Research | Welcome

Is how we learn determined by what we learn from others? That is, when learning from others, do we use different–specialized–psychological mechanisms depending on the type of information that is being acquired or do we use a single–“generalized”– mechanism that applies regardless of the type of information learned? This question lies at the heart of various research projects in our laboratory, including the following:

Characterizing Domain-Specific Copying Mechanisms

If how we learn is determined by what we learn, then we might expect that imitation skills do not always generalize across different tasks. To that end, these series of studies seek to understand the development of different imitation skills across a variety of tasks. For instance, various studies have used touchscreen tasks to understand how children represent and copy different types of abstract rules necessary for learning everyday tasks such as tool-use. In these computerized tasks, children are presented with ‘games’ that require them to copy abstract spatial patterns (e.g., up-down-right) and item-specific serial patterns (e.g., apple-boy-cat). In addition to touch-screen tasks, we have also used more standard “object-based” or toy-like tasks commonly used by imitation researchers. By comparing imitation performance across different tasks within individuals and across age groups, we hope to better understand how individual imitation skills develops and gain insights into the psychological skills that underlie them.

For more information see the following papers:

Subiaul, F., Zimmermann, L., Renner, E., Schilder, B., Barr, R (2016). Elemental Imitation Mechanisms in Preschool Age Children. Journal of Cognition & Development, 7(2): 221-243; DOI:10.1080/15248372.2015.1053483 [PDF: Subiaul et al (2015) JCD].

Subiaul F., Anderson S., Brandt J., Elkins, J. (2012). Multiple Imitation Mechanisms in Children. Developmental Psychology. 48(4): 1165-79 [PDF:Subiaul et al (2012)-DevPsy]

Subiaul F (2010). Dissecting the Imitation Faculty: The Multiple Imitation Mechanisms Hypothesis. Behavioral Processes, 83(2): 222-34 [PDF:Subiaul (2010) BehProc].

Relationship between Social and Individual Learning

During the preschool years, children become “super” imitators, copying different types of responses, across a variety of tasks with great fidelity. Research in our lab seeks to understand what underlies these developmental changes in imitation fidelity. Using a variety of tasks, standardized surveys such as the BRIEF-P–a parent survey assessing executive functions in preschoolers–as well as statistical modeling techniques, we have begun to answer how general developmental changes in attention and memory predict changes in social learning (e.g.,  copying fidelity). Such knowledge can not only improve early education practices but also be used to develop more efficacious diagnostic tools and intervention methods that rely on imitation (social) learning.

For more information see the following papers:

Subiaul, F., Patterson, E. M., Barr, R. (2016). The Cognitive Structure of Goal Emulation in Preschool Age Children: Recruitment of multiple learning processes. British Journal of Developmental Psychology. 34: 132-149; doi: 10.1111/bjdp.12111. [PDF: Subiaul et al (2016) BJDP].

Subiaul, F., Patterson, E., Renner, E., Schilder, B., Barr, R. (2015). Becoming a High Fidelity—Super—Imitator: The role of social and asocial learning in imitation development. Developmental Science. Nov;18(6):1025-35. doi: 10.1111/desc.12276. Epub 2014 Dec 28 [PDF: Subiaul et al (2015)].

Subiaul, F. & Schilder, B. (2014). Working Memory Constraints on Imitation and Emulation. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 128, 190-200. DOI: 10.1016/j.jecp.2014.07.005 [PDF: Subiaul & Schilder (2014)-JECP].

Innovation by Summative Imitation

Cultural learning rests on a what appears to be a paradox. On the one hand, for culture to be maintained it must be reproduced faithfully, without alteration. Otherwise, any given cultural practice would quickly dissolve into chaos and disappear. On the other hand, cultural evolution–cumulative changes in a given cultural practice–requires individual innovation. That is, changing the said cultural practice. Ideally, these changes (or innovations) should be beneficial, improving the cultural practice in some measurable way. Consequently, the behavioral output of these two “engines” of cultural evolution–imitation and innovation–have been thought to be independent of one another. However, our lab is exploring the possibility that at least some forms of innovations are mediated by imitation. Specifically, we are investigating whether the imitation of multiple, different, responses demonstrated by two models, results in the generation of novel products or innovations. We refer to this type of imitation, as “summative imitation.”

For more information see the following papers:

Subiaul, F., Krajkowski, E., Price, E. E., Etz, A. (2015). Imitation by combination: Preschool age children evidence summative imitation in a novel problem-solving task. Frontiers in Psychology. 6: 1410.doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2015.01410 [PDF: Subiaul et al (2015) Frontiers].