The chameleon effect — named after the reptile famous for changing its appearance to blend in — is something most people do automatically.
Indeed, self-help books, persuasion manuals and glossy magazine articles often advise that mimicking body language can increase how much others like us.
But, does mimicking other people’s body language really make them like us?
Or is mimicry just a by-product of successful social interactions?
Although it had long been suspected that copying other people’s body language increases liking, the effect wasn’t tested rigorously until Chartrand and Bargh (1999) carried out a series of experiments.
They asked three related question:
- Do people automatically mimic others, even strangers?
- Does mimicry increase liking?
- Do high-perspective-takers exhibit the chameleon effect more?
(And, fourthly, what does all this have to do with hypnotism? On which, more later.)
People do automatically mimic others
The set-up: Testing what they call ‘the chameleon effect’, in their first study 78 participants were sat down to have a chat with an experimental insider or ‘confederate’ who had been told to vary their mannerisms in systematic ways.
Some did more smiling, others more face touching and still others more foot waggling.
Result: Yes, participants did naturally copy the confederate (who they’d only just met) as measured by face touching, foot waggling and smiling.
Face touching only went up 20%, but rate of foot waggling went up by an impressive 50% when participants were inspired by another foot waggler.
Mimicry does increase liking
In the second experiment Chartrand and Bargh wanted to see if all this foot waggling and face touching has any actual use, or whether it is just a by-product of social interactions.
The set-up: 78 participants were sent into a room to chat with a stranger (another experimental confederate) about a photograph. With some participants the confederate mimicked their body language, with others not.
Afterwards participants were asked how much they liked the confederate and rated the smoothness of the interaction, both on a scale of 1 to 9.
Result: Mimicry did indeed work to increase liking.
When their body language was copied, participants gave the confederate an average mark of 6.62 for liking (and 6.76 for smoothness).
When they weren’t being mimicked participants gave the confederate an average of 5.91 for liking (and 6.02 for smoothness).
Not a huge difference you might say, but still a measurable effect for a change in behaviour so subtle most people didn’t even notice it.
Perspective affects the chameleon effect
Since we’re all different, some people will naturally engage in mimicry more than others.
But what kinds of psychological dispositions might affect this?
Chartrand and Bargh looked at perspective-taking: the degree to which people naturally take others’ perspectives.
The set-up: Fifty-five students filled out a perspective-taking questionnaire, along with a measure of empathy, then they were sat opposite an experimental confederate, doing the same old face rubbing and food waggling routine from before.
Results: Participants who were high in perspective-taking increased their face-rubbing by about 30% and foot waggling by about 50% compared with the low-perspective-takers.
Differences between people in empathic concern, however, had no effect on mimicry suggesting it was the cognitive component of perspective-taking that was important in encouraging mimicry rather than the emotional.
Hypnosis and the chameleon effect
So the ‘chameleon effect’, far from being the preserve of cold-blooded reptiles, is actually a warm response facilitating social interactions.
This experiment suggests most of us do it automatically to varying degrees and, just as the glossy magazine advice goes, it does encourage other people to like us.
But what’s this connection between social mimicry and hypnotism that I mentioned at the top?
Well, one influential theory of hypnosis says that in the hypnotic state the conscious will is weakened so that suggestions from the hypnotist are carried out automatically (Hilgard, 1965).
This is actually an extreme version of what happens when we mimic other people’s body language.
In some senses, when two people are really getting along, their feet-waggling and face-touching in perfect harmony, it’s like they’ve hypnotised each other.