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Automatic Imitation: The Anti-Game Theory?

Automatic imitation is a term psychologists use to describe humans’ natural tendency to mimic the behavior and gestures of others using visual cues – a phenomenon that we’ve all experienced as children in a game as simple as Simon Says.  Simon Says, in which a leader give commands that the other players are expected to follow and show actions.  Often, the actions will not match the commands to as to trick the other players.  Automatic imitation explains that we are so likely to be tricked by these actions because of our inclination to mimic what we see.

Simon Says is not the only children’s game to which automatic imitation can apply – take rock-paper-scissors for example.  We can all attest to the fact that, more often than not, rock-paper-scissors seems to end in a draw.  But how can that be true?  Basic statistics tells us that a draw should only happen 33.3% of the time!  Richard Cook authored a study on this exact situation, in which he blindfolded participants and asked them to play rock-paper-scissors; when the participants were blindfolded, a draw occurred 33.3% of the time, as predicted by statistics.  However, when just one player was blindfolded, the number of draws rose to 36.3% – a statistically significant difference.  Subconsciously, automation imitation overrides the players’ desire to win!

This is the exact opposite of the premise of game theory, in which players respond to the strategies of other players in the game to increase one’s own payoff.  In the rock-paper-scissors game described above, the non-blindfolded player has the opportunity to perform just as game theory suggests, but does not!  While automatic imitation is not intentional, it is curious to note that it certainly interferes with a person’s ability to make the rational decision that one would want to make in such a situation.  Instead of choosing your dominant strategy, you choose a response in which your payoff is less than optimal.

While this defiance of game theory doesn’t seem very relevant past Simon Says and rock-paper-scissors, we see the same situation play out in the business world.  Being different from your competitors gives your business an advantage, yet we see so many small businesses mimic their successful counterparts.  Looking at this from a game theorist’s perspective, could there be a better response for such businesses?  Maybe, but automatic imitation slows us from finding that out.



Guido, Joey D. “Has Your Small Business Fallen into the Trap of Automatic Imitation?.” BizFilings. 25 July 2011. Web. 9 Sept. 2012. <>.

“Imitation.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 09 June 2012. Web. 09 Sept. 2012. <>.

Palmer, Jason. “Rock-paper-scissors Gamers ‘Mimic Each Other’.” News: Science and Environment. BBC, 20 July 2011. Web. 9 Sept. 2012. <>.




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