The Law of Imitation

The Law of Imitation

Whatever a great man does, the

very same is also done by other men.

Whatever the standard he sets,

The world follows it.

Bhagavad Gita, 3.21.

There are powerful forces of learning in human societies that are not captured in the basic natural selection model. This was recognised by the French social theorist Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904). He was a lawyer and judge who for obvious reasons thought a lot about the causes of crime. He developed some general principles which he called the laws of imitation. He thought that people learn from one another through a process of imitation, and that activity or behaviour seen in others tends to reinforce or discourage previous habits. He also observed that the process of diffusion in human society often follows an “S-curve”, otherwise known as the logistic curve.

What happens in the S-curve is roughly as follows. Someone has an idea: let us take the concrete example of a new method of breaking into a house. At first, only that person knows about it, plus possibly a few close friends whom he tells about it. But these friends can tell their friends and so on: the process of growth here is exponential: each new person who catches on to the idea can pass it on to a few others. We can think people having an agenda: these are the ideas or actions that people take seriously in the sense that they might actually think about adopting them. Because of the limitations of bounded rationality, people do not think about everything all of the time: they only think about a few things most of the time. We all know this from our own experience. We know that certain types of food and drink are bad for us: however, although we know and are aware of the healthier alternatives, we still end up eating the same old food most of the time. It takes some effort to change habits, to put new ideas (in this case a new diet) onto our agenda, so that we think about them seriously when we take decisions. Seeing someone whom you respect or identify with in some way adopting the idea is a way of putting it on your agenda, which makes it more likely that you will adopt it. This was exactly Krishna’s argument to Arjuna quoted in the Bhagavad Gita.

References and bibliography for this article can be found at

Posted in English, Rudolf's Articles.