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The value of imitation

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The value of imitation

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Earlier this week I explored the role copying played in the innovation process.  It was based upon the inherent reality that little of what is classed as innovation is really unique, but rather something that has already proved its worth elsewhere, being applied in a new way.

A new study published recently by Indiana University provides further grist for the mill.  It highlights the role imitation can play in the creative process.

Researchers conducted a virtual problem landscape that allowed them to explore the various facets of social learning (or learning by imitating those around us to you and me).  They wanted to test whether people would be creatively better if they had innovative thinkers around them or imitators.

“We thought at first it would be better to have innovators around you,” said IU cognitive scientist Robert Goldstone, Ph.D. “But in our experiments, if people are surrounded by imitators, they actually do better.”

The reason, apparently, is that imitators often make improvements to the things they copy, which can in turn be built upon once more, by both the original innovator, and others.

“This kind of dynamic is found in situations where there are good ideas out there, but it’s really hard for any one individual to find them searching in isolation,” Goldstone said.

“If you’re working in a field like medicine, software development or art, where there are a huge number of ideas with unknown potential, it is often good to be surrounded by imitators.”

They go on to conclude that a culture akin to that of an intellectual magpie is enormously beneficial to a community.  They suggest that because problem fields are typically far too large to explore individually, applying collective intelligence to the problem can be incredibly beneficial.  It’s an intellectual version of the creative destruction made famous by Joseph Schumpeter.

They highlight this behaviour in practice in the business and technology worlds.

“Think of all the tablets that are out there, mutually copying each others’ innovations. Or consider the way open source software communities work. People make available the software that they spent thousands of hours working on, hoping other people will ‘steal’ it, imitate it, so they then can take advantage of other people’s extensions.”

The study also highlighted a number of interesting strategies deployed by people in addition to imitation.  For instance, people were found to be much more likely to imitate solutions that were similar to their own.

What’s more, the longer people participated in the experiment, the less they imitated other participants, yet the better their performances.  This led to a lowering of intellectual diversity amongst the group as the experiment progressed, albeit with an improvement in performance.

Overall though, the study provides yet more evidence, should any be required, that opening oneself up intellectually is extremely beneficial, whether that’s on an individual level or an enterprise level.  What’s more, you shouldn’t be afraid to build on the work of others when doing so.

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