Nicolas Claidière
Laboratoire de psychologie cognitive
Aix-Marseille University, CNRS
13331 Marseille, France

The Chameleon effect in Capuchin Monkeys

Imitation, as you probably know, has received considerable attention during the past 20 years or so because it was first argued that it was a uniquely human psychological mechanism that could partly explain the development of human material culture (see Whiten et al. 2004 for a review with historical perspective). In this long debate, imitation has come to acquire a technical definition: that of learning by observation a novel mean to reach a particular goal. While the discussion of whether non-human animals are able to imitate in this sense is still going on, a recent study by Annika Paukner, Stephen J. Suomi, Elisabetta Visalberghi and Pier F. Ferrari has challenged the human uniqueness of yet another form of imitation: the chameleon effect.

As its name indicate, the chameleon effect (dubbed after the Woody Allen movie Zelig, see movie below) refers to the “nonconscious mimicry of the postures, mannerisms, facial expressions, and other behaviors of one’s interaction partners, such that one’s behavior passively and unintentionally changes to match that of others in one’s current social environment.”(Chartrand & Bargh 1999) The chameleon effect is known to influence the social relationship between people: to smoothen relations, increase likeliness between individuals and increase empathic dispositions. But is the chameleon effect the consequence of a species typical disposition linked to our unique communicative abilities for instance, or is it shared with our close relatives and therefore linked to more general aspect of social behaviours?

Beginning of Woody Allen’s Zelig movie.

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