In studies of animals' imitation abilities one has often overlooked a central aspect of imitation in humans, especially in children: an integration of the actions in a social and affective context. This is especially clear in studies of cross- species imitation. The project studies the effect of social interaction and bonding on subsequent imitation.
Once considered to be a relatively low-level and cognitively undemanding behaviour that humans share with other primates, imitation is characterized in recent research as a high-level ability that enables and/or is inherently linked to the evolution (in phylo- and ontogenesis) of (social)-cognitive abilities that are attributed (almost) exclusively to humans, including language, self-awareness, theory of mind and culture formation. As such, imitation lies at the very heart of many current debates, and a better understanding of the phenomenon, its manifestations and underlying mechanisms may help elucidate crucial questions in the quest for “humanness”.
In the project, we aim to advance both theory and methodology in the field by attempting to link a seemingly lower-level ability, i.e. non-conscious imitation, to the higher-level ability of imitation learning (commonly held responsible for the cultural inheritance of behaviours). To enhance the relationship between subjects, and potentially the motivation to learn socially, we will utilise the increased sense of affinity and affiliation that in human interactions emerges from mutual, yet unaware and unintentional, imitation of gestures, postures, mannerisms or facial expressions.
We study both the within-species (human children) and between-species (humans and chimpanzees) effect of non-conscious mimicry, as well as its effects in imitation tasks for both species.