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Following the leader -- to friendship

Capuchin monkeys living in Brazil.

For years, researchers have associated imitation among human beings – copying another's actions – with positive social behavior, like cooperation and friendship. Imitating others' actions is a way to connect with them, and to communicate our likeness to or affection for that person. Now, researchers have found that capuchin monkeys, a highly social species of monkey, often repay imitation with friendship as well.

So if we consider imitation to be the highest form of flattery, then it seems like monkeys feel the same way too. This discovery of a link between imitation and friendly social behavior in non-human primates suggests that imitation could actually be a means of productive social behavior among all primates – including humans.

In a series of social experiments with these capuchin monkeys, Annika Paukner and a team of researchers observed that the capuchins preferred the humans who immediately imitated the monkeys' actions much more than other humans who performed the same actions – but not at the same time as the monkeys.

Capuchin monkeys living in Brazil.

The researchers found that the monkeys looked longer at the human mimics, spent more time near them, and also interacted with them more often in a token-for-food exchange, compared to how they responded to humans who weren't directly imitating them.

During follow-up experiments, the researchers were also able to confirm that it was, in fact, the human act of imitation that gained the capuchin monkeys' friendship– and not just more attention or familiarity.

So, it seems like all primates, humans and monkeys, can appreciate the act of imitation – and the flattery that it implies.

This research appears in the 14 August issue of Science.