Adjusting your behavior to better relate to others around you -- mirroring -- has many advantages. As a social species, we are attracted to people who seem similar to us. And when a job or potential romance is on the line, we find ourselves mirroring the mannerisms and speech patterns of those we wish to please.
But research on a group of participants shows that mirroring has its downsides as well, especially when people go too far to mimic others' behaviors.
The experiments involved 82 participants who each viewed a video with two people pretending to partake in a job interview (participants did not know the interactions were staged). There were two conditions in which the person being interviewed mirrored the behavior of the interviewer and two controls in which no mirroring took place. For each mirroring condition, the interviewer acted friendly or "condescending" to the person being interviewed.
Mimicry of the condescending interviewer included actions such as leg-crossing and chin-touching, says Piotr Winkielman, a professor of psychology at UC-San Diego. These actions are relatively innocuous, but observers can see from them that the person interviewed is adapting the same body language as the condescending interviewer.
Meanwhile, participants were asked to rate the trustworthiness, competence and likeability of the people being interviewed. Researchers found that actors who mimicked behaviors such as leg-crossing and chin-touching had lower ratings, meaning participants didn't take as great of a liking to their tactics.
The same can't be said for conditions in which the participants were shown videos of job interviews in which the actor did not mimic the interviewer.
To look at whether body behavior or language was linked to this trend, researchers conducted the same experiment, but cropped the person being interviewed out of the frame, leaving participants exposed to the person's audio alone. They found that mimicking the condescending interviewer didn't negatively affect participants' ratings of that person when the person wasn't visible.
The results point to mirroring's role as a social tool, but the experiments cannot conclude how successful the mimic is in achieving his goal of obtaining a job.
"Is it possible that that the interviewee who mimicked the obnoxious [interviewer] would still get the job?" asks Winkielman, who led the study. "Well, it depends. Not if the decision is made not only by the interviewer but also by the ‘observers’ who are on the search committee (i.e., the mimic wins the interviewer but loses the committee)."
Winkielman told Discovery News the next step would be studying whether interviewers can detect brown nosers and are more impressed with candidates who are competent enough to notice condescending behaviors in others.
English, Marianne. 2011. "Mirroring Has Many Advantages -- But Beware". Discovery News. Posted: August 1, 2011. Available online: http://news.discovery.com/human/mirroring-others-110801.html