Like me: the evolutionary and neuro-cognitive basis of the link between imitation, empathy and prosocial behavior in dogs and humans (WWTF CS11-005)


Ludwig Huber (University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, Messerli Research Institute), Claus Lamm (University of Vienna), Christian Windischberger (Medical University of Vienna)

This project addresses one of the most enduring and crucial problems in the cognitive sciences: the relationship between cognition and emotion. Approaches to this question have been fueled by two major discoveries: a) the finding that action understanding and imitation are tightly linked to emotion understanding and empathy; b) the discovery of profound bidirectional relationships between prosocial attitudes and imitation, including cooperation and social development. Specifically, recent evidence suggests that imitating others provides direct access to their mental representations, and that the inadvertent tendency of people to imitate each other’s gestures and mannerisms facilitates social interaction. Notably, the latter phenomenon does not seem to be limited to humans as monkeys show similar effects.

However, the ultimate and proximate mechanisms mediating the relationship between imitation and prosocial behaviour are far from clear. This seriously limits our understanding of how being imitated produces prosocial attitudes, and how such attitudes engender imitation – possibly forming a positive feedback loop supporting the establishment and maintenance of cooperation.

The specific research questions of the present project are therefore: 1) What are the proximate neural and behavioural mechanisms underlying the effects of being imitated on empathy and prosocial behaviour, and how did they evolve? 2) Is the relationship between prosociality and imitation uni- or bi-directional? 3) Is there evidence for these relationships in a non-primate species (dogs), and under which circumstances do they arise?