Friday, April 9, 2010

Imitation as cultural learning

Quotation from

Learning through Others.
Daedalus. Volume: 133. Issue: 1.
2004. P. 51+.
(Available from Questia)

What is 'social learning' ?

For social species such as humans and other mammals, an especially important form of learning is social learning. Observing the activities of others and learning about the world from or through them enables individuals to acquire information with less effort and risk than if they were forced to learn on their own.

What, then, is cultural learning?

'Cultural learning', that involves the perception of intentions of others is a special type of social learning.

In brief, because human beings perceive the behavior of others in intentional terms--that is, because they perceive a person 'cleaning the table' or 'opening the drawer,' rather than simply moving her limbs in a particular way--they learn from the behavior of others in unique ways. We have called this process 'cultural learning' to distinguish it from processes of social learning in general, and also to highlight the crucial role of culture in the acquisition of many human skills.

Understanding intentions of others

The recognition of others as intentional beings like oneself is crucial in learning to use tools and linguistic symbols.

The recognition of others as intentional beings like oneself is crucial in human learning, most importantly because artifacts and practices--exemplified prototypically by the use of tools and linguistic symbols--invariably point beyond themselves to the phenomena for which they have been designed. To learn the conventional use of a tool or a symbol, an individual must therefore come to understand why, toward what outside end, another individual is using it. (4)
4 Tomasello, The Cultural Origins of Human Cognition.

'Imitation' by humans and 'emulation' by chimpanzees

'Imitation' and 'emulation' are almost synonyms but the former emphasizes the aspect of impersonation.

1. to follow or endeavor to follow as a model or example: to imitate an author's style; to imitate an older brother.
2. to mimic; impersonate Unabridged.
Retrieved April 08, 2010, from website:

Emulate: To strive to equal or excel, especially through imitation

The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.
Retrieved April 08, 2010, from website:

Given the above distinction, it is possible to say that humans are good at imitatation, while chimpanzees at emulation.

In some circumstances, emulation learning is a more adaptive strategy than learning by imitation. For example, Kathy Nagell, Kelly Olguin, and I presented chimpanzees and two-year-old human children with a rake-like tool and an out-of-reach object. (6) The tool could be used in either of two ways leading to the same end result of obtaining the object. Within each species, one group of subjects observed a demonstrator employ a relatively inefficient method of tool use, while another group observed a more efficient method of tool use. The result: human children in general copied the method of the assigned demonstrator (imitative learning), while chimpanzees used the same methods to obtain the object no matter which demonstration they observed (emulation learning). The interesting point is that many children insisted on reproducing adult behavior even if it seemed inefficient--leading to a less successful performance than that of the chimpanzees. Imitation is thus not a 'higher' or 'more intelligent' learning strategy than emulation; it is simply a more culturally mediated strategy--which, in some circumstances and for some behaviors, has some advantages.

6 Katherine Nagell, Raquel Olguin, and Michael Tomasello,
"Processes of Social Learning in the Tool Use of
Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and Human Children (Homo sapiens),"
Journal of Comparative Psychology 107 (1993): 174-186.

Apprenticeship by trusting the intentions of a mentor?

Humans can 'trust' others by understanding their intentions separately from their behaviors.

Humans perceive the demonstrator's apparent intention as centrally important, and they understand this goal as something separate from the various behavioral means that may be used to accomplish it. In the absence of this ability to understand goal and behavioral means as separable in the actions of others, chimpanzees focus on the changes of state (including changes in the spatial position) of the objects during the demonstration, perceiving the actions of the demonstrator just, in effect, as other physical motions. The intentional states of the demonstrator, and thus her behavioral methods as distinct entities, are simply not a part of their experience.

Apprenticeship, sometimes criticized as uncritical imitation, may be a very smart strategy.


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