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Explanations > Evolution > Imitation
Physical imitation | Behavioral imitation | Cognitive imitation | So what?


A useful pattern of behavior in evolution is that of imitation. The basic principle is to note what works and to copy it.

Physical imitation

The principle of physical imitation is to copy the physical appearance of some other animal in some way. This appears, as with other evolution, through the normal process of natural selection. If I look like someone who is powerful then maybe those who would attack me go elsewhere. So my children may pass on this attribute.

Some animals do this by action, puffing themselves up to look like a bigger animal. Wasps and bees have black and yellow bands that mean danger to many other animals. Other flying insects have adopted this, looking like they may sting when they are actually harmless. Eyes are a classic trick, such as the butterfly with what looks like eyes on its wings, staring back at you. And of course the peacock with its great tail, covered in eyes.

Behavioral imitation

Another way of imitating successful other creatures is to copy what they do. If they scare off predators with loud noises, maybe this can be copied. If powerful animals fight by butting with the head, then perhaps you can meet your aggressors head-on.

Learning is a critical skill for behavioral imitation and some animals are better at teaching one another what to do. Bluetits in the UK discovered how to pierce the foil tops of milk bottles to get at the cream underneath. Once this started, it spread rapidly across the country. The robin, on the other hand, is a solitary bird and even if one or two discovered this trick, it has not spread to other robins.

Copying how others behave is easier if you think more about how you can use imitation. Mammals and particularly apes are better at this. In human interaction, we have evolved this capability to a broader purpose than simple defense, for example by copying the behavior of the other person in order to build rapport. This works because we assume that those who imitate us are likely to do so because they like us and want to be like us (and maybe are already like us). In consequence, we automatically trust those who have similar behavior.

Cognitive imitation

Beyond behavioral imitation, cognitive imitation involves thinking in the same way, adopting the beliefs, values and mental processes from other people. When we copy what and how people think, we take on aspects of their identity, effectively becoming more like them. In this way harmonious societies are formed.

Cognitive imitation requires that we are able to read each other's minds, which requires the sophistication of theory of mind. Humans and some apes do this.

So what?

If you can learn by copying what other successful people do, then you can improve your social abilities. If you can get others to copy what you do, them you can lead them.

See also



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