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by Valentino Piana (2004)



1. Significance
2. Determinants
3. Impact at system-level
4. Imitation in specific markets and processes
5. Contrasting concepts
6. Formal models
7. Data


Imitation is the conscious or unconscious behaviour of copying others. It can be contrasted to innovation, which is a independent-minded move of leadership.

Imitation reduces the dispersal of the spectrum of individualities, thus it favours de-personalisation and massification of opinions, behaviours, outcomes.

It is not a completely passive behaviour to the extend there is some choice of who to imitate. Indeed, it is possible also just a partial or selective imitation.

Usually, successful business people, opinion leaders, friends, a teacher, the family and the people exposed by media are among those who are imitated. In other cases, it's an average behaviour and not a specific agent to be imitated.

At any rate, who want to be imitated tries to be visible and authoritative. In other case, there are organizations and people who do not want to be imitated. A typical case is an innovator who protect its novelty through a patent to avoid the imitation of competitors or by hiding key elements of the production process, because there is a relation between visibility and imitation - the wider and deeper the visibility of a process worth imitating, the more likely others will be able to imitate. Getting closer and looking carefully are activities usually carried out by the imitator.

Imitation can cover the starting point, the procedure and / or the final result of the activities of others.

In personal interaction, imitation is often considered socially fair, since it implies reciprocation.


Imitation is an effective way for saving time and attention in decision-making. It is a common product of bounded rationality and effort-saving heuristics. To imitate the answers of the savy and the well-informed is a low-cost strategy, especially when the task of choosing is difficult.

It can arise also from risk aversion for being negatively judged. If one behaves as others and he fails, everybody else will fail as well and he will not be shamed.

Imitation can be the result of identification with another person, since to mimic its behaviour is a way through which one confirms its identification. It's a way to get acceptance in a group that requires to fit certain schemes; by imitating them, the newcomer would be sooner recognized as a member. When, in a restaurant, a group of friends begins to order certain foodstuff, others may say: "the same" as a way to show cohesiveness and reduce the burden of the waiter.

Imitation can further be a way to reduce choices dominated by internal emotional conflict or a recognition that "others know better" (a feeling of inferiority, be it justified or not).

Imitation involves two (an imitator and an imitated entity) or three subjects. In the latter case, somebody authoritative outlines and praises who has to be imitated to an audience of potential imitators. Emotional ties between potential imitators and the authoritative source strengthen the establishment of the relation with the imitated ones.

In networks, asking for whom to imitate and asking to be imitated are frequent activities.

Business success is a fundamental non-price market signal. To show success increases the likelihood of attracting business partners leading to a positive feedback.

Imitation is not always easy, as it can require a vast array of competences.

At the householde level, imitation is a key process children systematically use to learn from adults (and in particular from the parents) routines of behaviour that later on will structure both consumption and production. Imitation in small children is a process in itself, without too much goal-seeking or comparison of costs and benefits. Even when the childred do understand words, the direct imitation of acts has a deeper and stronger impact on how they behave and structure their cognitive and emotional frame for interpreting the world.

Like children, firms with little competences and the urgent need to match competitors might engage in superficial imitiation, without absorbing and enacted a full-fledged renewal of production processes and products. This can happen also for other reasons, as in the case of green-washing, where just a logo and some advertising is added to a polluting product.

Impact at system-level

An overwhelmingly attitude of imitation generate homogeneity in the population.

Imitation can fasten the diffusion of new goods since followers adopt them without too much information or autonomous judgement, but just out of replication of opinion leaders' behaviours and advice.

When many agents follow the rule of imitating others, the systems show positive feedback dynamics, with waves of fashion in attitudes and behaviours.

If agents accept and imitate a behaviour only when a high threshold number of others do in that way, the system will show inertia and long-lasting traditions. Collective identities are stronger and new deviant behaviours quickly disappear.

To succeed, innovators must reach a critical mass to prompt others to imitate them, so that self-propelling diffusion takes place.

On the supply side, imitation of competitors reduces product differentiation. Indeed, imitation of one's own previous decisions leads to brand loyalty and inertia in market shares.

Routinely imitation by competitors of certain core function of the product is evidence of an emerging "dominant desing" which establish what this product is.

Imitation in specific markets and processes

Imitation of well established industrial brands (which serve as product and price reference in their market) by retailers' private labels (be they the same brand of the retailer or a phantasy brand) is a very common phenomena in advanced market, where "me-too" products are used by retailers to reduce overlapping supply with other retailers, increase profitability and provide reasons for customers to come back and repurchase.

The imitation of other producers' price increase gives rise to inflation, not only because it spreads the rise across a large number of goods but also because it reduces the costs of increasing prices in terms of consumers' demand fall: to the extend that demand for one branded goods depends on the difference of price of that good with others, a quick imitation of price moves is a rule-of-thumb that guarantees the market shares of all.

The violent fluctuations in business investment are partially due to imitation of the decisions of competitors: "If he introduces a new good and enlarges the production capacity, I'll do the same to keep my market share and taking advantage of the demand increase he is facing or just expecting".

Imitation of successful products, services and behaviour is very common in business. Many Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs) use such an imitation, based on both media-based and oral transmission of information, to redirect their production. In this way, the successful factors increase their market share, potentially leading to overall GDP growth. This process, however, can wipe away the advantage for the first mover, by over-crowding a demand niche, so it can turn out to be a temporary and self-defeating process over time.

In the labour market, the imitation of wage increase is a powerful strength freezing the differences of wage leves across people and jobs. The fact that other firms have accepted to increase wages is a reason for labour to ask a similar growth.

In financial markets, imitation produces the so-called "herd behaviour" with people buying when others do and prices rise. This can give rise to stable and unstable trends. See here for an empirical analysis of herd behaviour.

On the election day, many people decide to vote for the expected winner, thus a massive advertising and large spending, interpreted as a sign of trust by economic supporters, can move a candidate from minority to majority.

In a game theoretic framework, the deliberate strategy of sticking to imitation of the other players' move is a way to achieve a common optimum, since it implies to retaliate any damage and reciprocate any advantage.

In oligopolies, imitation can take the form of retaliation in price wars. In this case, the risk of imitation creates a credible expectation in the opponents.

The presence of a recognized leader and one (or more) mere price follower(s) allows the leader to fix the price at a monopolistic level, thus maximising global profits. The others will accept that price and limit to non-price competition, keeping also into account cost structures.

Contrasting concepts

The reverse of imitation is "snobism": to behave differently from "the inferior mass", often choosing non-practical solution laying on the top of a vertically differentiated choice set.

Different from both imitation and snobism is "critical response", an active-minded creative generation of new behaviours without the negative aspects one perceives in a current practice.

Formal models

Dynamic competition with imitation of seller's strategies and apparent imitation on the demand side

Waves in consumption with interdependence among consumers

Imitation and learning under uncertainty: an experiment

Do bandwagons matter? Exploring the effect of early adopters on the diffusion of the ISO 9000 management standard

Herd behaviour and positive feedback trading and by pension fund investors: an empirical analysis

Imitation - an attempt of a general theory with experimental evidence

Imitation - Theory and Experimental Evidence


Consumers data (income, preferences for performance and comfort, decision rules)



Key concepts
  Industrial dynamics