Developmental psychology

Rational imitation in preverbal infants

Babies may opt for a simpler way to turn on a light after watching an adult do it.


Here we show that if an adult demonstrates a new way to execute a task to a group of infants aged 14 months, the children will use this action to achieve the same goal only if they consider it to be the most rational alternative. Our results indicate that imitation of goal-directed action by preverbal infants is a selective, interpretative process, rather than a simple re-enactment of the means used by a demonstrator, as was previously thought1,2,3.

Access optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Comparison of the methods used by 14-month-old infants to switch on a light-box 1 week after watching how an adult executed the same task under two different conditions.


  1. 1

    Meltzoff, A. N. Dev. Psychol. 24, 470–476 (1988).

  2. 2

    Meltzoff, A. N. J. Exp. Child Psychol. 59, 497–515 (1995).

  3. 3

    Tomasello, M. The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition (Harvard Univ. Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999).

  4. 4

    Gergely, G. et al. Cognition 56, 165–193 (1995).

  5. 5

    Csibra, G. et al. Cognition 72, 237–267 (1999).

  6. 6

    Gergely, G. & Csibra, G. Cognition 63, 227–233 (1997).

  7. 7

    Csibra, G. & Gergely, G. Dev. Sci. 1, 255–259 (1998).

  8. 8

    Bekkering, H., Wohlschlager, A. & Gattis, M. Q. J. Exp. Psychol. Human Exp. Psych. 53A, 153–164 (2000).

Download references

Author information

Correspondence to György Gergely.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.