Have you ever found yourself so deep in conversation with somebody that you start to copy their every move? When talking to a colleague with a strong accent, do you find yourself gaining an accent of your own? Have you picked up a terrible swearing habit around a particular friend who curses on a regular basis?
If you’ve admitted to doing this at times, you’re not alone. This social psychology phenomenon is called the chameleon effect. Like the chameleon, we tend to make ourselves blend into our environment. It makes us feel socially safer.
This natural tendency to imitate our peers occurs all the time. Most of us don’t even realize we are doing it.
Many suggest that by mimicking other people’s actions we can cause them to develop positive feelings toward us. However, others postulate that this phenomenon occurs as a byproduct of a positive social interaction. Which is it? Is it possible to harness it to our advantage?
A study performed by Chartrand and Bargh (1999) endeavored to explore this concept by asking some questions:
- Do people automatically mimic others, even strangers?
- Does mimicry increase liking?
- Are high perspective takers more likely to exhibit the chameleon effect? (High perspective takers are people more likely to conform to others’ perspectives.)
Chartrand and Bargh sampled 78 people. They tested the theory simply by having the subjects chat with an insider, who were told to vary their mannerisms throughout the conversation. The insiders introduced mannerisms such as smiling, face touching and foot waggling into the conversation and the researchers studied the subjects’ responses. They found that subjects naturally copied their insider, who to them was a complete stranger. Face touching increased by 20 percent and foot waggling by 50 percent when prompted.
To discern whether the mimicry inspired positive feelings toward others, the researchers studied the subjects when they had to discuss some random pictures. Some insiders were instructed to mimic the subject’s body language and others were told not to. The researchers found that those subjects who experienced the chameleon effect rated the interaction as more enjoyable than those who didn’t.
To gain data on the third question, the researchers asked 55 people to fill out a survey. It determined whether they were high perspective takers. Then the first experiment (a conversation with a stranger) was repeated. The high perspective takers were more likely to perform the chameleon effect. They increased their face touching by 30 percent more than their counterparts, and their foot waggling by 50 percent.
Perhaps if we started to consciously increase our mimicry, we would have more success with work colleagues or potential partners. However, a key part of the chameleon effect is that we are unaware that we are doing it. If we started to consciously mimic, it might come across very differently with undesirable effects.
Chartrand, T.L. & Bargh, J.A. (1999). The Chameleon Effect: The Perception-Behavior Link and Social Interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76(6):893-910.
Chameleon photo available from Shutterstock