Children show selectively increased language imitation after experiencing ostracism

Zoe L. Hopkins, Holly P. Branigan

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


When threatened with ostracism, children attempt to strengthen social relationships by engaging in affiliative behaviors such as imitation. We investigated whether an experience of ostracism influenced the extent to which children imitated a partner’s language use. In two experiments, 7-12 year-old children either experienced ostracism or did not experience ostracism in a virtual ball-throwing game before playing a picture-matching game with a partner. We measured children’s tendency to imitate, or align with, their partner’s language choices during the picture-matching game. Children showed a strong tendency to spontaneously align with their partner’s lexical and grammatical choices. Crucially, their likelihood of lexical alignment was modulated by whether they had experienced ostracism. We found no effect of ostracism on syntactic alignment. These findings offer the first demonstration that ostracism selectively influences children’s language use. They highlight the role of social-affective factors in children’s communicative development, and show that the link between ostracism and imitation is broadly based, and extends beyond motor behaviors to the domain of language.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)897-911
Number of pages15
JournalDevelopmental Psychology
Issue number5
Early online date19 Mar 2020
Publication statusPublished - 31 May 2020


  • ostracism
  • affiliation
  • language imitation
  • alignment
  • conversation


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