Cognitive imitation is a type of imitation and a type of social learning. Cognitive imitation, like the imitation of motor rules (i.e., motor imitation), involves learning and copying specific rules by observation. The principal difference between motor and cognitive imitation is the type of rule (and stimulus) that is learned and copied by the observer. So, whereas in the typical imitation learning experiment subjects must copy novel actions on objects or novel sequences of specific actions (novel motor imitation), in a novel cognitive imitation paradigm subjects have to copy novel rules, independently of specific actions or movement patterns.
The term "cognitive imitation" was first introduced by F. Subiaul and his colleagues (J. Cantlon, R. L. Holloway, and H. S. Terrace) of Columbia University. In their paper: [Cognitive Imitation in Rhesus Macaques] (Science, Vol 305, July 16, 2004), Subiaul et al. defined cognitive imitation as "a type of observational learning in which a naïve student copies an expert’s use of a rule."
To measure cognitive imitation independently of motor imitation, Subiaul and colleagues trained two rhesus macaques to respond, in a prescribed order, to different sets of photographs that were displayed on a touch-sensitive monitor. Because the position of the photographs varied randomly from trial to trial, sequences could not be learned by motor imitation. Both monkeys learned new sequences more rapidly after observing an expert execute those sequences than when they had to learn new sequences entirely by trial and error. A mircro-analysis of each monkeys' performance showed that each learned the order of two of the four photographs faster than baseline levels. A second experiment ruled out social facilitation as an explanation for this result. A third experiment, however, demonstrated that monkeys did not learn when the computer highlighted each picture in the correct sequence in the absence of a monkey ("ghost control").
Foremost, Subiaul and colleague's study demonstrates that despite the fact that monkeys do not copy novel motor rules (motor imitation), they are capable of copying novel cognitive rules (cognitive imitation). Second, results from this study demonstrates that, at least experimentally, coginitive imitation can be dissociated from motor and vocal imitation. This has far reaching implication both theoretically and practically. Theoretically, the results of Subiaul and colleagues suggests that the copying of non-motor, non-vocal information is organized hierarchically in the brain: First, information acquired by observation is encoded as a specific rule (cognitive imitation) and second, in the case of motor or vocal imitation, a motor program is designed to match and executed the encoded rule (motor or vocal imitation). Practically, studies that measure the copying of novel motor rules such as operating a novel tool, confound the copying of motor and cognitive rules. Consequently, failure to copy in such experimental paradigms can be due to a cognitive imitation failure, a motor imitation impairment or both.
What cognitive imitation is and what it isn't
Cognitive imitation, as operationalized by Subiaul et al. (2004) combines imitation with observational learning. Cognitive imitation does not describe underlying mechanisms. Rather, it describes the type of stimulus that is the target of imitation. As such, cognitive imitation describes copying of cognitive (non-observable) rules exactly like "motor imitation" describes the copying of motor stimuli and "vocal imitation" describes the copying of sounds.
Observational learning is not the same as cognitive imitation. While imitation learning (or the copying of novel rules by observation) requires observational learning, observational learning does not always involve imitation. One may learn much by observation. Yet, one does not always copy what one has learned by observation. For instance, one may learn what not to do or how not to act. In such instances we have observational learning without imitation. Yet, one cannot have imitation learning without observational learning.
Subiaul, F., Cantlon, J., Holloway, R. L., Terrace, H. S. (2004). Cognitive Imitation in Rhesus Macaques. Science, 305 (5682, pp. 407–410).