When Actions Don’t Speak Louder Than Words
November 13, 2012
A new study from researchers at Northwestern University helps to better understand the powerful impact words have on infants.

While babies were watching the researchers intently, an experimenter used her forehead to turn on a light. She then allowed the infants to play with the light themselves to see if they would imitate this novel action. In a second group, the experimenter announced what she was doing, naming the activity with a nonsense word (“I’m going to blick the light”), before using her forehead to turn on the light. In this group, the infants were more likely to imitate the behavior. Researchers believe that the subjects in the study were more likely to see the behavior as an intentional event when it was paired with language, and thus, imitate it.

This points to the idea that infants as young as 14 months of age coordinate what they know about human behavior with their knowledge of language when they choose which actions to imitate. Infants’ observation skills, when paired with language, heighten their ability for understanding of intentions and actions. Without language to convey meaning, infants do not imitate these “strange” actions, allowing language to unlock a bigger world of social actions.

To read more about this study, see Developmental Psychology.