Psychological Distance and Level of Imitation

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Description: In past research on imitation, some findings suggest that imitation is goal based, whereas other findings suggest that imitation can also be based on a direct mapping of a model’s movements without necessarily adopting the model’s goal. We argue that the two forms of imitation are flexibly deployed in accordance with the psychological distance from the model. We specifically hypothesize that individuals are relatively more likely to imitate the model’s goals when s/he is distant but relatively more likely to imitate the model’s specific movements when s/he is proximal. This hypothesis was tested in four experiments using different imitation paradigms and different distance manipulations. Experiment 1 served as a pilot study and demonstrated that temporal distance (vs. proximity) increased imitation of a goal relative to the imitation of a movement. Experiments 2 and 3 measured goal-based and movement-based imitation independently of each other and found that spatial distance (vs. proximity) decreased the rate of goal errors (indicating more goal imitation) compared to movement errors. Experiment 4 demonstrated that psychological distance operates most likely at the input—that is, perceptual—level. The findings are discussed in relation to construal level theory and extant theories of imitation.

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