A recent publication in the journal Science shows that behavior matching leading to increased rapport is not exclusive to humans, and it can also occur between different species.
The study looks at capuchin monkeys, a very social primate species. During the experiments, the monkey is given a ball to play with. On either side of the monkey’s cage stands an experimenter. One experimenter is mimicking what the monkey is doing with the ball (poking it, pounding it against the wall, trying to eat it… Mmmmm…), while the other experimenter is also playing with the ball, but not mimicking the monkey. The researchers show that not only do the monkeys look at the imitators more, they also spend more time hanging out close to the imitators and prefer to interact with the imitators in a food exchange game. The authors also did an important series of control experiments to show that these effects were not due to the monkeys perceiving more attention from the imitators.
So why are we subconsciously hard-wired to constantly be playing Simon Says? It is thought that the positive feelings resulting from behavior matching played an important role in human evolution by leading to higher levels of tolerance and by preventing aggressive behavior (to put it simply, by preventing us from beating each other up). The same principle probably applies to primates, and the empathic connection that results from imitation may explain the altruistic tendencies observed in the behavior of capuchin monkeys.
Next time you catch yourself winking back at someone who winked at you, or laughing at a joke you didn’t get because everyone else is laughing, keep in mind it’s for the greater good. After all, even monkeys know that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Scientific Chick readers applying their new found knowledge
(Image from Loldogs)
(Image from Loldogs)
Reference: Capuchin monkeys display affiliation toward humans who imitate them. (2009) Paukner, A., Suomi, S.J., Visalberghi, E., Ferrari, P.F. Science 325:880-882.