What Happens to Your Brain When You Copy Others…

What Happens to Your Brain When You Copy Others

We all have a subconscious desire to steal from others even though understand it’s unethical and illegal. The fear of penalty doesn’t stop us from copying mimics, gestures, and deeds because – and science proves it – our human brain feels happy when mirroring someone.

Its region responsible for this phenomenon is the mirror neuron system, reacting to actions of other people even before our conscious brain gets what’s happening. We imitate emotions, gestures, and facial expressions to connect with each other. According to some evolutionary psychologists, it’s a kind of “social glue,” facilitating empathy, increasing interpersonal bonding, and triggering happy chemicals in our brain to satisfy its need for excitement.

Known as “the chameleon effect,” such biological programming might be dangerous to let it run its course. Its power depends on educational, personal, and cultural background of a person, so the consequences could be far from pleasant for young people with fledgling values and worldviews.

Researchers have explained it back in 2011:

“Mimicry is a crucial part of social intelligence, but it is not enough to simply know how to mimic. It’s also important to know when and when not to. The success of mirroring depends on mirroring the right people at the right time for the right reasons. Sometimes the socially intelligent thing to do is not to imitate,” said Piotr Winkielman, a professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego.

But now, the issue becomes essential more than ever.

When plagiarism doesn’t match to scientific hopes

Given that we are more responding and empathetic towards people of our age, nationality, and culture, immature brains can use the mirror neuron system to copy the behavior of their idols to look popular and achieve certain goals.

Striving for recognition and respect, some start mimicking influencers for wrong purposes: singers steal lyrics from each other, writers borrow ideas from best-selling colleagues, teenagers copy the style of speech and gestures from their popular classmates…

“Copycats don’t consider such behavior evil. Thus, a student plagiarizing academic papers online is sure he has a right to do so because he needs this work more than others. Subconsciously, he wants to make a teacher happy because – and here we go back to the mirror neuron system – he will be 15% happier himself if satisfy a professor with his essay,” shared her observations Nancy Christinovich, a target audience analyst and content strategist at PlagiarismCheck.org.

It closely echoes the psychological trap described by Socrates and saying that no one commits crimes and other evil actions knowingly. In our brain, such deeds turn into good: we do believe we hurt no one when copying from others and we do think we need this object more than others.

It’s clear that such copying hurts.

First, our psychological need for copying may infringe the intellectual property of those copycatted. Second, the immune system of a plagiarizer suffers: stress from guilt feeling, fear of getting caught, low self-esteem because of the imposter syndrome – this leads to negative downshifting and depression. And finally, it kills critical thinking, creativity and, therefore, innovations.

In sum, we feel better and become more emotionally intelligent when imitating positive emotions, mimics, and gestures of others.

However, there’s a trap:

Since our brain is lazy, it approves everything leading to least resistance from its side; and it’s the moment when happy imitations turn into plagiarism. To not become poor copies, it’s time to work on the equal ground with our brain rather than rely on its subconscious part to the root.


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Lesley Vos


I’m a content architect and web writer, in love with languages and books. A coffee addict, passionate about foxes and…

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