Fundamentals of Social Psychology

Chapter 12: Imitation

Emory S. Bogardus

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IF suggestion is an initiating factor and suggestibility is sensitiveness to the new, then the actual response to suggestion is some form of imitation or contra-imitation. Imitation is the response unconscious or conscious to suggestion; it is the motor result of the impulse phase of suggestion. Since Tarde, a magistrate dealing with criminal cases, struck first by the recurrence of anti-social conduct and then, by that of normal conduct, was led to make his picturesque and extensive study of the laws of imitation,[1] the subject has had a wide vogue.

Many types of activities are considered imitative which upon examination prove to be forms of communication. The boy who clenches his fist when he meets the clenched fist of another boy is not imitating the other, but is making an appropriate protective response.


Unconscious imitation is usually preceded by indirect suggestion, while conscious imitation is ordinarily induced by direct suggestion. In the case of unconscious imitation the indirect suggestion subconsciously releases an habitual or impulsive mechanism and the individual responds automatically. A person who responds automatically rather than rationally to suggestions illustrates unconscious imitation. The process is subconscious. It is not enough that the overt response resemble the overt stimulus. The process by which the response is made must be similar to the process by which the stimulus operates. A companion and I are walking together, and while we are engaged in earnest conversation, he gradually begins to walk faster. I unconsciously imitate my companion, but what has happened psychologically? The faster walking of my friend has stimulated me to walk faster. In other words, the process called unconscious imitation in this instance has not changed the nature of an activity sub-consciously carried on except to heighten it.

While a friend and I are visiting, he may take an orange from a plate on a nearby table and begin to eat it. Presently, without being aware of his act, I may do likewise. In this illustration, the friend's reaching

( 142) for and eating an orange has released my orange-eating habit. We both have orange-eating habit-mechanisms, and the setting into operation of one of these has unconsciously (to me) set the other into motion.

It has long been noted that actions are more easily imitated than ideas, and that they are especially subject to unconscious imitation. When one's attention is centered on another's conversation, one is prone in replying to copy unconsciously his gestures and mannerisms. Gestures are so subject to unconscious imitation that they spread rapidly, and may even become nationally common. The child copies irrationally the striking spectacular actions of others ; in matters of rhythm he almost inevitably responds. Action, being more visible than ideas, is more apt to stimulate sensory reactions and to set off similar human mechanisms.

The motion picture that portrays stealing, burglary, sex coarseness, has a harmful effect upon the adolescent through the imitation, partly conscious but chiefly unconscious, which is engendered. "Haven't you noticed that a crime that is pictured in the movies is usually punished before the film is ended?" a young delinquent was asked who attributed his downfall to the motion picture. "Oh! yes," he replied, "but after I get the idea of how to commit a daring act (from the film) I always am willing to take a chance that I won't get caught." In other words, the theft act or the sex act serve as a stimulus to release the boy's general native impulses to activity or his more specialized impulsive and habitual tendencies ; this urge is more powerful than the thought of being apprehended later.

It is remarkable how unconscious imitation may break down established habits. The experience of a lady of training, culture, and refinement is a case in point. "When that stuttering song, `K-K-Katie' first came out, my little niece delighted to sing it, and much to my chagrin. I despised and abhorred it. But a few weeks later, much to my own amazement and her satisfaction, my niece caught me singing it as I set the table for dinner." The song by its rhythm had set up a mechanism among the unorganized rhythmic impulses of the woman's nature, and the repeated hearing of the song had released subconsciously this incipient mechanism so often that when the lady was engrossed in thought and fell into her regular habit of singing while at work, the stimulus to sing released the "K-K-Katie" mechanism.


Conscious imitation, is a somewhat different process. Suppose that when a friend and I are walking together, he suddenly remembers another

( 143) engagement and declares that he must hasten along, and begins promptly to walk fast, what will be the reaction upon me? Unless very deeply engaged in specific thought, I will think of my own work, and excusing myself, may turn back. If my work is located in the direction that my companion is going I will decide to hurry along with him—imitating him shall we say only in a small degree? I may have nothing to do at the particular time and receiving no other strong stimulus, I may decide to accept the pace of my friend, just to keep him company. Is this conscious imitation? Not fully so. If the friend suddenly declares that he must hurry to buy a hat before the store closes, and I decide that I too need a new hat, then conscious imitation has taken place. In other words before an act may truly be called imitative, its processes must be accounted for in many, if not all, important particulars. Back of both conscious and unconscious imitation there are many similar impulses and habit mechanisms, which after all may be viewed as the most important essentials in imitative phenomena.

The twenty months old baby who after watching a group of carpenters smoking cigarettes, put a box of crayolas into his coverall pockets, and "smoked" crayolas, imitating every move and gesture of the men, probably had no "cigarette" meaning for his acts. His impulsive activity and his incipient habits of holding and manipulating objects in his hands and mouth were released (and further organized) by accidentally having his attention centered upon the (to him) novel actions of the carpenters.

Another element is to be noted in the incident of the twelve-year old boy who wore an overseas cap and who as a result caused the neighborhood to swarm the next day with overseas caps—made of wrapping paper, newspapers, and other materials. In this instance social reflection was a prominent factor.[2] The boy with an overseas cap had prestige, and after the socially reflecting process had multiplied overseas caps, the boy without one felt himself "out of it." Imitation in other words rarely operates alone, but generally in conjunction with other psycho-social factors.

The cash register is invented and after it has demonstrated its usefulness it is universally adopted by large business houses. "Babbitt" is advertised widely; individuals ask each other "Have you read Babbitt?" and the impulse to read it spreads over the country—resulting in a tremendous sale. Here a common reading habit deeply fixed, is easily appealed to by favorable comment on a given book, and again the socially reflected image acts as a powerful drive. No one dares confess that

( 144) he is not acquainted with what all his coterie are talking about. Einstein's theory of relativity is announced, and at once newspaper writers and members of women's clubs mention it as if they fully understood it. The habit of discussion about a current topic is probably eclipsed in this instance by socially reflected images, while imitation, as such, does not occupy a prominent place.


Boris Sidis in discussing immediate and mediate suggestion had in mind, not differences in stimuli or suggestions, but in motor responses.[3] Immediate and mediate imitation, therefore, are more accurate terms. Dr. Sidis and others have also overlooked the rôle played by habit in imitation. If a suggestion stimulates no habit, imitation is not apt to occur, but rather wonder or indifference, or even an antagonistic reaction—points that are evident in immediate, mediate, and counter suggestion.

If a suggestion is responded to promptly, the result is immediate imitation. Whether direct or indirect the stimulus arouses reactions immediately in line with the direct meaning of the stimulus. The captain gives the order, "March," and the company moves forward ; or the child says, "I'm thirsty," and the mother proceeds to get a glass of water. In other words, the stimulus has released habits. In a theatre audience some one at the sight of smoke issuing from behind the curtain cries, "Fire," and at once there is a panic. The suggestion acts immediately and with startling and often destructive results, for the stimulus has released inherited mechanisms which act with speed and force.


If time elapses and modifications occur in the responses, mediate imitation has taken place. The salesman shows you a new style of hat and asserts that it is becoming to you. You remonstrate, but perhaps the next day you return and purchase the innovation, or a modification of it. The stimulus in these instances has been made to a general set of habitual responses, namely to purchasing a hat, and more, to purchasing a hat which is attractive and becoming, but the stimulus has also aroused a new set of activities, namely, those of selecting a type of hat which you have never worn. A conflict arises, mental obstacles

(145) occur, there is a concentration of attention, and as a result time elapses and a slight modification of habit takes place.


Conscious imitation operates more or less directly in proportion to the imputed superiority and more or less inversely in proportion to the social distance of the action or idea constituting a stimulus. Some of the elements in this law of conscious imitation have been described at length by Gabriel Tarde [4] and Edward A. Ross.[5] Tarde, however, declared that the superior are imitated by the inferior, but did not distinguish between the superior and the alleged superior. It is those who are thought to be superior who are widely imitated, while the truly great are often unheeded and die neglected. Imputed rather than real superiority is often the magic factor, for natural prestige is not usually distinguished from acquired prestige. Although the former is based on personal worth and achievement and the latter upon extraneous factors, such as rank, fortune, or office, the latter fascinates the populace more often than the former. Even a person who might be expected to imitate rationally is frequently blinded by a meteoric glare.

Many of the hereditarily rich insist that to inherit vast wealth is the greatest thing in the world, and regard working for a living, even to support a family, as disgraceful. Their theory is that "lifelong loafing is more worthy of respect than lifelong industry, or that persons who work are "miserable boobs." As E. A. Ross has pointed out the nine-tenths in any society who work have allowed the one-tenth who are born rich to persuade them that they are despicable because they work. An undemocratic idea which has been promulgated by an alleged superior class has been accepted by the really superior classes.

There are other phases of the law of conscious imitation which need to be differentiated. The greater the superiority, real or imputed, the greater the power to produce imitation. Lesser lights no matter how prominent are outshone in imitative influence by the stars of first magnitude.

A third factor of importance is the social distance between the stimulus and response. The greater the mental and social proximity, the

( 146) greater the imitation that may be expected to ensue. Lawyers imitate eminent jurists, but may scarcely notice or even scorn great poets. We imitate most largely within our own fields of social contact. A superior person in my own profession or on my own plane of living influences me more imitatively than one in some widely different occupation or on a markedly different plane of living, for the stimuli which emanate from his larger mental size and because of his closer proximity naturally affect me more. The chief exception to this corollary of conscious imitation is that too close proximity may produce familiarity, which breeds contempt and non-imitation.

A fourth element of the law of imitation is that imitative activity varies according to the habitual and impulsive nature of the subject. Since my native and acquired dispositions are organized in certain directions, my imitative responses are greater in those directions than in others. Clever innovations in teaching are more apt to be adopted by me than clever innovations in bootlegging. I am apt to imitate a famous educator, while a well known film actor will release or arouse no imitative responses whatsoever, for the reason that I have teaching habits which respond to new teaching suggestions, but no motion picture acting habits.

There are cases, however, in connection particularly with unconscious imitation, where the inferior are imitated by the superior, for example, the softening of the consonants and opening of the vowels by Southern white people in unconscious imitation of the Negro.[6] A person of culture may slip into slang, or take up with a cheap fad. The worthy congressman may resort to a transparent trick of the professional campaigner, while a clergyman may turn to the methods of a real estate promoter. In other words, by appealing to the lower levels of human nature, a leader may get support quickly for worthy causes. Support so gained, however, is apt to be superficial and transient.

The fundamental law, however, is that the higher in prestige is imitated by the lower. The parent is imitated by the child ; the bishop, by the young preacher ; the scientist, by the laboratory assistant. Society women are the idols of débutantes, who in turn dazzle the "sub-debs." Charlie Chaplin has a clientele of ambitious and clownish imitators. City people are copied by many rural folk. The college upperclassmen set the pace for the freshmen and fraternity men for the neophytes. "Courtesy comes from the court", and in the main there is "a descent of example."



No two persons follow copy exactly because of the personal equation of the imitator. No two have had exactly the same social experiences and therefore have developed the same habit mechanisms. Hence, responses cannot be just the same. Witness the difficulty of the child in learning to write well—how hard it is for him to copy good handwriting. "Platonism produced no other Plato ; Christianity yields no other Jesus or Paul."[7]

Viewed socially and from the standpoint of results imitation secures the continuance of established ways of doing, and also, the spread of new methods. Unknown inventors produced the Arabic numerals, which through imitation have been commonly adopted throughout Occidental civilization, and preserved through the centuries. In 1876, Alexander Bell invented the telephone, which through imitation has become almost universal in middle and upper class homes, and after being modified by further inventions appears in the form of radio telephony. Toynbee invented the social settlement which has been modified but preserved through imitation. Lincoln gave a new definition of democracy which has been quoted by millions. While imitation promotes utilization, it often carries customs and conventions far beyond their zone or period of usefulness.

Imitation thus becomes a deadening social factor. It endows some procedures with so much momentum that ultimately they roll like Juggernauts over generations whose needs they do not meet. Through imitation they first become habitual, and then through education and imitation in the home, school, church, and elsewhere, they become customary. The child thus is born into an atmosphere which stifles rather than stimulates his critical ability, and imitation does the rest.

Imitation assumes three leading forms of social expression which will be dealt with fully later. (1) Fashion imitation is competitive copying of the new and current. It manifests special forms, such as the craze and the fad. (2) Convention diffusion is non-competitive copying of the formal. (3) Custom diffusion is the copying of established and ancestral ideas and methods.

When put to the test of service, every imitation falls into one of three classes—irrational, rational, and socio-rational. Many customs, but perhaps a smaller percentage of conventions and fashions can pass the

( 148) test of serviceability. Upon careful scrutiny many so-called rational imitations are found to be useful only to a specific class of people, and by them considered rational. Outside these narrow limits they may be harmful, dangerous, or even destructive. What helps my corporation to earn larger dividends or my labor union to secure larger wages for me is likely to be considered rational by me. But if I acquire a broader point of view, then such imitation in part becomes irrational and anti-social. The test of socio-rational imitation is thus the highest conceivable; it encompasses both personal and social welfare needs.


1. Imitation is the normal resultant of suggestion, and unconscious imitation is largely the product of indirect suggestion.

2. The main law of imitation is that conscious imitation operates more or less directly in proportion to the supposed superiority and more or less inversely in proportion to the social distance of the suggested action or ideas.

3. The greater the superiority, real or alleged, the greater the power to produce imitation.

4. Imitative activity also varies according to the habitual and impulsive nature of the subject.

5. Nothing is imitated exactly, for owing to differences in personal experiences one modifies while imitating.

6. Imitation is a socially conserving factor ; it may be either fashionable, conventional, or customary; and irrational, rational, or socio-rational.


1. What is imitation?

2. What is "pseudo-imitation"?

3. Explain unconscious imitation.

4. What are the main differences between unconscious and conscious imitation?

5. Distinguish between immediate and mediate imitation.

6. How may counter suggestion be overcome?

7. What is the main law of imitation and its chief factors?


1. Give an original example of unconscious imitation.

2. Explain the statement that "everybody in a village walks on an average at the same rate of speed."

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3. Explain the generalization that sentiment is "more electric than opinion."

4. Is an ideal of right living a better basis of religious clustering than a dogma?

5. Should there be censorship of motion pictures?

6. Why is there censorship of books in public libraries?

7. Why is the moral responsibility of the novelist higher than that of other folks?

8. Does art need censorship more than science?

9. In what sense is imitation a vital factor in group progress?

10. Who is the more dangerous member of a group, the disseminator of anti-social ideals or of anti-social opinions?

11. Explain how it is that "the vortical suction of our population is stronger than ever before."

12. How do you explain psychologically that "nothing succeeds like success"?

13. Explain from the standpoint of social psychology that "nothing succeeds like success."

14 Which is imitated the more easily :

(1)     Indolence or ambition? 
(2)     A hopeful or a fearful attitude? 
(3)     Yawning or sneezing? 
(4)     Saving or spending? 
(5)     Vices or virtues? 


Carver, T. N., editor, Sociology and Social Progress (Ginn, 1905), Ch. XXI.

Davis, Jr., Michael M., Psychological Interpretations of Society (Columbia University Studies, 1909).

Ellwood, C. A., Sociology in its Psychological Aspects (Appleton, 1912), Ch. XIII.

Fry, E., "Imitation as a Factor in Human Progress," Contemp. Rev.; LV : 658-77.

Gowin, E. B., The Executive and his Control of Men (Macmillan, 1915), Ch. XI.

Howard, G. E., Social Psychology (syllabus, University of Nebraska, 1910) Ch. III.

McDougall, William, An Introduction to Social Psychology (Luce, 1914), pp. 96-107.

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Platt, Charles, The Psychology of Social Life (Dodd, Mead: 1922), Ch. IV.

Tarde, Gabriel, The Laws of Imitation (Holt, 1903).

————, Social Laws (Macmillan, 1907).

Thorndike, E. L., The Original Nature of Man (Teachers College, Columbia University : 1920), Ch. VIII.


  1. The Laws of Imitation, trans. by Parsons (Holt, 1903).
  2. See Chapter VI.
  3. The Psychology of Suggestion (Appleton, 1911), p. 23 ff.
  4. Laws of Imitation (Holt, 1903), pp. 213 ff.
  5. Social Psychology (Macmillan, 1908), Ch. IX.
  6. E. A. Ross, Social Psychology, p. 150.
  7. W. E. Hocking, Human Nature and Its Re-making (Yale Univ. Press, 1918), p. 250.

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