Mimicry and Trust

The Chameleon Effect

Many social and political conflicts fail to be resolved due to a simple lack of trust between parties. One simple way to enhance trust is through mimicry of body language. The chameleon effect stands for the idea that subtle mimicry can increase trust and liking. When we are mimicked, we feel a sense of support and trust. We are more likely to think of ourselves as part of a broader collective (i.e. adopt a collective self-construal). As a result, people whom we mimic are more likely to trust and like us.

There are quite a few research studies on the effects of mimicry. Overall, researchers have found that we tend to act more supportively and cooperatively towards those who subtly mimic our behavior. As always, there are complications and this technique doesn’t work always. For example, competitive individuals seem to be unaffected by mimicry. Overall, however, this technique works rather well most of the time.

Research on Mimicry and Trust

One study by William Maddux, Elizabeth Mullen, and Adam Galinsky tested effectiveness of this technique in negotiations. Participants in one of their experiments had to negotiate a sale of a gas station.

The negotiation exercise is tricky – a deal based solely on price is impossible:

  • The seller’s reservation price (the minimum) is $553,000
  • The buyer’s reservation price (the maximum) is $500,000

The only way to reach an agreement is to look for underlying interests. And the underlying interests are compatible. The seller wants to sell the gas station so that he or she could sail around the world. But upon the return, he or she needs to get an employment. The buyer not only wants to buy the station, but also needs to hire managers to run the station in the future.

The buyer, however, doesn’t know the seller’s underlying reasons. If the buyer knew the underlying reasons, he or she could come up with a creative solution: offer not only to buy the gas station for lower price (e.g. for $495,000), but also offer the seller to work as a manager of the station upon his or her return.

But of course the seller has to trust the buyer to reveal his or her underlying interests. To gain the seller’s trust, some buyers were asked to mimic the seller’s behavior. Participants read the following message instructing them to mimic:

Successful negotiators recommend that you should mimic the mannerism of your negotiation partner to get a better deal. For example, when the other person rubs his/her face, you should too. If he/she leans back or leans forward in the chair, you should too. However, they say it is very important that you mimic subtly enough that the other person does not notice what you are doing, otherwise this technique completely backfires. Also, do not direct too much of your attention to the mimicking so you don’t lose focus on the outcome of the negotiation.

The results of the experiment are inspiring:

  • 67% of buyers who mimicked the seller reached a deal
  • Only 12.5% of buyers who did not mimic the seller reached a deal

Increased trust is one of the main reasons why mimicry works. Increased trust in turn leads to more information sharing. As the authors of the study point out, mimicking negotiators “are better able to extract information and concessions from the other side and use this information to create agreements that are especially valuable to them”.

Application

The most important thing is to mimic subtly. Mimicry backfires if people become aware that they are mimicked.

Sources:

  • Maddux, W. W., Mullen, E., and Galinsky, A. D. (2008). Chameleons bake bigger pies and take bigger pieces: Strategic behavioral mimicry facilitates negotiation outcomes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 44:461-68.
  • Ashton-James, C., van Baaren, R. B., Chartrand, T. L., Decety, J., & Karremans, J. (2007). Mimicry and me: The impact of mimicry on self-construal. Social Cognition, 25, 518-535.
  • Stel, M., Rispens, S., Leliveld, M., & Lokhorst, A. M. (2011). The consequences of mimicry for prosocials and proselfs: Effects of social value orientation on the mimicry-liking link. European Journal of Social Psychology, 41, 269-274.