Modeling Referential Actions in 6- to 18-Month-Old Infants: A Precursor to Symbolic Understanding


  • This research was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada. The authors thank the infants and parents who volunteered for these experiments.

concerning this article should be addressed to Tara Callaghan, Department of Psychology, St. Francis Xavier University, P.O. Box 5000, Antigonish, N.S., Canada, B2G 2W5. Electronic mail may be sent to


Social precursors to symbolic understanding of pictures were examined with 100 infants ages 6, 9, 12, 15, and 18 months. Adults demonstrated 1 of 2 stances toward pictures and objects (contemplative or manipulative), and then gave items to infants for exploration. For pictures, older infants (12, 15, and 18 months) emulated the adult's actions following both types of demonstration trials. For objects, infants did not emulate actions following either stance at any age. The findings suggest that infants enlist their imitative learning skills in the context of learning the conventions of action on pictorial symbols. The data are interpreted as pointing to the importance of social learning in developing an understanding of the referential function of pictorial symbols.