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Monkeys Prefer Those Who Mimic Them

August 14, 2009

Imitation and mimicry have long been an interesting part of human social behavior, but a recent study found that imitation may serve as a way for monkeys to form connections.

After examining the behavior of capuchin monkeys, experts found that the monkeys develop closer bonds with humans who mimic their actions than with those who do not.

The Capuchin monkey is considered to be one of the most intelligent New World monkeys, using stones often weighing as much as the monkeys to open nuts and even crushing millipedes and rubbing them on their backs for a natural insect repellant.

They have even been referred to as “nature’s butlers.” Some have even been trained as monkey helpers to quadriplegics, performing tasks like microwaving food, washing the quadriplegic’s face, and opening drink bottles

The study involved having each monkey paired with two scientists, each of whom also had a ball. One would copy what the monkey did with the toy, while the other did not.

There were three common behaviors displayed by the monkeys as they played. They were poking the ball with their fingers, putting it in their mouths or bouncing it on a surface.

The researchers found that the monkeys consistently sought out the investigator who was imitating them more often than the one who did not.

The researchers interpreted this as an indication of “bonding” with the mimicking scientists.

The monkeys were also taught to take trinkets from the researchers’ hands and then give them back in exchange for food rewards. All rewards were the same, but the monkeys preferred to deal with the researchers who imitated them.

“After the imitation sequence, the monkeys consistently spent more time near the investigator who imitated them than with the investigator who did not,” said the researchers.

According to the group’s findings, published in the most recent edition of the journal Science, this suggests that mimicry may have the same effect on humans.

“Human beings prefer the behavior of other people who subtly imitate their behavior and other affects,” said Duane Alexander, a senior expert at the US National Institutes of Health (NIH), where part of the study was carried out.

It has long been understood that humans often take on the body postures, mannerisms and gestures of people around them even though neither party is likely to ever notice the subtle imitation. Nonetheless, this imitation serves to promote social links, the researchers found.

Hopefully, the findings will “lead to insights into disorders in which imitation and bonding is impaired such as certain forms of autism,” explained Alexander.

The study was conducted by researchers at the NIH, the Italian National Research Council and the University of Parma.

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