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The Instinct Of Imitation

No individual enters the world with a large enough stock of instincts to
start him doing all the things necessary for his welfare. Instinct
prompts him to eat when he is hungry, but does not tell him to use a
knife and fork and spoon; it prompts him to use vocal speech, but does
not say whether he shall use English, French, or German; it prompts him
to be social in his nature, but does not specify that he shall say
please and thank you, and take off his hat to ladies. The race did not
find the specific modes in which these and many other things are to be
done of sufficient importance to crystallize them in instincts, hence
the individual must learn them as he needs them. The simplest way of
accomplishing this is for each generation to copy the ways of doing
things which are followed by the older generation among whom they are
born. This is done largely through imitation.

NATURE OF IMITATION.--Imitation is the instinct to respond to a
suggestion from another by repeating his act. The instinct of
imitation is active in the year-old child, it requires another year or
two to reach its height, then it gradually grows less marked, but
continues in some degree throughout life. The young child is practically
helpless in the matter of imitation. Instinct demands that he shall
imitate, and he has no choice but to obey. His environment furnishes the
models which he must imitate, whether they are good or bad. Before he is
old enough for intelligent choice, he has imitated a multitude of acts
about him; and habit has seized upon these acts and is weaving them into
conduct and character. Older grown we may choose what we will imitate,
but in our earlier years we are at the mercy of the models which are
placed before us.

If our mother tongue is the first we hear spoken, that will be our
language; but if we first hear Chinese, we will learn that with almost
equal facility. If whatever speech we hear is well spoken, correct, and
beautiful, so will our language be; if it is vulgar, or incorrect, or
slangy, our speech will be of this kind. If the first manners which
serve us as models are coarse and boorish, ours will resemble them; if
they are cultivated and refined, ours will be like them. If our models
of conduct and morals are questionable, our conduct and morals will be
of like type. Our manner of walking, of dressing, of thinking, of saying
our prayers, even, originates in imitation. By imitation we adopt
ready-made our social standards, our political faith, and our religious
creeds. Our views of life and the values we set on its attainments are
largely a matter of imitation.

INDIVIDUALITY IN IMITATION.--Yet, given the same model, no two of us
will imitate precisely alike. Your acts will be yours, and mine will be
mine. This is because no two of us have just the same heredity, and
hence cannot have precisely similar instincts. There reside in our
different personalities different powers of invention and originality,
and these determine by how much the product of imitation will vary from
the model. Some remain imitators all their lives, while others use
imitation as a means to the invention of better types than the original
models. The person who is an imitator only, lacks individuality and
initiative; the nation which is an imitator only is stagnant and
unprogressive. While imitation must be blind in both cases at first, it
should be increasingly intelligent as the individual or the nation

CONSCIOUS AND UNCONSCIOUS IMITATION.--The much-quoted dictum that all
consciousness is motor has a direct application to imitation. It only
means that we have a tendency to act on whatever idea occupies the
mind. Think of yawning or clearing the throat, and the tendency is
strong to do these things. We naturally respond to smile with smile and
to frown with frown. And even the impressions coming to us from our
material environment have their influence on our acts. Our response to
these ideas may be a conscious one, as when a boy purposely stutters in
order to mimic an unfortunate companion; or it may be unconscious, as
when the boy unknowingly falls into the habit of stammering from hearing
this kind of speech. The child may consciously seek to keep himself neat
and clean so as to harmonize with a pleasant and well-kept home, or he
may unconsciously become slovenly and cross-tempered from living in an
ill-kept home where constant bickering is the rule.

Often we deliberately imitate what seems to us desirable in other
people, but probably far the greater proportion of the suggestions to
which we respond are received and acted upon unconsciously. In
conscious imitation we can select what models we shall imitate, and
therefore protect ourselves in so far as our judgment of good and bad
models is valid. In unconscious imitation, however, we are constantly
responding to a stream of suggestions pouring in upon us hour after hour
and day after day, with no protection but the leadings of our interests
as they direct our attention now to this phase of our environment, and
now to that.

INFLUENCE OF ENVIRONMENT.--No small part of the influences which mold
our lives comes from our material environment. Good clothes, artistic
homes, beautiful pictures and decoration, attractive parks and lawns,
well-kept streets, well-bound books--all these have a direct moral and
educative value; on the other hand, squalor, disorder, and ugliness are
an incentive to ignorance and crime.

Hawthorne tells in The Great Stone Face of the boy Ernest, listening
to the tradition of a coming Wise Man who one day is to rule over the
Valley. The story sinks deep into the boy's heart, and he thinks and
dreams of the great and good man; and as he thinks and dreams, he spends
his boyhood days gazing across the valley at a distant mountain side
whose rocks and cliffs nature had formed into the outlines of a human
face remarkable for the nobleness and benignity of its expression. He
comes to love this Face and looks upon it as the prototype of the coming
Wise Man, until lo! as he dwells upon it and dreams about it, the
beautiful character which its expression typifies grows into his own
life, and he himself becomes the long-looked-for Wise Man.

THE INFLUENCE OF PERSONALITY.--More powerful than the influence of
material environment, however, is that of other personalities upon
us--the touch of life upon life. A living personality contains a power
which grips hold of us, electrifies us, inspires us, and compels us to
new endeavor, or else degrades and debases us. None has failed to feel
at some time this life-touch, and to bless or curse the day when its
influence came upon him. Either consciously or unconsciously such a
personality becomes our ideal and model; we idolize it, idealize it, and
imitate it, until it becomes a part of us. Not only do we find these
great personalities living in the flesh, but we find them also in books,
from whose pages they speak to us, and to whose influence we respond.

And not in the great personalities alone does the power to influence
reside. From every life which touches ours, a stream of influence
great or small is entering our life and helping to mold it. Nor are we
to forget that this influence is reciprocal, and that we are reacting
upon others up to the measure of the powers that are in us.

Next: The Instinct Of Play

Previous: Law Of The Appearance And Disappearance Of Instincts

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