Monkey See, Monkey Do

Most people are other people. Their thoughts are someone else’s opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” – Oscar Wilde

Imitation is the highest form of flattery, right? But that’s not all. In the wild, imitation is the way many animals – particularly primates – develop the skills they need to survive. For example, in a study of capuchin monkeys in the jungles of Brazil, juveniles were observed banging rocks to alert the group to the presence of an intruder after they’d watched adult monkeys do the same thing.

Human beings, too, learn by mimicking others – not only to survive but also to prosper. In business, that’s what we mean when we say “Why reinvent the wheel?” As Michael Masterson advises, one of the quickest ways to get a new business going is to pattern it after a successful business that’s already up and running.

If someone else is doing something that works – just about anything – and you’d like to achieve the same results, just do what they’re doing. Copying other successful people can often be the key to becoming successful yourself. And that may be why so many people allow the actions of others to influence their decisions.

But it goes beyond that. Because sometimes people are not even aware that they are being influenced by others. We seem to have an instinctive desire to do what others are doing. And if you understand how powerful that urge is, you can use it to your advantage.

In one study, researchers divided a group of children who were having difficulty socializing, and one-half of the group was shown a video of other children playing with each other and laughing. All of the children in the group that did not watch the video chose to play by themselves. But those in the group that saw the video behaved much differently. Almost 90 percent of them approached other kids and were soon playing together.

This study gives us some insight into why the human instinct to mimic the behavior of others can be a tool that you can use to help change another person’s behavior.

Your efforts may need to be more sophisticated when you’re dealing with an adult instead of a child. But you can certainly find a way to use the instinct to mimic in order to persuade others to behave in a certain way or get them to buy into your point of view.

Let’s say you are a manager and want to get an employee to be more productive. Instead of simply asking her to work more efficiently – say, by taking fewer coffee breaks – you could seat her next to another employee who is already very productive. If you make sure your target employee sees that her efficient neighbor is reaping rewards for his behavior, there’s an excellent chance she will adopt the same behavior.

Here are the basic steps for using mimicry to persuade people in all kinds of situations – at work or at home – to change their behavior:

  • Identify the behavior you’d like your target to emulate.
  • Create a situation where your target will be able to see the desired behavior.
  • Make sure your target is clearly able to see the rewards associated with that behavior.

You don’t need to be a natural salesman to master the art of persuasion. All you need to do is learn a few of the many proven techniques that are already available.

[Ed. Note: Larry Fredericks is an entrepreneur with a history of successful business dealings in retail, direct mail, the Internet, and real estate. He is also the creator of the Master of Persuasion program.]