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Copy That

Consumers frequently copy, but being copied has its downside.

Key points

  • Copying is often associated with conformity.
  • One study shows that people will distance themselves from something they already own if they feel its distinctiveness becomes diminished.
  • Due to limits on what's made available, individuality is expressed more through a unique combination of choices than specific possessions.

Human beings often mimic or imitate others unconsciously. Mimicry has social benefits. Imitating others helps build rapport between two people or bond together social groups. Copying others, more broadly, can range from non-conscious processes whereby perception (seeing others engage in a certain behavior) becomes directly linked to our own behavior, to conscious strategies, where we choose to imitate either because we’re uncertain about the best course of action or because we want to fit in. As consumers, we may order the same meal that we just saw another person eat, while being unaware of the copying process. Or we may consciously copy others by asking the waiter for the most popular item on the menu. Strategic copying makes particular sense when there’s an abundance of choice, such as for books or movies. When I’m uncertain about the next DVD to rent, I often go to my favorite movie review website and make a pre-selection based on two factors: popularity (rental rank) and average favorability in expert opinions. (I use a conjunctive decision rule: the movie has to be high in both rental rank and expert opinion.)

Whether it occurs consciously or unconsciously, in face-to-face interactions or online, copying is associated with conformity. Yet people also like to maintain a certain level of uniqueness, especially in cultures valuing individualism and independence. Some time ago, I was shopping for a new jacket and found one that I liked. When I saw another shopper try on the same jacket, the purchase suddenly lost some of its appeal. (It was too expensive, anyway.) Although I sometimes wonder how many others may have bought the same item of clothing, actually seeing someone else take an interest in “my” jacket made the purchase a lot less special. My illusion of individuality as a consumer was compromised.

Research on mimicry and independent choice

New research by White and Argo (2011) demonstrates what may happen in those types of situations. While an imitated person can feel and behave positively towards the mimicker (being copied is flattering!) reactions are often different from consumers who are aware of being copied and feel that their distinctiveness is being compromised.

In a series of experiments, the researchers found that a person’s consumption being mimicked by someone similar to them (e.g. a friend) makes it more likely for that person to distance him or herself from a product they already own. But this occurs only when the person’s distinctiveness concerns are heightened. More particularly, results showed that:

  • Being primed with an independent self-construal was associated with greater disposal intentions (whether they would dispose of, throw away, pack away or give away a perfume) among people who felt similar to the person who mimicked them.
  • People who noticed that they were being copied were more likely to re-customize the symbolic part of a product bundle (symbolic products are more closely tied to a consumer’s sense of self, i.e. lip gloss rather than a sponge) if they were people with high "need for uniqueness" and the mimicker was similar to them.
  • Being primed with an independent self-construal led to more product disposals (asking for a less desirable sandal in exchange for their initial preferred choice) among people who put a high degree of effort into acquiring the product.

Many of us would probably like to live with a certain degree of illusion about independent choice and uniqueness when it comes to products that are consumed in public (rather than in private) and possessions that define who we are as individuals. (Remember that indie band you used to like until they became "too popular"?) Although there is a growing trend of allowing consumers to personalize products, choices are of course constrained by what is made available to us in the first place. As a result, our individuality is expressed more through a unique combination of choices than specific possessions. But those of us with a high need for uniqueness just can’t help but sometimes feel that our distinctiveness is compromised by others’ choices mirroring our own. Fortunately for us, we often live in blissful ignorance. So far, I haven’t spotted another person wearing the same jacket.


Bentley, A., Earls, M., & O’Brien, M. J. (2011). I’ll have what she’s having: Mapping social behavior. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76, 893-910.

Salganik, M. J., Dodds, P. S., & Watts, D. J. (2006). Experimental study of inequality and unpredictability in an artificial cultural market. Science, 311, 854-856.

White, K., & Argo, J. J. (2011). When Imitation doesn’t flatter: The role of consumer distinctiveness in responses to mimicry. Journal of Consumer Research, 38, 667-680.

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