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When It’s An Error To Mirror

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In human relationships, mimicry can act as a kind of ‘social glue’ and foster rapport in subtle ways. If, for example, Amy and Ted are engaged in a conversation, Amy might mirror some of Ted’s mannerisms, leading Ted to like Amy more, trust her, and think of Amy as more similar, even though both are unaware that any mimicry took place. All this has been confirmed by much of psychological research, leading to a popular perception (and advice) that imitating is “good for you”. But new research suggests that mimicry may not always lead to positive social outcomes.  In fact, sometimes not mimicking is the smarter thing to do.

In a study to be published in a forthcoming issue of Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science, psychological scientists Piotr Winkielman and Liam Kavanagh, along with philosophers Chris Suhler and Patricia Churchland at the University of California, San Diego, noted that there are often observers to the mimicry that takes place in dyadic relationships. This led them to wonder whether there might be certain situations in which mimicry comes at a reputational cost. That is, are there some cases in which an observer might think less of a person for mimicking the behavior of another, even when the mimicry is not consciously noticed by the observer? After all, Winkielman argues, mimicry is a crucial part of social intelligence and “social intelligence is not only knowing how to mimic, but also when not to mimic.”

Participants in the study were asked to watch several videotaped interviews staged by the experimenters. Some participants saw videos in which the interviewer was cordial and other participants saw videos in which the same interviewer was condescending. Importantly, in some videos the interviewee mimicked the interviewer’s simple, innocuous mannerisms, such as chin-touching or leg-crossing, and in other videos the interviewee showed no mimicry.  After watching each video, participants evaluated the interviewee on general competence, trustworthiness, and likability.

Despite the fact that the participants reported no awareness of mimicry, it still influenced their evaluations of the interviewee. Critically, participants judged the interviewee who mimicked the condescending interviewer to be less competent than the non-mimicking interviewee.  In other words, in the eyes of the outside observers, the imitator of the undesirable model incurred reputational costs — their mirroring was seen as an error.

Interestingly, an additional experiment showed that visually obscuring the interviewer in the same videos eliminates the negative effects of mimicry, showing that observers use alignment in body language to make their judgments.  Furthermore, the reputational cost of mimicking a condescending interviewer disappeared when participants first read positive information about his character, suggesting that the observers care about the deeper aspects of the person.

Winkielman says that this research indicates that mimicry is more nuanced than previously thought. Our social lives are incredibly complex and in order to build or maintain relationships we have to keep in mind “who is competent, high status, trustworthy, who is friends with whom.”  We can make these determinations partly by observing who imitates whom.  As such, the benefits of mimicry depend very much on the social context: “it’s good to have the capacity to mimic, but an important part of social intelligence is knowing how to deploy this capacity in a selective, intelligent, context-dependent manner. Sometimes the socially intelligent thing to do is not to imitate.”