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We Are All Copycats (and that includes you)

Sina Odugbemi's picture

In theory, we admire and aspire to originality. We claim to be different, in fact, singular in every way. Yet, according to the authors of an important new book on social behavior, we are far less original than we think. We don’t like to acknowledge it, but we borrow ideas and practices promiscuously and we imitate others with feverish abandon.

The book is titled I’ll Have What She’s Having: Mapping Social Behavior, and the authors are two leading anthropologists plus a marketing and communication consultant: Alex Bentley and Michael J. O’Brien are the anthropologists and Mark Earls the consultant on marketing and communication.

The central question of the book is posed by the authors on page 59 They ask: ‘…how much does change on the mass population scale owe to what goes on between our ears rather than between us and around us?’

According to the authors, the evidence is that we human beings learn and adapt predominantly by copying others. Some of the apparently well-studied imitation strategies are (p. 31):

  • Copy the majority
  • Copy successful individuals
  • Copy if better
  • Copy good social learners
  • Copy kin
  • Copy friends
  • Copy older individuals

Why do we copy so much? We copy because it makes sense to do so. Why solve a problem that others have solved? If something is working for others why not try it? Why not copy a parent or someone you admire?

And the fact that we copy so much explains social cascades, wildfires and avalanches. The book details a variety of examples, some of them quite funny.  At the end of the short but powerful text, the authors present a powerful four-quadrant tool for mapping social behavior.  It will take too long to explain the tool in a blog post.  If you want to learn it, please consult the text.

What I want to draw your attention to are the two broad implications of the fact that human beings are natural born copycats.  First, insights of this kind have implications for public policy, especially the design and implementation of reforms.  I agree entirely with this sentiment expressed by the authors:

"To be honest, we still find it remarkable that however well known this kind of phenomenon is, much of public policy, traditional social science, and marketing is built on ideas of self-determining individuals shaping their own behavior independently of their peers. (p. 64)"

What that reminds me of is the great dictum of the political philosopher, Isaiah Berlin, that at the basis of any social or political philosophy is a theory of what a human being is. If you try to implement that social and political philosophy under real-world conditions, you will succeed only if the underlying theory about human beings is true. So, when we design public policy we are working on one theory or the other about the essence of human nature. Our chances of success depend crucially on whether or not that theory is true.  And this lesson applies in a major way to international development efforts.

The second implication of the insights contained in this book that I want to draw your attention to is the role of social influence in change/reform strategies. As the authors point out on page 54, social influence approaches are now widely used in public health campaigns, where behavior change by large population segments is often a major objective. Social norms are now being studied by agencies like UNICEF, for instance, as my respected colleague Paolo Mefalopulous pointed out on this blog last year.  The authors make an important point about social influence:

‘Social influence is a double-edged sword…because it both prevents change initially and accelerates it once it gets going.’

And that makes sense.  People might resist change/reform. But once it gets going, and considering that people are copycats, imitation of others can help produce a stampede in the direction you seek. That should encourage the usually beleaguered reformers everywhere to find ways of using this aspect of human nature to promote worthy social and political change.


Picture credit: flickr user EscapeArtist74

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