A new study involving the game Rock, Paper, Scissors suggests that the human tendency to mimic may not always be advantageous, and that instinctive involuntary copying, once inherited and learned, may be nearly impossible to override.
The study observed a variety of subjects playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, the children's hand-gesture game, during which time either or both players were blindfolded to determine if being unable to see their opponent's movements had any bearing on how they played. Players were given a small cash incentive to win.
The rules of probability predicted players had a 1 in 3 chance of a draw in any given round and the results when both players were blindfolded corresponded to this with 33.3 percent draws.
When only one player was blindfolded, however, that number jumped to 36.3 percent -- not a huge difference but, the study authors said, a significant one.
The study found the blindfolded players gestured milliseconds before the sighted ones, suggesting the sighted players were unconsciously imitating their sightless counterparts. It also suggested the instinct to mimic can be counterproductive, because a player can only win the game by making different hand gestures than an opponent.
"'Research has already shown people imitate actions around them," said the study's lead author, Richard Cook of University College London. "This study confirmed that in the sense of that imitation being unconscious. The report also confirmed that the imitation is hard to stop, even when it's beneficial to stop."
So the sighted players mimicked the actions of the blindfolded player almost as an involuntary, knee-jerk reaction.
Scientific studies have long suggested humans have a genetic predisposition to copy each other, and it was thought to be beneficial for survival -- copying parents enables children to avoid catastrophic mistakes without having to learn the hard way. Richard Dawkins also did extensive research on the "meme"; the drive to copy local cultures and habits in order to fit into a society.
Many scientists believe that humans possess "mirror neurons" -- cells that prompt us to imitate actions, language, dress codes and numerous other habits that we pass on from generation to generation.
But do mirror neurons mean the automatic predisposition to mimic is an unavoidable part of our genetic code -- something about which, try as we might, we can do nothing?
Cook, whose PhD is concerned with how learning contributes to the formation of our 'mirror neuron' systems, believes mimicry isn't simply inherited but is contributed to by nurture, as well as nature. He believes humans actually acquire mirror neurons through learning. He compared it to Pavlov's "conditioned reflex" theory; where Pavlov discovered that if he fed dogs when ringing a bell, they would always then associate the sound of the bell with eating. We learn to mimic our parents when we're younger, we associate seeing with doing, and it becomes an instinct that stays with us and, Cook said, even when we mimic in an undesirable context, it is difficult to inhibit.
The study, Cook said, suggests this learned behavior could be altered if new associations are fostered early. In theory, you could train your child in counter imitative responses, which would make it more likely that one gesture would elicit the opposite gesture in the child in the future. That sort of instinct is useful, for example, to boxers or tennis players who -- like anyone playing Rock, Paper, Scissors -- must offer a counter response in order to win.
It doesn't stop there. Cook believes the possibilities are endless when children are learning.
"Depending on your training," he said, "you can configure responses to give the optimum response in a given situation."
Marisa Carrasco, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at NYU, cautions that people shouldn't necessarily draw dramatic conclusions about instinctive mimicry from the study.
"The deviations in results are fairly small," she said, "and there was nothing really big at stake here so maybe in more real circumstances one would be able to not have such an automatic imitation that was unbeneficial."
She added that while there is good evidence for the existence and impact of mirror neurons in humans, that subject has not been without controversy -- with some studies, such as one done by Alfonso Carramazza, a psychology professor at Harvard University, finding no evidence of mirror neurons at all.
But mirror neurons aside, other than the obvious benefits to survival, an urge to physically mimic can be our friend in other ways too.
According to a 2009 study by Nicolas Gueguen, a professor at the University of South Brittany, small, possibly involuntary gestures of mimicry -- such as crossing your legs when your date crosses theirs -- can be attractive to potential partners and decrease social anxiety.
"Mimicry is one way of expressing empathy because you're showing similarities," Carrasco concurred. "You're perceiving something and you're acting on it, as well."
For some, a predisposition to mimic may also carry more negative consequences than just losing a game.
"You want people to control to some degree to what behaviors we imitate and which ones we don't," Carrasco said, "because if you're in the presence of people whose behavior is negative or unhealthy, then it's not evolutionarily beneficial."
On a small scale however, while we may still be waiting for definitive facts about whether we instinctively copy and why, next time you're playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, you might want to up the stakes -- and bring out the blindfold.