How things spread (2) Doing what Arthur and Ben do

Posted by on Apr 29, 2008 in Uncategorized | 4 Comments


Say hello to two of my favourite humans on the planet: Arthur and Ben (waves in a rather exaggerated manner)

They live in Merka although their mummy (sic) and daddy are English. Very English.

Just spending a little time with them makes it really clear how important copying is to the younger members of our species. Infact it’s what they do all day long. They try out words, sounds, expressions and behaviours that they’ve seen elsewhere (mostly from their immediate family and their playmates but often before they understand what the thing is that they’re doing). It’s their number 1 learning strategy. They’re doing what the NLP gang call “modelling”: that is, copying

What they’re not doing is considering information from the outside world, processing it, weighing the pros and cons of different courses of action and then acting. No, they’re just copying. It’s the most brilliant gift to our species: it allows us to learn rapidly from each other, not just as infants but all through our life. In all kinds of situations.

Of course, you might think that it’s important only for kids (unfortunately puberty doesn’t switch the mechanism off so we all keep it front and centre) or for unimportant or superficial things (Alex has recently showed how terminology/jargon spreads through academic communities on the basis of copying and you will no doubt remember the observation of Thomas Kuhn that the great scientific revolutions spread by folk copying what their peers are doing and seem to be finding useful rather than by weighing the evidence). But it’s the same stuff – the same underlying mechanism that the boys are driven by.

This is what drives the spread of ideas, opinions and behaviours: our copycat selves.

Without it we wouldn’t have anything like culture or advancement of learning – it’d be really hard for anything to be transmitted across populations and as a result, we’d certainly be a lot more stupid, individually and collectively. But at least we wouldn’t have bad trendspotters because nothing would spread.

With it, we get to take advantage of what our neighbours (and their neighbours) have invented or copied themselves; without it, we have to work stuff out from scratch which would tend to favour Ray Mears over you and me: some one who can come up with tricks on the spot….every time

Now, of course when it comes to thinking about own behaviour, none of us likes to see ourselves as copying machines (this seems to be one of those things our minds keep from us and our cultures tend to teach us otherwise also) but that doesn’t mean it isn’t so…

But out of the mouths of children, eh?


  1. Asi
    April 30, 2008

    I think that copying is somewhat oversimplification of a very unique human behaviour. It is a long-lasting debate in developmental psychology….
    Copying ignores the active processing of the social world – children and adults do not simply copy.
    I prefer the Piagetian concept of reconstruction.
    Here is Mead (yet again…)
    “The child fashions his own self on the model of other selves. This is not an attitude of imitations, but the self that appears in consciousness must
    function in conjunction with other selves. The child’s consciousness of his own self is quite largely the reflection of others toward him” (1910/1964, p.154)”
    Children (as well as adults) are actively involved in the construction and reconstruction of their own social life, the lives of those around them and the societies in which they live.

  2. Vicente Valjalo
    April 30, 2008

    Mark, very nice post. Made me think about our responsibility as role models…also made me think about systemic theory and how language is embedded in our everyday life and how by sayig, doing, copying we just model the relationship between inside/outside. What is marketing at this stage? Have no clue. Like your question about how things spread…has to do with innovation? How can we recreate creativity and sharing???
    I really enjoy your reasoning, books and blog.

  3. Marty Molloy
    May 2, 2008

    Imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery. Watching this with a baby in the house, I see if everyday. It’s pretty cool.

  4. Kevin
    May 23, 2008

    Very nice piece. Our daughter (4 months) has just started blowing raspberries, after assiduously copying her dad’s example.
    And you have added a new understanding of the work of copywriters!