Learning & Behavior

, Volume 45, Issue 4, pp 378–389 | Cite as

Integrating Tinbergen's inquiries: Mimicry and play in humans and other social mammals



Visual signals convey emotions and intentions between individuals. Darwin underlined that human facial expressions represent a shared heritage between our species and many other social mammals. Social play is a fertile field to examine the role and the potential communicative function of facial expressions. The relaxed open-mouth (or play face) is a context-specific playful expression, which is widespread in human and non-human mammals. Here, we focus on playful communication by applying Tinbergen’s four areas of inquiry: proximate causation, ontogeny, function, and evolution. First of all we explore mimicry by focusing on its neural substrates and factors of modulation within playful and non-playful context (proximate causation). Play face is one of the earliest facial expressions to appear and be mimicked in neonates. The motor resonance between infants and their caregivers is essential later in life when individuals begin to engage in increasingly complex social interactions, including play (ontogeny). The success of a playful session can be evaluated by its duration in time. Mirroring facial expressions prolongs the session by favoring individuals to fine-tune their own motor sequences accordingly (function). Finally, through a comparative approach we also demonstrate that the elements constituting play communication and mimicry are sensitive to the quality of interindividual relationships of a species, thus reflecting the nature of its social network and style (evolution). In conclusion, our goal is to integrate Tinbergen’s four areas of ethological inquiry to provide a broader framework regarding the importance of communication and mimicry in the play domain of humans and other social mammals.


Emotional contagion Ethological perspective Seals Dogs Monkeys Apes Homo sapiens 



We wish to thank Lance Miller and Alex de Voogt for organizing the Leading Edge Workshop entitled "The Evolutionary and Psychological Significance of Play" and Lou Shomette and the Play Psychonomic Society for supporting and sponsoring this event. We wish to thank W. Pecorino for his important clarifying input in discussing results. This contribution is dedicated to the memory of Stanley A. Kuczaj, who studied play through Tinbergen's lens.


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Copyright information

© Psychonomic Society, Inc. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Natural History MuseumUniversity of PisaCalciItaly

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