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Variant at serotonin transporter gene predicts increased imitation in toddlers: relevance to the human capacity for cumulative culture

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

Kari Britt Schroeder, Philip Asherson, Peter R. Blake, Susan K. Fenstermacher, Kimberly J. Saudino

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)20160106
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 11 Apr 2016

King's Authors


Cumulative culture ostensibly arises from a set of sociocognitive processes which includes high-fidelity production imitation, prosociality and group identification. The latter processes are facilitated by unconscious imitation or social mimicry. The proximate mechanisms of individual variation in imitation may thus shed light on the evolutionary history of the human capacity for cumulative culture. In humans, a genetic component to variation in the propensity for imitation is likely. A functional length polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene, the short allele at 5HTTLPR, is associated with heightened responsiveness to the social environment as well as anatomical and activational differences in the brain's imitation circuity. Here, we evaluate whether this polymorphism contributes to variation in production imitation and social mimicry. Toddlers with the short allele at 5HTTLPR exhibit increased social mimicry and increased fidelity of demonstrated novel object manipulations. Thus, the short allele is associated with two forms of imitation that may underlie the human capacity for cumulative culture. The short allele spread relatively recently, possibly due to selection, and its frequency varies dramatically on a global scale. Diverse observations can be unified via conceptualization of 5HTTLPR as influencing the propensity to experience others' emotions, actions and sensations, potentially through the mirror mechanism.

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