and a
regular hexahedron, instead of everyday tools, and effects of
existing knowledge were excluded to the extent possible in
order to test the validity of imitation-specific goal selection as
purely as possible. If imitation is affected by existing knowl-
edge, it is possible that imitation is affected by knowledge
about and familiarity with the materials and tools that were
used, as well as the movements. This issue warrants further
Meltzoff (2002) referred to the fact that children are able to
imitate movements of adults in spite of the difference in physi-
cal size or point of view as one of the problems to be resolved
concerning imitation. The present study in combination with
Bird et al. have suggested that in at least college students and
children, imitation is not performed by a perception-movement
system that is specialized for imitation. However, younger
children, for example, infants younger than 1 year of age, have
not been analyzed, and it is still possible that a special percep-
tion-movement system is in place immediately after birth. This
issue needs future research as well.
The authors are grateful to the children, parents, and teachers
of Iwaki Sakuranbo Nursery School and Iwaki Junior College
Attached Kindergarten.
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