“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”
What this adage implies is that we should take it as a compliment when someone copies our good ideas, or our personal style, or takes up one of our key interests. But in reality, most of us just end up feeling really annoyed.
For example, I have a friend that seems completely blinded by the fact that whenever I express an opinion, they adopt it too. My personal interests and elements of my personal style have been acquired (yes, this is one of the offenders from my borrowing blog post). It seems as though a collection of things that make ME unique have been stolen. And it drives me CRAZY.
Being a copycat is often seen as a social transgression. How come some people feel the need to copy us and don’t even try to hide it?
Should I even care if someone copies me? Doesn’t it mean they think what I do is good enough to adopt into their own behavioural routines?
Why are copycats so annoying?
Self-Determination Theory. Deci and Ryan’s (2010) Self-Determination Theory looks at both within- and between-person differences at the individual psychological level. Their theory proposes that individuals have three basic psychological needs that are tied to psychological well-being and self-esteem: competence, autonomy, and relatedness. This perspective advocates that people have a psychological need to feel like they fit into and are connected with their social context – but, at the same time, they also have a distinct need to feel unique and have autonomous control over their own life. Relating to others can take the form of similarities in interests, visual cues (such as fashion), and behaviour. For example, the clustering of trends in specific communities (e.g., slang words, a specific hair style, the popularity of a cuisine-du-jour) are all representations of a need for relatedness. But we also want to feel like an individual and when people copy something that is key to our self-concept, it can feel like an identity threat.
Identity Threat. An identity threat can be something that threatens the meaning of your identity or prevents your enactment (the acting out) of your unique identity. For example, let’s say your thing is that you always say a particular phrase (mine being, “oh rats!”) and this phrase conveys a) an expression of disappointment but also, b) a charming and conscientious use of a family-friendly alternative to a swearword. BUT THEN a friend with a different personal identity also starts to use this phrase. Now whenever I say “oh rats!”, the meaning changes to one where I am a) no longer unique, and b) the impact of the phrase changes now that the less charming and conscientious friend adopts its use. Identity threats feel cognitively uncomfortable, and often result in us feeling annoyed with the transgressor for not being more sensitive about stealing something that feels so core to our self-image. When it’s copying something really important to us, it quickly goes from identity threat to identity theft.
(P.S. I am using a very neutral example here because the stronger examples would be too obvious).
Copycats might not fully be to blame. It might be hardwired into us to copy. Mirroring is the subconscious imitation of speech, behaviour, or attitude of close others – usually family and friends. Its purpose is relationship-building, although usually consciously unnoticed by both parties. Mirroring creates a feeling of greater connection and understanding between both parties and can start as early as infancy. Copying is a form of mirroring but it transitions from the subconscious to the conscious on the part of the person being copied, if not the copier themselves. For example, we don’t feel annoyed when our teammate shows up wearing the same team uniform. In fact, this is not an identity threat because our identity as being a part of a team relies on our teammates showing this relatedness. But we do feel annoyed when we stylistically try something new (wear our hair a cool new way, some new unique and interesting accessories) and the next day a friend comes in wearing the exact same thing. I was trying to be unique and you ruined it.
- Take it as a compliment. We are all busy and have much more important things to worry about.
- Identify. There are two kinds of copycats: the jealous type and the admirer. Understanding the motivation behind someone copying you can be important with how you deal with them. You might be someone’s role model and we often try to mirror people who are in a higher social position, more powerful, or someone we may look up to (celebrities, for example, – their style is copied A LOT). But if your copycat is the jealous type and steals your style because of negativity and insecurities, maybe this is someone you don’t need in your life at all.
- Communicate. If this is a reoccurring problem you’re having with a friend, share your feelings. Explain why it feels uncomfortable. They probably don’t even realize they are doing it! As always, be kind and avoid embarrassing your friend – maybe start off with complimenting the unique things about their look or interests.
- Be secure with who you are. Chances are that we are bothered more by copycats when we are still developing and securing exactly who we are on the inside. Do something that reassures yourself that you are competent and unique – like looking at your awards or old pictures.
- Try new things. Our personal identities are always changing. Trying new things allows us the chance to pick and choose what we like and what will represent our future self.
- Community. Surround yourself with a community of people who match your feelings and need for uniqueness or conformity. Some groups respect individuality more than others. Some see individuality as a threat to group togetherness. Find a place that speaks to you.
Ultimately, I like you for the things that make us the same and for the things that make us unique. Kind of like Canada.