Imitative Suggestion

Imitation, or Imitative Suggestion [Lat, imita’tio, deriv. of imita’ri, imitate: akin to ima go, image]: the repetition in movement or thought of what is seen, heard, or perceived by suggestion from another. 1

Imitative Suggestion as a Theory of Crowd Activity

In 1891 The Crowd Criminal (or The Criminal Crowd) was published by Scipio Sighele. The book covers crowd psychology and explores the questions of how emotions are communicated to groups of people. Sighele concluded that merely witnessing an emotional state encourages it’s repetition in those who are witnesses. In my post Cialdini Social Proof or Hotchkiss Imitative Suggestion?, I suggest that physical action is a form of hypnotic suggestion. Sighele also thought that a sort of hypnotic trance takes place and from that idea he developed the theory of imitative-suggestion which he used to explain how crowds of people can do outrageous criminal acts even when the individuals might never do anything so horrific on their own. 2

Two Pieces of Scipio Sighele Trivia

1.Some people believe that Gustave Le Bon plagiarized The Crowd Criminal in order to write The Crowd.

2.100+ years (1901) before the book The Wisdom of Crowds, Scipio Sighele wrote a book called The Intelligence of the Crowd.

From The Secret Of Mental Magic by William Walker Atkinson. 1907

“Suggestion Through Imitation

This form of Mental Suggestion is very common – perhaps the most common of all forms. Man is essentially an imitative animal. He is always copying the actions, appearances and ideas of others, thereby going to prove his descent from the monkey-like ancestors in who this trait of character was largely developed. Personally, I believe that those traits of imitation may be traced back to the early days of the race, or before, when animals and men were in a wild state, and exposed to constant danger of attack of enemies. Then a motion of fright on the part of one would be communicated to the others of the tribe, and gradually the trait of instinctive imitation was developed, the traces of which are still strongly with the race, even to this day. We may find instances of this trait all around us. When we watch a tight-rope walker, our bodies instinctively sway in imitative motion. When we watch the faces of actors on the stage, our own faces work in sympathy, more or less. And so it goes on all around us, and in us – ever the tendency toward imitation. Children manifest a great degree of this trait and copy and acquire the mannerisms of those around to a surprising detail.

This form of Mental Suggestion is very common. People are constantly taking up the suggestion of the mental states, feelings, and emotions of those around them, and reproducing them in their own acts. The majority of people are like human sheep, who will follow a leader everywhere and along all sorts of paths. Let the old bell-whether jump over a rail, and every sheep in the flock will do likewise – and they will keep on jumping over the same place, at the same height, even if the rail be removed before the whole flock gets over. We are constantly doing things simply because other people do them. We are constantly aping after others. In our fashions, styles, forms, etc. we are servile imitators.

This law of imitation plays an important part in the phenomena of Mental Suggestion along these lines. Somebody does a certain thing and at once other people take up the suggestion and copy the original actor. Let the newspaper record a certain crime and many others of the same type follow closely after. Let there be a suicide, and many others follow, usually adopting the same methods. Let there be a number of cases of some kind of folly and dissipation, and immediately there is “an epidemic” of the same thing. Let the papers say much about the appearance of a new disease, and at once a number of people manifest symptoms of it. Diseases get to be quite the fashion in this way. The feelings and emotions of the instinctive part of the mind are called into sympathetic action along the lines of imitative suggestion, and physical effects follow shortly after.

Shrewd men take advantage of this tendency of the human mind, and, by getting a few people interested in certain things, they manage to set the fashion, and the crowd follows like sheep. Get people talking about a thing, and the contagion spreads until everybody is interested in the matter. The majority of people are more or less susceptible to this form of suggestion, the degree depending upon their habit of thinking, judging and acting for themselves. “

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  1. Universal Cyclopedia. 1900.
  2. Bloom, Peter. French colonial documentary: mythologies of humanitarianism. 1st ed. U of Minnesota Press, 2008.