Post No.: 0268
Children, in particular, are amazing at copying – both the good and bad they see and hear! That’s because we learn a lot through copying. We’re born to generally copy people of the same gender, ethnicity, dialect and so on as us, so that we can try to learn things that (we believe) will be most adaptive for our own survival and success later in life, such as attitudes, views, behaviours, hobbies, religious beliefs and practices.
We also tend to gravitate towards and try to copy prestigious or successful people (e.g. celebrities), so that we do things that (we again believe) will be most adaptive for our own natural and sexual selection success. So we innately – and at times without questioning why – want to mimic what the successful people we want to emulate do so that we can hopefully be successful like them too.
This all seems highly sensible – to copy those who are successful to improve our own chances of success. But we tend to copy what people, like celebrities, do even if what they’re doing and what we’re copying from them isn’t the reason for their success e.g. we’ll want to wear what fragrance or clothes they’re wearing even though these things had nothing to do with their singing, acting, sporting or whatever skills at all (the things that actually brought these celebrities money/resources and fame/attractiveness)! (And actors are only acting the parts of heroes rather than living and breathing the roles they play too.)
Moreover, we tend to culturally copy the easy things they do and not the difficult things, but the easy things won’t likely bring us similar success e.g. copying what sneakers and fitness trackers an athlete uses… without putting in the exercise that’ll make full use of them, never mind train our actual sporting talent. Or if we want to be more like successful businesspeople, we may copy their suits and polish our shoes but not do enough to actually learn about accounting, law or marketing, for instance. Woof!
Yet we’re driven to copy the celebrities we personally admire and/or aspire to emulate, and feel a pleasure for doing so because of our primitive instincts that have been overall adaptive for our survival (like copying a successful hunter’s techniques was extremely adaptive) but can over-fire and produce by-product effects (e.g. copying their hairstyle(!))
In more detail – in prehistoric times, less successful hunters copied the more successful hunters wholesale (what tools they used, how they prowled, how they dressed, did their hair or used makeup for camouflage, what they thought and said, etc.). They were copied more-or-less wholesale where possible because if the unsuccessful hunters knew the specific secret(s) to success then they obviously would’ve been successful themselves(!) But the less successful hunters didn’t know hence needed to copy a successful hunter as much as possible.
So our instinct to imitate isn’t because we know why something should be imitated according to first principles but simply because someone whose outcome we want to emulate does it i.e. we blindly copy. We might then call something we all copy a ‘ritual’ or ‘tradition’ if we don’t know what functional purpose it really serves, whether it actually has a functional purpose or not.
This over-generalised instinct to copy those we want to emulate the results of was largely a good strategy, and this instinct persists in us today. This is evident when people e.g. copy a famous footballer’s tattoos or trust their product endorsements, even though these were not the secret to their success, which was their great football skills. But gaining what cannot be easily gleaned by looking at the surfaces, such as what training they did, isn’t as easy as copying what can be seen on the surfaces. And even if we get to learn what hard work was involved, the effort might seem too energy-intensive for an uncertain result – so people tend to start with copying the easy bits first, such as buying the same brands/stuff – hence people often end up having ‘all the gear but no idea’ (e.g. the expensive clothing or the exercise machines that end up just gathering dust!)
It’s like the current trend of people consuming more protein-fortified foodstuffs, assuming that it’ll make them healthier because protein supplementation is associated with bodybuilders and athletes who’ve been consuming protein shakes/snacks to help repair and grow muscles after regular and intense resistance training. Cannot be bothered to exercise like an athlete? Then at least take protein like one(!) It’s these superficial associations and how a little bit of knowledge can be a dangerous thing (because protein will simply convert into fat if unused. There’s more protein bioavailability with cooked than raw eggs too).
Successful people therefore tend to be the trendsetters – not merely because successful people don’t normally feel the need to copy other people but other people feel the need to copy them. It’s not really the fault of celebrities. But good celebrities must understand how much responsibility they have as intentional or unintentional role models, especially towards children. Popular social media influencers are incredibly powerful and therefore must behave responsibly too.
This is why it’s massively problematic and hypocritical when certain celebrities claim to care about the environment at the same time as using private jets and living highly materialistic and energy-consumptive lives. By virtue of their success, celebrities set the examples that many will want to follow – whether these celebrities want to be role models or not.
Because of these unrefined instincts (particularly for this more complex modern world), we can sometimes blindly follow what successful people say/do even when it’s not adaptive for us (e.g. poor people supporting tax cuts for the rich or believing that everyone fully gets what they deserve) and naïvely ignore what less successful people say/do even when it’d be better for us (e.g. money-saving tips instead of wasting money on ‘looking the part but not really being the part’, and tackling aggressive tax avoiders). Rich people obviously tend to push for and support policies that protect their own interests – but unless you’re also rich, why irrationally follow what they believe/endorse/promote if it’ll come at your own expense?
Having ‘status’ is heuristically (rule-of-thumb) implied to mean being ‘skilled’, ‘wise’, ‘athletic’, ‘a great hunter’ or the like, and the instinct to copy those with status even leads to people following those who are famous just for being famous! We’ll even copy people who inherited their status (e.g. children of celebrities) – but of course copying what they do, wear, say or whatever won’t ever grant us the privilege of a similar position unless we’re lucky enough to inherit a position too.
However, another reason why we tend to copy prestigious, royal or successful people and celebrities is to attempt to associate ourselves with them and their qualities for social signalling purposes. And this can be achieved by merely attempting to superficially look and speak like them. This mimicking is a sexual selection strategy – if you can’t be successful then try to look like those who are. Looking like somebody won’t make you suddenly be that somebody but hey, if this didn’t ever subconsciously fool others in the game of sexual selection then this strategy would’ve died out years ago! In love and war – it’s strategy versus counterstrategy versus counter-counterstrategy and so forth, in a competitive game of deception and truth…
Thus regarding sexual selection, people tend to trust in image, in what they see, hence people will tend to copy, and only need to copy, the superficial things – if one looks (and sounds e.g. copies the words and phrases they use) like a successful person then this may subconsciously fool some potential mates in thinking that one is also a successful person too i.e. exploiting people’s stereotypes of what ‘successful’ and ‘unsuccessful’ people appear like.
A lot of children will do almost anything to be friends with a popular person too, in order to be associated with that popularity. And this is often exploited – people will buy stuff just because a celebrity or popular person they follow said so. You might receive a few seconds of their attention if you give them money on some social media platforms but you’ll unlikely become their friend; not least because it’s just business and they don’t know you that well. (Some are colder about it than others but when someone has thousands of followers, they cannot be friends with all of them in a practical sense.)
The instinct to copy perpetuates due to natural selection, and this instinct to copy superficially perpetuates mainly due to sexual selection, but in this modern world where natural selection pressures are relatively very low (in affluent places at least), superficial sexual selection strategies are more relied upon to differentiate potential mates from each other hence superficial sexual selection strategies are employed more strongly today i.e. vanity and fakery. (Read Post No.: 0259 for more about sexual selection.)
This heuristic to trust in what we see or hear generally worked as a shortcut in the past and so was selected for. But ‘confidently trusting’ in one context has become ‘being fooled’ in another – the environment has changed from the considerable natural selection pressures human ancestors faced to the relatively low natural selection pressures a lot of people (though not all) face in much of the world today. And this change mainly occurred in only the past few thousand years or so (and especially only in the last one hundred years or so with great medical and technological advances) and so these genetic instincts largely remain the same. Our instincts are sub-optimal for this environment but they survive because genetic evolution is slow and natural selection pressures are currently relatively low. No one’s saying that the world was better when survival was tougher, or saying that those who still live in poverty shouldn’t be lifted out of it – the point is to be less superficial in today’s world rather than more.
Copying celebrities or whom we admire may also show our appreciation and support for them, and signal what group we want to identify or affiliate with. So we also copy to fit in. Depending on what groups these are, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just don’t forget to think for yourself too (e.g. question whether copying the diet they’re trying is healthy or necessary for you too). Children, in particular, should be reminded to think for themselves even though they’re most susceptible to copying (since copying is a key component of learning and young neuroplastic brains are most absorbent of influences that stick), especially in this social media age.
Overall, this is probably why humans evolved to intuitively care about hierarchies and authority. Across all cultures, a moral respect for hierarchies and authority matters. When they’re genuinely deserved, these people guide us so that we can socially copy them as role models to improve our own chances of survival and reproduction success. But when they’re not genuinely deserved, when we copy only the superficial things and/or when we copy their views when those views serve them rather than us – that’s when this mimicry instinct gets a bit silly. When they’re not deserved, we must ignore them rather than give them even more publicity. And whatever the case, we must have checks and balances against those in authority.
It all makes complete fluffy psychological sense from an evolutionary perspective. Our evolved instincts are typically crude – we’re simple creatures of nature, with simple, general instincts that control us at levels we’re not conscious of. This is why we need to consciously learn more about them if we hope to not be fooled by our own fallible intuitive beliefs again. Listen to your heart – but also your head.
Woof! Maybe one day humans will evolve to become more naturally able to see past the pretences, but for the moment, people still over-rely on what they can see on the surfaces.