Social neuroscientist Antonia Hamilton on social connotations of imitation, copying silly actions, and mockery

videos | June 24, 2017

Imitation is really important, because it’s a very fundamental part of human social interaction. It’s something that infants learn from the age of ten months-one year and engage in extensively throughout their lives. There’s been an enormous amount of theorizing, starting really with the work of Darwin. He said: man is very much an imitative animal, about what is imitation for, why do people imitate so much and so ubiquitously, if you got any primary school or nursery, you’ll see children imitate each other all the time.

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Whereas in other species there may be a little bit of imitation ever. We have to know pretty hard to find it. There is something about humans, in whom imitation seems to be a very strong effect. There have been lots of different theories that have been proposed for what imitation is doing. Particularly, that it enables cultural learning, it enabled one person to learn something, and another copies, and another copies, and this can spread and create a culture where everybody in a group learns. So it is a very efficient way of learning things. It is making information available to many more people in the group.

So this idea that imitation is for learning, for gaining new skills, for letting children learn, whether it’s how to tie their shoelaces or what toys are fun to play with in the playground. That has been the dominant theory of imitation for several decades. But we’re also finding, and evidence is increasingly emerging that imitation is a very-very social thing. People engage in imitation even when they’re not learning. People engage in imitation in order to connect with other people and to show that they have a social connection with other people. And this seems to be a really important and maybe somewhat neglected aspect of imitation that we’re just starting to find good ways to study and then try and find out what are the brain mechanisms and where the social kind of imitation comes from.

To give one example of the kind of thing that we look at when we’re looking at social imitation, people have been very interested in what we call an ‘overimitation task’. And this is a really simple task that you can do with everyday objects. We just tell people to get the toys out of the box, and we can do this with children, we’ve also done it with adults, and the participant will see a demonstration of the action. So in the demonstration they see somebody who does an action and then opens the box, and takes the toy out. But the key thing we’re interested in here is obviously [the fact that] I did a silly action, I tapped on top of the box and we want to know if people will copy that extra action. You don’t need to tap on the head of the box to get the toy out, but it turns out both children and adults people of all ages will copy that silly action.

They’re not copying actions just because they want to learn how it works, they know perfectly well how top of my boxes work, they know perfectly well how to get the toy out. But they would go and do a completely dumb thing just because it’s social. So they will do this more if somebody is watching them. They will do it more if they’re in a social context, if people are socially engaged with them. We take this kind of behaviors as a sort of signature of the social nature of imitation, it’s not just learning and it really is about connecting with other people.

Some more recent studies we’ve done also looked at this particular behavior in children with autism, because we know that autism is a neurodevelopmental disorder, where children really struggle with social interaction. There have been mixed reports over the years of what happens when you give children with autism imitation tasks. Tasks are often done in the classroom or with a therapist in a very natural context, people would report that children with autism don’t imitate, they don’t engage in the same way, they say, these children will struggle with imitation. And yet when we give the children with autism some quite controlled tasks in the lab, we show them – this is a set of actions, now do the same actions, they do it perfectly. So we noted that they are capable of imitation, it is not that they are lacking the motor skills to be able to imitate, but rather when we give them the overimitation task with the silly action tapping on top of the box, they just don’t bother to copy that silly action. So they’re able to imitate, but they’re choosing not to. Or rather, the typical children are choosing to imitate too much, and the autistic kids are smarter, they don’t bother to do these silly actions that we give them.

Again, that has shown us that typical children are very social, they want to do these actions, because they want to be like adults, because they want to be social. And the children with autism leave out those extra actions, they leave out the stuff you don’t need to do, which for the one particular task is more efficient, but more generally it maybe means that people fear that this child isn’t engaging, and maybe the child is then losing out on some opportunities to learn. They are losing out on the chance to learn that maybe doing a stupid thing sometimes is fun, or it sometimes makes your friend laugh, or sometimes gives you a social connection with another person that you wouldn’t get in a different way. So we’ve been able with some very simple tasks to actually try and put apart the basic nature of imitation.

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And now we’re doing some brain imaging studies to understand what are the brain mechanisms that might be different here and what are the different kinds of social signals that drive imitation, and how do we use imitation in a bigger variety of social contexts. It’s interesting to think about how far people might go with overimitating actions of doing silly things. Little children are, we’ve often studied this in four- or five- year olds, they can be pretty indiscriminate and they will just do all sorts of silly things. And they enjoy doing it because it’s fun. Among adults we find that the behavior is much more variable, much more selective depending on the social context. In some social contexts people will copy a lot of very silly things, but a very tiny change of the social context would mean that they copy very little and they only go for the efficient solution.

So adults can do it, but they don’t always do it. It will depend maybe on whether they are with their friends, who’s watching, what precisely they have been told, what do they think situation is about. Because we think this kind of imitation is giving us a window into some of the much more elaborate social processes that are going on when people are deciding how to act. Again, this kind of overimitation, imitation of unnecessary stuff may be the kind of thing that we see in a lot of cultural things, in fashion. How do people choose what kind of clothes to wear, what kind of music to listen – these are fairly arbitrary choices, one style of coat isn’t going to keep in the rain off better than another. But teenagers would put a lot of time and energy into choosing who they copy and which styles to wear. And these kinds of overimitation again will be sending social signals. People are very subtly tuned in to whether you’re wearing the style of coat that the Kardashians wore or the style of coats of somebody else wore. And they’ll be using this as social cues.

Some of the main questions in the area of imitation is can we create a sort of overarching theory of what are the different factors that drive overimitation. And how closely does that tie in to these kinds of cultural learning, like fashion? I’ve given the example of people copying other fashions, but we’d like to be able to pin down evidence and see what are the mechanisms that drive that, and what kind of things drive your decision to imitate one person over another. It’s the kind of thing actually even Facebook or fashion industry are very interested in, because they’d love to find the fashion blogger who’s the most influential and what should that person do to make everybody buy their coats. So that’s quite a long way off from what we’re doing at the moment, but if we can understand what are the mechanisms by which these kinds of very basic social processes work, then it does have these much bigger applications for things that change how people behave in the real world.

So we can study imitation on many different levels. We can study the imitation at the neuroscience levels looking at the mechanisms in the brain, putting people in brain scanners, and looking at mirror neurons, and other brain mechanisms which allow you to perceive actions, and perform actions, and copy actions. Then we can look at imitation at the level of psychology. Which is many of the kind of things that I have talked about where you’re looking at what makes a child imitate a particular action tapping on the lid of the box, and what different kind of social cues and factors play into that decision to copy something or not copy something. And then we could look at imitation at the sociological or cultural level to see how different trends and fashions spread to a culture or how knowledge spreads through a particular culture and how different ideas would be imitated within that culture. So it’s a very big topic that spans many different levels of explanation. If we get a really good idea of what’s driving imitation I think that will feed into many different areas.

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One of the questions that’s very important in the area of imitation that we’re looking at at the moment is the question of how people respond to being imitated. There’s been a lot of research over the last 20 years or so over how people produce imitation, what makes you imitate another person. But there are always two halves of the social interaction. If one person copies the other person will detect whether I am being copied. And the dominant idea in the field at the moment is it if somebody copies you maybe you would like them more, you will take that as a compliment, but the evidence for that is rather mixed. And certainly in real life examples copying can be a form of mockery. We see it with politicians a lot, that if someone on TV wants to mock a politician sometimes they will copy them as a caricature, as an extreme version of that.

So probably the function of imitation is that being imitated is not always a positive thing, but we’re working on trying to find out what are the brain mechanisms of being imitated and how important is it to be imitated by another person. To do that we’re using things like virtual reality, because you can create virtual reality characters that will copy you or not copy you, and then look at the difference between how people respond to those. And if we can understand what’s the importance of being imitated, that will let us create better virtual characters and create sort of more naturalistic social interactions or equally train people and coach people in terms of how to make a social interaction more fluent, how to be more persuasive. So there’s a lot of applications for using this, but these are still things to come in the future.

Ph.D. in neuroscience, a Reader in Social Neuroscience and leader of the Social Neuroscience group at the Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience (UCL).
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