The Myth of Independent Thinking

Last year, I was on vacation visiting a close friend in Paris, and had a rather thought-provoking experience. I had a few hours to myself and decided to perch for an hour at a café near a busy intersection near the Place de la Republique. I thought to myself that it would be fun just to observe how people were dressed today in Paris, to watch the throngs of Parisians getting out of the Metro and walking home to the nearby Marais and other fashionable neighbourhoods.

As I sat and watched hundreds, probably thousands, of people go by, I noticed that despite living in perhaps the most fashionable city in the world, virtually all of the women were dressed exactly the same way. Black skinny jeans. Boring flat shoes, mostly black. A moderately colourful chemise or blouse. A strategically placed scarf. Earrings. Entirely unremarkable and indistinguishable. With virtually no exceptions. I was a bit taken aback, as I expected variation, creativity, style – maybe even originality.

But then I remembered what my ethnology professor at Harvard (who studied with the great Konrad Lorenz, father of the science of animal behaviour) kept saying: What distinguishes humans from other species is not emotions, intelligence, or consciousness – all of which he believed animals have in different ways. It is our ability to imitate. We are the most accomplished imitators on the planet. We marvel at African grey parrots and mynahs in their ability to imitate sounds and human speech, when our abilities in this area dwarf all other inhabitants of this planet.

Our ancient ancestors watched lightning strike trees and start fires, and eventually they replicated this process with flint and tinder. Voila, fire. Our more recent ancestors carefully observed the way birds’ wings are constructed for flying, and eventually came Wilbur and Orville Wright with their successful flying machine. We imitate brilliantly, and there’s nothing we like to imitate more than each other. We’re even equipped with neurons in the brain, called “mirror neurons”, which are necessary for us to learn by imitation.

This is a double-edged thing, of course. Being wired to imitate means that we can absorb new information, knowledge, and behaviours at an astonishing rate. The better you are as an imitator, the more quickly you will learn new skills and become competent at a job. But it also means that, if reason and will are not applied, we become like the proverbial lemmings. Independent thinking is in fact quite rare if you carefully observe what people do and say during the course of a day. We are largely imitating and repeating our way through life.  For marketers, this is a gift, as it is part of what creates mass behaviour.

But for individuals, the consequence can be that if imitation is left unchecked, we deny ourselves the full range of options that exist in every area of our lives, and show up in boring flat shoes, black skinny jeans, and strategically placed scarves.