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Copycat Seen as Universal Behavior in Human Children Only

From prepubescent kids pretending to shave, to the offspring of smokers taking up their parents’ addiction, children often copy the exact behaviors of their parents.

Now science shows this trait universal to all human children, and may help explain how people pass their culture from one generation to the next.

“[Scientists] have been finding this odd effect where children will copy everything that they see an adult demonstrate to them, even if there are clear or obvious reasons why those actions would be irrelevant," said Mark Nielsen, a psychologist at the University of Queensland in Australia, and lead researcher on the new study. “It's something that we know that other primates don't do.”

When shown how to complete a task like opening a box or using a tool, chimpanzee babies will perform the task in the most efficient manner, even if their parent performs the same task inefficiently. Conversely, human children will copy the exact behavior of their parents, even if it involves elements unrelated to the final goal.

Writing in the journal Psychological Science, Nielsen and a colleague from the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Durban, South Africa, detail how they showed a group of Australian preschoolers and a group of Kalahari Bushman children of the same age, an unnecessarily complex method for opening a box sealed shut with a simple lock. Despite being able to open the box much more easily with their hands, the children in both groups continued to use the overly complex method demonstrated by the adults.

Previously, scientists had only observed that type of inefficient mimicry in children of Western cultures. By proving that children in other cultures copy adults just as faithfully, the University of Queensland researchers believe that have stumbled upon a universal human trait that separates mankind from its closet animal relatives.

The steady accumulation of these unnecessary behaviors over time grew into what humans now understand as culture, the researchers said. And the extreme fidelity of child imitations explains how children pick up these cultural behaviors even before they understand their significance.

Said Nielsen, “We see these sorts of behaviors as being a core part of developing this human cultural mind, where we're so motivated to do things like those around us and be like those around us.”

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