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Scientists: We Are Better At Copying Each Other Than Other Animals

Scientists believe they have discovered the secret to human society – our ability to copy each other. Imitation has been the driving force for our culture, conventions, and social norms passed down through successive ages. But psychologists have discovered that our closest relatives in the animal kingdom cannot copy each other the same way humans can. This unique human behavior was determined by performing a ritual with two groups. One group consisted of children aged below five years, while the other group was made up of bonobos ape. Bonobos are great apes which are as closely related to us as chimpanzees.

Scientists from the Universities of Birmingham and Durham wanted to see if the groups would copy two gestures – tracing two outlines on the box, or rubbing a box and rotating their hand. The researchers found that three-quarters of the kids copied the action, probably to conform to social norms and become friends with the person who had done it first. However, although animals can be trained to repeat actions, not one of the 46 bonobos in the study repeated the action. The results of the survey, published in the journal Child Development, hold the answers to why humanity alone, of the great ape family, may have built a working society.

According to lead author Dr. Zanna Clay, the young children were willing to copy actions even though they served no apparent function. The bonobos were not willing to copy the actions and often did not try the action altogether. Dr. Clay, assistant professor of psychology at Durham University, added that children’s tendency to imitate in this way could be a critical piece of the puzzle why human cultures differ so much from those of great apes. Because animals are more likely to imitate others where the actions are already performed by their species, British scientists chose entirely new ones for the next set of experiments.

The first test involved a demonstrator placing a hand on the top a box and slowly rubbing it in a clockwise circular motion four times, then rotating their wrist four times. The second test involved a demonstrator tracing a diagonal cross on top of the box, then tracing a groove around the box’s diameter. The 77 kids, sourced through the Birmingham Science Museum, faithfully copied the first action in 77.8 per cent of cases. The children also copied the ‘cross-trace’ action in 39 per cent. However, the bonobos in Congo copied neither action. The animals - by using their typical behaviors of pounding, biting, kicking, and shaking - instead tried to open the box and reach a reward inside.

    Deanna Webb

    Deanna works as a copywriter and freelance writer. She lives in Cleveland.