Mimicry and Mirroring Can Be Good or Bad

Mirroring and mimicry may increase or decrease rapport and liking.

Posted Sep 09, 2012

Can mimicry and mirroring another person’s action while interacting with them increase rapport and make them like you more? Or could it have an adverse effect and lead to a negative perception of you?  

As with many research studies in nonverbal communication, the answer is: It depends! 

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

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

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

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, the odds are that no one will realize it. Mimicry is often one aspect of being charismatic, being persuasive, building rapport, and 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.  One unsurprising culprit crops up when money is involved. A study conducted by Lui, Vohs, and Smeester (2011) demonstrated that simply priming participants to be reminded of money resulted in the person being mimicked having a negative impression on the mimicker. 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 who were not 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 be more expected between employees of the same title compared to it being displayed between, for example, a manager and employee. 

This study also reflects previous research in which displaying mimicry was not the only thing to create this frigid sensation feeling of coldness. A 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 positive feelings about the mimicker? Yes, generally research points in that direction, however there's still a note of caution. 

  1. Base the use of mimicry on the other person as well as on the situation. 
  2. Keep in mind that 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 developing empathy and engaging in active listening with the intention of building rapport, being charismatic and being persuasive. This can have the same effect while occurring automatically and reducing the cognitive strain that non-genuine mirroring and mimicry can create.