We often unconsciously mirror the behavior of those around us, particularly when we’re trying to make a good impression, a phenomenon known as the “chameleon effect.” Research shows that, in general, mimicking another person’s gestures, inflections, or posture tends to make us come across as more likeable to that person.
But a new study conducted by a team of psychological scientists from Texas Tech University and Drew University finds that people will also unwittingly mimic negative behaviors that can potentially get them into trouble.
Researchers K. Rachelle Smith-Genthôs, Darcy A. Reich, Jessica L. Lakin, and Mario P. Casa de Calvo found that in a simulated phone interview, job applicants inadvertently mimicked the negative tone of voice of a potential boss, which led to lower performance reviews compared to a control group with a neutral-toned interviewer.
“The current study demonstrates that people will mimic negative behaviors during social interactions, even when that mimicry causes negative outcomes,” Smith-Genthôs and colleagues write in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. “At the very least, it is now clear that there is a darker side to behavioral mimicry.”
When an interviewer holds negative expectations for an applicant, they may unconsciously express that negative attitude through their tone of voice, facial expressions, or posture. Applicants who inadvertently mimic those negative behaviors may leave a bad impression with the interviewer. Essentially, an interviewer’s negative behavior can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, biasing the outcome of the interview.
For the study, 54 female college students were told they could win $50 if they were chosen as the best candidate during a simulated job interview for a student manager position at a campus travel agency.
Before beginning the interview, the students were asked to give a short speech about their qualifications, which was used as baseline measure for their normal tone of voice. During the phone interview, each applicant responded to the same series of pre-recorded questions about their job experience. The questions were all recorded by the same female interviewer, but some of the students were asked questions in a neutral tone of voice, while others were asked questions in a negative tone of voice.
When asked to rate their interview experience during a debriefing, applicants in the negative-tone condition did not differ from those in the neutral-tone condition in ratings for how comfortable, nervous, or self-conscious they felt during the interview.
Two teams of coders then evaluated the applicants’ interview performance based on either an audio recording or a transcript of the interview. The applicants were rated on a 9-point scale for factors such as interpersonal skills, expected performance, and likelihood of hiring.
Audio recordings of the interviews were also subjected to a low-pass filter that removed recognizable words while retaining tone of voice, and a third team of coders assessed applicant tone for qualities like warmth, enthusiasm, interest, and affect.
Smith-Genthôs and colleagues found that applicants’ tone of voice changed to match their interviewer’s, even when the interviewer was using a negative tone. Applicants who had a negative-toned interviewer ended up unconsciously responding to questions in a more negative tone themselves, which led to lower scores for their interview performance compared to the neutral-toned control group.
“This experiment demonstrated that participants in a simulated interview mimicked the negative tone of voice of an interviewer, that the interviewer’s tone led to a self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of participants’ performance, and that the effect of interviewer tone on applicant performance occurred through a shift in applicants’ tone of voice,” the researchers conclude.
To date, most research examining mimicry behavior has focused on positive behaviors and outcomes, but these findings suggest that the circumstances and potential consequences of negative mimicry constitute a ripe area for future research. It’s possible, for example, that negative mimicry processes contribute to the escalation of conflict in social situations and arguments.
Smith-Genthôs, K. R., Reich, D. A., Lakin, J. L., & de Calvo, M. P. C. (2015). The tongue-tied chameleon: The role of nonconscious mimicry in the behavioral confirmation process. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, 179-182. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2014.09.018