Imitation is the sincerest from of flattery, so they say. It may also help form social bonds. A new study reports that monkeys prefer humans who imitate them over those who don’t. The finding suggests that mimicking may act as a social glue, helping to bind individuals together.
People sometimes copy the body movements and postures of others without realizing it. Research has shown that people often feel more connected to those who copy them. They may be more likely to help their imitators or even leave them more generous tips. But it’s been unclear if this type of bonding is unique to humans.
To investigate, NIH-funded scientists studied capuchin monkeys, which tend to form strong social groups. Each monkey was given a ball and then paired with 2 human researchers. One investigator mimicked the monkey’s behavior by poking, mouthing or pounding the ball when the animal did. The other researcher behaved differently—for example, pounding the ball when the monkey poked it.
The scientists found that the monkeys tended to look longer at the researchers who imitated them. The animals also chose to spend more time with their imitators, and they preferred to engage in a simple task with them instead of with the non-imitators.
The scientists propose that imitation may be an ancient behavior that helped set the stage for primates to form social groups. The research may also shed light on human disorders in which imitation and bonding are impaired, such as certain forms of autism.