Human beings are a unique species. For better or worse we have come to dominate the planet. One of the reasons for this is our unique to imitate each other. Consider the benefits, imitating allows us to learn quickly from others and frees us from having to discover techniques for getting things done all by ourselves. By watching someone perform a task we can take in a range of information and duplicate those behaviors for maximum success.
Yet it comes at a cost — OVERimitation. Overimitating is a behavior unique to humans. Think about this experiment: a child watches an adult retrieve a piece of candy from a box. The adult places the back of their right hand on the top of the box and slowly rubs the box in a clockwise circular motion four times. Next, the adult raises their right hand in the air next to the box and rotates the wrist four times. The adult then opens the box and retrieves the candy. The adult then allows the child to open the box and the child repeats the same irrelevant steps before retrieving the candy. When interviewed, the child is able to articulate that the rubbing and rotating behaviors were unnecessary in order to retrieve the candy. When then asked why they repeated these irrelevant behaviors they indicate that they simply imitated what they had seen1. Harmless? Perhaps, human beings probably benefit from repeating entire behavioral repertoires that they witness as it isn’t always clear what is and isn’t relevant at first. However, consider that bonobo monkeys, our closest relative in the animal kingdom sharing 98.7% of our genes, do NOT exhibit this phenomenon. They simply open the box and take out the candy without repeating the irrelevant behaviors.
So, what’s the problem? There are two sides to everything. Overimitation allows for efficiency with learning and at the same time creates the risk that children may repeat potentially harmful behaviors as well. They do it innocently and reflexively, often unaware that the behavior is problematic.
There are serious implications for anyone who spends time with children and teens. Obvious examples include racism, sexism, prejudice, aggression, and hate. Less obvious is what we are teaching young people about emotions and psychological health. It is so important that adults model emotionally driven behaviors with awareness that whatever we do, effective or ineffective, is likely to be copied. Modeling the following behaviors and skills becomes critically important.
- Noticing, labeling, validating, and appropriately expressing emotions
- Communicating respectfully
- Lifestyle choices that reduce vulnerability to distressing emotions
- Managing distress effectively
- Asking for help when necessary
The press frequently publicizes role models behaving inappropriately: athletes who storm off the court or field, movie stars who engage in inappropriate behavior, musicians who glamorize drug or alcohol use, celebrities who get arrested, etc. This behavior is understandably concerning and invites discussion with our students, children, and clients. Critically, YOU too are always modeling. Youth are always watching YOU. Your responsibility to young people is to teach with both your words and your behaviors. Exploit the power of overimitation to enhance what matters. Model respect, kindness, authenticity, predictability, and acceptance to bring about change.
Special note to parents: Overimitation phenomenon is particularly relevant to parents. We’ve all heard the phrase “do as I say, not as I do”. Children do what YOU do. Behaviors are more important than words. To improve the mental health of our kids, model mental health. Look for opportunities to demonstrate in natural environments how to handle normal human emotional experiences such as frustration, anxiety, sadness, fear, embarrassment, and anger. If you struggle with these emotions, consider seeking professional support and guidance. Your children’s mental health is at stake and you are in the most powerful position to teach.
Let’s all use overimitiation to our advantage – model what you want to see in our kids!
1 Clay, Zanna and Tennie, Claudio, (2018) Is Overimitation a Uniquely Human Phenomenon? Insights From Human Children as Compared to Bonobos, Child Development, Volume 89, Number 5, Pages 1535–1544.