Many of us played the game “copycat” as a child. It was probably quite fun to annoy siblings or parents by imitating every word or action they had performed. Indeed, playing copycat seems to be very much engrained in us. Even in the first few hours that babies spend in this world, they readily (and automatically) imitate simple facial expressions (such as mouth openings) of those they observe.1 Although it may seem as if we grow out of playing copycat as we get older (and of course, wiser), recent research in social psychology shows that imitation, or mimicry, not only persists throughout our lives, but has some powerful effects on our interactions with others.2
Have you ever interacted with someone only to find yourself picking up his or her mannerisms, idiosyncratic behaviors, or even an accent? Have you ever leaned back in your chair when you were in the company of someone who leaned back in his or her chair, or perhaps crossed your legs when the person sitting next to you crossed his or her legs too? If so, you are not alone. In fact, such subtle mimicry helps us establish rapport with others. When others mimic us, it can lead us to like them more (without really knowing why), and our own goals to bond with others can lead us to mimic them more as well.2
Of course, the effects of mimicry apply to the world of dating. For example, heterosexual people’s mimicry of attractive opposite-sex others may depend on whether they are involved in a relationship. In three experiments, researchers found support for the hypothesis that study participants will mimic attractive opposite-sex others less if the participants are involved in a relationship.3 In one experiment, singles rubbed their faces more than romantically-involved folks during an interview with an attractive opposite-sex confederate who rubbed his or her face at regular intervals (in other words, they did not mimic the confederate as much if they were already in a committed relationship). Interestingly, the closer the romantically involved participants felt to their partners, the less they mimicked their attractive interaction partner. The moral of the story: if you ever find yourself mimicking another person, chances are you like him or her. Watch out though – you don’t want your partner catching you mimicking those attractive others!
1Meltzoff, A. N., & Moore, M. K. (1983). Newborn infants imitate adult facial gestures. Child Development, 54, 702-709.
2van Baaren, R., Janssen, L., Chartrand, T. L., & Dijksterhuis, A. (2009). Where is the love? The social aspects of mimicry. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B, 364, 2381-2389.
3Karremans, J. C., & Verwijmeren, T. (2008). Mimicking attractive opposite-sex others: The role of romantic relationship status. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 34, 939-950.
Stan Treger, M.A. - Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Stan is interested in (1) interpersonal connectedness and closeness; (2) attraction and relationship initiation; and (3) sexuality. He has published on infidelity, sexual attitudes, and women’s sexuality, and is currently investigating affective forecasting, humor, and transactive memory in close relationships.