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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.