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Social learning: we are quoters, borrowers and mimics

Kate Hammer

ill have what shes having.jpg

Mark Earls’ espresso-sized piece in Wired is even more powerful than his recent monograph, I’ll Have What She’s Having. The core idea is: we opt for things because we’re copying our peers.

This notion of copying is helpful if – as any marketing consultant in the Web 2.0 world might be – your goal is to understand how best to influence people’s adoption of products and services. In the 1990s we called it viral marketing, now it’s called peer-to-peer. The marketing practices have become richer and more diverse even as technology has extended social networks and digital platforms have made them stickier and noisier in people’s “headspace”. We’re into our second decade of the silicon century, and it’s great to have some cogent thought underpinning and explaining the herding effects that are clearly observable in some arenas of our lives.

Social Learning

The theory is called social learning: it demonstrates how culture generally and the local cultural practices and patterns of the people nearest us influence what we say, do and want. Imitation and copying provide us with short-cuts to determining and articulating our preferences. And the capability to copy is hardwired into humans. We are social primates.

None of this feels particularly new. I studied primatology alongside semiotics at Brown, and I’ve marvelled how often I’ve remembered the story of the sandy bananas. A tribe of primates in a coastal area discovered that if they took the bananas from the shore to the sea, they could wash the sand from their skins and enjoy their food free from grit. A primatologist witnessed the early attempts at this, and saw how the behaviour was picked up effortlessly and spread through the tribe. What was most interesting (if I’m recalling this accurately) is that the sand-washing behaviour became so entrenched a habit that the primatologist never again was able to witness a moment of “teaching” such as those that marked the early days. It was as if these creatures had always known the benefits and steps in banana rinsing and had never had to learn them.

I see something similar when I compare the ease with which my seven-year absorbs digital habits, procedures and behaviours and incorporates them effortless. Compare that to my mother (who turned 75 2 days after DD turned 7.5 s0 a factor of ten older) who having used PCs for decades still falters and has stopped trying to learn anything new. And this gets at the heart of the limitation of social learning theory. Because social copying is possible because of our brain’s plasticity, hardened patterns can be difficult to undo. Be they hardened by age (in my mother’s case) or prejudice. I think of how long into my life the phrase “coloured” lingered in Maryland’s lexicon.  Not because Negro, Black or African-American hadn’t each been affirmed in turn. But because without will to overturn habit – or enough mandatory rehearsal – habits die hard.


So: if we want to understand inflection points, we need a framework that allows for forces beyond social learning and peer copying. The question this work leaves open is: what else is going on inside people?

Cautiously, Earls and his co-authors Alex Bentley and Mike O’Brien approach this when they talk about the (commercial) value (to brand and business owners) of directed copying – the sort of imitation like we see in the Rob Reiner movie that gives their book its title. You can watch the clip here: I’ll Have What She’s Having: The scene in Katz’s Deli

We see something in another’s experience and understand enough about it – and in this case, the pleasure it signifies – that we want some too. I grasp how the wanting and asking “Waiter: Same here” is a short-cut. It's much faster than deliberation and the careful weighing up of options, their expected benefits and comparative costs. As an actor, I learned to discount the deliberation, because in practice so few lives (at least of the characters I was cast to play) unfold that way. Over-deliberating “in character” stifled my performance. Replacing deliberation and analysis with imagination and empathy made me more agile.

Imagination and empathy aren’t time-consuming, processing-intensive processes. Or at least they needn’t be. So instead of leaving them out of social learning theory, I’d rather the account expand to allow for them.

And when it come to how we do in fact navigate in our (always-already) enculturated lives: well to my mind, Earls is just plain wrong to say: “We are not the authors of our own lives. We use other people’s bodies and brains to navigate through life, to work out what to do, what to choose and where to go next.” I agree only so far.

Authors also borrow (not just mimics)

So yes, we do use the brains and bodies of others, but that’s because we’re human primates. It doesn’t mean we’re not authors. It just makes us authors who (like Shakespeare and Brecht and every allegorist in every age) quote, borrow and repeat fragments of what they’ve learned. Quotation is one of our tools as are authors. The fact that our behaviours quote those of others doesn’t evacuate meaning.

And meaning is something we humans hunt for and farm for. Earls’ earlier book was Herd. Again important stuff, but incomplete. We’re not just the sheep, we’re also the shepherd and the fox.

Because the subjective experience of meaning (as fulfilment, wisdom, enlightenment, bliss) can’t be bought or sold, meaning has eluded economics. Marxism tried to bring it into the economic thinking – via the notion of ideology. Now, in a post-Marxist era, social learning theory (for all its positives) is sweeping narrative and meaning out of explanations of how the world works. Reminds me of a pendulum swinging. The earth revolves beneath and it never comes to rest dead centre.

For marketeers that means: learn what you can from social learning theory.

But don’t discount stories. After all, how easily would we even understand Mark Earls’ ideas if he couldn’t use a movie to get us into a booth in Katz’s Deli circa 1985?