What should people not imitate in life?

Imitating others is not always beneficial

Cambridge (USA) - Everyone knows this: when you value someone or have a common goal, you tend to imitate that person. This imitation of other behaviors, facial expressions, and even feelings are usually involuntary and the more pronounced the more two people attract and recognize each other. Common social goals are thus obviously an engine that drives imitation. But even when there is no sense of connectedness and people compete with one another, they tend to imitate one another. In several experiments, American researchers have now shown that the imitation of opposing behavior begins even when it tends to have disadvantages. As the scientists report in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), this behavior does not seem to result from a conscious decision.

"Regardless of the social aspects of the imitation, it is sufficient to observe someone doing a certain action to trigger the same behavior in the observer," says Marnix Naber, perceptual psychologist at Harvard University in Cambridge. Previous studies had already shown that people also often imitate people with whom they rival and who pursue opposing goals. However, the corresponding experiments were always designed in such a way that the behavior of the opponent would have had a direct influence on one's own actions. “In many real situations, for example in basketball when throwing a long throw on the basket, the actions of the opposing team cannot influence the action of the player,” says Naber. He and his colleagues therefore investigated the question of whether people tend to imitate even when there is no direct reason to imitate the actions of the competitor in a competitive situation.

The scientists designed experiments in which two people play against each other and should achieve the same goal. The participants were given special sticks and were asked to touch specific, briefly appearing target points on a touchscreen faster than their competitors. The task required quick reactions and quick, sometimes wide arm movements. The player who scored more points in the end received a reward. In the game it was shown that the speed of the two opponents adjusted to each other and that both made similar short or long movements with their sticks. The players matched their speed even when the opponent was slower and their own reward was consequently lower. Only when the opponent was replaced by a computer whose movements were logically understandable for the player, but not directly observable, the players did not adapt their actions.

“Our results suggest that people imitate others by copying their movements. To do this, however, the actions of the counterpart must be visible, ”Naber summarizes the study results. The scientists therefore suspect that the unwanted imitation of strange behavior has its roots in the system of so-called mirror neurons. These nerve cells in the primate brain show, even if an individual only looks at a process, the same patterns of activity as they would arise if the process were actively carried out. The data from the current study indicate that the dynamics of these mirror neurons are more difficult to suppress than previously thought.

© Wissenschaft aktuell