Mimicry refers to the unconscious and unintentional imitation of other people’s accents, speech patterns, postures, gestures, mannerisms, moods, and emotions. Examples of mimicry include picking up regional accents or expressions when on vacation, or shaking one’s leg upon observing another person’s leg shaking.
In the 1970s and 1980s, research on mimicry focused on exploring the relationship between behavioral mimicry (i.e., shared motor movements) and rapport between interaction partners. The two were found to be positively correlated. For example, counselors who mimic the postures of their clients are perceived by their clients to be more empathetic, warm, genuine, with more expertise; mothers and babies who share motor movements have more rapport; and classrooms characterized by high teacher-student rapport have more shared movements.
By the 1990s, researchers agreed that mimicry is related to empathy, rapport, and liking. However, because the thrust of the early research was on demonstrating an association between behavioral mimicry and rapport, rather than on demonstrating experimentally that mimicry does occur and the conditions under which it occurs, several questions remained to be explored. One question concerned the ubiquity of mimicry. Does mimicry occur above chance levels in a social interaction? Another question concerned how the effects are produced. Does mimicry lead to rapport or does rapport lead to mimicry? Moreover, early research paid little attention to the fact that most mimicry occurs without conscious intention or awareness. If people’s behaviors passively and unintentionally change to match those of others in their social environments, then what are the minimal conditions needed to produce these chameleon effects? Do people mimic strangers or just friends? Do people need to have an active goal to get along with and be liked by the interaction partner?
Several experiments were conducted in the late 1990s to address these questions. In them, participants took turns with another participant (actually a confederate— part of the research team) describing a series of pictures. When the confederate performed certain behaviors, such as face rubbing or foot shaking, participants unintentionally rubbed their faces more or shook their feet more. In some cases, confederates were intentionally unlikable and mimicry still occurred. Participants were not able to report after the interaction what the confederate’s mannerisms were, or that they mimicked those mannerisms. In other experiments, the confederate either mimicked the postures, movements, and mannerisms displayed by the participants or not. Mimicked participants liked the confederate more and perceived their interactions as being smoother. Taken together, these studies suggested that mimicry leads to greater rapport, and it occurs at greater than chance levels, in the absence of any overarching goal to affiliate with an interaction partner, and without awareness or intention.
Why Does Mimicry Occur?
One current explanation for why mimicry occurs is the perception-behavior link. Essentially, perceiving someone behave in a certain way activates a representation of that behavior in the mind of the perceiver and makes the perceiver more likely to engage in that behavior too. This happens because the mental representation that is activated when a person perceives a behavior overlaps with the mental representation that is activated when the person engages in that behavior himself or herself, so the activation of one leads to the activation of the other.
Although this explanation suggests that mimicry is a by-product of the way concepts in people’s minds are structured, this is not to say that social factors do not influence mimicry. Mimicry has evolved in the context of social interactions and serves an important social function. Recent experimental research has shown that people unconsciously mimic more when they have a goal to affiliate with others. Thus, if they want another person to like them, they start to mimic the other person more. Furthermore, a number of social contexts have been identified that seem to heighten people’s desire to affiliate with others and therefore heighten their tendency to unwittingly mimic others’ behaviors. For example, people are more likely to mimic peers, someone who has power over their outcomes, or someone who has ostracized them. People also engage in mimicry more if they are feeling too distinct from others.
Research has also shown that personality characteristics make certain people more likely to mimic than others. One such personality characteristic is self-monitoring. People who are motivated and able to monitor their public images and adjust to their social contexts are more likely to mimic their interaction partners when there are affiliation cues in the environment than are people who are less concerned with adjusting to their social environment. Another personality characteristic associated with mimicry is interdependent versus independent self-construal. People who perceive themselves to be part of a collective and strive to assimilate to their group—for example, people from Japan—are more likely to mimic their interaction partners than are people who perceive themselves to be distinct from others and possess individualistic ideals—for example, people from the United States. Finally, perspective taking has been related to mimicry, such that people who tend to put themselves in other people’s shoes engage in more mimicry than those who do not.
What Are the Consequences of Mimicry?
What are the consequences of behavioral mimicry? For the person who was mimicked, mimicry makes interaction partners seem more likable and makes interactions seem smoother. Mimicry also renders the mimicked person more helpful toward the mimicker and more open to persuasion attempts by the mimicker. The effects of mimicry appear to generalize beyond the mimicker, making the person who was mimicked feel closer to others in general and engage in more prosocial behaviors, such as donating money to charities. Mimicry can also have consequences for the mimicker. For example, by imitating the postures, gestures, and facial expressions of another, one’s own preferences, attitudes, and emotional experiences are affected. The phenomenon whereby feelings are elicited by patterns of one’s facial, postural, and behavioral expressions is called mood contagion or emotional contagion.
- Chartrand, T. L., Maddux, W. W., & Lakin, J. L. (2003). Beyond the perception-behavior link: The ubiquitous utility and motivational moderators of nonconscious mimicry. In R. Hassin, J. S. Uleman, & J. A. Bargh (Eds.), Unintended thought 2: The new unconscious. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Dijksterhuis, A., & Bargh, J. A. (2001). The perception-behavior expressway: Automatic effects of social perception on social behavior. Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 33, 1-40.