Little chameleons: The development of social mimicry during early childhood

Johanna E. van Schaik*, Sabine Hunnius

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Adults use behavioral mimicry to blend in with (or stand out from) their social environment. Adopting another's mannerisms and behaviors, or "mimicking", communicates liking and similarity between interaction partners and has been shown to serve as an implicit affiliation mechanism. Given this important social function, it is surprising that so little is known about the development of mimicry. In two studies, we investigated mimicry and its social sensitivity during early childhood. Children of 4 to 6 years (Study 1) and 3 years (Study 2) first chose a novel group based on their color preference. Following a baseline phase, children observed videos of in-group and out-group models performing behaviors that are typically mimicked in adults. Importantly, the children received neither instructions nor encouragement to copy the behaviors. Both 3-year-olds and 4- to 6-year-olds displayed behavioral mimicry. Furthermore, 4- to 6-year-olds mimicked the in-group model more than the out-group model, and this in-group bias was also evident in their explicit group preferences. Together, these studies present the first evidence for behavioral mimicry and its social sensitivity during early childhood. Placed in the context of social development, the findings provide a necessary contribution to current developmental and psychological theories on mimicry and behavior copying.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)71-81
Number of pages11
JournalJournal of Experimental Child Psychology
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2016


  • Behavioral mimicry
  • Early childhood
  • Imitation
  • Novel groups
  • Social copying
  • Social development


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