8 - Experimental approaches to imitation  pp. 143-162

Experimental approaches to imitation

By Wolfgang Prinz

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The title of this chapter can be read in two ways, referring to method and theory. As regards method I will discuss a number of experimental paradigms we have been developing in our lab over the past few years in order to elucidate the mechanisms underlying performance in imitation tasks. As regards theory I will elaborate on the broader theoretical framework that forms their background. In the first place, this framework provides us with principles to direct our research. At a later point it will, hopefully, also provide us with more detailed models and mechanisms to account for the basic findings. In this chapter I will first introduce the theoretical framework, then discuss pertinent experimental work from our lab, and finally draw some major general conclusions.


The study of imitation has two faces. On the one face, imitation and related phenomena have never been an object of systematical study in the experimental analysis of human performance in adults. In a way, imitational behavior appears to be too complex for experimental analysis. This is mainly because a number of things need to be studied at the same time. When A mimics B, we need to give an account of (1) the model's actions (as a stimulus for the imitator), (2) the imitator's perception of the model's action, and (3) the imitator's action itself. Obviously, this is quite a complex network of variables as compared to the standard type of situation normally captured in experiments on cognition and action.