Social Learning: an unconscious and effective way of learning

Imitation. Something our children do from a very very young age, however, it might be more complicated than it seems at first glance. This is a very special way of learning that is more than simply copying or mimicking what someone else is doing and the proof is given by many studies that reach the following conclusion: when faced by two people doing two different things to try and achieve the same goal, even a very young child will imitate the one which attained better results.

This also shows us that imitation is an intentional action with a specific goal, becoming a potent form of casual learning. It’s a secure way of getting to know objects and people, what they do and how to manipulate them, that involves observation, logic reasoning, and decision-making. We can learn a bit of everything by watching our models and according to Gopnik (2016) “developmental studies have shown […] how intelligent, complex, and subtle imitation can be, even in babies.”

Imitation gives us the possibility of learning without necessarily going for trial and error. We can simply observe other people’s actions, their consequences and formulate our own conclusions, in other words, learning.

Children will imitate the adult, believing that we know better, but they’re also able to tell when you don’t actually know what you’re doing. If you show some reluctance or officially admit you don’t know how to do something, you’re also teaching them something very important: the fact that no one knows everything. And that’s fundamental for them to build self-esteem, realizing that everyone has difficulties with some tasks.

This also allows them to develop their creativity. Children are experts in thinking outside the box if we allow them to. The moment you admit you don’t know how to use an object, for example, is the moment they start to try something new, without our prejudices and predefined ideas standing in the way, they are effectively contributing to evolution.

Emotionally and culturally, imitation allows the child to feel the sense of belonging. Every society has its own rituals, mostly without a practical meaning, keeping the group united. The imitation of those rituals will provide integration in the group to the new members.

Imitation is actually a very important tool for practical, social and cultural learning.


GOPNIK, Alison (2016). The Gardener and the Carpenter. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.


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