They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery and it appears that capuchins believe it too. These very sociable monkeys gravitate towards humans that mimic their actions, spending more time in their company and even preferring to trade with them.
Annika Paukner, who studied this monkey business, thinks that imitation is a type of social glue that binds groups of monkeys together. It says, “We are alike,” and in doing so, it lays the foundation for acts of selflessness by providing a means for two individuals to form an empathic connection.
Certainly, imitation is very much a part and parcel of human life. Every day, we mimic the gestures and mannerisms of people we meet. We sit in the same way, twirl our hair, shift our accents or scratch the same spot. This “chameleon effect” is almost always unconscious and while subtle, it can have a big impact on our social success. Others like us more if our behaviour matches their own, and we in turn put more unconscious effort into imitation if we want someone to like us or if sense that we’re being ostracised.
Paukner and other biologists suggest that these unconscious acts of imitation are adaptations to a social life and she wanted to see if imitation can also strengthen relationships in other sociable primates. Capuchins certainly fit the bill. Paukner allowed monkeys to play with a rubber ball while experimenters either matched their movements with their own balls or played in a different way. The animals spent significantly more time looking at the imitating human than the other one.