, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 164-181
Date: 11 Nov 2004

Causal knowledge and imitation/emulation switching in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and children (Homo sapiens)

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Abstract

This study explored whether the tendency of chimpanzees and children to use emulation or imitation to solve a tool-using task was a response to the availability of causal information. Young wild-born chimpanzees from an African sanctuary and 3- to 4-year-old children observed a human demonstrator use a tool to retrieve a reward from a puzzle-box. The demonstration involved both causally relevant and irrelevant actions, and the box was presented in each of two conditions: opaque and clear. In the opaque condition, causal information about the effect of the tool inside the box was not available, and hence it was impossible to differentiate between the relevant and irrelevant parts of the demonstration. However, in the clear condition causal information was available, and subjects could potentially determine which actions were necessary. When chimpanzees were presented with the opaque box, they reproduced both the relevant and irrelevant actions, thus imitating the overall structure of the task. When the box was presented in the clear condition they instead ignored the irrelevant actions in favour of a more efficient, emulative technique. These results suggest that emulation is the favoured strategy of chimpanzees when sufficient causal information is available. However, if such information is not available, chimpanzees are prone to employ a more comprehensive copy of an observed action. In contrast to the chimpanzees, children employed imitation to solve the task in both conditions, at the expense of efficiency. We suggest that the difference in performance of chimpanzees and children may be due to a greater susceptibility of children to cultural conventions, perhaps combined with a differential focus on the results, actions and goals of the demonstrator