deferred imitation

The science behind deferred imitation

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What is deferred imitation, and why is it  important to know about it? In this article you can learn all about this developmental mechanism and why it’s so relevant.  

Imitation and observation are very important ways in which children learn and achieve a wide range of new behaviors. Learning through imitation is very efficient, because adults typically take complex behaviors and break them down to demonstrate actions that are appropriate for the child’s age and abilities. In many occasions, children do not respond to a behavior immediately, and so this information is stored in the long-term memory – that’s when deferred imitation comes in. 

What is deferred imitation?

Deferred imitation is defined by the American Psychological Association as a modeled action or series of actions that are reproduced after a certain delay of minutes, hours, or days after viewing the behavior.

This skill is relevant to scientists and theorists because infants and children aren’t always capable of imitating actions as soon as they happen, so the child must be able to imitate long after the action or ability has been displayed by an adult.

This is why deferred imitation is widely used in studies that investigate memory development in children. Deferred imitation can be considered as a way of observing long-term memory in children.

 In 1962 Jean Piaget proposed that deferred imitation developed in infants approximately at about 16 to 24 months; but studies investigating this behavior in younger infants (9 to 14 months old) have found that deferred imitation of simple tasks can sometimes be observed in babies late in their first year of life.

You may notice that, as the age of your little one increases, so does the length of time they are able to retain and reproduce specific actions. For example, children that are eight months old will only show deferred imitation after up to two weeks; but at 24 months, toddlers will be able to imitate after delays of up to two to three months. 

More than imitation

The beauty behind deferred imitation is that it can give you a tremendous amount of insight into your little one’s development. It symbolizes an underlying complex cognitive process.


It has been theorized that imitation may also be an important channel for early social learning. It seems that observation has a great effect on skill acquisition and, in some cases, even more so than conditioning or trial and error.

Also, the capacity that children have to imitate after a delay is remarkable, because they appear to be able to show deferred imitation even after changes in the environment and stimuli have been made.

What are the implications of deferred imitation?  

When your baby is able to imitate what they saw you do a day or a week before, they show that they’ve acquired the ability to retain the information, recall it, and reproduce it without a guide later on. Closing a flap, pushing a button, or shaking an object after seeing an adult doing it a while before, are simple acts that demonstrate a cognitive process, as well as physical one.

Deferred imitation taps more into “recalling” abilities than recognition per se. Your baby must do something more than simply discriminate between a familiar and an unknown object, he must use his motor skills to reproduce the act they saw earlier.

For starters, deferred imitation emphasizes your baby’s ability to acquire new skills or patterns of behavior through observation. Even from a young age, babies are encoding many of the stimuli that are happening around them, to retain and repeat later.

During the process of deferred imitation, your little one isn’t just copying what is currently happening; instead, they are recalling and repeating the act some time after they see it. That is why deferred imitation may reveal a more complex underlying cognitive process. 

Deferred imitation is a fundamental process, since it can contribute to the transmission of behaviors and development of traditions, because it allows for actions to be reproduced by individuals at a very young age and at a different time and location from when and where they were first witnessed.

The continued study of deferred imitation is essential for scientists and developmental psychologists to gain further understanding of the trajectory of the way memory develops in children. Learning about this process also allows you to appreciate every new advance and gesture, no matter how small, since now you know how these represent big steps forward in your baby’s development.

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