When kids imitate others, they’re just being human

little girl shaving with daddy

In a recent study, kids readily imitated a researcher’s nonsensical actions, but bonobos didn’t. The willingness to imitate such gestures may be a uniquely human trait, researchers propose.


I heard it for the first time a few days ago: “She’s copying me!” my 4-year-old wailed in a righteous complaint about her little sister. And she most certainly was copying, repeating the same nonsense word over and over. While it was distressing to my older kid, I thought it was funny that it took her so long to realize her sister copies almost everything she does.

This egregious violation occurred just after I had read about an experiment that pitted young kids against bonobos in a test to see who might copy other individuals more. I’ll get right to the punch line: Kids won, by a long shot. The results, published online July 24 in Child Development, show that despite imitation annoying older siblings everywhere, it’s actually really important.

“Imitation is one of the most essential skills for being human,” says study coauthor Zanna Clay, a comparative psychologist at the University of Birmingham and Durham University, both in England. Learning how to talk, operating the latest iPhone and figuring out how to buy bulk goods at the local co-op — these skills all rely on imitation. Not only that, but imitation is also important for cementing social relationships. My daughter notwithstanding, “Humans like to be imitated, and we like those who imitate us,” Clay says.

COPY THAT Children readily perform nonsensical motions over a box, but bonobos won’t. Here, an experimenter demonstrates a tracing ritual to a bonobo, who later skips right past the useless gestures and tries to pry open the box. (Boxes given to bonobos and kids weren’t designed to open, in part to prompt frustration that might lead to overimitation). Zanna Clay/Lola ya Bonobo Sanctuary

Clay and her colleague Claudio Tennie tested just how strong the urge to imitate is in 77 children ages 3 to 5 and a group of 46 bonobos ages 3 to 29. In one-on-one trials, the researchers sat next to the kids and bonobos with a small wooden box about the size of a hand. Inside was a treat: a sticker for the kids and a bit of apple for the bonobos.

Before opening the box, the researcher performed nonsensical actions over it, either rubbing the box with the back of the hand and doing a wrist twist in the air or tracing a cross into the top of the box and then tracing the edges. 

These hand motions were totally irrelevant to the actual opening of the box. Nonetheless, after seeing the gestures, the vast majority of the kids made the same motions before trying to open their own box. Not a single bonobo, though, copied the irrelevant actions.

What the bonobos did — not copying the meaningless gestures — “is the rational thing to do,” says Clay. “Yet the irrational thing that the kids did is part of the reason why human cultures have evolved so rapidly and so diversely.”

Such excessive imitation, called overimitation, is a special form of copying in which people perform actions that clearly serve no purpose. It may be behind rituals, social norms and language that keep our societies running smoothly.

And it may be unique to humans: Other studies have failed to spot overimitation among chimpanzees and orangutans. These findings hint that our powerful urge to imitate even nonsensical gestures may be one of the things that separate humans from other apes.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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