Pacing and Matching - does it work?


In 1999, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology published an influential paper showing how socially bonding the act of mimicking can be, even when people aren't aware they're being imitated.

In the study, psychologists Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh asked college students to describe a set of photographs in one-on-one discussions with researchers.

During the discussions, the researchers subtly but consistently mirrored the mannerisms and posture of the students. If one of the college kids leaned back, then the researcher leaned back. If one of the kids folded his arms, then the researcher did as well.

With a control group, the researchers made no attempt to copy behaviours; instead, they adopted a neutral tone and body language.

The results
None of the students noticed that the researchers were mimicking them. And yet compared with those who were not imitated, the ones who were mimicked reported liking the researchers more and thinking the interaction went more smoothly.

In short, when people imitate us - nodding when we do, tilting their heads when we do - we are more willing to be their ally.

People get kinder
Five years after Chartrand and Bargh's paper was published, a team of Dutch researchers not only replicated the earlier research but also found that people become more altruistic after they have been imitated.

Mimicked participants in the Dutch study, which was conducted in the same way as the Chartrand and Bargh study, were willing to help a researcher who had "accidentally" dropped some pens 84% of the time; those in the control group helped pick up the pens only 48% of the time.

The Dutch team has also found that waiters get larger tips when they use the precise words that a customer used to order food. When waiters paraphrase the order, their tips shrink - even if the order comes out of the kitchen correctly.

Finally, the Dutch team discovered that people who are mimicked are more likely to donate money to charity than those who aren't.

Mimicry "may have adaptive value," the Dutch team concluded, "enhancing the chances of successful procreation of those members of a species who adopt this specific behavior."

Making monkeys out of us?
Indeed our fondness for imitation may be a survival advantage, deeply rooted in our evolutionary biology - even monkeys become more willing to engage in a kind of commerce with those who imitate them.

The practical implications are pretty obvious: if you want something from someone, a good way to get it is to imitate them.

But, as the Chartrand and Bargh study suggests, do it subtly. If you're discovered copying someone's every move, you might seem a little creepy. On the other hand 'successful procreation' sounds like fun, doesn't it?


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Alan Davidson:

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