Imitation is How Humans Learn to Give. So Why are Churches and Nonprofits Doing Away With It?

Tip of the cap to Peter Leithart for his post on mimetic humanity, or how humans are wired to learn just about everything through imitation far more than through explanation or training or emotional stimulation.

The issue is absolutely crucial for those of us who teach giving. We’ve written in multiple posts over the years about the importance of imitation as a strategy for training givers, most prominently:

But setting aside for a mere moment the nearly ironclad theological basis for advocating imitation as our core discipleship strategy, consider Leithart’s observation that humans are biologically built to learn through imitation, more than through newsletters, sermons, and tear-jerking Powerpoint presentations.

In Children Learn by Monkey See, Monkey Do. Chimps Don’t, science writer Carl Zimmer describes an experiment by Victoria Horner and Andrew Whiten, two psychologists at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland:

Dr. Horner and Dr. Whiten described the way they showed young chimps how to retrieve food from a box.

The box was painted black and had a door on one side and a bolt running across the top. The food was hidden in a tube behind the door. When they showed the chimpanzees how to retrieve the food, the researchers added some unnecessary steps. Before they opened the door, they pulled back the bolt and tapped the top of the box with a stick. Only after they had pushed the bolt back in place did they finally open the door and fish out the food.

Because the chimps could not see inside, they could not tell that the extra steps were unnecessary. As a result, when the chimps were given the box, two-thirds faithfully imitated the scientists to retrieve the food.

The team then used a box with transparent walls and found a strikingly different result. Those chimps could see that the scientists were wasting their time sliding the bolt and tapping the top. None followed suit. They all went straight for the door.

The researchers turned to humans. They showed the transparent box to 16 children from a Scottish nursery school. After putting a sticker in the box, they showed the children how to retrieve it. They included the unnecessary bolt pulling and box tapping.

The scientists placed the sticker back in the box and left the room, telling the children that they could do whatever they thought necessary to retrieve it.

The children could see just as easily as the chimps that it was pointless to slide open the bolt or tap on top of the box. Yet 80 percent did so anyway.

Zimmer goes on to detail follow-up experiments done by Yale grad student Derek Lyons that produced the same results:

Children really do overimitate. [Lyons] has found that it is very hard to get children not to.

If they rush through opening a puzzle, they don’t skip the extra steps. They just do them all faster…

Mr. Lyons sees his results as evidence that humans are hard-wired to learn by imitation, even when that is clearly not the best way to learn.

Combine the theological mandate to imitate with the biological wiring that predisposes us humans to do so, and one is left to ask:

  • Why do we pull children out of “big church” and put them in “children’s church” where they are robbed of the ability to imitate us? Is it any wonder that kids drop out of church when they hit college age, since they’ve had no experience imitating adult Christians?
  • We’re so worried about offending newcomers that we stop passing the offering plate in church. But how better for newcomers to learn to give than by observing and then imitating the behavior of those sitting next to them? Is it any wonder that we have so many freeloaders in our churches?
  • Why is donor development in nonprofits done as a one-on-one activity between the development officer and the donor, where the nonprofit is asking and the donor is (typically) saying no? Why not place donors in a peer context with individuals like themselves who are giving so that they also can imitate generous behavior?

As we privatize giving and treat it as an individual, deeply personal activity, we neutralize the greatest force we have for growing people in generosity: imitating one other, particularly those among us who are mature givers in Christ.

About Pastor Foley

The Reverend Dr. Eric Foley is CEO and Co-Founder, with his wife Dr. Hyun Sook Foley, of Voice of the Martyrs Korea, supporting the work of persecuted Christians in North Korea and around the world and spreading their discipleship practices worldwide. He is also the International Ambassador for the International Christian Association, the global fellowship of Voice of the Martyrs sister ministries. Pastor Foley is a much sought after speaker, analyst, and project consultant on the North Korean underground church, North Korean defectors, and underground church discipleship. He and Dr. Foley oversee a far-flung staff across Asia that is working to help North Koreans and Christians everywhere grow to fullness in Christ. He earned the Doctor of Management at Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management in Cleveland, Ohio.
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