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Dr. Robert Goldstone, Indiana University - The Role of Imitation

Today's Academic Minute delves into the creative process.

There is a saying that imitation may be the most sincere form of flattery, but we sometimes view imitators as lacking creativity of their own. But as Robert Goldstone, Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at Indiana University, explains, this imitation may play a crucial role in the overall creative process.

Robert Goldstone is Chancellor's Professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences and Director of the Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University. His laboratory is currently exploring interactions between perceptual and conceptual learning, methods for learning abstract concepts using computer simulations, the perception of similarity and analogy, and group behavior from a complex systems perspective. He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan.

About Dr. Goldstone

  Dr. Robert Goldstone - Imitation, Innovation and the Creative Process

Imagine that you’re trying to come up with a new salsa recipe for an annual salsa contest.  Do you throw together ingredients based on your own hunches, or borrow and adapt recipes that you have copied from the web, your relatives, or previous winners?  Every person, business, and government faces daily decisions about whether to innovate, or just imitate somebody else’s solution. 

To explore people’s decisions to imitate versus innovate, our laboratory created a controlled and idealized computer game called “Creature League” in which people assembled teams of Pokemon-like creatures. Over several rounds of play, participants formed high scoring teams by either trying out untested creatures – that is, innovating – or by copying creatures from other participants’ teams – that is, imitating.

Given what we know about the riskiness of innovation, it was perhaps unsurprising that we found that participants tended to score better when they imitated rather than innovated.  More surprisingly, we also found that participants scored better when they were in groups of OTHER people who frequently imitated.  Being surrounded by people who often imitate is useful because when a person comes up with a good solution, their peers copy the solution, AND sometimes improve upon it.  The person who was originally imitated can then turn around and steal back and benefit from these subsequent improvements.

One implication of our study is that we should not always give in to an initial inclination to jealously guard our innovations.  Protecting our “Intellectual Property” may end up harming our own chances to latch onto even better innovations because we prevent others from imitating and enhancing our solutions.

Production support for the Academic Minute comes from Newman’s Own, giving all profits to charity and pursuing the common good for over 30 years, and from Mount Holyoke College.

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