IMITATION

Copying the behavior of another person, animal, or object.Imitation does not receive as much attention in current psychology as it once did, probably because it has been eclipsed by other forms of learning, such as insight and conditioning. Yet it is an extremely important and widespread phenomenon, accounting at least in part for most of our behavior patterns, attitudes, and interests. Even though we add our unique touch to all of our experiences, there is little doubt that we owe our use of language, our manners, motor skills, sex roles and other roles, preferences, prejudices, and aspirations largely to this process. In an even broader context, it is undoubtedly true (as Gabriel Tarde pointed out near the beginning of this century) that the structure and norms of society as a whole, with its lore and laws, customs and codes, can be traced in large part to our tendency to follow behavior prescribed by others.Imitative behavior begins extremely early in life. As Hurlock (1964) notes, the child begins to imitate facial expressions, especially laughing and crying, around the third month; gestures such as waving bye-bye and throwing a kiss in the sixth month; and simple sounds such as choo-choo and ding-dong as well as actual speech around the twelfth month. She also points out that a child begins to perceive and imitate emotional reactions within the first weeks of life: “Babies less than four weeks old have been found to refuse the breast if the mother was tense.” We do not knowexactly what cues are used by the infant in making such responses, but they suggest that imitation may be a far more subtle affair than is commonly recognized.The drive to imitate reaches a peak between the ages of two and three, when the child tries to dress himself, eat by himself, and master the difficult art of speech. He adopts the manners and mannerisms of his parents and others in the household simply by observing them intently and constantly repeating and practicing what he observes. In this way he learns an amazing amount without being actually taught by others. A child can be encouraged to make the most of this process if we make it easy for him to imitate us— for example, by speaking distinctly or letting him stand on a chair to watch as we do the dishes, by providing practice materials (for example, a set of plastic dishes), and by reinforcing successful behavior with liberal rewards of praise and approval.Many psychologists and psychiatrists have attempted to discover the sources of the imitative drive. At the beginning of life it appears to be little more than an automatic, mechanical process, probably closely akin to the process of imprinting. (It is an interesting fact that some deeply disturbed patients who have apparently regressed to infantile behavior automatically imitate thspeech or gestures of other people. See ECHOLALIA, ECHOPRAXIA.)After the first few weeks of life, the process ceases to be wholly automatic since we actively encourage the child to imitate us. We show him how to wave or hum or say “mama,” and hug him delightedly when he follows our lead. But why is it that the child is so willing to imitate us? And why does imitation continue to play a major part in his life as he grows older?The reasons imitation plays such an important role in childhood are fairly clear. First, children feel helpless and insecure, and adopt the behavior of others because they are not sure how to conduct themselves in many situations. They not only tend to copy the behavior of adults who appear so knowing and self-confident, but also the behavior of other children who are older, more self-assured or more assertive than themselves. Second, parents and teachers reinforce imitative behavior through the rewards of approval and encouragement, and in some cases through threat of punishment or loss of love. And third, the child has an urge to be “big” and prove that he can handle himself well. The most conspicuous models for acting big are the adults who surround him, and he therefore identifies with them and takes over their behavior. This gives him not only the know-how he needs, but also the vicarious satisfaction of feeling close to the people he most admires. Identification is found throughout early childhood, but takes the form of hero-worship in pre-adolescence and adolescence when the growing boy or girl is anxiously facing new problems and reaching out for help. This tendency can, of course, work for good or ill.Imitation continues in adulthood for many of the same reasons that it is manifested in childhood—particularly, uncertainty, lack of savoir faire, the desire for social approval, and admiration for successful or prestigious individuals.These factors all play a part in conformity behavior in which we unthinkingly accept the opinion of the majority, rely upon dubious experts, adopt fads and fashions created primarily for commercial purposes, or follow a self- appointed leader during a crisis. Two additional factors seem to apply to imitative behavior in adulthood. First, we adopt the behavior of others because this is the path of least resistance. This applies particularly to social customs such as the rules of etiquette. The American way of eating, in which we shift the fork from hand to hand, makes little sense, but we don’t “fight” it. Second, conformity behavior—whether it is rational or not—lends order to our lives and gives us a sense of belonging. A society in which each person acted uniquely and individually would have no structure or sense or organization— in fact, it could hardly be called a society.Imitation has both advantages and limitations. It is a highly useful shortcut to learning social behavior and manual skills. Much time and effort is saved when children automatically copy other people’s behavior and do not have to be actively taught. Similarly, a worker can get started on a new job simply by observing others or viewing training films; a beginner can learn to correct the way to swing a tennis racket on a “Do as I do” basis; a retarded individual can learn to pull out a nail without knowing anything about the principles of leverage. Imitation is also the basis for the smooth functioning of the social order and for the rituals and customs that serve as a “fly wheel” for society, to use an expression which William James applied to habit.As to its limitations, we cannot overlook the fact that it is largely an unthinking process which leads to mechanical learning devoid of understanding, and to uncritical acceptance of the opinions and often the prejudices of other people. It also encourages conventional behavior and following the lead of others instead of thinking and acting independently.

Cite this page: N., Pam M.S., "IMITATION," in PsychologyDictionary.org, November 28, 2018, https://psychologydictionary.org/imitation/ (accessed July 15, 2019).
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