We like people more when they mimic us. But only up to a point. If mimicry becomes too obvious, it can backfire, becoming mockery. A new study asks just how much imitation is enough to trigger benefits. Does the mimicker need to copy every action, or merely to move the same body parts?
Peggy Sparenberg and her colleagues conducted three experiments in all. In the first two, 126 participants performed movements while at the same time watching videos of human-like avatars performing various movements of their own.
The avatars either moved their arms in a straight line, up and down, or they moved their legs in a linear fashion. Meanwhile, the participants turned a crank in a circular motion, either with their arms, or with their legs. The idea was that the movement type performed by the participants was always completely different from the type of movements performed by the avatars, while the limb used matched for some participants but not others. Asked to rate the pleasantness of the avatars afterwards, there was a clear effect of matching limbs. Participants who’d watched an avatar moving the same limb type that they’d been moving tended to give their avatars higher ratings.
For the final study, 96 seated participants were trained in different types of movements with their arms or legs (e.g. holding the elbows steady near the body, and swinging the arms outwards to the side and back again). They then performed these trained movements while watching a video of a person in a chair performing movements of their own. The character in the video either performed the exact same kind of movements; different movements but with the same limb type; or different movements with different limbs.
After the videos, the participants rated their feelings towards the video character. The key finding here was that participants gave higher ratings when the person in the video moved the same limb as they did, regardless of whether they performed the same kind of movement. In fact, seeing the video character perform the same kind of movement added nothing to the preference ratings.
Mimicry is thought to make a good impression because it increases what’s called “sensorimotor fluency”. As mimicry researcher Rick van Baaren told The Psychologist, when you’re mimicked, “What you perceive is the same as what you do. It’s easier for the brain to process, it takes less energy and leads to positive affect.” These new results suggest that merely seeing the same limb moved as the limb you are moving, is enough to trigger this fluency effect. “To our knowledge,” Sparenberg and her team concluded, “our results are the first to demonstrate that an incidental and minimal structural overlap in body part moved is sufficient to establish a mimicry-preference link.”
Sparenberg, P., Topolinski, S., Springer, A., and Prinz, W. (2012). Minimal mimicry: Mere effector matching induces preference. Brain and Cognition, 80 (3), 291-300 DOI: 10.1016/j.bandc.2012.08.004