Modulating mimicry: Exploring the roles of inhibitory control and social understanding in 5-year-olds’ behavioral mimicry

Johanna E. Van Schaik*, Sabine Hunnius

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


During adult interactions, behavioral mimicry, the implicit copying of an interaction partner’s postures and mannerisms, communicates liking and affiliation. While this social behavior likely develops during early childhood, it is unclear which factors contribute to its emergence. Here, the roles of inhibitory control and social understanding on 5-year-olds’ behavioral mimicry were investigated. Following a social manipulation in which one experimenter shared a sticker with the child and the other experimenter kept two stickers for herself, children watched a video in which these experimenters each told a story. During this story session, children in the experimental group (n = 28) observed the experimenters perform face and hand rubbing behaviors whereas the control group (n = 23) did not see these behaviors. Children’s inhibitory control was assessed using the day-night task and their social understanding was measured through a parental questionnaire. Surprisingly, group-level analyses revealed that the experimental group performed the behaviors significantly less than the control group (i.e. a negative mimicry effect) for both the sticker-sharer and sticker-keeper. Yet, the hypothesized effects of inhibitory control and social understanding were found. Inhibitory control predicted children’s selective mimicry of the sticker-keeper versus sticker-sharer and children’s overall mimicry was correlated with social understanding. These results provide the first indications to suggest that factors of social and cognitive development dynamically influence the emergence and specificity of behavioral mimicry during early childhood.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere0194102
JournalPLoS ONE
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 1 Mar 2018
Externally publishedYes


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