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Rock, Paper, Scissors: Secret to Winning

Photodisc/Thinkstock(LONDON) -- A new study involving the game Rock, Paper, Scissors suggests that the human tendency to mimic may not always be advantageous, and that instinctive involuntary copying, once inherited and learned, may be nearly impossible to override.

The study observed a variety of subjects playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, the children's hand-gesture game, during which time either or both players were blindfolded to determine if being unable to see their opponent's movements had any bearing on how they played. Players were given a small cash incentive to win.

The rules of probability predicted players had a 1 in 3 chance of a draw in any given round, and the results when both players were blindfolded corresponded to this, with 33.3 percent draws.

When only one player was blindfolded, however, that number jumped to 36.3 percent -- not a huge difference but, the study authors said, a significant one.

The study found the blindfolded players gestured milliseconds before the sighted ones, suggesting the sighted players were unconsciously imitating their sightless counterparts. It also suggested the instinct to mimic can be counterproductive, because a player can only win the game by making different hand gestures than an opponent.

"'Research has already shown people imitate actions around them," said the study's lead author, Richard Cook of University College London. "This study confirmed that in the sense of that imitation being unconscious. The report also confirmed that the imitation is hard to stop, even when it's beneficial to stop."

So the sighted players mimicked the actions of the blindfolded player almost as an involuntary, knee-jerk reaction.

Many scientists believe that humans possess "mirror neurons" -- cells that prompt us to imitate actions, language, dress codes and numerous other habits that we pass on from generation to generation. But do mirror neurons mean the automatic predisposition to mimic is an unavoidable part of our genetic code -- something about which, try as we might, we can do nothing?

Cook believes mimicry isn't simply inherited but is contributed to by nurture, as well as nature. He believes humans actually acquire mirror neurons through learning. We learn to mimic our parents when we're younger, we associate seeing with doing, and it becomes an instinct that stays with us and, Cook said, even when we mimic in an undesirable context, it is difficult to inhibit.

The study, Cook said, suggests this learned behavior could be altered if new associations are fostered early. In theory, you could train your child in counter imitative responses, which would make it more likely that one gesture would elicit the opposite gesture in the child in the future. That sort of instinct is useful, for example, to boxers or tennis players who -- like anyone playing Rock, Paper, Scissors -- must offer a counter response in order to win.

Marisa Carrasco, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at NYU, cautions that people shouldn't necessarily draw dramatic conclusions about instinctive mimicry from the study.

"The deviations in results are fairly small," she said, "and there was nothing really big at stake here so maybe in more real circumstances one would be able to not have such an automatic imitation that was unbeneficial."

But mirror neurons aside, other than the obvious benefits to survival, an urge to physically mimic can be our friend in other ways, too.

According to a 2009 study by Nicolas Gueguen, a professor at the University of South Brittany, small, possibly involuntary gestures of mimicry -- such as crossing your legs when your date crosses theirs -- can be attractive to potential partners and decrease social anxiety.

"Mimicry is one way of expressing empathy because you're showing similarities," Carrasco concurred. "You're perceiving something and you're acting on it, as well."

On a small scale however, while we may still be waiting for definitive facts about whether we instinctively copy and why, next time you're playing Rock, Paper, Scissors, you might want to up the stakes -- and bring out the blindfold.

Copyright 2011 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio