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Anim Cogn. 2002 Dec;5(4):193-208. Epub 2002 Oct 12.

Evolutionary perspectives on imitation: is a comparative psychology of social learning possible?

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School of Psychology, Washington Singer Laboratories, University of Exeter, Exeter EX4 4QG, UK.


Studies of imitation in animals have become numerous in recent times, but do they contribute to a comparative psychology of social learning? We review this burgeoning field to identify the problems and prospects for such a goal. Difficulties of two main kinds are identified. First, researchers have tackled questions about social learning from at least three very different theoretical perspectives, the "phylogenetic", "animal model", and "adaptational". We examine the conflicts between them and consider the scope for integration. A second difficulty arises in the methodological approaches used in the discipline. In relation to one of these - survey reviews of published studies - we tabulate and compare the contrasting conclusions of nine articles that together review 36 studies. The basis for authors' disagreements, including the matters of perceptual opacity, novelty, sequential structure, and goal representation, are examined. In relation to the other key method, comparative experimentation, we identify 12 studies that have explicitly compared species' imitative ability on similar tasks. We examine the principal problems of comparing like with like in these studies and consider solutions, the most powerful of which we propose to be the use of a systematic range of task designs, rather than any single "gold standard" task.

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