Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but it also seems to have some important psychological benefits as well.
Psychologists define imitation as copying behavior t…hat is unlikely to occur naturally and spontaneously. Imitation plays important roles in social learning and the development of empathy. Imitation also seems to influence how much we like certain people.
Humans are not the only creatures to use imitation, as the common phrase, "monkey see-monkey do" implies. However, animal imitation remains the subject of considerable debate.
Among the examples of animal imitation are findings that rats learn to bar-press for food in a laboratory setting when they have observed another rat performing this behavior (Del Russo, 1971). Monkeys raised in the laboratory do not necessarily fear snakes at first, but will react very quickly after observing wild-raised monkeys respond fearfully to snakes (Mineka & Cook, 1988).
Imitation of gestures is a very complex behavior, and one that often escapes children with autism spectrum disorder. However, other species demonstrating the imitation of gestures includes chimpanzees, dolphins, octopuses, and parrots.
If you have ever been standing in the supermarket checkout line behind a parent holding an infant on his or her shoulder, you might have amused yourself by making faces and watching the child copy you.
This back and forth imitation of facial expressions might serve as an important building block in the development of empathy. When we form a facial expression, feedback from the movements tells our brain "I must be happy" or "I'm feeling surprised." By imitating another person's expressions, you get this same feedback, which provides a window into the person's feelings.
As in the case of gestures, children with autism spectrum disorder also fail to engage in the normal imitation of facial expressions seen in most infants. This lack of experience might contribute to some of the social difficulties that characterize this disorder.
After reading the previous section, you might be thinking that you would like to improve your empathy skills, but you don't want to offend people by imitating them. Perhaps we can put your mind to ease about that by explaining that imitation usually has the effect of increasing liking.
Participants having a conversation with a confederate, or fake participant in the employ of the experimenter, rated the confederate as more likable when the confederate deliberately imitated the participants' movements (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999).
This positive impact of imitation on liking is so strong that children have been observed to "over-imitate" in order to please an adult. What does it mean to over-imitate?
Nielsen and Tomaselli (2010) asked children to observe adults solving a puzzle. In some cases, the adults did only those steps that were absolutely necessary to solve the puzzle. In other cases, the adults performed some unnecessary steps.
When the adult who performed only the necessary steps stayed in the room while the child completed the puzzle, the child did not perform any unnecessary steps. However, when the adult who performed the unnecessary steps stayed in the room, the child also performed the unnecessary steps, or over-imitated.
Over-imitating seems to serve as a strategy for promoting liking and social approval.
Imitation is more likely when people are trying to repair or improve their social connections. Lakin et al. (2008) made their participants feel socially excluded (temporarily of course), and found that the exclusion increased their likelihood of imitation.
Further, if the participant was excluded by a member of an in-group, he or she was more likely to imitate an in-group member than an out-group member, suggesting that imitation is a strategy for improving liking and acceptance.
While it's likely that imitation helps us more than otherwise, or we would not be so likely to do this, we do find ourselves imitating negative behaviors as well as positive behaviors.
Albert Bandura (1965) conducted a series of classic experiments demonstrating the imitation of an aggressive adult model by children. The children not only attacked the famous "Bobo doll" in the same fashion as the adult they had watched, but copied the adult's verbalizations ("Bang!" "Pow, right in the nose!") as well.
Bandura concluded that modeling adult behavior might be a major source of childhood aggression, leading to concerns about the effects of violent media on children.
Thacker, Peterman, and Park (2014) reported that imitation was distinctly impaired in patients with schizophrenia. The researchers asked the patients to imitate simple hand movements while undergoing brain imaging. The patients' brain activity was lower in "mirror" areas of the brain that typically respond to biological movement, regardless of who is performing the movement (self or other). Areas of the brain that normally do not respond much during imitation were unusually active in the patients with schizophrenia.
The researchers suggested that their observations might account for some of the social difficulties experienced by people with schizophrenia.
Imitation provides individuals with a rapid, safe way to learn new things without "reinventing the wheel." It also seems to be important to our developing empathy and social competence.
Additional research into disorders where imitation is disrupted, such as autism spectrum disorder and schizophrenia, might illuminate both the process of imitation and the nature of these disorders further.
Autism spectrum disorder is characterized by a failure to imitate facial expressions and gestures during childhood. Failure to imitate might contribute to some of the social awkwardness later in life that characterizes this disorder. (MORE)