Thursday, May 05, 2005

Monkeys look longer at copycats

IF YOU want to attract a monkey's attention, try copying everything it does. But don't expect the monkey to play along with the game because it won't understand why it finds your antics so captivating.

Experiments with 10 pig-tailed macaques show that they notice when they are being imitated, but probably don't have the complexity of thought to register how or why someone is copying them.

Annika Paukner of the University of Stirling, UK, and colleagues in Italy gave each of the monkeys a wooden cube to play with. Two people in front of the cage handled matching cubes. One immediately copied everything the monkey did with the block, while the other made random movements. The monkeys spent around 50 per cent more time watching the imitator, confirming that they were aware there is something odd about being aped (Biology Letters, DOI: 10.1098/rsbl.2004.0291).

But unlike chimps and 14-month-old babies, they didn't check they were being copied by attempting to "throw" the imitator. "If you know someone is imitating you, you might test whether that's what they're doing by trying to throw them with sudden, unpredictable actions," says Paukner. This probably means that they lack "theory of mind", the ability to recognise and second-guess the mental processes of others, she says.

Story here.

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