Mimetic learning: the power of learning through imitation

We all know that children learn through imitation. They observe and then mimic their parents when learning how to speak, perform new motor skills, and interact with others. What you may not know is that mimetic learning is a lifelong process. In adulthood as well, the way we behave is heavily influenced by how others conduct themselves.

Every single day, we are exposed to the actions of others — whether it’s friends, family, colleagues or those in the public eye — but may not realise that mimetic learning is taking place, which can lead to unintentionally copying unproductive behaviours. However, with a better understanding of mimetic learning, you can harness this powerful tool to foster better personal and professional growth.

The science of mimetic learning

Mimetic learning is a form of social imitation that is essential for learning how to behave and interact with others. From an evolutionary perspective, mimetic learning makes a lot of sense. It’s essential for our survival and sense of belonging, with one generation showing the next the behaviours required of them.

In the 1960s, psychologist and father of cognitive theory Albert Bandura first described mimetic learning as a type of social learning in which we observe the actions of others, and then develop similar behaviours ourselves. This is especially true if our experience of observing someone else feels positive or rewarding, which means that unlike cognitive or behaviourist theories of learning, mimetic learning has a strong social element.

As he explains: “Most human behaviour is learned observationally through modelling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviours are performed, and on later occasions, this coded information serves as a guide for action.”

Bandura described three main steps to mimetic learning: observation, imitation and modelling. With observation, we simply observe the way others behave. Then, the observed action is copied through imitation. Finally, when we see someone as a role model, we assimilate the imitated behaviour through modelling, which leads to consistently replicating that person’s actions.

Dr Christoph Wulf noted that mimetic learning does not mean blindly copying someone else, but instead, observing someone else’s actions to enable “enhancement of one’s own world view, action and behaviour.” The result may not be an exact copy of the original behaviour, but will be integrated with our pre-existing set of patterns.

However, because it’s such a powerful tool, mimetic learning can be taken too far. In their famous 2004 study, Dr Victoria Horner and Dr Andrew Whiten demonstrated that, when compared to chimpanzees performing the same task, human children were more likely to emulate the behaviours of adults exactly, even if some actions were irrelevant to completing the task.

This process is called over-imitation. As adults, therefore, it’s crucial to understand how we can make the most of mimetic learning without falling prey to ineffectual over-imitation.

Mimetic learning in the workplace

Observation and imitation in the workplace occurs in several ways. In many situations, we may not consciously be aware that we are observing a colleague’s actions which we may later imitate.

Stephen Billet observed that most of our learning in life takes place organically as part of the process of living and growing as individuals, rather than in the form of an organised educational or professional activity.

The first type of mimetic learning is through learning from a live model. For instance, if you notice a colleague completing a project in a succinct, organised manner, then you may mimic their actions to complete your own tasks in a similar fashion. Upon seeing how others achieve their goals, mimetic learning allows you to emulate their conduct to work towards your own success.

But this form of mimetic learning can also have unintended consequences. If you observe a colleague cutting corners and still achieving their goal, you may unconsciously model their actions, and start taking questionable decisions when managing your projects.

Another way that mimetic learning occurs is by observing a verbal instruction model. Rather than directly witnessing the behaviour, your colleague might describe the behaviour so that you can emulate it. With a verbal instruction, the framework is provided, but you must learn to adapt your behaviour accordingly. The verbal instruction model can be highly effective, but leaves more room for miscommunication, which means that you may misinterpret some steps in the behaviour.

Finally, mimetic learning doesn’t have to involve a real-life situation. The last form of mimetic learning involves symbolic models. Dr Rivi Frei-Landau and colleagues found that observing a simulated situation can be a valuable teaching tool. Although participants in the study knew that they were watching a pretend scenario unfold, mimetic learning was achieved as observers benefited from “adopting multiple perspectives, balanced emotional involvement [and] cognitive critical thinking”. 

That’s why symbolic models of behaviour observed in pre-recorded training sessions or online seminars can also be beneficial for mimetic learning. But that’s also why we may mimic behaviours that we observe in online personalities or influencers, or even characters featured in novels or on television shows — often without realising it.

The five pillars of mimetic learning

When done properly, mimetic learning can be an impactful way to increase your skill set, productivity and performance at work. Make sure to rely on those five pillars so you can make the most of mimetic learning while avoiding its potential pitfalls:

  1. Attention. Notice when you are observing a desirable behaviour so you can give it your full attention. Whether it’s a live model, a verbal instruction model, or a symbolic model, try to avoid distractions and deeply engage with the model you are observing.
  2. Retention. You will quickly forget a desirable behaviour if you simply observe it once without any retention mechanism. To retain the new information, take notes on what you witness to refer back to when you begin replicating the behaviour in the future.
  3. Reproduction. Observing and appreciating a behaviour is not the same as being able to demonstrate it yourself. You must fully understand what you’re trying to imitate. Regular practice of your new desired behaviour will be required to ensure you can perform the behaviour correctly. Try to demonstrate the behaviour on your own, and go back to your colleague to ask questions if any step is unclear.
  4. Integration. To develop a new professional behaviour, you need to integrate it into your existing patterns by incorporating the desired behaviour into your daily work. For more important behaviours — and especially if you are in a leadership position — you may even want to consider coaching as a way to speed up the integration process.
  5. Motivation. For mimetic learning to happen, you must remain motivated to demonstrate the desired behaviour over the long term. A good way to maintain motivation is to track your progress through journaling. Ask yourself: when did you try to demonstrate the desired behaviour, what were the outcomes, what could you have done better?

To reap the benefits of mimetic learning, you must remain aware that not all forms of imitation are beneficial and over-imitation could be detrimental to your progress. Blindly imitating someone could lead you to copy behaviours that offer no personal or professional benefit. By fully focusing your attention when you observe an interesting behaviour, you can decide which to invest your time learning to emulate, and which to reject.

Mimetic learning transforms the simple observation of others’ actions into fuel for self-development. It allows us to incorporate observed behaviours in our personal and professional lives to drive our own personal growth.

To enjoy the benefits of mimetic learning, make sure to consciously distinguish between valuable and inefficient behaviours, and remember that some actions can be performed in a manner that is personal to you, while still leading to the same overall outcome.

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