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Imitation is an advanced behavior
Behavior or behaviour refers to the actions and mannerisms made by organisms, systems, or artificial entities in conjunction with its environment, which includes the other systems or organisms around as well as the physical environment...

 whereby an individual observes and replicates another's. The word can be applied in many contexts, ranging from animal training
Animal training
Animal training refers to teaching animals specific responses to specific conditions or stimuli. Training may be for the purpose of companionship, detection, protection, entertainment or all of the above....

 to international politics.

Anthropology and social sciences

In anthropology
Anthropology is the study of humanity. It has origins in the humanities, the natural sciences, and the social sciences. The term "anthropology" is from the Greek anthrōpos , "man", understood to mean mankind or humanity, and -logia , "discourse" or "study", and was first used in 1501 by German...

, diffusion theories explain why culture
Culture is a term that has many different inter-related meanings. For example, in 1952, Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn compiled a list of 164 definitions of "culture" in Culture: A Critical Review of Concepts and Definitions...

s imitate the idea
In the most narrow sense, an idea is just whatever is before the mind when one thinks. Very often, ideas are construed as representational images; i.e. images of some object. In other contexts, ideas are taken to be concepts, although abstract concepts do not necessarily appear as images...

s or practices of other cultures. Some theories hold that all cultures imitate ideas from one or a few original cultures, the Adam
Adam is a figure in the Book of Genesis. According to the creation myth of Abrahamic religions, he is the first human. In the Genesis creation narratives, he was created by Yahweh-Elohim , and the first woman, Eve was formed from his rib...

 of the Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

, or several cultures whose influence overlaps geographically. Evolutionary diffusion theory holds that cultures influence one another, but that similar ideas can be developed in isolation.

Scholars as well as popular authors have argued that the role of imitation in humans is unique among animals. Psychologist Kenneth Kaye
Kenneth Kaye
Kenneth Kaye is an American psychologist, writer, and business consultant whose research, books, and articles connect the fields of human development, family relationships and conflict resolution....

 showed that infants' ability to match the sounds or gestures of an adult depends on an interactive process of turn-taking over many successive trials, in which adults' instinctive behavior plays as great a role as that of the infant. These writers assume that evolution would have selected imitative abilities as fit because those who were good at it had a wider arsenal of learned behavior at their disposal, including tool-making and language.

In the mid-20th century, social scientists began to study how and why people imitate ideas. Everett Rogers
Everett Rogers
Everett M. Rogers was a communication scholar, sociologist, writer, and teacher. He is best known for originating the diffusion of innovations theory and for introducing the term early adopter....

 pioneered innovation diffusion studies, identifying factors in adoption and profiles of adopters of ideas.

Imitation is a replication of a meme.


That we are capable of imitating movements, actions, skills, behaviors, gestures, pantomimes, mimics, vocalizations, sounds, speech, etc. and that we have particular "imitation systems" in the brain is old neurological knowledge dating back to Hugo Karl Liepmann. Liepmann's model 1908 "Das hierarchische Modell der Handlungsplanung" (the hierarchical model of action planning) is still valid. On studying the cerebral localization of function, Liepmann postulated that planned or commanded actions were prepared in the parietal lobe of the brain's dominant hemisphere, and also frontally. His most important pioneering work is when extensively studying patients with lesions in these brain areas, he discovered that the patients lost (among other things) the ability to imitate. He was the one who coined the term "apraxia" and differentiated between ideational and ideomotor apraxia. In this basic and wider frame of classical neurological knowledge the discovery of the mirror neurons has to be seen, which was made in monkeys but of course holds for man as well.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging
Functional magnetic resonance imaging or functional MRI is a type of specialized MRI scan used to measure the hemodynamic response related to neural activity in the brain or spinal cord of humans or other animals. It is one of the most recently developed forms of neuroimaging...

 human brain studies revealed a network of regions in the inferior frontal cortex and inferior parietal cortex which are typically activated during imitation tasks. It has been suggested that these regions contain mirror neurons similar to the mirror neurons recorded in the macaque monkey. However, it is not clear if macaques spontaneously imitate each other in the wild.

Neurologist V.S. Ramachandran argues that the evolution of mirror neurons were important in the human acquisition of complex skills such as language and believes the discovery of mirror neurons to be a most important advance in neuroscience. However, little evidence directly supports the theory that mirror neuron activity is involved in cognitive functions such as empathy
Empathy is the capacity to recognize and, to some extent, share feelings that are being experienced by another sapient or semi-sapient being. Someone may need to have a certain amount of empathy before they are able to feel compassion. The English word was coined in 1909 by E.B...

 or learning by imitation.

Evidence is accumulating that bottlenose dolphin
Bottlenose Dolphin
Bottlenose dolphins, the genus Tursiops, are the most common and well-known members of the family Delphinidae, the family of oceanic dolphins. Recent molecular studies show the genus contains two species, the common bottlenose dolphin and the Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphin , instead of one...

s employ imitation to learn hunting and other skills from other dolphins.

Japanese monkeys have been seen to spontaneously begin washing potatoes after seeing humans washing them. Imitation among non-human species is wholly undisputed in serious academic literature.

Animal behavior

Scientists debate whether animals can truly imitate novel actions or whether imitation is uniquely human. The current controversy is partly definitional. Thorndike uses "learning to do an act from seeing it done." It has two major shortcomings: first, by using "seeing" it restricts imitation to the visual domain and excludes, e.g., vocal imitation and, second, it would also include mechanisms such as priming, contagious behavior and social facilitation, which most scientist distinguish as separate forms of observational learning
Observational learning
Observational learning is a type of learning that occurs as a function of observing, retaining and replicating novel behavior executed by others...

. Thorpe suggested defining imitation as "the copying of a novel or otherwise improbable act or utterance, or some act for which there is clearly no instinctive tendency." This definition is favored by many scholars, though questions have been raised how strictly the term "novel" has to be interpreted and how exactly a performed act has to match the demonstration to count as a copy.

In 1952 Hayes & Hayes used the "do-as-I-do" procedure to demonstrate the imitative abilities of their trained chimpanzee
Chimpanzee, sometimes colloquially chimp, is the common name for the two extant species of ape in the genus Pan. The Congo River forms the boundary between the native habitat of the two species:...

 "Viki." Their study was repeatedly criticized for its subjective interpretations of their subjects' responses. Replications of this study found much lower matching degrees between subjects and models. However, imitation research focusing on the copying fidelity got new momentum from a study by Voelkl and Huber. They analyzed the motion trajectories of both model and observer monkeys and found a high matching degree in their movement patterns.

Paralleling these studies, comparative psychologists provided tools or apparatuses that could be handled in different ways. Heyes and co-workers reported evidence for imitation in rats
RATS may refer to:* RATS , Regression Analysis of Time Series, a statistical package* Rough Auditing Tool for Security, a computer program...

 that pushed a lever in the same direction as their models, though later on they withdrew their claims due to methodological problems in their original setup. By trying to design a testing paradigm that is less arbitrary than pushing a lever to the left or to the right, Custance and co-workers introduced the "artificial fruit" paradigm, where a small object could be opened in different ways to retrieve food placed inside—not unlike a hard-shelled fruit. Using this paradigm, scientists reported evidence for imitation in monkeys and apes. There remains a problem with such tool (or apparatus) use studies: what animals might learn in such studies need not be the actual behavior patterns (i.e., the actions) that were observed. Instead they might learn about some effects in the environment (i.e., how the tool moves, or how the apparatus works). This type of observational learning, which focuses on results, not actions, has been dubbed emulation (see Emulation (observational learning)
Emulation (observational learning)
-General:In emulation learning, subjects learn about parts of their environment and use this to achieve their own goals. First coined by child psychologist David Wood , in 1990 “emulation” was taken up by Michael Tomasello to explain the findings of an earlier study on ape social learning...


The imitation of animals can also be called mimicry and mimicry is when a certain animal takes on the the appearance of an animal with better defences. For example the Batesian butterfly mimics the non-edible Monarch butterfly as a tactic to scare away their predators and prevent themselves from being eaten.

See also

  • Appropriation (sociology)
    Appropriation (sociology)
    Appropriation in sociology is, according to James J. Sosnoski, "the assimilation of concepts into a governing framework...[the] arrogation, confiscation, [or] seizure of concepts." According to Tracy B Strong it contains the Latin root proprius, which, "carries the connotations not only of...

  • Articulation (sociology)
    Articulation (sociology)
    In sociology, articulation labels the process by which particular classes appropriate cultural forms and practices for their own use. The term appears to have originated from the work of Antonio Gramsci, specifically from his conception of superstructure...

  • Associative Sequence Learning
    Associative Sequence Learning
    Associative Sequence Learning explains how mirror neurons are able to match observed and performed actions, and how individuals are able to imitate body movements. The theory was proposed by Cecilia Heyes in 2000.. .Its central principle is that associations between sensory and motor...

  • Cognitive imitation
    Cognitive imitation
    Cognitive imitation is a type of imitation and a type of social learning. Cognitive imitation, like the imitation of motor rules , involves learning and copying specific rules by observation. The principal difference between motor and cognitive imitation is the type of rule that is learned and...

  • Mimicry
  • Modelling (psychology)
    Modelling (psychology)
    Modelling or modeling in psychology is:# a method used in certain techniques of psychotherapy whereby the client learns by imitation alone, without any specific verbal direction by the therapist and...

  • Wannabee

Further reading

  • Zentall, T.R. (2006). Imitation: Definitions, evidence, and mechanisms. Animal Cognition, 9, 335–53. Full text