§ 2. The Imitative Impulse. — We must distinguish between ability to imitate and impulse to imitate. We may be already fully able to perform an action, and the sight of it as performed by another may merely prompt us to reproduce it. But the sight of an act performed by another may also have an educational influence; it may not only stimulate us to do what we are already able to do without its aid; it may also enable us to do what we could not do without having an example to follow. When the cough of one man sets another coughing, it is evident that imitation here consists only in the impulse to follow suit. The second man does not learn how to cough from the example of the first. He is simply prompted to do on this particular occasion what he is otherwise quite capable of doing. But if I am learning billiards and some one shows me by his own example how to make a particular stroke, the case is different. It is not his example which in the first instance prompts me to the action. He merely shows the way to do what I already desire to do.*
We have then first to discuss the nature of the imitative impulse — the impulse to perform an action which arises from the perception of it as performed by another.
* So far as this is capable of being taught, and does not depend on "practice."
This impulse may be due to varying conditions. But so far as it is of importance in mental development, it seems to be essentially connected with attention. The perception of an action prompts us to reproduce it when and so far as it excites interest or is at least intimately connected with what does excite interest. Further, the interest must be of such a nature that it is more fully gratified by partially or wholly repeating the interesting action. Thus imitation is a special development of attention. Attention is always striving after a more vivid, more definite, and more complete apprehension of its object. Imitation is a way in which this endeavour may gratify itself when the interest in the object is of a certain kind. It is obvious that we do not try to imitate all manner of actions without distinction, merely because they take place under our eyes. What is familiar and commonplace or what for any other reason is unexciting and insipid, fails to stir us to reenact it. It is otherwise with what is strikingly novel or in any way impressive, so that our attention dwells on it with relish or fascination. It is of course not true that whatever act fixes attention prompts to imitation. This is only the case where imitation helps attention, where it is in fact a special development of attention. This is so when interest is directly concentrated on the activity itself for its own sake rather than for the sake of its possible consequences and the like ulterior motives. But it is not necessary that the act in itself should be interesting; in a most important class of cases the interest centres not directly in the external act imitated, but in something else with which this act is so intimately connected as virtually to form a part of it. Thus there is a tendency not only to imitate interesting acts, but also the acts of interesting persons. Dogs often imitate their masters. Men are apt to imitate the gestures and modes of speech of those who excite their admiration or affection or some other personal interest. Children imitate their parents, or their leaders in the playground. Even the mannerisms and tricks of speech of a great man are often unconsciously copied by those who regard him as a hero. In such instances the primary interest is in the whole personality of the model; but this is more vividly and distinctly brought before consciousness by reproducing his external peculiarities.*
Our result then is that interest in an action prompts to imitation in proportion to its intensity, provided the interest is of a kind which will be gratified or sustained by imitative activity. But here we must make a distinction. The interest may be either primary or acquired through previous experience. The imitative impulse in young animals and children is to a large extent independent of previous experience. It depends on congenital tendencies. A young duck brought up by a hen among chickens imitates its social environment only in a limited degree. Where there is an instinctive tendency towards a certain form of action, the action is interesting when another performs it, so that the imitative impulse comes into play.
* Of course the society in which we live is always interesting to us. Hence the tendency to acquire a provincial accent when we are constantly associating with people who have it.
As a rule, this instinctive imitation not only prompts the action, but also determines more or less its special character. The child has a congenital tendency to utter articulate sounds; but the special character of the sounds it utters is largely determined by the sounds it hears from the persons who surround it. The same is true of the song of birds. But sometimes imitation seems only to supply an occasional impulse, and does not in the first instance create the power of performing an action or appreciably modify its character. As an example in which the presence of a model simply stimulates an activity and does not modify it, we may take the repetition of a dangercry by young birds when they hear others utter it. The dangercry itself is undoubtedly instinctive. Any disagreeable or disturbing experience will elicit it from a young chicken which has not heard it before. Its effect also on the birds who hear it is instinctive. When a parentbird utters the cry, the chick which is yet in the egg will suddenly cease in its endeavour to pierce the shell and become motionless. In just the same instinctive way, the sound of the alarmnote uttered by one bird prompts another to repeat it, so that the alarm may be communicated to a whole group. It is mainly in this manner that birds and other animals learn to avoid dangers which at first they had disregarded. The sight of a man with a gun on a previously desert island may evoke no alarm in its feathered inhabitants; but after a few experiences of the fatal consequences connected with a man so armed, the birds in general will become shy. Those who have actually been disturbed or wounded by the gun have uttered the alarmnote; this has thrown yet others into a state of alarm, and they also utter the alarmnote; these, when they again see a man, utter the alarmnote, although they have never experienced any harm from human beings.