The Joy of Imitation
Psychologist Katy Milkman advises us to "copy and paste” a solution someone else has already figured out.
Ours is a culture that celebrates innovation and looks down on imitation. But imitation is often the most effective and efficient way to acquire a new skill. Instead of wrestling with problems on our own, we can borrow and apply the strategies our peers have already successfully worked out. It’s like being able to think with another person’s mind.
Katy Milkman is a behavioral scientist at the Wharton School and the author of the new book How to Change. In that book, she describes a technique she calls the “copy-and-paste strategy.” It’s a simple and very effective tactic for importing others’ productive solutions into one’s own life. When I spoke to Katy about it earlier this month, she told me that the idea grew out of a collaboration with Angela Duckworth, the University of Pennsylvania psychologist and author of the book Grit.
“When Angela and I first started working closely together, we both found ourselves excited to imitate each other's little life hacks,” Milkman said. “We would notice something the other one did and say, ‘Oh, I never thought to do that!’ It became a running joke: ‘I’m going to copy and paste this from you, I’m going to copy and paste that!’” Milkman began emulating Duckworth’s strategy of handling work calls while walking to the office; Duckworth borrowed Milkman’s practice of drafting emails from preexisting templates.
The approach seemed like a no-brainer: Why struggle alone with a problem, when someone you know has already found an effective solution? But when Milkman and Duckworth suggested the strategy to their students—“Did you think about asking your friend who’s acing this class how she studies?”—they encountered mostly blank stares. “Research shows that we generally underappreciate how much we can learn from other people, because we assume we already know everything they do,” Milkman notes.
The professors wondered if a simple prompt could induce people to ask their friends and acquaintances for strategies to borrow. In a study published last year in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, Milkman, Duckworth, and two co-authors reported that encouraging study participants to copy and paste their peers’ best strategies produced promising results in two different domains: Adults who wanted to work out more became more motivated to exercise, and college students who were seeking to improve their grades became more diligent about preparing for class. In a subsequent study, the researchers found that participants benefited more when they actively sought out strategies to copy and paste than when the strategies were simply given to them.
What accounts for the success of this approach? Research suggests several factors are at play:
New behaviors seem more appealing to us when we learn them from observation rather than instruction. Learning from models raises our expectations that our own efforts will be successful; it also increases the likelihood that we will follow through on enacting the behavior.
When we put in the effort to source strategies from people we know (as opposed to consuming strategies in a more passive manner), we are more likely to value those strategies and to put them to use. In addition, information gathered from our peers is more vivid than information encountered in a dry or abstract format. Vivid information is better remembered, and more likely to be acted upon.
We’re likely to share things in common—personality traits, life circumstances—with the members of our social circles, so the solutions they have figured out are likely to work for us, too. Moreover, we can spend time with these people, observing up close how they implement their strategies—something that’s not possible to do with an expert who’s unknown to us.
Because we relate to and identify with our peers, the behaviors they’ve put into place are more likely to seem manageable and doable, while still being inspiring. We become beneficiaries of “the rub-off effect”: being around people who are more motivated and productive than we are induces us to become more like them.
Here’s a step-by-step guide to implementing the copy-and-paste strategy:
Identify a peer who does something well that you yourself want to get better at. Choose someone who is more proficient than you are, but not someone totally out of your league.
Frame the request as a compliment: “I really admire the way you ________. Could you share with me how you do that?”
Ask for concrete and specific tactics—of the kind you would not have thought of on your own.
If the first strategy you’re given doesn’t work for you, keep asking around.
In The Extended Mind, I note that all of us already “think outside the brain”—that is, we already employ mental extensions like the body, physical spaces, and the minds of other people. “The bad news,” I continue, “is that we often do it haphazardly, without much intention or skill.” Just so here: Because of the power of social norms and the persuasive pull of conformity, we already are being influenced by the people around us.
The copy-and-paste strategy is a way of seizing control of that process, of managing that influence more intentionally and proactively. As Katy Milkman writes in How To Change: “You’re likely to go further faster if you find the person who’s already achieving what you want to achieve and copy and paste their tactics than if you simply let social forces influence you through osmosis.”
Can you think of a problem you’re trying to solve, or a goal you’re trying to reach, for which someone you know has already developed a successful strategy?
Mehr, K. S., Geiser, A. E., Milkman, K. L., & Duckworth, A. L. (2020). Copy-Paste Prompts: A New Nudge to Promote Goal Achievement. Journal of the Association for Consumer Research, 5(3), 329–334. PDF
Milkman, K. (2021). How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be. Portfolio. Link
Milkman, K. (May 5, 2021). To Kickstart a New Behavior, Cut and Paste. Behavioral Scientist. Link