Royal Society Publishing

Imitation as behaviour parsing

R.W. Byrne


Non–human great apes appear to be able to acquire elaborate skills partly by imitation, raising the possibility of the transfer of skill by imitation in animals that have only rudimentary mentalizing capacities: in contrast to the frequent assumption that imitation depends on prior understanding of others' intentions. Attempts to understand the apes' behaviour have led to the development of a purely mechanistic model of imitation, the ‘behaviour parsing’ model, in which the statistical regularities that are inevitable in planned behaviour are used to decipher the organization of another agent's behaviour, and thence to imitate parts of it. Behaviour can thereby be understood statistically in terms of its correlations (circumstances of use, effects on the environment) without understanding of intentions or the everyday physics of cause–and–effect. Thus, imitation of complex, novel behaviour may not require mentalizing, but conversely behaviour parsing may be a necessary preliminary to attributing intention and cause.

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