Abstract

The principle of rationality has been invoked to explain that infants expect agents to perform the most efficient means action to attain a goal. It has also been demonstrated that infants take into account the efficiency of observed actions to achieve a goal outcome when deciding whether to re-enact a specific behavior or not. Puzzlingly, however, they also tend to imitate an apparently suboptimal unfamiliar action even when they can bring about the same outcome more efficiently by applying a more rational action alternative available to them. We propose that this apparently paradoxical behavior is explained by infants' interpretation of action demonstrations as communicative manifestations of novel and culturally relevant means actions to be acquired, and present empirical evidence supporting this proposal. In Experiment 1, we found that 14-month-old infants re-enacted novel arbitrary means actions only following a communicative demonstration. Experiment 2 showed that infants inclination to reproduce communicatively manifested novel actions is restricted to behaviors they can construe as goal-directed instrumental acts. The study also provides evidence that their re-enactment of the demonstrated novel actions reflects epistemic rather than purely social motives. We argue that ostensive communication enables infants to represent the teleological structure of novel actions even when the causal relations between means and end are cognitively opaque and apparently violate the efficiency expectation derived from the principle of rationality. This new account of imitative learning of novel means shows how the teleological stance and natural pedagogy – two separate cognitive adaptations to interpret instrumental vs. communicative actions – are integrated as a system for learning socially constituted instrumental knowledge in humans.