Rational Imitation

A great way to learn about the world is by taking the lead from others. If you are in another country for the first time and are unsure of the proper way to eat an unfamiliar food, you will probably look around to see what other people are doing. For example, the first time you encounter sushi, you may not know what to do. Do you take small bites? Can you use a fork? Should you eat your whole serving of wasabi at once? Following the examples of others can teach us about what behaviors are expected and socially appropriate.

If we assumed that ALL actions are informative, however, we would end up tripping and falling whenever we saw people trip and fall. Rational imitation refers to our tendency to selectively imitate behaviors that are likely to convey cultural expectations rather than blindly copying all actions that we see. And amazingly, we can do this even from the time we are babies. How do we tell the difference between behaviors that convey important social norms and those that are uninformative?

One way we make this distinction is by considering whether we can explain away someone’s behavior. Actions with direct explanations (he tripped because there was a rock in the road) are less likely to convey norms, while actions that cannot be explained by simple logic or efficiency are more likely to convey social information.

Imagine two scenarios, which both end in the same outcome: observing that your fellow diner doesn’t begin to eat until you have both been served your meals. In the first scenario, your partner drops her napkin on the ground as the server delivers the dishes, and retrieves it just in time for you to both start eating. In this circumstance, you can explain away the synchrony of starting your meal together as due to your partner’s retrieving her napkin rather than necessarily a cultural expectation about when to begin eating. Her behavior here is not informative about social norms for beginning a meal.

In the other scenario, your partner sits stationary while the server delivers both dishes, and only proceeds to begin the meal once both dishes are on the table. In this case, it is difficult to come up with a reason for her behavior other than a social convention. If your partner’s goal is to eat, then the most logical and efficient thing for her to do would be to begin as soon she can. Because there is no other obvious explanation for her behavior, her waiting is likely to convey social information about a cultural expectation to wait to begin eating until both diners have their dishes. Our ability to consider how and why people act in different circumstances helps us evaluate which select behaviors we should imitate from others.


Ali Horowitz is a PhD student in psychology at Stanford University. She completed a Bachelor of Science degree in Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester in 2008. She is especially fascinated by language, and how children (and adults!) reason about communication. She also enjoys singing, crafting, and animal documentaries.




cover image: Delicious // Lecker, by Frank Lindecke

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