DOI: 10.1162/opmi_a_00124 ISSN: 2470-2986

Infants Infer Social Relationships Between Individuals Who Engage in Imitative Social Interactions

Vanessa Kudrnova, Elizabeth S. Spelke, Ashley J. Thomas
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Developmental and Educational Psychology
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology


Infants are born into rich social networks and are faced with the challenge of learning about them. When infants observe social interactions, they make predictions about future behavior, but it is not clear whether these predictions are based on social dispositions, social relationships, or both. The current studies (N = 188, N = 90 males) address this question in 12-month-old infants and 16- to 18-month-old toddlers who observe social interactions involving imitation. In Studies 1 and 3, infants and toddlers expected that imitators, compared to non-imitators, would respond to their social partners’ distress. Likewise, they expected the targets of imitation, compared to non-targets, to respond to their partner’s distress. In Study 2, these expectations did not generalize to interactions with a new partner, providing evidence that infants learned about the relationships between individuals as opposed to their dispositions. In Study 3, infants did not make predictions about responses to laughter, suggesting that infants see imitation as indicative of a specific kind of social relationship. Together, these results provide evidence that imitative interactions support infants’ and toddlers’ learning about the social relationships connecting unknown individuals.

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