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How often have you heard the following advice?

"You become the company you keep"

"You are the average of the 5 people you spend most time with"

"Choose your friends wisely"

(and hundreds/thousands more variations)

Seems like a very normal thing to say, you might think. Is this even necessary? You may also object, can't we just live our lives with nice people we like spending time with? Is this just more self-development fluff?

Unfortunately, this actually seems to be good advice. Here's my reasoning from a psychological standpoint on why such a thing is indeed necessary, and a key principle for executing it.

Our hidden power

It's deep in our human nature to imitate others. This is not only factual in the psychological literature, but one cannot deny its empirical existence.

Why do we imitate? As babies, we imitate to make sense of the physical world around us. I recently came across a fascinating study where an adult touched a light panel with his head to illuminate it, and some observing 18-month-olds performed this novel act even after a 1-week delay. Once we have passed this phase, we imitate for a few reasons. Firstly on the utilitarian side, imitation helps us bypass trial-and-error processes, to make learning much more efficient. Secondly on the social side, we imitate to be socially accepted. As they say, "monkey see, monkey do". I'll be focusing on the social aspect of imitation in this essay.

After all, isn't imitation how we grow from children into adults? We fit ourselves into the mould of society and subjugate our childlike recklessness to the rules of society. The 'adult' then arises at the prime of our individuality, when the deviation of our personalities become too wide and our incentives are aligned towards originality rather than homogeneity.

To facilitate this, our brains (largely our reward processing systems) learn what to do and what not to do, choose which parts of our personalities to keep and which to shred, depending on the feedback and non-verbal feedback we receive from every single encounter with society. Much like the biological process of metamorphosis, where a cocoon develops and shreds parts of itself into something homogenous to be recognisable as a member of its new 'society'.

By Colin Stokes (The New Yorker)

By Colin Stokes (The New Yorker)

Why we imitate

You might be wondering if this almost-arbitrary imitation is a good or bad thing. My answer is this — our natural proclivity to imitate is necessary. We imitate to be socially accepted, and the importance of being socially accepted cannot be overstated. It means being able to relate to other people. It is out of social acceptance that transcendental social concepts like loyalty, respect and marriage can be produced.

According to a research paper published in Current Directions in Psychological Science, people who are socially rejected (feel isolated, lonely or excluded) have poorer physical and mental health. Moreover, the biggest monster lies within the destructive self-reinforcing loop it creates. They don't sleep well, their immune systems sputter, they start to become depressed, and then they face even more exclusion as a result of symptoms of their disorder.