Humans imitate humans more than chimps do

This nytimes article describes an experiment in which

1) In front of chimps, human researchers demonstrate opening a box, but they throw in some unnecessary steps. The box is constructed so that an onlooker can figure out which steps are unnecessary just by watching. The chimps learn to open the box, but skip the unnecessary steps.
2) In front of human children, the researchers do the same thing. The children learn to open the box, but are careful to do exactly what the demonstrator did, including the unnecessary steps.

The children’s awareness of which steps were unnecessary in condition (4) is shown by having some children who do not get to see a demonstration of how to open the box. These children are able to figure out how to open it (without the unnecessary steps, of course).

Thus, human children, as compared to chimps, are more likely to imitate exactly what they see.

Victoria Horner, Andrew Whiten. Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens), Animal Cognition, Volume 8, Issue 3, Jul 2005, Pages 164 – 181

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3 thoughts on “Humans imitate humans more than chimps do

  1. I’m worried that I may be a clandestine subject of this experiment. Something about it reminds me of the transmission of techniques for culturing neurons :).

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  2. While the cool conclusion that one would like to draw from this study is that imitation is a very useful cognitive strategy for children that probably helps out with uniquely human strengths such as language learning, there are other possible explanations. For instance, maybe human children are just stupider in some way because they are children (even though they can figure out how to open the box when they are on their own, the parts of their mind may not be sufficiently integerated to allow them to apply that capability in this situation). Or, perhaps chimps would have imitated too if they had seen a member of their own species open the box with the unnecessary actions.

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  3. Here’s one alternative explanation: visible food inside a clear box is too salient for a chimp to disengage its attention from the food and concentrate instead on the actions performed on the box. Children, on the other hand, do not have such a strong stimulus-response relationship with food and are more likely to be able to flexibly engage their attention, and therefore successfully imitate, in the presence of salient and distracting stimuli (such as food).

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