We are all copycats

Rock paper scissors 26 July 2011

We can’t help but copy other people’s actions, shows research on automatic imitation. A study where 45 participants played the game rock-paper-scissors revealed that they subconsciously copied each other’s hand shapes – even if that meant an increased risk of losing out.

The players tried out two conditions, one where both players were blindfolded and one where only one player was blindfolded. Players winning the most in a 60 game match would receive a financial bonus, and could only achieve this by avoiding draws.

The 'blind-blind' experiment gave the statistically expected result, with a third of the games (33.3 per cent) ending in a draw. However, the 'blind-sighted' matches had an increased number of draws (36.3 per cent), suggesting that the people who saw were copying the blindfolded participants - despite it being against their interest to do so.

The reason this imitative reflex is so hard to ignore is that it is a deeply ingrained behavioural response.

"From the moment we are born we are imitated by others. Parents seem to instinctively imitate the expressions of their children. This experience helps teach newborns that performing expressions predicts the observation of the same expressions," says lead researcher Richard Cook from the UCL Department of Cognitive, Perceptual and Brain Science.

"Similarly, groups frequently engage in 'synchronous action' whereby members react in similar ways to a given event. When a crowd cheers a goal at a football match, or when members of an aerobics class respond to their instructor, individuals both perform actions and observe the same actions being performed by others.

"Social experiences such as these promote links between the corresponding visual and motor representations of actions.

"This experience causes the impulse to imitate to become so ingrained it often manifests without our conscious knowledge," says Cook.

His research was supported by the ESRC Centre for Economic Learning and Social Evolution and an ESRC 3+1 doctoral studentship.

Automatic imitation is thought to originate from the 'mirror neuron system', a part of our brain which is responsible for observing and executing actions. This network of brain regions is known to respond immediately to the sight of action – sometimes almost instantaneously.

Previous research shows that imitative responses are executed faster than non-imitative responses, even when reaction times average between 200 to 400 milliseconds.

There is some evidence that this 'imitative bias' can have a positive effect in how we relate to others and vice-versa, adds Richard Cook.

"Being imitated seems to foster a people-friendly mood, while being in a people-friendly mood encourages automatic imitation. It’s not really clear what’s behind this, but one possibility is that, because we learn to imitate in safe, nurturing social environments, we associate the two."