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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

se 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.