In human infants, neonatal imitation and preferences for eyes are both associated with later social and communicative skills, yet the relationship between these abilities remains unexplored. Here we investigated whether neonatal imitation predicts facial viewing patterns in infant rhesus macaques. We first assessed infant macaques for lipsmacking (a core affiliative gesture) and tongue protrusion imitation in the first week of life. When infants were 10-28 days old, we presented them with an animated macaque avatar displaying a still face followed by lipsmacking or tongue protrusion movements. Using eye tracking technology, we found that macaque infants generally looked equally at the eyes and mouth during gesture presentation, but only lipsmacking-imitators showed significantly more looking at the eyes of the neutral still face. These results suggest that neonatal imitation performance may be an early measure of social attention biases and might potentially facilitate the identification of infants at risk for atypical social development.
© 2014 John Wiley & Sons Ltd.