Imitation & Synchrony

Imitation: Monkey see, monkey do [All Ages]

Opening Questions

How is being sociable important for us?


Pull a variety of faces at the audience and in each case ask them to copy you.

Unlike any other animal on the planet, humans have an amazing capacity to copy other people and learn by observing. Babies do this within the first year and will instinctively copy adults. At first this imitation is restricted to social expressions such as smiling. If you smile at a baby, there is a very strong likelihood they will smile back at you. They instinctively know to copy this behaviour. By the time babies become children they can copy all manner of behaviours.

Discussion Points

Q: How does being able to imitate help us?

A: Imitation is trivially easy for humans but rarely observed in other animals. It may be one of the secrets of our success. Imitation allows us to learn new skills from experts rather than having to learn new skills through trial and error which would take alot longer, would not be guaranteed success and could be dangerous. Initially we imitate but once a skill is acquired we can innovate by becoming more creative and flexible. In fact, many skills involving movements are best learned through imitation because they do not easily translate into words. Imagine the difference learning how to drive from someone who was with you, showing you how to do it, as compared to trying to learn how to do it from a book!

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Social contagion: Why is laughter catching? [All Ages]

Opening Questions

Is it possible to ‘catch’ someone’s emotion from them like you might catch a cold?


Play the sound of giggling or intense laughter and then ask the audience to put up their hands if it made them smile.

[There are various free sound bites of children and people laughing available here:

One sweet, quite long example is here:]

Discussion Points

Q: Why do we copy other people?

A: We copy not to just learn skills from others but also to establish a social bond with others. For example, we tend to smile back at people who smile at us. Some social behaviours can spread automatically through a group, such as laughing, even when we do not know what is amusing. Once one person starts us off, it is really difficult to resist the power of the crowd.

Behavioural Synchrony: Why do people walk in step? [All Ages]

Opening Questions

How do we end up walking in step with people without trying to?


Ask someone to come up from the audience and balance on one leg on a line on the floor or a piece of 2×4. Stand in front of them and make sure they are looking at you. Hold your arms out to either side and tip rapidly from one side to other in large motions – after a short amount of time the volunteer should start to lose their balance.

Explain that without being consciously aware we synchronise our movements with people that we like. For example, people who like each other tend to walk in step and those who are talking often mirror each-other’s postures.

Discussion Points


Q: Are we synchronizing our movements when we dance?

A: Yes, synchrony is essential to music and dance: human social behaviours that are universal. Humans seem to have evolved dance as a social skill that is now found in every part of the world. How we dance differs but it all involves synchronized movements that generate positive feelings. Like imitation, dancing together requires two people working in synchrony and we naturally follow the rhythm of others.

Changing our movements can also change our mental states. Our bodies, in effect, are influencing how our brains are working. Recent evidence suggests that those who synchronise their movements (even strangers) by performing a task in the same way at the same time or walking in step together tend to like and trust each-other more afterwards than people who don’t.


Q: Do any other animals imitate?

A: Some pets can be trained to dance or will imitate their owners. Probably the most famous animal dancer is Snowball. Just like crows, cockatoos are highly social birds that bond for life which is may be one reason that they will copy another’s movements. Although other animals can imitate, no other animal imitates nearly as much as humans do.