The ethological analysis of imitation

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53 Citations (Scopus)


Theorists and experimental researchers have long debated whether animals are able to imitate. A variety of definitions of imitation have been proposed to describe this complex form of social learning. Experimental research on imitation has often been hampered by either a too loose ‘anthropomorphic’ approach or by too narrow ‘behaviourist’ definitions. At present neither associative nor cognitive theories are able to offer an exhaustive explanation of imitation in animals. An ethological approach to imitation offers a different perspective. By integrating questions on function, mechanism, development and evolution one can identify possible directions for future research. At present, however, we are still far from developing a comprehensive theory of imitation. A functional approach to imitation shows that, despite some evidence for imitative learning in food processing in apes, such learning has not been shown to be involved in the social transmission of either tool-use skills or communicative signals. Recently developed procedures offer possible ways of clarifying the role of imitation in tool use and visual communication. The role of imitation in explorative play in apes is also investigated and the available data suggest that copying during play might represent a behavioural homologue of human imitation. It is proposed that the ability to copy the behaviour of a companion is under a strong genetic influence in many social species. Many important factors have not been examined experimentally, e.g. the effect of the demonstrator, the influence of attention and memory and the ability to generalize. The potential importance of reinforcement raises the possibility that copying abilities serving divergent functions might be partly under the control of different mechanisms.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)347-374
Number of pages28
JournalBiological Reviews
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - Aug 1999


  • Copying
  • Explorative play
  • Imitation
  • Social learning

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology(all)
  • Agricultural and Biological Sciences(all)

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