We all imitate

We humans imitate each other. A dilligent student copying her martial arts’ teacher will not only imitate movements and grips. She will also imitate her teacher’s holistic behavior, such as mannerism and way of talking. Every human being is hard-wired to imitate the person(s) whom they are admiring.

I do standup and I want to imitate my favorite standup comedians. When I try to think deeply about things, I become an (unpaid) actor that seems as level-headed and structured as the math professor I admired at university (even though they almost surely aren’t mathematical problems to begin with). I admired his gracious mannerism; I found it elegant and appealing. In turn, my professor certainly copied his mentors. And so on. This is how culture is created.

I view these internalized personas that I have copied throughout my life as my cultural programming. To be clear, the meaning of “culture” in this context is broader than simply music, cinema, and other works of art, though it could and likely does include them.

To pretend not to pretend

So, on the one hand, everyone imitates. On the other, it is clear that everyone risk being called out for transgressive behavioral imitation. Like children at the playground, we all learn to never admit that we want to “act cool”. Because, in case you didn’t know or have forgotten, the first rule of cool club is: “Don’t talk about cool club”.

Adults, however, have been civilized thoroughly throughout the years to understand that their louder out-calling as children will be socially reprimanded. They have thus learned to switch to the more socially accepted passive-aggression that we see in adults near and far.

When forming new relationships, we test people unknown to us to figure out who they are. We test their ethical character in various ways and become apprehensive if something seems out of place. The authors of the book Elephant in the brain refers to reputable neuroscientists that this reason might even be why we have developed so high intelligence in the first place.

A market for reputation

Being admired (or cool, respected, alpha, …) is about risk-taking. There is something special pertaining to the evolution of man in the uniquely attractive quality of being admired. An admired person makes other people undeniably curious. It is like encountering a new shiny and irresistable object, except this one is a person and so, accordingly, there are social dynamics at play. Perhaps it is most effective to pretend not to be piqued. Because what if the person is a male competitor?

Each person admires a set of other people. In aggregate, this creates a form of betting market, the currency of which is reputation. By imitating, we free intelligent agents subconsciously choose which people and behaviors to endorse, back and fourth between each single one of us, in a continously unfolding process known as reflexivity.

This hard-wired desire to be admired is what drives our civilizations forward.