Understanding how humans and other animals learn to perform an act from seeing it done has been a major challenge in the study of social learning. To determine whether this ability is based on ‘true imitation’, many studies have applied the two-action experimental paradigm, examining whether subjects learn to perform the specific action demonstrated to them. Here, we show that the insights gained from animals' success in two-action experiments may be limited, and that a better understanding is achieved by monitoring subjects' entire behavioural repertoire. Hand-reared house sparrows that followed a model of a mother demonstrator were successful in learning to find seeds hidden under a leaf, using the action demonstrated by the mother (either pushing the leaf or pecking it). However, they also produced behaviours that had not been demonstrated but were nevertheless related to the demonstrated act. This finding suggests that while the learners were clearly influenced by the demonstrator, they did not accurately imitate her. Rather, they used their own behavioural repertoire, gradually fitting it to the demonstrated task solution through trial and error. This process is consistent with recent views on how animals learn to imitate, and may contribute to a unified process-level analysis of social learning mechanisms.
Electronic supplementary material is available online at https://dx.doi.org/10.6084/m9.figshare.c.3685609.
- Received December 11, 2016.
- Accepted January 27, 2017.
- © 2017 The Author(s)
Published by the Royal Society. All rights reserved.