Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

In this article, we will explain what deferred imitation is, along with the other 4 important concepts of the symbolic concepts, that according to Piaget are necessary in order to elaborate representations.

What does Deferred imitation stand for? 

Deferred imitation is the ability to reproduce a behaviour or series of behaviours time after having seen them and without having to have the model or guide insight. It is the reproduction or imitation of an action or behaviour observed on a previous occasion, by evoking a stored symbol of it.

In the case of babies, this ability shows that they have a long-term memory for events, and with it, that they have a mental representation for them. Deferred imitation has been found in babies fourteen, and even nine months old.

Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

The beauty behind deferred imitation is that it can give us so much information about our babies’ cognitive development, as it involves a combination of complex cognitive processes. Several studies suggest that imitation is a fundamental channel for socioemotional learning and development.

 Indeed, it has even been suggested that observation can sometimes have a greater effect on skill acquisition than conditioning or trial and error.

When your baby manages to imitate an action he saw you do a day, a week, or a month before, that means he has acquired the ability to retain information, retrieve it later, and use it without a guide or model. Pressing a button or shaking an object after watching an adult do so are simple acts that include both a cognitive and a physical component. 

Deferred imitation depends more on abilities to retrieve stored information than on recognition abilities. Your baby must not only discriminate between a known and a new object but must use her motor skills to reproduce certain behaviour based only on her memory.

Throughout the sensory-motor period, the child improves her imitation capacity in the presence of the model. But it is towards the end of the period when an imitation begins to manifest in his absence (deferred imitation). 

For Piaget, imitation in the presence of the model is a prefiguration of representation and constitutes a kind of representation in material acts, not in thought. Towards the end of the sensor-motor, with the emergence of deferred imitation, representation ceases to be a direct copy, separating itself from its context and becoming a differentiated signifier from the meaning, and an internal mental model exists.

Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

What are the implications of deferred imitation?

To begin with, deferred imitation emphasizes the fact that your baby is a sponge that acquires skills and behaviours through observation. Your little one may see some discussion or unwanted behaviour and from an early age is able to code the stimuli to retain and repeat later. 

It’s hard to believe, but your child may exhibit behaviour or reaction that they were exposed to up to 4 months ago! The real danger is found when lazy imitation is combined with low impulse control. At the end of the day, your baby learns from everyone and everything, including television.

The habits and discipline to which you are exposed have a great impact on the way you are and how you act. It is up to you to convey the kind of example you would like to see.

The different meanings of representation

In psychology there are two meaning of representation:

  • Piaget’s use (1946) in describing SEMIOTIC capacity (the one that allows the use of differentiated signifiers from meanings), and its development, since not all signifiers are differentiated from meanings. Piaget considers “representation” the study of that capacity to represent and the vehicles (behaviours) through which it is carried out.
  • On the other hand, there is talk of “representation” to refer to the models of reality that subjects build, to the knowledge they form about the world. This second sense of representation is broader than the first and includes it.

Many cognitive psychologists argue that representation exists from birth and that it originates from the imprint left by perception.

The development of representation capacity

To elaborate representations, it is necessary to resort to symbols and signs that have a differentiated signifier and meaning, a capacity called by Piaget: “Symbolic Function” or semiotics that manifests itself through five behaviours or vehicles: deferred imitation, the mental image, language, drawing and play.

Since we already talked about deferred imitation, let’s see what the other 4 behaviours mean. 

Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

Mental images

They constitute a new form of representation that does not seem to exist before. They are a type of internal representation that does not have an external correlate. We have visual, auditory, gustatory or olfactory images.

The images are something internal that we have left when we do not have the situation in front of us, and that we can evoke, and they are the mark of perception and knowledge that we have about the situation.

Images are the most difficult vehicle of representation to study since we do not get to them directly. They are studied indirectly through drawing or verbal descriptions.

Besiach and Luzzatti (1978) studied subjects who had suffered brain damage in the parietal region of the right hemisphere and who developed “visual neglect” on the left side. They read only the right part of the words. The research results showed that brain damage affected perception and images, but it was also shown that images are no residues left by perception, but seem to be analyzed as real perception.

Piaget and Inhelder (1966b) have carefully studied the development of images concerning intelligence operations. They are opposed to the idea that images derive from perception and hold that images are the result of the subject’s activity. For them, images come from imitation and constitute internalized imitation.

They maintain two reasons in their doubt of the origin of the images through perception:

  • From a neurological point of view, the internal evocation of a movement triggers the same electrical waves, both brain and muscle.
  • If the images come from perception, they should exist from birth, but this is not the case.
  • The images then derive from imitation and from the knowledge one has about the object.
  • The development of children’s images is closely linked to the level of intellectual development.

The images are classified into:

Reproductive: represent something that has been previously perceived

Anticipatory: they represent something imagined, for example how our kitchen would be with other furniture.

Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

Drawing

The child is able to represent reality and internal images through drawing. The drawing arises from motor activity. The first drawings are reproductions of hand movements (zig-zag). The link between the game, the drawing and the written language is very close.

Drawing could be considered as an externalized imitation made by the subject herself.

The drawing is in connection with the other manifestations of the semiotic function and its development continues in parallel in some respects.

The drawing has a very important motor component since it needs to control its movements. It also has a cognitive component that makes it reflect very well the child’s understanding of reality, its spatial representation and how it conceives things. The affective aspect is also very important.

The characteristic that differentiates drawing from other activities is the material production of the child.

This feature of material production aroused the interest of researchers. It is examined in the works of Prayer (1882). Sully influenced by evolutionism dedicates interesting observations based on drawings of people and animals, establishes a three-stage system:

  •  Shapeless doodle
  • “Lunar diagram of the human face”
  •  More sophisticated treatment of human and animal figures.

In the first years of the 20th century, important studies on children’s drawing appeared, such as Luquet’s (1913 and 1937). Later the drawing disappeared, to reappear in the 80s with outstanding studies such as that of Goodnow (1977).

Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

Language

Verbal language emerges at the same time as the other manifestations of the semiotic function and is usually treated as the model of the symbolic capacity of the human species for its power as a tool.

It is characterized by the use of signs and the relationship between signifier and signified is arbitrary.

Playing

Symbolic game: it is a simulation game, the children behave as if they were doing some activity (riding a horse on a stick). This type of game takes place during two and six years.

Piaget points out that, in the beginning, symbolic play is closely linked to deferred imitation. From there, symbolic activities with a playful purpose begin to manifest more and more clearly. (pretend to read a newspaper).

 From the age of four, progress is observed in the complexity of games and more accurate representations of reality are produced. More coherent games and reproduction of social situations, where children execute scripts. Children are aware that they are playing.

Symbolic play encourages social interaction and serves to resolve conflicts.

Some authors emphasize that through symbolic play the origin of fiction can be found and that it constitutes the best vehicle to access the imaginative capacity of children.

Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

In summary

In this article, we explained what deferred imitation is, along with the other 4 important concepts of the symbolic concepts, that according to Piaget are necessary in order to elaborate representations.

Many cognitive psychologists argue that representation exists from birth and that it originates from the imprint left by perception. 

To elaborate representations, it is necessary to resort to symbols and signs that have a differentiated signifier and meaning, a capacity called by Piaget: “Symbolic Function” or semiotics that manifests itself through five behaviours or vehicles: deferred imitation, the mental image, language, drawing and play.

If you have any questions or comments on the content, please let us know!

FAQ about deferred imitation

What is deferred imitation?

Deferred imitation is the ability to reproduce a behaviour or series of behaviours time after having seen them and without having to have the model or guide insight.

At what age does deferred imitation begin?

Deferred imitation begins as soon as six months, although according to Jean Piaget, it can start anytime between 18 and 24 months.

What is an example of imitation?

An example of imitation is repeating the dance moves, the same speech, intonation, words, etc. 

What is the concrete operational stage?

The concrete operational stage is the third stage in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. The goal of this stage is operational thought. 

What are the 4 stages of Piaget’s cognitive development?

The 4 stages of Piaget’s cognitive development are in this order: Sensorimotor, preoperational, concrete operational and formal operational. 

Further reading

Play, Dreams And Imitation In Childhood (The International Library of Psychology), by Jean Piaget 

The Developmental Psychology of Jean Piaget, by John H. Flavell

The Language and Thought of the Child (Routledge Classics), by Jean Piaget

Vygotsky, Piaget and Bloom.: The Definitive Guide to their Educational Theories with Examples of How they can be applied. (Learning Theories Book 2), by Paul Stevens-Fulbrook

Theories of Childhood, Second Edition: An Introduction to Dewey, Montessori, Erikson, Piaget & Vygotsky, by Carol Garhart Mooney 

References

Heimann, M., & Meltzoff, A. N. (1996). Deferred imitation in 9- and 14-month-old infants: A longitudinal study of a Swedish sample. The British journal of developmental psychology, 14(1), 55–64. 

Piaget, (1962). Play, dreams, and imitation in childhood.New York: W. W. Norton.

Tomasello,   (2000).  Culture and cognitive development.Current Directions in Psychological Science, 9, 37–40.

Tomasello, Savage-Rumbaugh, S., & Kruger, A. C. (1993).Imitative learning of actions on objects by children, chimpanzees, and enculturated chimpanzees. Child Development, 64, 1688–1705.

Deferred imitation (The science behind it)

Nadejda Romanciuc

Nadejda Romanciuc holds a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and a diploma in Addiction studies. She is part of the Romanian Association of Integrative Psychotherapy as a psychotherapist under supervision. She's practicing online counselling for over two years and is a strong advocate for mental health.