Professor Alex "Sandy" Pentland

Alex "Sandy" Pentland

Reality Mining

Better living through imitation?

Our culture idolizes the lone wolf ... but copycats succeed more often.

Posted Jul 05, 2010

An international computer tournament focused on studying how people develop new behaviors was recently featured in Science and the winning strategy was surprising: copy others who are successful. The competition revolved around a difficult, changeable game of survival and in general, the best simulations showed that it pays to imitate successful behaviors, with just a little effort devoted to invention and experimentation. Simply said, in an environment where the world is changing, the best strategy is lots of imitation.

The fact that imitation succeeds is familiar to us in business. Franchise businesses - copycats of already successful businesses - succeed many times more frequently than entirely new types of business. Even with all the resources of major corporations, new types of products fail 90% of the time.

Our own group's research has revealed similar patterns in day-to-day business. In our studies of more than a dozen corporations, we have found that gossiping with other employees with similar jobs (your ‘kithmates') to find out what worked (and didn't work) for them is usually the single largest factor for both personal as well as business success. In business, imitation can be a winning strategy.

It even seems that imitation is built into our genes. Humans have mirror neurons in our brains to help us copy others, and in our recent studies we have found that it is the habits of the people around us that often have the biggest effect on our behavior. Our brains are wired to help us fit in to the culture around us, and when in Rome we automatically and unconsciously begin to do as the Romans do.

In a recent study of a university dorm, for instance, we found that biggest risk factor for weight gain was weight gain among the people in your environment. It was not weight gain in your close friends per se, but simply the people you were exposed to every day. It seems that many of our habits are ‘picked up' from our environment by literally copying the average behavior around us. So, if you work in a place where everyone is overweight, beware ...   

Surely, you say, we have more control over our own behavior than this? We all like to think of ourselves as special and unique. But, as Daniel Gilbert sagely points out in his book, Stumbling on Happiness, "if you are like most people, then like most people, you don't know you're like most people." For example, Gilbert points out that observing others' behavior is often the best way to predict our own future behavior ... if only we took advantage of it. It seems that we don't like to do this kind of imitative prediction, perhaps in part because it violates our sense of our own uniqueness.

So if we're all really copycats in our unconscious heart of hearts, how can we use it to our best advantage? The answer is likely to be: pick your environment carefully. Ideally, your environment is one that provides exposure to the sorts of habits you want to have and helps you avoid being sucked into the bad habits of others.

But what habits should you try to encourage? Again, Daniel Gilbert has an interesting thought: the best way to predict your own future is to find older people that were similar to you when they were younger, and observe how their choices turned out. Then, copy the successes. Copycats win.