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Author: Dr Simon Moss


Sometimes, individuals will subtly, and often inadvertently, mimic the gestures and mannerisms of someone else. When one person taps a foot, the other individual might enact the same behavior. Indeed, mimicry is especially common when individuals feel a sense of camaraderie with one another (see Lakin & Chartrand, 2003& for the neuropsychological basis, see Iacoboni, 2009).

Interestingly, when individuals are mimicked, their behavior often changes, sometimes called the chameleon effect. They become more trusting and cooperative (Van Baaren, Holland, Kawakami, & van Knippenberg, 2004). Even their performance on some tasks improves (e.g., Van Baaren, Horgan, Chartrand, & Dijkmans, 2004).

Factors that affect the prevalence of mimicry

Similarity on social identity

Individuals are more likely to mimic someone with whom they share a racial or ethnic identity. For example, research has shown that racial similarity increases mimicry (Heider & Skowronski, 2009. cited by Dalton, Chartrand, & Finkel (2010).

To illustrate, in a study conducted by Heider and Skowronski (2009), participants undertook a task with someone else in which they described photographs. In this task, participants described a series of photos in turn to each other. When both participants were White or Black, the individuals were likely to mimic one another: They were more likely, for example, both to touch their hair, touch their face, slouch their body, gesture their hands, or cross their hands within a couple of seconds of each other.

Likewise, similarity on other social categories can also increase the likelihood of mimicry. Individuals who share the same religious beliefs, for example, are especially likely to mimic one another (e.g., Yabar, Johnston, Miles, & Peace, 2006). Furthermore, individuals who belong to the same family are also more likely to mimic one another (Bernieri, Reznick, & Rosenthal, 1988).

Disparity in power

Although individuals tend to mimic someone who belongs to the same social category as themselves, the likelihood of such behavior diminishes if they share the same status. Specifically, individuals tend to mimic someone who is elevated in power or status (see Cheng & Chartrand, 2003& Giles & Powesland, 1975).

Cooperation and competition

Past research indicates that dissimilarity in social category, but similarity in status, may curb the likelihood of mimicry. Both of these principles can be ascribed to one mechanism: A sense of competition diminishes the likelihood of mimicry. For example, individuals are less inclined to mimic someone whom they perceive as competitive rather than cooperative (Lanzetta & Englis, 1989).


Mimicry is often assumed to be largely unconscious and unintentional. Indeed, when individuals are distracted, they are sometimes even more likely to mimic someone else. That is, in one study, individuals interacted with someone else. If they completed another task concurrently, mimicking was more prevalent (see Neumann & Strack, 2000).

Consequences of mimicry

Efficiency of social interactions

When individuals interact with someone of their own social category, such as a person from the same university, mimicry can facilitate social interactions. In contrast, when individuals interact with someone with whom they do not share a social category, mimicry can impede social interactions.

To clarify, as highlighted by Dalton, Chartrand, and Finkel (2010), in some contexts, mimicry is prevalent and thus aligns with the expectations of individuals. In these contexts, mimicry implies that norms have not been violated. Individuals thus feel they can apply their schemas to negotiate social interactions. They can process these interactions efficiently& they do not need to process irrelevant cues and stimuli (cf., Neisser, 1976). Their attention is not distracted by other distractions or complications.

In contrast, in other contexts, mimicry is infrequent and thus contradicts the expectations of individuals. In these contexts, mimicry implies that norms have been violated: The information cannot be readily assimilated with existing schemas, inducing physiological responses that coincide with feelings of uncertainty (see Mendes, Blascovich, Hunter, Bickel, & Jost, 2007). Furthermore, because schemas cannot be applied, information must be processed more comprehensively, demanding more resources, effort, and time (e.g., Bargh & Thein, 1985).

Dalton, Chartrand, and Finkel (2010) conducted studies that support these propositions. In one study, pairs of participants were instructed to describe various photographs to one another. For each pair, one of the participants was actually a confederate. Sometimes, the confederates would mimic the gestures and mannerisms of the participants, such as touch their own face or hair 2 or so seconds after the participants enacted this behavior. Next, the participant completed a Stroop task. That is, participants needed to specify the font color of words, some of which represent incongruent hues, such as the word blue written in red font.

If the confederate and participants were both White or both Black, mimicking subsequently improved performance on the Stroop task. Presumably, this mimicking was expected, and thus schemas were utilized to guide the interactions. Effort was not consumed and, thus, could be directed to the Stroop task. In contrast, when the confederates and participants did not pertain to the same racial category, mimicry impeded performance on the Stroop task. This mimicry perhaps conflicted with expectations and, thus, could not be assimilated with existing schemas. The social interactions thus demanded more attention, consuming effort, and compromising subsequent performance.

In a subsequent study, the participants assumed the role of a leader or follower in this interaction. If the confederates were assigned the role of a leader, and mimicked the behavior of participants, Stroop performance diminished. Presumably, leaders seldom mimic their followers and, hence, this behavior violated existing schemas. More attention was mobilized to guide the interactions. In contrast, if the confederates were assigned the role of a follower and mimicked the participant, performance on the Stroop task improved. Presumably, followers are expected to mimic leaders and, hence, this behavior aligns with schemas, conserving attention or effort (Dalton, Chartrand, & Finkel, 2010).

In a final study, mimicking that aligned with expectations improved performance on a subsequent test of divided attention. Mimicking that violated expectations--because the individuals did not belong to the same race--compromised divided attention.


As Van Baaren, Holland, Kawakami, and van Knippenberg (2004) showed, individuals are more likely to act supportively and cooperatively towards someone who subtly mimics their behavior. In particular, individuals will occasionally, either deliberately or inadvertently, mimic the posture and gestures of another person. For example, if individuals lean forwards or touch their face, the person to whom they are conversing might engage in the same behaviours. An individual is more likely to mimic a person to whom they would like to form a supportive and trusting relationship. Therefore, if a person is mimicked, they spontaneously feel a sense of support and trust. As a consequence of these feelings, they become more likely to engage in cooperative, altruistic behaviours.

Spontaneous mimicry also predicts cooperative behavior, as demonstrated by Lakin and Chartrand (2003): Individuals who do not mimic the gestures or mannerisms of the persons with whom they interact tend to be less supportive and cooperative. That is, some individuals feel motivated to form a solid, supportive, and cooperative relationship with another person. To forge a cooperative relationship, these individuals inadvertently attempt to highlight their similarity to this other person. To emphasise this similarity, they unconsciously tend to mimic some of the gestures, mannerisms, and posture of this other person. For example, these individuals will shake their foot whenever the other person engages in this behaviour.

Furthermore, if somebody had earlier acted discourteously towards them, these individuals feel a more intense need to forge a solid, supportive, and cooperative relationship with another person (Lakin & Chartrand, 2003). In other words, they become even more likely to mimic the mannerisms of other individuals.

Ashton-James, van Baaren, Chartrand, Decety, and Karremans (2007) uncovered one of the mechanisms that might mediate the association between mimicry and cooperation. In particular, after individuals are mimicked, they are more likely to adopt a collective self construal: That is, they tend to perceive themselves as one entity of a broader collective, and not as an independent, detached person. This collective self construal encourages cooperation (see Ashton-James, van Baaren, Chartrand, Decety, & Karremans, 2007).

To illustrate, in one study, after individuals were mimicked, and then asked to describe themselves, they became more inclined to allude to their social roles (e.g., "I am a sister") than personal attributes (e.g., "I am intelligent& Ashton-James, van Baaren, Chartrand, Decety, & Karremans, 2007). Furthermore, when individuals demonstratred this collective self construal, they were more likely to participate in another research project, to help a different PhD student (Ashton-James, van Baaren, Chartrand, Decety, & Karremans, 2007).

Evaluations of the other person

When some individuals are mimicked by someone else, they become more inclined to like this person. However, this pattern of findings does not apply to people who are more competitive instead of cooperative (Stel, Rispens, Leliveld, & Lokhorst, 2011).

In one study, the social value orientation, representing the extent to which participants are competitive or cooperative, was assessed. To assess social value orientation, participants played a game. Specifically, on each trial, they were granted three options to divide resources between themselves and another person. Competitive people would rather earn more than does the other person than earn a substantial amount of resources. Cooperative people attempt to maximize the amount the individuals earn in aggregate as well as minimize the discrepancy between themselves and the other person.

Next, during a face to face interaction, the gestures of some participants were mimicked by the other person& the gestures of other participants were not mimicked. Finally, the participants indicated whether or not they liked the other person. If cooperative, participants preferred a person who mimicked their gestures: These participants, presumably, are more sensitive to signs of similarity and cooperation. If competitive, participants were no more likely to prefer a person who mimicked their gestures (Stel, Rispens, Leliveld, & Lokhorst, 2011).


As Maddux, Mullen, and Galinsky (2008) demonstrated, mimicry can facilitate negotiations. When individuals mimic some of the gestures, mannerisms, or behaviors of their opponent during a negotiation, such as to touch their face if the other person engages in this act, albeit subtly, they are more likely to be satisfied with the outcomes they negotiate, achieving most or all of their goals and hopes.

In particular, some individuals, either deliberately or inadvertently, mimic some of the gestures or mannerisms of their opponent. They might use similar words or tap their foot if their opponent enacts a similar behaviour. As a consequence, provided the similarity is subtle, the opponent feels an unconscious sense of similarity with this individual. Because of this feeling of similarity, a sense of trust emerges. When individuals trust each other, they are more inclined to specify which issues are especially important and which issues are less important. For example, applicants who seek a job might perceive wage as important but work hours as less important. As a consequence, individuals are able to concede one issue to achieve another goal.

Cognition and performance

As Van Baaren, Horgan, Chartrand, and Dijkmans (2004) demonstrated, individuals whose posture or gestures are mimicked by another person tend to perform more effectively on some tasks but less proficiently on other activities. Specifically, sometimes the posture, gestures, or mannerisms of individuals are unwittingly mimicked by someone else. Although unconscious, these employees feel a sense of similarity and thus attachment towards one another. Because of this sense of attachment, they do not perceive individuals as segregated from each other. Instead, they become more aware that individuals--and even objects--are connected with each other in some abstract sense.

As a consequence of this awareness, after individuals are mimicked, they become more proficient on tasks in which they need to integrate and recognise the relationships between distinct objects or elements. For example, CEOs need to integrate many business units. The performance of CEOs may thus improve when they feel a sense of similarity and attachment to other individuals (Van Baaren, Horgan, Chartrand, & Dijkmans, 2004). Consistent with this proposition, in one study, various objects were presented on a screen. In one condition, participants needed to remember the location of these objects& to achieve this goal, they needed to be aware of the position of each object relative to the other items. If they were subtly mimicked by someone else, their performance on this task improved (Van Baaren, Horgan, Chartrand, & Dijkmans, 2004).


Behavioral mimicry has been shown to improve the capacity of individuals to perceive similarities or patterns, called convergent thinking, but compromise their ability to uncover novel perspectives, called divergent thinking. To illustrate, in one study, reported by Ashton-James and Chartrand (2009), some participants were subtly mimicked by the experimenter. The participant and experimenter might have touched their face or body at similar times, for example. Next, participants conducted a task in which they needed to recognize patterns. A series of diagrams was presented. Consecutive diagrams were identical, apart from some transformation, such as rotation by 45 degrees. Participants had to identify the next possible diagram in the sequence. Mimicry improved performance on this task.

The second study was equivalent, except participants instead had to complete a task that assesses divergent thinking. They had to suggest possible labels of pasta, nuclear elements, or pain relievers. For each category, they received three examples that were identical on some attribute. For example, the three examples of pasta names all ended in i. If participants had been mimicked, they were not as likely to suggest names that diverge from this pattern. For example, they primarily suggested pasta names that end in i.

According to Ashton-James and Chartrand (2009), when two individuals exhibit the same gestures or mannerisms, they feel a sense of connection: They feel they belong to the same group. In these conditions, convergent thinking, in which people recognize the similarities or patterns that underpin diverse sources of information, is more adaptive. That is, convergent thinking is likely to uncover similarities that facilitate cooperation and collaboration.

In contrast, if two individuals do not exhibit the same gestures or mannerisms, they are not as inclined to feel this sense of connection. They might feel they belong to distinct, and even, rival groups or collectives. In this conditions divergent thinking, in which they consider distinct perspectives or concepts, might be more useful. That is, in these environments, they might need to uncover opinions or possibilities that diverge from the attitudes or beliefs of other people.

Mechanisms that underpin mimicry

Associations between perception and behavior

Mimicry has been ascribed to associations between perception and behavior by several researchers, such as Barresi and Moore (1996). According to this perspective, individuals are guided by schemas--units that represent knowledge, rules, and patterns of behavior in specific contexts. These schemas tend to represent both perception and behavior& hence perceptual cues will often activate these schemas and, thus, elicit corresponding behaviors. For example, schemas that represent the perceptual features of older individuals will activate behaviors that typify this social category.

Similar associations between perception and behavior can explain mimicry. Schemas that represent the perception of some behavior, such as tapping a foot, will tend to activate schemas that represent the execution of this behavior. That is, both the perception and execution of some behavior tend to coincide with similar semantic concepts--tapping the foot might correspond to anxiety, for example--and thus these movements and feelings activate each other. When someone watches someone execute some act, schemas that represent the execution of this behavior are activated, eliciting this action.

Unconscious mechanisms

To a large extent, the initiation and consequences of mimicry are assumed to be unconscious. For example, in one study, conducted by Dalton, Chartrand, and Finkel (2010), mimicry between two peers facilitated social interactions. This effect, however, was not mediated by measures assessed explicitly, such as self efficacy, evaluations of the other person, or a sense of difficulty. Presumably, the effects of mimicry are underpinned by unconscious operations& explicit measures might not be sensitive to these operations.

Indeed, individuals are not only inclined to mimic overt behaviors, but also mimic physiological responses, at least in some circumstances. This mirroring of physiological responses may partly underpin emotional contagion.

To demonstrate, individuals sometimes discover they are similar to someone else. For example, they might both share some unusual interest in common. If individuals feel a person they perceive as similar to themselves is either stressed or exhausted, they also experience their emotions. Even their heart rate increases when this other person engages in exercise (Cwir, Carr, Walton, & Spencer, 2011).

Factors that moderate the effects of mimicry


When individuals are exposed to money, mimicry does not evoke positive evaluations. Specifically, after people are exposed to money, they become more inclined to pursue their personal goals and thus seek autonomy. In addition, they do not feel they need to depend on other people and thus prefer to complete tasks independently. If individuals are mimicked, they feel a sense of connection to another person. This connection impedes their preference to seek autonomy and independence (Liu, Vohs, & Smeesters, 2011).

In one study, conducted by Liu, Vohs, and Smeesters (2011), participants were first exposed to a screen, covered with either currency or shells. Next, participants conversed with another person of their sex for 10 minutes. This person subtly mimicked the gestures of some, but not all, the participants for about 2 seconds.

Then, to assess whether individuals experienced a sense of threat, a word flashed on the screen briefly, too rapidly to be recognized consciously. The task of participants was to guess which of two words were flashed. One of these words related to a threatening concept, like coffin. Finally, the participants rated the extent to which they like or dislike the other person.

If participants had been exposed to currency, they were more likely to choose the word that was associated with threat, but only when they were mimicked. Mimicking thus evoked a sense of threat. Furthermore, if participants had been exposed to currency, they were more inclined to like participants who did not mimic any of their gestures. In contrast, participants exposed to shells demonstrated the opposite pattern of results.

Related topics

Mimicry might underpin emotional contagion--the tendency of individuals experience the emotion of someone else (for a discussion, see Howard & Gengler, 2001). Specifically, individuals usually attempt to display a sense of empathy and understanding towards the people they like. To exhibit this empathy, they tend to mimic their facial expressions and positive gestures involuntarily. For example, as Howard and Gengler (2001) discovered, customers will often smile and exhibit other positive gestures and facial expressions, provided the salespeople they like also emit these behaviours.

Accordingly, if salespeople seem happy and likeable, customers are more likely to purchase the promoted products. That is, the customers will mimic the happy expressions of these likeable salespeople. After the customers exhibit these positive gestures and facial expressions, their mood tends to improve immediately. Customers who feel positive and cheerful are less likely to focus on unfavourable qualities and problems& hence, they are more likely to purchase the products that are offered.


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Last Update: 7/12/2016