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Imitation (learning)

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Imitation is an advanced behavior whereby an individual observes and replicates another's. The word can be applied in many contexts, ranging from animal training to international politics.

Anthropology and Social Sciences Edit

In anthropology, diffusion theories explain why cultures imitate the ideas or practices of other cultures. Some theories hold that all cultures imitate ideas from one or a few original cultures, the Adam of the Bible, or several cultural circles that overlap. Evolutionary diffusion theory holds that cultures are influenced by one another, but that similar ideas can be developed in isolation.

It has been argued by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine, that imitation is what makes humans unique among animals.[How to reference and link to summary or text] Imitation might have been selected as fit by evolution because those who were good at it had a wider arsenal of learned cultural behavior at their disposal, such as tool making or even language.[How to reference and link to summary or text]

In the mid-20th century, social scientists began to study how and why people imitate ideas. Everett Rogers pioneered diffusion of innovations studies, using research to prove factors in adoption and profiles of adopters of ideas.


Studies of the human brain using fMRI have revealed a network of regions in the inferior frontal cortex and inferior parietal cortex which are typically actived during imitation tasks [1]. It has been suggested that these regions contain mirror neurons similar to the mirror neurons recorded in the macaque monkey [2]. However, it is not clear if macaques spontaneously imitate each other in the wild.

Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran argues that the evolution of mirror neurons were important in the human acquisition of complex skills such as language and believes the discovery of mirror neurons to be a most important advance in neuroscience.[3] However, little evidence directly supports the theory that mirror neuron activity is involved in cognitive functions such as empathy or learning by imitation [4]. Further research into these topics is ongoing.

Animal BehaviourEdit

There are debates among scientists over whether animals can truly imitate novel actions or whether imitation is uniquely human. [5] The current controversy is partly due to different definitions of imitation. The definition by Thorndike of “learning to do an act from seeing it done” [6] has two major shortcomings: first, by using “seeing” it restricts imitation to the visual domain and excludes e.g. vocal imitation and, second, it would also include mechanisms such as priming, contagious behaviour and social facilitation [7], which most scientist want to distinguish from imitation as separate forms of observational learning. Thorpe suggested defining imitation as “the copying of a novel or otherwise improbable act or utterance, or some act for which there is clearly no instinctive tendency” [8]. This definition is favoured by many scholars, though questions have been raised how strictly the term “novel” has to be interpreted and how exactly a performed act has to match the demonstration to count as a copy. In 1952 Hayes & Hayes [9] used the “Do-as-I-do” procedure to demonstrate the imitative abilities of their trained chimpanzee “Viki”. Their study was repeatedly criticised for its subjectivity in the interpretation of the responses of their subject. Replications of this study [10] found much lower matching degrees between the subjects and their models. However, imitation research focusing on the copying fidelity got new momentum from a recent study by Voelkl and Huber [11]. They performed detailed analyses of the motion trajectories of both model and observer monkeys and found a high matching degree in their movement patterns. In parallel to these studies comparative psychologists used experimental designs where they provided tools or apparatuses that could be handled in different ways. With such a paradigm Heyes [12][13] and co-workers reported evidence for imitation in rats which pushed a lever in the same direction as their models, though later on they withdrew their claims due to methodological problems in their original setup [14]. By trying to design a testing paradigm that is less arbitrary than pushing a lever to the left or to the right, Custance and co-workers [15] introduced the “artificial fruit” paradigm, where a small object could be opened in different ways to retrieve food placed inside the object – not unlike a hard shelled fruit. Using this paradigm, scientists reported evidence for imitation in monkeys[16][17] and apes [18][19][20]. There remains a problem with such tool use (or apparatuses use) studies: what animals might learn in such studies, need not be the actual behaviour patterns (i.e. the actions) that were observed. Instead they might learn about some effects in the environment (i.e. how the tool moves, or how the apparatus works). This type of observational learning, which focuses on results, not actions, has been dubbed emulation (see Emulation (observational learning)).

See alsoEdit

References & BibliographyEdit

  1. Marco Iacoboni, Roger P. Woods, Marcel Brass, Harold Bekkering, John C. Mazziotta, Giacomo Rizzolatti, Cortical Mechanisms of Human Imitation, Science 286:5449 (1999)
  2. Rizzolatti G., Craighero L., The mirror-neuron system, Annual Review of Neuroscience. 2004;27:169-92
  3. V.S. Ramachandran, Mirror Neurons and imitation learning as the driving force behind "the great leap forward" in human evolution. Edge Foundation. Retrieved on 2006-11-16.
  4. Dinstein I, Thomas C, Behrmann M, Heeger DJ (2008). A mirror up to nature. Curr Biol 18 (1): R13–8.
  5. Zentall, T.R. (2006). Imitation: Definitions, evidence, and mechanisms. Animal Cognition, 9, 335-353. Full text
  6. Thorndike, E.L. (1898). Animal intelligence. “Psychological Review Monographs 2,” No. 8.
  7. Heyes, C.M. and B.G.J. Galef, (1996). “Social Learning in Animals: The Roots of Culture.” San Diego, Academic Press.
  8. Thorpe, W.H. (1963). “Learning and Instinct in Animals.” London, Methuen.
  9. Hayes, K.J. and Hayes, C. (1952). Imitation in a home-raised chimpanzee. “Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 45,” 450-459.
  10. Custance, D.-M., Whiten, A. and Bard, K.A. (1995). Can young chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) imitate arbitrary actions? Hayes & Hayes (1952) revisited. “Behaviour, 132,”. 837-859.
  11. Voelkl, B. and Huber, L. (2007): Imitation as faithful copying of a novel technique in marmoset monkeys. “PLoS one 2 (7),” e611. Full text
  12. Heyes, C.M., Dawson, G.R. and Nokes, T. (1992). Imitation in rats: initial responding and transfer evidence. “The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 45 B,” 229-240.
  13. Heyes, C.M. and Dawson, G.R. (1990). A demonstration of observational learning in rats using a bidirectional control. “The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 42 B,” 59-71.
  14. Heyes, C.M., Ray, E.D., Mitchell, C.J. and Nokes, T. (2000). Stimulus Enhancement: Controls for Social Facilitation and Local Enhancement. “Learning and Motivation, 31,” 83–98.
  15. Custance, D., Whiten, A., and Fredman, T. (1999). Social learning of an artificial fruit task in capuchin monkeys (Cebus apella). "Journal of Comparative Psychology, 113," 13-23.
  16. Bugnyar, T. and Huber, L. (1997). Push or pull: an experimental study on imitation in marmosets. “Animal Behaviour, 1997,” 817-831.
  17. Voelkl, B. and Huber, L. True imitation in marmosets. “Animal Behaviour, 60,” 195-202.
  18. Whiten, A., Custance, D.M., Gomez, J.C., Teixidor, P., and Bard, K.A. (1996). Imitative learning of artificial fruit processing in children (Homo sapiens) and chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes). “Journal of Comparative Psychology 110,” 3-14.
  19. Stoinsky, T. S. Wrate, J. L. Ure, N. Whiten, A. (2001). Imitative Learning by Captive Western Lowland Gorillas (Gorilla gorilla gorilla) in a Simulated Food-Processing Task. ”Journal of Comparative Psychology, 115,” 272-281.
  20. Whiten, A., Horner, V., Litchfield, C.A., and Marshall-Pescini, S. (2004). How do apes ape? “Learning and Behavior 32,” 36-52.

Key textsEdit



Additional materialEdit



  • Caldwell, C.A. & Whiten, A. (2002). Evolutionary perspectives on imitation: is a comparative psychology of social learning possible? Animal Cognition, 5:193-208. Full text

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