The evolution of imitation: What do the capacities of non-human animals tell us about the mechanisms of imitation?

Ludwig Huber, Friederike Range, Bernhard Voelkl, Andrea Szucsich, Zsófia Virányi, Adam Miklosi

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

77 Citations (Scopus)


In this paper, we review reports and present new empirical data from studies with marmosets and dogs that address the correspondence problem of imitation research. We focus on the question of how it is possible to transform visual information into matching motor acts. Here, the important issue is not the learning of a complex skill, but determining the copying fidelity of animals at different levels of behavioural organization. As a theoretical framework, we suggest a classification in terms of movement, action and result, which shows a positive relationship between the organizational level of imitation and matching degree. While the monkey studies have provided evidence of very precise copying of movements and, to a lesser degree, of behaviours, the dog studies have provided evidence of action copying and the reproduction of results. In a Do-as-I-do study, a dog attempted to reproduce the results of demonstrated object manipulations at the expense of movement details. Transitive actions were more easily replicated than intransitive ones, and familiarity of actions had a major influence. The discussion of these findings addresses the question of the neuronal mechanisms underlying imitation and whether a single mechanism is sufficient to explain the different levels of copying fidelity.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2299-2309
Number of pages11
JournalPhilosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
Issue number1528
Publication statusPublished - Aug 27 2009



  • Do-as-I-do paradigm
  • Dogs
  • Intransitive action
  • Marmosets
  • Mirror neurons
  • Movement imitation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

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

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