Beyond Words

The science and fun of nonverbal communication

Mimicry and Mirroring Can Be Good... or Bad

Mirroring and mimicry may increase or decrease rapport and liking.

Can mimicry and mirroring another person’s action while interacting with them increase rapport being developed and as a result them liking you? Could it have an adverse effect and contribute to them having a negative perception of you?  

The answer, as with many research studies in nonverbal communication, is it depends! 

Mimicry can have a positive or negative effect in situation
Generally, overall mimicry will leave people with positive feelings (Andersen, 1998) and can make a person more persuasive (Balinson & Yee, 2005).  However, certain situations it can actually diminish it (Lui, et al., 2011) and be viewed as violating social norms.

Firstly, mimicry and mirroring, like much of nonverbal communication often occurs subconsciously.  This is holds true for the person doing the mimicking as well as the person on the receiving end.  Since it is occurring on this level, people often are not able to articulate that the other person’s mimicry is what creates the positivity and liking (Chartrand & Bargh, 1999).

What are nonverbal examples of mirroring and mimicry?  It consists of a wide-ranging spectrum including, but not limited to dress, gestures, vocal pitch and tone, posture, distance, eye contact, distance between the other person, and body orientation.

Notice the various aspects of mirroring?
Research has shown that people increase mimicry of another person when affiliation goals exist compared to when not meaning if you are engaged in a task with other people, or working on a collaborative project, it is more likely that mimicry will be displayed.  However, odds also favor no one will realize it.  Mimicry is often one aspect of being charismatic, being persuasive, building rapport, developing immediacy and overall having a positive impact on someone. 

If the above is the “good” of mimicry, you are probably aware that there is a “bad” to it as well.  Indeed, and one not surprising culprit is when money is involved.  A study conducted by Lui, Vohs, and Smeester (2011) demonstrated that simply priming participates with being reminded of money resulted in the person being mimicked having a negative impression on the mimicker.  The suggested the thought of money and subsequent mimicry could create a threat perception of the mimicker. 

Various social contexts where people were mimicked can give people the chills- literally.  Leander, Chartrand and Bargh’s(2011) first study actually demonstrated those not being mimicked resulted in the non-mimicked person feeling colder while studies two and three demonstrated that it was not the presence of mimicking that creating feelings of coldness but rather it was the “inappropriateness” of the mimicry and racial differences.

Not every situation calls for mimicry (think task oriented and non-peer interactions) and people engaging in same-race situations reported warmer room temperatures marginally during mimicked interactions compared to cross-race interactions.  Applying this directly to everyday interactions, mimicry would more expected between employees of the same title compared to it being displayed between, for example, a manager and employee. 

Leander’s et al.’s research reflects also on previous research where people displaying mimicry is not alone in creating this frigid sensation feeling of coldness.  Sense of coldness has been correlated with feeling lonely and socially excluded; perceiving a social threat; and people being assigned a public-speaking task.  A study even demonstrated the insula region of the brain was activated for physical sensations of coldness as well as social coldness. 

Can mimicking someone then increase rapport, liking, and a positive feeling about the mimicker?  Yes, generally research points in that direction however there is parting words of caution. 

Here are two tips to consider:

1) Base the use of mimicry on the other person as well as the situation. 

2) Keep in mind if you are purposely mimicking others during interactions, it can create a cognitive strain and thus contribute to stress leaking out nonverbally.  This means your intentional attempts at rapport building, charisma, and being persuasive can actually backfire.

What I do suggest is practicing empathy and active listening skills.  Practice in developing empathy and engaging in active listening skills with the same intention of building rapport, being charismatic and being persuasive can have the same effect while at the same time, with practice, can occur automatically and reducing the cognitive strain of non-genuine mirroring and mimicry can create.

Jeff Thompson is a Ph.D. candidate researching nonverbal communication and mediation at Griffith University Law School.

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