It’s long been understood by social psychologists that mimicry is part of who we are as humans. We copy the body language, gestures, and facial expressions of those around us without meaning to, or even knowing we are doing it. While doing routine tasks, we copy simple gestures being intentionally primed by a stranger sitting next to us, like touching our face or tapping our foot. We mimic those we care about more than those we don’t know, and people we perceive as being like ourselves more than people we perceive as different. We mimic more when we feel connected to others, or when others are important to us, or when we want to affiliate with others. Mimicry creates, reflects and strengthens social bonds.
Neuroscientists researching the new frontier of mirror neurons are beginning to understand how and why our brains do this and how central mimicry seems to be to everything that makes us human. (Check out this stunning Ted talk by neuroscientist V. Ramachandran that will take you on a ten minute intellectual journey about mirror neurons, from functional brain imaging through the evolution of language and culture to the meeting point of neuroscience and Buddhist thought.)
We can recruit this core human primate behavior as a tool for deeper, more intentional and effective engagement with conflict resolution practice. For example, according to a review of the literature by a team of social psychologists, in one study, adult participants
” who were subtly mimicked by a confederate liked that confederate more and had smoother interactions with that confederate. [And,] the developmental psychology literature documents evidence that infants react more favourably towards adults who imitate them than adults who do not (Meltzoff 1990; Asendorpf et al. 1996). “
Other studies have confirmed that being imitated not only enhances liking and rapport, but also induces more pro-social behavior. For instance, in one such study experimenters either did or did not mimic subjects, and then “accidentally” dropped several pens on the floor. Subjects either did or did not get up from their chairs to help pick up the pens. The subjects who had been imitated “were considerably more helpful than non-imitated participants. This effect was recently replicated with eighteen-month old children.”
Remarkably enough, the pro-social impact of imitation persisted even after the person who did the imitating was no longer present. If a new experimenter entered the room and dropped pens, the subjects who had been imitated were still more likely to get up and help the unknown new experimenter. Even more significantly, another study cited in the review of literature found that the prosocial impact of mimicry could carry over to something as abstract as a donation to a previously unknown charity.
“After the imitation manipulation, participants were left alone in a room, with the money they received for participating and they were asked to fill out a questionnaire on the ‘CliniClowns’ a Dutch charity trying to alleviate the stay in hospital for seriously ill children. There was a sealed collection box in the corner of the room and participants were in the position to anonymously donate or not. Whereas non-mimicked participants on average donated a little under 40 eurocents to the CliniClowns, the donation increased up to almost 80 eurocents for those whose behaviour had been mimicked. ”
After conducting experiments of their own, the same social psychologists concluded, “being imitated changes the way we perceive and interact with other people on a fundamental level. After being imitated, we perceive more similarity between objects, feel more similar to others and behave in a more prosocial manner.”
These conclusions carry enormous potential for our conflict resolution work. Integrative Law Institute training programs teach participants a sequence of techniques to recruit the power of mimicry in our work with clients.
- We begin by teaching participants how to use simple body-mind awareness practices ( the “Self Scan”) to become more self-aware of our own embodied emotions as they express themselves in our muscles and organs.
- Then, we teach the “Stealth Scan” –a technique for harvesting information about the emotional state of others by mirroring their visible body language and gestures and then doing the Self Scan to see how we ourselves feel when we do it.
- Finally, we encourage participants to experiment (discreetly!) with intentionally mirroring the expressions, gestures, and positions of those they interact with at home and at work, and to observe carefully any perceived changes in the quality of relationship and communications.
As humans, no matter how intelligent or professionally detached, we cannot avoid mimicry; it’s part of how we understand other humans in dyad and small group interactions, part of how we know who to trust, who to avoid, who presents a danger. It happens whether we are aware of the phenomenon or not.
But awareness is far more useful than ignorance. If we remain unaware, we may be broadcasting our own anxiety in a way that infects others, or picking it up from others, or exhibiting a degree of alliance with our client that may not be especially helpful to the negotiating process.
Once we become more fluent in recruiting the power of conscious mimicry, we can use our evolutionary endowment to help create an environment of trust and pro-social behavior in the negotiating room–an environment that can serve the best interests of all parties.
The study referred to in this post is: Rick van Barren, Loes Janssen, Tanya Chartrand, and Ap Dijksterhuis,Rick van Barren, Loes Janssen, Tanya Chartrand, and Ap Dijksterhuis, Where is the love? The social aspects of mimicry, Phil. Trans. R. Soc. B 27 August 2009 vol. 364 no. 1528 2381-2389 .