We're All Copycats

The chameleon effect happens naturally and frequently, because we feel a rapport with people who mimic our moves.

By Torri Barco, published on November 1, 1999 - last reviewed on November 17, 2006

Why do we unconsciously adopt a Southern twang when visiting a
friend in Alabama or make caustic remarks around an especially sarcastic
co-worker? Because it makes them like us better.

We mimic the people around us all the time without even realizing
it, says Tanya Chartrand, assistant professor of psychology at Ohio
State University. Chartrand and John Bargh, professor of
psychology at New York University, call this the "chameleon effect"—the
natural tendency to imitate another person's speech inflections and
physical expressions.

In a study published in the Journal of Personality and
Social Psychology
, Chartrand and Bargh asked 72 college students to sit
down individually with an experimenter and discuss a set of photographs.
With half the subjects, experimenters maintained a neutral, relaxed
seated position. But they mimicked the posture, movements and mannerisms
of the other subjects, crossing their legs or twirling their hair when
subjects did. At the study's end, students whose moves had been imitated
rated their experimenters as more likable, and reported having had
smoother interactions with them.

Outside the lab, the chameleon effect happens naturally and
frequently, since we feel a rapport with people who mimic our moves, say
Chartrand and Bargh. In other words, imitation is truly the sincerest
form of flattery—and a sort of social glue.

But actively trying to mimic a new boss or date won't win you any
points. "If a person thinks he is being mimicked, it will backfire,"
warns Chartrand. "He will like the mimicker less."

A better approach would be to practice a little compassion: In
another study of the chameleon effect, Chartrand and Bargh found that
students who rated high on empathy were more likely to imitate others.
"Those who pay more attention mimic more," says Chartrand—and make more
friends in the process.