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The imitation game sets us apart form our primate relatives

The way children engage in imitation games is different form what our closest relatives, the primates do. Scientist say that while children copy actions, even when they serve no obvious purpose, our closest cousins are not the willing to engage in this type of behavior. 

We know that children engage in imitating actions and they do so even when copying the actions of adults serve no obvious purpose. But while imitation is part of our human behavior, giving us the capacity to acquire and transmit culture, it is also an important part of the lives of our closest relatives, the great apes. And a new study set about to compare the imitation behavior of children to that of our living cousins, the bonobos.

The scientists found that the apes did not copy actions, the same way the children did, underlining the uniqueness of human imitation behavior. The study, led by researchers at the University of Birmingham and Durham University in the United Kingdom, appeared in the journal Child Development and showed that while children were happy to imitate even actions without an obvious purpose, our primate relatives did not engage in such behavior. The researchers say that this finding could help understand why human culture is so different form that of great apes.


“Our results show striking species differences in imitation,” explains Zanna Clay, assistant professor of psychology at Durham University , the study’s lead author. “The young children were very willing to copy actions even though they served no obvious function, while the bonobos were not. Children’s tendency to imitate in this way likely represents a critical piece of the puzzle as to why human cultures differ so profoundly from those of great apes.”

The scientists compared the imitative behavior of 77 children, aged 3 to 5 years with that of 46 untrained bonobos, that live in the Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary in Congo. The research focused on bonobos because they they outperform chimps on certain sociocognitive tasks, show enhanced social orientation, and have high levels of social tolerance, such as peacefully sharing food with one another.

Children and bonobos were shown a wooden box, with a reward inside. Before opening the box, an experimenter made some nonsensical actions over the box, like waving, before opening it. Then , the children and the bonobos were given the box, without any other explanation. And while the children instinctively copied the nonsensical actions, the bonobos did not.

“The fact that the bonobos failed to imitate demonstrates that even enhanced social orientation may not be enough to trigger human-like cultural learning behaviors,” notes Claudio Tennie, research group leader at the University of Tubingen, who coauthored the study when he was at the University of Birmingham. “Although some animals show some limited abilities to copy, copying actions that have no apparent purpose appears to be uniquely human.”

Sylvia Jacob