Overimitation is the meticulous replication of both necessary and superfluous actions, which underpins human social learning and the propagation of culture, indicating a sophisticated aspect of human cognitive development.


Overimitation: The tendency to imitate irrelevant or non-functional actions in a sequence, often seen in children.

Puzzle Box Experiment

In a 2005 study by Horner and Whiten, young children and chimpanzees were observed interacting with a transparent puzzle box. An adult demonstrated how to retrieve a reward from the box using a mix of necessary and superfluous actions. The results showed that while the children tended to copy all the demonstrated actions, reflecting a robust inclination towards overimitation, the chimpanzees typically ignored the unnecessary steps, suggesting a more efficient problem-solving strategy.

Cognitive Development and Overimitation

  • Age-related Trends: Younger children exhibit a higher propensity for overimitation. This decreases as cognitive and analytical skills develop with age.
  • Cognitive Milestones: The decline in overimitation correlates with developmental stages where children begin to understand the functionality of actions and differentiate between relevant and irrelevant steps.

Neurological Basis of Overimitation

  • Mirror Neuron System: These neurons fire both when an action is performed and when it is observed, playing a significant role in the learning process through observation.
  • Observational Learning: Overimitation suggests an innate mechanism for learning through observation, essential for the acquisition of complex skills.

Functionality of Actions

  • Relevant vs. Irrelevant Actions: Understanding overimitation involves studying how individuals discern between functional and non-functional components of an observed action.
  • Discernment Abilities: The ability to discern relevant from irrelevant actions improves with age and experience.

Adaptive Significance of Overimitation

  • Cultural Transmission: Overimitation may play a role in the transfer of cultural practices, where non-functional actions can have social or symbolic significance.
  • Evolutionary Perspective: The inclination to over-imitate may have been selected for in human evolution due to its role in preserving cultural identity and cohesion.