Automatic imitation remains unaffected under cognitive load

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Automaticity has been argued to be a core feature of the mental processes that guide social interactions, such as those underpinning imitative behaviors. To date, however, there is little known about the automaticity of imitative tendencies. In the current study, we used a finger movement stimulus-response compatibility task to index processes associated with controlling the urge to copy other people’s actions. In addition, we manipulated the level of load placed on a secondary cognitive task to test if there is a capacity limit in the systems that filter distractor finger movement stimuli. Across three experiments, we showed that whether letter strings (Experiment 1), faces (Experiment 2), or hand postures (Experiment 3) are held in working memory, there was no impact on compatibility effects in the main task. These findings show that the cognitive operations that generate imitative tendencies are relatively efficient in that they operate the same whether or not a central resource is taxed heavily with nonsocial (letter strings) or social stimuli (faces and hand postures). Therefore, in the sense of persisting in the presence of a demanding cognitive load, this type of imitation behavior can be considered automatic.


  • Automaticity, Imitation, Cognitive Load, Stimulus-response compatibility
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)601-615
JournalJournal of Experimental Psychology - Human Perception and Performance
Issue number5
Early online date4 Apr 2019
Publication statusPublished - May 2019

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