Mimicry and Persuasion

Greg, I had to put this up for you–mirroring others, salesmen, and the brain?  Couldn’t be a better combination, unless we also stick some no-holds-barred fighting or choke techniques in there when mimicked persuasion fails…

The NY Times has an article today, “You Remind Me of Me,” whose basic point comes to this: “subtle mimicry comes across as a form of flattery, the physical dance of charm itself.”  Subtle mimicry is not immediate and seemingly deliberate, but is a shadowing that happens a couple seconds later.  In one study, supposedly on a new sports drink “Vigor,” some study participants were subtly mimicked in the lab, legs crossed a couple seconds later, body position copied, and so forth.  The result: “None of the copied participants picked up on the mimicry. But by the end of the short interview, they were significantly more likely than the others to consume the new drink, to say they would buy it and to predict its success in the market. In a similar experiment, the psychologists found that this was especially true if the participants knew that the interviewer, the mimic, had a stake in the product’s success.”

 Put differently, subtle mimicry is a good way to build rapport.  For example, I have found myself doing it in interviews with people who don’t normally open up to a stranger about illegal drug use.  Besides the important framing of ethical behavior on my part at the beginning of an interview, telling them they could help me and that I had a stake in the results showed people I cared about them and what they had to say.  Subtle copying, whether of physical movements or of language, was another way to show I was interested.  And this is not just being manipulative–physical cues often reveal things about state of mind, and bringing things they had said previously back into conversation showed that I had actually listened to them and also helped the study participant and myself reflect on the overall conversation.  In other words, mimicry can lead to reflection…

 Or not, if you’re a salesman.  Ray Allieri, with twenty years experience in sales and marketing, says, “Myself, I’m very conscious of people’s body position.  If they’re leaning back in their chair, I do that, and if they’re forward on their elbows, I tend to move forward.”  Later in the article Ray continues, “I think what good salespeople really do is pick up on physical cues and respond to them without thinking much about it… I especially find myself falling into a Southern accent, which is crazy. I’m from Boston”

 And to end with the brain science: “In several studies, Jean Decety, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, has shown that some of the same brain regions that are active when a person feels pain also flare up when that person imagines someone else like a loved one feeling the same sting or ache. A similar process almost certainly occurs when a person takes pleasure in the good fortune of a friend or the apparent enjoyment of a conversation partner, Dr. Decety said. ‘When you’re being mimicked in a good way, it communicates a kind of pleasure, a social high you’re getting from the other person, and I suspect it activates the areas of the brain involved in sensing reward’.”

Mimicry also plays a role in why inequality is so pernicious (ever imitate your superiors?), in the transmission of culture (imitating peers and parents), and in the function of culture (copying others on the dance floor, anyone?).  But it’s the subtlety of it, conscious or unconscious, that is striking.

2 thoughts on “Mimicry and Persuasion

  1. Dear Daniel —
    Yeah, I’ve seen this material, sometimes under the heading ‘chameleon behavior’ when dealing with academic studies. There’s some fascinating stuff about it, some of which I discuss in a paper that I’m trying to revise to resubmit. The more applied versions in things like non-verbal communication and sales techniques are also pretty engaging, although less subtle. I ran into some of it when I was a door-to-door salesman in college. They didn’t use it too heavily in our training techniques, but it was brought up. I found that, although imitation was certainly part of it, really good non-verbal communication made both leading and following use of imitation. That is, you didn’t just copy the other person’s gestures; you consciously used yours to cue the response you wanted. I still use it in fieldwork and… ‘interpersonal negotiation,’ realizing that if I talk calmly and slowly, for example, it can often calm another person down, even if what I’m saying is not calming, realizing that if I start leaning forward and getting kind of jumpy, I can push the other person to get a bit more whipped-up.

    I agree though that the subtlety and pervasiveness of it that are so striking. And some people don’t do it as well or frequently as others, which the research doesn’t usually cover too muc. I’m sure it’s in their data, like the large number of folks dropped from the language shadowing I discussed in my previous post; it’s just that the lab techniques of most psychology are designed to throw out outliers — read, ‘human variation’ — and try to home in on ‘normal’ behavior (not good for the kinds of stuff that neuroanthropologists are interested in: human variation, modifiability, construction of different neural systems to do similar functions, etc.). That is, some of us are ‘more chameleon’ than others, which is obvious to me whenever I try to teach dance classes. As the long-ago post on how mirror effects in neurons are likely ‘learned’ suggested, this shouldn’t be too surprising. Just because we (usually) have mirror neurons doesn’t mean that they will be recruited by the same things in all of us.

    The brain stimulation of the imitator — the ’empathetic’ effects aren’t that surprising to me; since emotions can often be driven by the physical manifestations of mood or emotion (smile and your brain smiles with you, even if you’re faking it), I don’t think it’s all that big a stretch to assume that if you’re imitating someone else’s posture, speech cadence, and gestures, even unintentionally, you’re quite likely to get tuned into their emotional state. What is a bit more of a stretch to me is that the person being *imitated* would end up feeling pleasure (Decety’s point). What do we call this, the ‘sy(n)cophant effect’? We’re happy when people follow us around and imitate us?

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