Cultural variation in the use of overimitation by the Aka and Ngandu of the Congo Basin

Bibliographic Collection: 
CARTA-Inspired Publication
Publication Type: Journal Article
Authors: Berl, R.E.; Hewlett, B.S.
Year of Publication: 2015
Journal: PLoS One
Volume: 10
Number: 3
Pagination: e0120180
Date Published: 03/2015
Publication Language: eng
Accession Number: 25816230

Studies in Western cultures have observed that both children and adults tend to overimitate, copying causally irrelevant actions in the presence of clear causal information. Investigation of this feature in non-Western groups has found little difference cross-culturally in the frequency or manner with which individuals overimitate. However, each of the non-Western populations studied thus far has a history of close interaction with Western cultures, such that they are now far removed from life in a hunter-gatherer or other small-scale culture. To investigate overimitation in a context of limited Western cultural influences, we conducted a study with the Aka hunter-gatherers and neighboring Ngandu horticulturalists of the Congo Basin rainforest in the southern Central African Republic. Aka children, Ngandu children, and Aka adults were presented with a reward retrieval task similar to those performed in previous studies, involving a demonstrated sequence of causally relevant and irrelevant actions. Aka children were found not to overimitate as expected, instead displaying one of the lowest rates of overimitation seen under similar conditions. Aka children copied fewer irrelevant actions than Aka adults, used a lower proportion of irrelevant actions than Ngandu children and Aka adults, and had less copying fidelity than Aka adults. Measures from Ngandu children were intermediate between the two Aka groups. Of the participants that succeeded in retrieving the reward, 60% of Aka children used emulation rather than imitation, compared to 15% of Ngandu children, 11% of Aka adults, and 0% of Western children of similar age. From these results, we conclude that cross-cultural variation exists in the use of overimitation during childhood. Further study is needed under a more diverse representation of cultural and socioeconomic groups in order to investigate the cognitive underpinnings of overimitation and its possible influences on social learning and the biological and cultural evolution of our species.


PLoS One 2015. 10:e0120180. 10.1371/journal.pone.0120180