Animal Cognition

, Volume 9, Issue 4, pp 335-353

First online:

Imitation: definitions, evidence, and mechanisms

  • Thomas R. ZentallAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology, University of Kentucky Email author 

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Imitation can be defined as the copying of behavior. To a biologist, interest in imitation is focused on its adaptive value for the survival of the organism, but to a psychologist, the mechanisms responsible for imitation are the most interesting. For psychologists, the most important cases of imitation are those that involve demonstrated behavior that the imitator cannot see when it performs the behavior (e.g., scratching one's head). Such examples of imitation are sometimes referred to as opaque imitation because they are difficult to account for without positing cognitive mechanisms, such as perspective taking, that most animals have not been acknowledged to have. The present review first identifies various forms of social influence and social learning that do not qualify as opaque imitation, including species-typical mechanisms (e.g., mimicry and contagion), motivational mechanisms (e.g., social facilitation, incentive motivation, transfer of fear), attentional mechanisms (e.g., local enhancement, stimulus enhancement), imprinting, following, observational conditioning, and learning how the environment works (affordance learning). It then presents evidence for different forms of opaque imitation in animals, and identifies characteristics of human imitation that have been proposed to distinguish it from animal imitation. Finally, it examines the role played in opaque imitation by demonstrator reinforcement and observer motivation. Although accounts of imitation have been proposed that vary in their level of analysis from neural to cognitive, at present no theory of imitation appears to be adequate to account for the varied results that have been found.


Imitation Social facilitation Stimulus enhancement Affordance learning Observational conditioning Two-action procedure Bidirectional control Control procedure Sequence imitation