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Learning by imitation.

Derek Lyons

Derek Lyons

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Children learn by imitating adults. A study by psychology graduate student Derek Lyons indicates that this behavior may, for good or ill, be hardwired. Lyons and colleagues presented three- to five-year-old children with several easy puzzle boxes—and an adult who suggested nonsensical ways to solve them. The kids quickly learned that grown-ups could be unreliable and ignored the hints.

But when the puzzles got tougher, the children started following instructions rigorously—even though they had been told to avoid any nonsense steps. Advised to rotate the wire cage at left 180 degrees before retrieving a turtle from the blue-and-white container, many children did so (even when the adult had left the room). "Imitation is a remarkably potent learning strategy,” writes Lyons in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (December 11), but it can be "too potent." He adds: use "caution the next time you fidget with a complex device. You never know who might be watching.”

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