Is It What You Do, or When You Do It? The Roles of Contingency and Similarity in Pro-Social Effects of Imitation



Being imitated has a wide range of pro-social effects, but it is not clear how these effects are mediated. Naturalistic studies of the effects of being imitated have not established whether pro-social outcomes are due to the similarity and/or the contingency between the movements performed by the actor and those of the imitator. Similarity is often assumed to be the active ingredient, but we hypothesized that contingency might also be important, as it produces positive affect in infants and can be detected by phylogenetically ancient mechanisms of associative learning. We manipulated similarity and contingency between performed and observed actions in a computerized task. Similarity had no positive effects; however, contingency resulted in greater enjoyment of the task, reported closeness to others, and helping behavior. These results suggest that the pro-social effects of being imitated may rely on associative mechanisms.