Mimicking Behavior May Help Form Social Bonds

Subtle imitation can have favorable outcomes, monkey study shows

FRIDAY, Aug. 14, 2009 (HealthDay News) -- If you want someone to like you, try imitating their actions, new research suggests.

Capuchin monkeys playing with a wiffle ball preferred the company of researchers who mimicked their motions over researchers who didn't, according to the study in the Aug. 14 issue of Science.

Imitation promotes social bonding, encourages strangers to become friends and underpins the formation of social groups, the study authors explained.

"Researchers have known that human beings prefer the behavior of other people who subtly imitate their gestures and other affects," said Dr. Duane Alexander, director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in a news release from the U.S. National Institutes of Health. "Observing how imitation promotes bonding in primates may lead to insights in disorders in which imitation and bonding is impaired, such as certain forms of autism."

When given a ball, the capuchin monkeys, chosen because they're known to form close social bonds, either probed it with their fingers, put in their mouths or pounded it on a surface.

Each monkey was then paired with two researchers, each of whom had their own wiffle ball. One person did the same motion as the monkey they were paired with -- either probing, mouthing or pounding the ball. The other did something different, such as pounding the ball when the monkey probed it.

After the experiment, the monkeys consistently spent more time near the researcher who imitated them than with the one who did not, according to the investigators at the National Institutes of Health and two Italian research institutions.

When given the opportunity to take a small trinket from the researcher's hand and then return it for a small food reward, the monkeys also tended to choose the person who'd imitated them.

Capuchin monkeys in the wild are known to match each others' behaviors when feeding, traveling or avoiding predators. Such mimicry may provide the basis for social groups.

"It has been argued that the link between behavior matching and increases in affiliation might have played an important role in human evolution by helping to maintain harmonious relationships between individuals," wrote the authors. "We propose that the same principle also holds for other group-living primates."

Humans have also been observed mirroring the posture, gestures and mannerisms of people they encounter, the researchers pointed out in the news release. The behavior is unconscious, they noted. Although neither party is aware that the imitation is occurring, people often feel affection and empathy for their imitators.

Previous research has shown people are more likely to help their imitators and leave more generous tips. The current paper is the first to show that imitation plays a role in monkey's social bonding as well, according to the authors.

More information

The Rainforest Alliance has more on capuchin monkeys.

Jennifer Thomas

Jennifer Thomas

Updated on August 17, 2009

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