It’s one of the first rules of persuasion: mimic subtly your conversation partner’s movements and body language (with a slight delay), and they’ll perceive you to be more attractive and trustworthy. Being mimicked, so long as it’s not too blatant, apparently leaves us in a better mood and more likely to be helpful to others.
It all sounds so easy, but now Jia Liu and her colleagues have thrown a spanner in the works. They’ve demonstrated that reminders of money reverse the benefits of mimicry – leading mimics to be liked less, and the mimicked to feel threatened. It all has to do with the selfish, egocentric mindset triggered by money. And in that context, the researchers say, being mimicked is uncomfortable because it gives people the sense that “their autonomy is being threatened.”
Liu’s team had 72 undergrads complete some irrelevant questions on a computer on which the screen background was either filled with shells or currency signs. Next, each participant chatted for ten minutes with a stranger who either did or didn’t mimic them. Finally, the participants rated how much they liked that person and they completed an implicit measure of threat. Words were flashed subliminally on a screen and, after each one, participants had to try to guess the word from a subsequent list. Choosing more threat-related words was taken as a sign that they were feeling more threatened.
Without the initial reminder of money on the computer screen, mimicry had its usual beneficial effects – participants in this condition who were mimicked felt less threatened and liked their conversation partner more. By contrast, mimicked participants reminded of money at the outset, liked their partner less and felt more threatened (compared with participants in the money condition who were not mimicked). Feelings of threat were found to mediate the links (positive or negative, depending on the condition) between mimicry and liking.
“Being mimicked typically leaves people with positive feelings,” the researchers concluded, “but this experiment showed that mimicry can diminish liking of the mimicker if people have been reminded of money.
“… The findings take the psychology of money in a new direction,” they added, “by demonstrating money’s ability to stimulate a longing for freedom.”
Liu, J., Vohs, K., and Smeesters, D. (2011). Money and Mimicry: When Being Mimicked Makes People Feel Threatened. Psychological Science DOI: 10.1177/0956797611418348