Imitation, the act of repeating the behavior of another, if the other individual's behavior has stimulated the repetition. The fact that two people may perform the same act, one after the other, does not necessarily mean that one is imitating the other. For example, one person may follow another onto the diving board and perform the same kind of dive as the first person. It may be that both simply have the same desire to dive and the knowledge of how to do it. However, the second diver's act is imitative if he is trying to learn how to dive by watching the first diver.

In many cases, it is difficult to determine whether or not an act is imitative. If one individual in a crowd coughs, others will cough. If an animal is startled and begins to run, others in its group will run. Psychologists do not agree as to whether such behavior is imitative, or should be otherwise classified. Most modern psychologists limit a definition of imitation to acts that are performed to achieve a definite goal, although the imitator may not be fully aware of the meaning of his actions.

In the 19th century, observation of animal behavior led some naturalists to believe that imitation is instinctive. This theory was upheld by the psychologist William James, who believed that human beings also imitated instinctively. Later research with both animals and human beings threw doubt upon the theory of innate imitativeness. Modern psychologists believe that imitative behavior is learned.

Importance of Imitation

Imitation plays an important part in establishing and continuing social and cultural patterns. The individual learns the approved ways of responding to various situations by imitating others of his group. One group learns that by imitating another it will attain certain desired goals. Each generation imitates certain actions and attitudes of the generation that preceded it. In this way, cultural progress moves at a faster pace than if each individual or generation had to learn through trial-and-error and invention.

Not all effects of imitation are constructive. Unthinking, slavish imitation may lead to a conformity that slows progress and kills individual initiative and inventiveness. In some cases, an individual or group may choose to imitate a leader who is socially destructive.

Imitation and Learning

Imitation is a quick and effective way of learning the elements of certain skills, so that these elements can be performed independently of the model, and may be combined in various ways to apply to many different situations. For example, a young child learns the basic units of sound of human speech by imitating older children and adults. Later, the child uses these sounds to form many words and sentences. A person learns to copy with his or her own voice the musical notes sung by an instructor and then can combine these notes to reproduce any melody. Manual skills may also be learned by imitation.

However, it is not usually desirable to use imitation in teaching beyond the mastery of elementary skills. Additional teaching devices are necessary to help the student understand and appreciate what is learned. Verbal explanations, stimulation of natural interests, and freedom to act independently and creatively within certain limits are valuable educational aids.