The cognitive structure of goal emulation during the preschool years

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Humans excel at mirroring both others’ actions (imitation) as well as others’ goals and intentions (emulation). As most research has focused on imitation, here we focus on how social and asocial learning predict the development of goal emulation. We tested 215 preschool children on two social conditions (imitation, emulation) and two asocial conditions (trial-and-error and recall) using two touch screen tasks. The tasks involved responding to either three different pictures in a specific picture order (Cognitive: apple→boy→cat) or three identical pictures in a specific spatial order (Motor-Spatial: up→down→right). Generalized linear models demonstrated that during the preschool years, Motor-Spatial emulation is associated with social and asocial learning, while cognitive emulation is associated only with social learning, including motor-spatial emulation and multiple forms of imitation. This result contrasts with those from a previous study using this same data set showing that motor-spatial and cognitive imitation were neither associated with one another nor, generally, predicted by other forms of social or asocial learning. Together, these results suggests that while developmental changes in imitation are associated with multiple – specialized – mechanisms, developmental changes in emulation are associated with age-related changes and a more unitary, domain-general mechanism that receives input from several different cognitive and learning processes, including some that may not necessarily be specialized for social learning.

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