How You Can Harness the Power of Imitation

How you can leverage this human tendency for your benefit

Image by Jerzy Górecki from Pixabay

Being a keen observer of ourselves is a highly desirable skill. Self-observation allows us to discover our unconscious processes, bring them into consciousness, and determine how we can use them to better our lives.

Last week I was in my office in the law firm where I work part-time, reading and summarizing documents.

The head of the firm, Robert, walked by. “What’s up, Paul,” he said as he passed my door.

“What’s up, Robert,” I replied.

A few minutes later, our office manager, Tina, walked by.

“Hey, Mister Paul,” she said.

“Hey, Miss Tina,” I replied.

Shortly thereafter, Andrew, the lawyer who is my office next-door neighbor, walked down the hall.

“How’s it going, Paul?” he said as he passed my door.

“Good, how’s it going, Andrew?” I replied.

Isn’t it funny how that works? I replied to each of my co-workers with almost exactly the same thing they said to me — even though it was different in each case.

I promise you I was not mocking my co-workers. I simply said the first thing that came to my mind that was an appropriate response — which happened to be parroting their words back. Mirroring them. Imitating them.

We imitate other people dozens of times each day without even realizing it. It’s quite unconscious. Why? It allows us to go on autopilot, so to speak, to carry out those actions. This allows our conscious minds to devote more energy to the numerous decisions we make throughout the day (estimated at 2000 per hour).

Imitation in humans has led to the development of technology in what has been called cumulative culture. Because we tend to imitate, technologies and the skills required to master them evolve over generations. Those who imitate those around them are more likely to survive, prosper, and reproduce than those who don’t.

Just think, though — imagine if we took imitation out of the realm of the unconscious, as my law firm greeting responses were, and moved it under conscious control. How much faster would we evolve?


Exercise 1 — Notice unconscious imitation

Monitor yourself throughout the day, and notice every time you unconsciously imitate someone else. It could be through conversational responses, as mine were. It could be through mirroring someone else’s body language. It could be falling into stride with someone 10 paces ahead of you on the sidewalk.

Notice how many times of day you imitate those around you, and in how many different ways. I recommend you do this exercise twice. Do it once on whatever is a typical weekday/workday for you, and again on a typical weekend day/off-day.

Exercise 2 — Implement conscious imitation

Now it’s time to take that tendency to imitate and add consciousness. Of course, you won’t want to imitate people randomly. You’ll want to take on characteristics of people you admire. In particular, consider:

People you see regularly: The head of my law firm is actually a fantastic person to imitate, if done consciously and I go beyond repeating his greeting back to him. He has a way of treating everyone with respect and dignity. It doesn’t matter if he’s interacting with the mayor of the city or someone looking at 40 years for a murder charge. That’s a trait I would love to mimic and make my own.

People who played vivid roles in your past: My mom is no longer with me, but I’ll never forget her consideration for others. The last time I saw her alive, she was using a walker and moved with pain. Yet that didn’t stop her from walking all the way across a large room and turning on a light so her neighbor could see better. “How can I help those around me?” seemed to be on her mind constantly. That’s a mindset I’d love to imitate.

Believe it or not, people who drive you nuts — when I was a web developer, we had this frequent website user named Todd. When I rolled out a change, he’d send me an email like this:

I love the revision, and I can see you incorporated some of the suggestions in the 19 emails I sent you Monday and Tuesday. However, when you view the page in Firefox, the search box is 2 pixels off the other elements in its line. I’m sure you would want to know so you can fix it. After all, the last 5% is the difference between a good website and a great one.

I spent a lot of time silently cussing Todd for creating extra work for me… but he was right. I should have tested cross-browser before I rolled out that change. I may not be a web designer anymore, but there’s still a lesson there. Todd’s eye for detail and his acceptance of nothing less than the best would be tremendous to imitate as I write and edit.


Imitation is in our genes. It’s how we humans have come so far in such a relatively small amount of time. However, it’s now time to take imitation to the next level.

The first thing to do is to become an observer of yourself. Watch how much you imitate others unconsciously so that you understand what a large factor it is in your life.

Then, identify people whose traits you would like to consciously imitate. They need to be people you have or have had plenty of opportunities to study. It could be people you’re around a lot in the present, people who were a big part of your past, or people who stand/stood out in your life for some reason.

What activities of others did you observe yourself unconsciously imitating, and what traits do you hope to develop through conscious imitation? Let me know in the comments.

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I write about writing, ideas, creativity, intuition, spirituality, life lessons. Ex-college teacher Twitter: @paulryburn

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