Imitation has been hailed as ‘social glue’, facilitating rapport with others. Previous studies suggest that social cues modulate imitation but the mechanism of such modulation remains underspecified. Here we examine the locus, specificity, and neural basis of the social control of imitation. Social cues (group membership and eye gaze) were manipulated during an imitation task in which imitative and spatial compatibility could be measured independently. Participants were faster to perform compatible compared to incompatible movements in both spatial and imitative domains. However, only spatial compatibility was modulated by social cues: an interaction between group membership and eye gaze revealed more spatial compatibility for ingroup members with direct gaze and outgroup members with averted gaze. The fMRI data were consistent with this finding. Regions associated with the control of imitative responding (temporoparietal junction, inferior frontal gyrus) were more active during imitatively incompatible compared to imitatively compatible trials. However, this activity was not modulated by social cues. On the contrary, an interaction between group, gaze and spatial compatibility was found in the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex in a pattern consistent with reaction times. This region may be exerting control over the motor system to modulate response inhibition.
Marsh, L. E., Bird, G., & Catmur, C. (2016). The imitation game: effects of social cues on 'imitation' are domain-general in nature. NeuroImage, 139, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.neuroimage.2016.06.050