Animal Cognition

, Volume 8, Issue 3, pp 164–181 | Cite as

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

  • Victoria HornerEmail author
  • Andrew Whiten
Original Article


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


Chimpanzees Children Imitation Emulation Causality 



This research was supported by a studentship from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, UK. We are exceedingly grateful to Debby Cox, Monty Montgomery, and the trustees and staff of Ngamba Island for their help and support. Chimpanzee research was in compliance with the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology, whom we also thank. Thanks to Pauline Osborne and Ora McNaught who played the role of the second experimenter, and Carla Litchfield for coding tapes. We are grateful to the staff and pupils of Menzieshill Nursery School and St. Andrews University Day Nursery. V.H. would like to thank Michael Niebuhr for support during data collection and, along with Victoria Southgate and the four referees for helpful comments during the preparation of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution, School of PsychologyUniversity of St AndrewsSt AndrewsUK

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