What is the Purpose of Mimicry?

What Mimicry Studies Teach Us About Connection

When I was 13, I stumbled on a book called “Instant Rapport,” which fascinated me. It talked about in being in sync with someone, and the value of mirroring their body language to establish connection. Recently, my research team has been studying themes of connection, and we found a series of articles on “mimicry.” Mimicry is defined as the tendency to imitate facially, posturally, or vocally, people with whom we are interacting (Hess, 1999).

We see mimicry in infants mirroring expressions of their mother and father, in singers responding to each other’s cues and creating a beautiful harmony, in rowers as they try to move up and down the slide in perfect synchrony and improv actors experiencing and then moving with each other. We interact with and respond to each other through mimicry. Our face, made up of tons of tiny muscles, gives clues to what we are experiencing emotionally, whether we know it or not. A simple downward twitch of the eyebrows can clue someone in to our anger. Unless the person has been trained to read these microexpressions they will only be affected by it on an unconscious level. Without being told that only a genuine smile contracts the orbicularis oculi muscle and a fake smile does not, we instinctively know the difference. Reading someone’s feelings and responding through mimicry produces a basic level of agreement and connection, even from infancy.

There many scientific studies on mimicry, which I think can give us some understanding of how connection takes place. Researchers use EMG (electromyography) to read the muscle movement in the face and understand how people express emotions. They also use Paul Ekman’s FACS (Facial Action Coding System) in which video is analyzed for facial movements which make up microexpressions. In a recent study (Murata 2016), just by asking people to notice the emotions expressed on other’s faces, there was an increase in the level of the observer’s mimicry. This got me really excited because it means we can increase empathy and connection in our own lives just by trying to understand others’ emotions.

Murata’s study showed that people naturally respond with mimicked corresponding facial expressions when they are asked to understand the emotions a person was experiencing. In Study 1, 50 Japanese students were shown video clips of people’s faces. One group was given no instruction. The second group was asked to understand the person’s emotional state, which caused the subject to mimick the video’s corresponding facial expression (assessed by EMG). This shows that facial mimicry occurs more frequently if participants are specifically instructed to infer the target’s emotional state versus given no instructions. In Study 2, the researchers asked on group of subjects to identify external traits (facial attributes, gender, age, etc.) on the people in videos. When the subjects were only looking at the pictures for factual information, the subjects’ faces remained unchanged. When the researchers asked the second group of subjects to try to understand what emotion the person in the video was feeling, the subjects mimicked the picture’s corresponding facial expression. Using a microexpression coding system (FACS), researchers discovered participants were more likely to participate in facial mimicry when asked to infer the target’s emotional state versus making inferences about physical traits unrelated to emotion.

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This graph shows when we pay attention to emotion, we will experience the other’s emotion more, and even subconsciously, we will mimic their emotional expression on our face (shown here as AU’s, or action units, defined in individual facial muscle movements).

This explains why I believe more empathy and connection can take place by understanding this study:

Focus on emotion likely causes priming of the mirror neuron system and therefore there are stronger rapid reflexive mirroring facial expressions seen.  

Here are some other interesting facts about mimicry:

  • It occurs largely unconsciously (or out of our awareness) and is difficult to suppress (Dimberg, 2000, 2002).  
  • It can predetermine results in: speed-dating, predicting successful salary negotiations, detection of leadership roles during meetings, and job interview outcomes (Terven, 2016).
  • It occurs with strangers (Chartrand, 1999) but even more so when you desire to be connected to someone (Lakin, 2003).
  • Men were more likely to express sadness when someone close to them expressed sadness (Yabar, 2001).
  • Happiness was mimicked whether you knew the person well or not, whereas negative affects like sadness was mimicked only by people when they had group affiliation (Bourgeois, 2005).
  • One study found that people who were more cooperative were found to have both more positive and negative facial expressions (Schug, 2009).    

Even if you aren’t aware of it, when you want to get along with someone, you will naturally mimic the other person’s facial expressions to demonstrate a subconscious level of empathy and interest.

Sometimes, I notice (to my humor) I do this unconsciously as well! People occasionally mimic on purpose, as a form of manipulation, which I am not suggesting we should try to do. Manipulation, trying to connect in order to use people, will be picked up on, which will cause disconnection. When someone has specific intentions, they get transmitted through the mirror neuron system to the other person. So, if you are trying to use connection to sell something, that is going to get communicated on an unconscious level.

Do you ever feel on guard when you meet a stranger that you think does not have the best intentions? Have you ever been to a party where the people you talk to have a reason for speaking with you, either to take something from you or use you in some way? When doing therapy for a rape victim, I have heard several times that prior to the rape, when interacting with the person who assaulted them, they got a sickening feeling that something was “off.” We can be aware of people’s intentions, even when they only mimic us with a goal of using connection for some other purpose.

Anytime you are experiencing more of what someone else is feeling, you are actually going to connect more with their experience. Leaning into their world will allow you deeper understanding of them. That bridge leads to the possibility of higher amounts of connection. I think even the knowledge that as babies, and into adulthood, entirely unconsciously, we have the ability to mimic someone’s emotional facial expressions, proves that we are all hard-wired or built for connection with people. All of these scientific studies show a simple way to connect: pay attention to the emotional state of those around you.

Bourgeois, Patrick, and Ursula Hess. “The impact of social context on mimicry.” Biological psychology 77.3 (2008): 343-352.

Chartrand, T.L., Bargh, J.A., 1999. The chameleon effect: the perception–behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 76, 893–910.

Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M., Elmehed, K., 2000. Unconscious facial reactions to emotional facial expressions. Psychological Science 11, 86–89.

Dimberg, U., Thunberg, M., Grunedal, S., 2002. Facial reactions to emotional stimuli: automatically controlled emotional responses. Cognition and Emotion 16, 449–472.

Hess, U., Philippot, P., Blairy, S., 1999. Mimicry: facts and fiction. In: Philippot, P., Feldman, R.S. (Eds.), The Social Context of Nonverbal Behavior. Studies in Emotion and Social Interaction. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK, pp. 213–241.

Lakin, J.L., Chartrand, T.L., 2003. Using nonconscious behavioral mimicry to create affiliation and rapport. Psychological Science 14, 334–339.

Murata, Aiko, et al. “Spontaneous Facial Mimicry Is Enhanced by the Goal of Inferring Emotional States: Evidence for Moderation of “Automatic” Mimicry by Higher Cognitive Processes.” PloS one 11.4 (2016): e0153128.

Terven, Juan R., et al. “Head-gestures mirroring detection in dyadic social interactions with computer vision-based wearable devices.” Neurocomputing175 (2016): 866-876.

Yabar, Y., Cheung, N., Hess, U., Rochon, G., Bonneville-Hébert, N. (2001). Dis-moi si vous êtes intimes, et je te dirais si tu mimes. [Tell me if you’re intimate and I’ll tell you if you’ll mimic] Paper presented at the 24th Annual Meeting of the Société Québécoise pour la Recherche en Psychologie, October 26–28, Chicoutimi, Canada.


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