Gullible Mimics

A standard way to make someone like you is to mimic their face and body motions.  Smile, cross your legs, etc. when they do.  Why does this work?  Some say it helps you empathize with them, to feel as they feel.  Which is almost right. But more precisely mimicry helps you to see them as they want to be seen, rather than as they really are.  From a recent Psychological Science:

Mimicry facilitates the ability to understand what other people are feeling. The present research investigated whether this is also true when the expressions that are being mimicked do not reflect the other person’s true emotions. In interactions, targets either lied or told the truth [about donating to a charity], while observers mimicked or did not mimic the targets’ facial and behavioral movements. Detection of deception was measured directly by observers’ judgments of the extent to which they thought the targets were telling the truth and indirectly by observers’ assessment of targets’ emotions. The results demonstrated that nonmimickers were more accurate than mimickers in their estimations of targets’ truthfulness and of targets’ experienced emotions. The results contradict the view that mimicry facilitates the understanding of people’s felt emotions. In the case of deceptive messages, mimicry hinders this emotional understanding.

You are attracted to those who mimic you in part because such people show you that they will try to believe your lies.  You like people who will uncritically accept your story.  Do you want to reconsider if you should mimic others, or like those who mimic you?

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  • lgnp

    I find a lot of my personal experience in this study. I tend to naturally mimic the people I talk to, especially during one-to-one conversations, and I often revert back to a “default” state when there are more people involved in the conversation.

    But I noticed that when I am trying to evaluate the truth-value of someone’s words (as opposed to when I’m just making conversation), my behavior stops mimicking the other’s.

    The study allows me to put these observations into a conceptual framework, and it does make me reconsider my behaviour – not only to increase my potential perceptiveness, but also because I see mimicking as manipulative of the other.

  • newerspeak

    You are attracted to those who mimic you in part because such people show you that they will try to believe your lies… Do you want to reconsider if you should mimic others, or like those who mimic you?

    It seems to me that the word “lies” is connotation-heavy compared to the rest of the sentence. The real question here is what motivates the lies my fellow mimics are telling me. The situations involving lies and liars that come to my mind involve betrayal or manipulation. They would have been the most salient in the ancestral environment. But I suspect most of the lies I actually tell — or can actually get away with telling — are more like saying “Why yes, thank you, I love tofu surprise,” to my hostess at a dinner party.

  • I can’t tell from the abstract how they controlled for the effect of mimicry compared to other potentially distracting tasks. E.g., in newerspeak’s dinner party example, if the hostess is trying to balance a tray of very full glasses of wine, or trying to memorize newerspeak’s outfit so that she can describe it exactly to the experimenter afterwards, does the attention required to do so make it harder for her to tell when newerspeak is lying?

    Even if the experimenters didn’t control for this at all, the experiment is still interesting evidence against some of the stronger claims for mimicking helping you understand the other person’s state of mind. But conclusions like “you are attracted to those who mimic you in part because such people show you that they will try to believe your lies” seem to depend strongly on how strongly mimicry screws up lie detection compared to other distractions.

  • I agree with William Newman; without reading the entire paper, it is hard to know how accurate the abstract is. Paying attention to the exact details of these experiments is very important. We want to know how competing explanations were ruled out, or if they were even considered.

  • Brian

    I like this post. It points out some an important facet of the human psyche. However, this is trouble:

    “You are attracted to those who mimic you in part because such people show you that they will try to believe your lies. ”

    There is literally no evidence in the empirical research to support such a generalization. Why make such a contentious claim?

  • Zac Gochenour

    Brian, “The results demonstrated that nonmimickers were more accurate than mimickers in their estimations of targets’ truthfulness and of targets’ experienced emotions,” so how is the claim ‘contentious’ so long as you believe these results?

  • Zac, besides the ambiguity I wondered about in my earlier post, it seems straightforward to dream up alternative reasons that mimicry could be attractive.

    (I know there’s a sizable literature on imitation, including things like “mirror neurons,” but I am entirely ignorant of that literature. There is also a large literature on things like kin altruism and reciprocity, and I’m almost entirely ignorant of that literature too. So quite possibly I’m dreaming up scientifically impossible examples here, beware.)

    E.g., animals might respond favorably to mimicry because it spoofs a heuristic (“he is behaving more similarly to me than most members of my species, therefore he has probably inherited more of the traits I carry”) for kin altruism. Or “he is mimicking me, and for much of my evolutionary heritage that has been a strong indicator that we were attentively learning useful behaviors from each other, and so I reduce my estimate of the probability that he’s trying to sneak up on me merely to steal my food.”

  • William and Brian, it seems to me that people usually accept functional explanations of human behavior patterns, except when such explanations are unflattering, in which case folks are quick to point out that the behavior could be just accidental spandrels. I intend to apply the same standard to both types of cases.

  • Psychohistorian

    This conclusion misses a plausible alternative, which is that mimics are better at picking up what the individual is trying to communicate, irrespective of its truth content. Especially if people are not usually lying, this is a good thing.

    Basically, if non-mimics are more skeptical, they’ll catch lies more but catch truths less. Vice-versa for mimics.

    Even if people do lie somewhat often, “Mimics better understand what we’re trying to communicate” may be a much better explanation of why we like them than “Mimics believe any old lie we tell them!”

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  • abigail

    It is not always possible to overcome mimicry. I find myself mirroring another’s body language, picking up my glass when they do, become conscious of it, decide not to, and soon find myself doing it again.

  • Psychohistorian, I agree that we seem to be wired to prioritize effective communication. Favoring mimicking seems consistent with other preferences that also can make communication more effective. We like people that we’re interacting with to be near enough that we can hear and see each other clearly and easily, and we tend to respond positively when people we’re interacting with pay close attention to us. And I don’t know — it’d be interesting to do the experiment — but I’d expect that being nearby and paying attention tend to make it harder to mislead people, at least on things that matter to them in a practical unambiguous way. (A hostess might sometimes be motivated to cooperate in being deceived about how much a guest likes the tofu surprise; there are all sorts of signalling considerations which may be more important than a few tasty morsels. But a mating rival is very unlikely to be motivated to cooperate in being murdered.)

  • Gary

    Mimicking someone to make him or her like you is like sucking up to someone to make him or her like you. Only subordinates do it.

    Usually, you won’t be able to change your status by consciously choosing to mimic or not. But, if you could, you would rarely want to signal your willingness to be the follower if you aren’t already.

  • Paul Gresham

    It seems true that this works in general, but simply mimicking body language is not the only thing happening here, when it does work. For example if there were a person waiting in a queue at a bus stop and you started mimicking them, it would all be a bit weird. It certainly wouldn’t build trust.

    Things are happening on more levels than just pure body language. I think you’ll find the body language is secondary to the main body of communication. For example, nodding at each other whilst saying how bad the service is at the local supermarket, the conversation being profoundly negative, however strong positive messages are causing bonds to be formed. However, have you ever had the case where you go along with things, agreeing, nodding, bemoaning, only to walk away relieved that the ordeal is over. It is amazing how easily we mimic, we can slip in and out of this behaviour without noticing. Interestingly these behaviours are generally lacking high functioning autistic spectrum people. One interesting question, are mild autistic people perceived as socially challenged because they lack these traits or do they lack these traits because of being socially challenged. Unfortunately for high functioning autistics the answer doesn’t help them, only the people who occasionally get a dose of truth from them.

    Another point; if you were to nod in agreement, mimic and so on, but never make eye contact, or worse, distinctly look to one side, or up into the middle of your fellows forehead, the mimickery effect would be destroyed. All messages have to be congruent and we are acutely aware when they’re not. People refer to this as instinct. Being nervous can thwart your normal behaviour and send mixed messages. Also most video conference facilities for people to look at a screen, whilst the camera is elsewhere, can actually cause distrust (search for the MIT paper on this subject). I would argue that eye contact is probably more important than mimicking.

    An interesting study I’d like to do one day to collect empirical evidence (excuse to go out drinking) is how body language can communicate across a larger distance. Identify people in a bar that are perhaps interested in each other, or conversely, perhaps competing with each other. They’re body language synch’s up, despite being quite far apart and perhaps not consciously aware of each other. Taking this a step further you can actually mimic someone across a room and the results can be quite freaky if you’re the sort of person that likes to play such games, especially when alcohol is involved. Other examples are where groups identify with each other through posture, gesture and how they adorn themselves. This can be spotted from great distances and is fundamental to society.

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