Have you ever noticed that groups of teens tend to dress alike, talk alike and sometimes even think alike? In fact, while working with one of my fourteen year-old interns, Brian, I noticed that he acted very similarly to his guy friends–they had the same less, wore the same dark denim baggy pants and even used the same hand gestures while speaking. This was not too surprising. However a few days later I met Brian after band rehearsal for an interview and I almost didn’t recognize him! He was dressed differently, talked differently and had slightly different affectations–more like, yup you guessed it, his band friends.
I watched with great interest as he spoke with his band friends in a completely different way than a few days earlier with his neighborhood friends. As we walked away from the group I asked him about his two ‘personas.’ He replied that he had never thought about it, but now that I brought it to his attention he agreed that he is different around each group of friends. He shrugged, “I guess it’s an automatic thing.”
A Rock Paper Scissors Experiment:
A few weeks later I read an interesting study by researcher Richard Cook who wanted to look at how people automatically imitate those around them. He decided to look at the game Rock-Paper-Scissors. He found that blindfolded players are more likely to win! Rock Paper Scissors is a game where you have to overcome your automatic impulse to imitate your opponent in order to win.
Cook devised this study based on the evidence that we do indeed automatically and unconsciously copy one another–everything from touching our faces at the same time to speech patterns because of the mirror neurons in our brains which fire every time we see someone else performing a task. When a rock paper scissors player is blindfolded they cannot give into their learned impulse of imitation.
Why Do We Automatically Imitate Others?
There are many explanations for why we imitate others but most basically, as babies we must learn to imitate our parents to learn how to survive–how to eat, sleep, walk, and communicate before we learn to talk. Second, learning to imitate your peer group helps you blend in and be part of a pack–which in caveman times was more essential for our survival.
How Does This Affect Teens?
Teens actually automatically imitate even more than adults! In fact, inhibition of automated responses is created in the prefrontal cortex area of our brain which is not finished developing until age 25. As a result teens find it harder to resist the impulse to imitate. In addition, imitation is also a matter of social survival. Teens consciously and unconsciously imitate each other to solidify their friendships and feel connection.
Peer Mirroring, Not Peer Pressure
I believe there is a fine line between peer pressure–where teens are pressured by friends to do something similar to their own beliefs and peer mirroring–where teens automatically feel the urge to imitate their friends beliefs, patterns and actions. Peer mirroring is not necessarily a bad thing because we want our children to feel connected to those around them and develop strong friendships. However, we want these connections to be genuine and let our children maintain their individuality within their friendships.
I think it is very important to talk to our teens about the idea of automatic imitation. When I talked to Brian about this study and his behavior with his two groups of friends, he became more aware of his actions and his choices. A few weeks later he wrote me an email explaining that he is now more conscious about his choices of clothing and the way he speaks. He is making more choices for himself, not out of automatic impulse and this truly empowered him! He felt great. I challenge you to talk to your kids about this phenomenon and have them explore their own automatic impulses and actions. They might discover more about themselves and you about them!
Cook, Bird, Lunser, Huck & Heyes. 2011. Automatic imitation in a strategic context: players of rock–paper–scissors imitate opponents’ gestures. Proc Roy Soc B. http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2011.1024
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