Episode 21: Monkey (Unconsciously) See, Monkey (Unconsciously) Do

Have you ever seen a chameleon? They instantly change color to adapt to whatever their background is.

There’s a theory that humans can do this too. Of course, we can’t change our skin color to match our environment but the theory is that if you see someone behave in a certain way, you’ll follow that behavior. Public myths including yawning being contagious, or sneezing. Indifference to suffering. There’s lots of myths floating around.

Well for each myth there has been a study and since we’re romping around in behavioral economics land I wanted to look at a paper by Chartland and Bargh entitled aptly “The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction.”

Their experiments require a “primer”. Usually they used what in psychology they call a confederate; which is someone who appears to be part of the study along with everyone else… but is actually an inside imposter, planted by the researchers to get interesting results.

In Experiment 1 subjects participated in two consecutive sessions. Both had a 10-minute interaction with a confederate. They were told to describe photos in the sessions but of course the photos were simply a distraction from the real study.

The confederates, who were trained actors, varied their mannerisms throughout the interactions. During Session 1, the confederate either rubbed his or her face, or shook his or her foot. During Session 2, the confederate did the inverse of Session 1; so if Session 1 was a foot shake, Session 2 would be a face rub.

Afterwards they did a post-experiment interview and only 1 person guessed the other person was a confederate, and no one guessed what the confederate was up to.

Here are the results:

Even though no one noticed the confederates doing face rubs or foot shakes, when the confederate rubbed their face, participant face rubbing increased about 25%. And when the confederate instead shook their foot, participant foot shaking more than doubled (108%).

So clearly there is some sort of monkey see monkey do unconscious thought going on. I’ll discuss why after we go through the other Experiments. One more interesting data point for Experiment 1 involved smiling. Participants smiled more times per minute when with the active confederate (median smiles per minute of 1.03), than with a neutral confederate (median smiles per minute .36). I should also note that the confederates were instructed not to make friends; only to smile.

Further, participants performed the intended action more times with the nonsmiling confederate than with the smiling confederate (median .56 vs median .40). Very interesting indeed…. Put a pin in this and let’s move on to Experiment 2.

Experiment 2 (electric boogaloo) was all about the “need to belong”. Now Dr. Susan Weinschenk has written extensively about this in her book “How To Get People To Do Stuff” as it is one of the 7 drivers of motivation.

The goal of this experiment was to see if they could unconsciously manipulate people into enjoying their interaction with a confederate. After a 15-minute session with a confederate people were asked to report how much they liked the confederate and how smoothly the session went on a 9-point scale, with 1 being extremely awkward or unlikeable, and 9 being extremely smooth or likeable.

The confederates either engaged in neutral nondescript mannerisms, which acted as the control, or the confederate mirrored the mannerisms of the participant.

I think this is a brilliant evil theory that people like people who are like them. If a participant folded their hands, the confederate would fold theirs, etc…

The confederates, being talented actors, played their part beautifully. Only 1 person “figured out” that they were being mimicked, and an outside panel of judges was used to rank the openness and friendliness to the participants.

This is very important to point out; there was NO difference in scores between the neutral control, and the mimicking. It is not the case that the mimickers were being more friendly, making more eye contact, smiling, or were judged to like the participant more. This was controlled for. So the results are not simply friendly vs. not-friendly.

The results are fun. Participants in the experimental condition reported liking the confederates more (M=6.62) than the control (M=5.91), and also reported a smoother interaction (M=6.76) than the control (M=6.02).

Now there are certainly potential large implications in this study; from politics to sales to friendship. Let’s again put a pin in this and talk about the last Experiment before we sum everything up. The thing to take away from Experiment 2 is that human interactions go smoother and are more positive if you just mimic the movements and actions of the other person.

Experiment 3 was the same as Experiments 1 and 2, except that subjects were also given an empathy questionnaire (a perspective-taking subscale). For example, “when I’m upset with someone I try to put myself in their perspective”, sort of thing.

What they found was that people who were high perspectivers (highly empathetic) joined in with the face rubbing and foot shaking more times per minute than low perspectivers (M=1.30 vs M=.85 and M=.40 vs M=.29).

This makes sense. People who are highly empathetic find it easier to feel what you’re feeling. When you feel empathetic the same parts of your brain light up that are lighting up in the brain of the person you’re observing.

If you see someone hurt their leg, a small ghost reflection of mirror neurons in the leg area of your brain will also light up. It’s why stories are so powerful. It happens completely unconsciously. And if you’re the type of person who can more easily slip into that state, then you are more prone to have an unconscious reaction to the external stimuli of others.

Okay so our first pin was that people in Experiment 1 performed the action more when the Confederate was NOT smiling. My theory is that we are always looking for a way to bond unconsciously. We as humans want to relate, we want to connect on whatever level we can. Obviously smiling and laughing together is our natural go-to. But when that’s not available our brains may slide into other ways to bond, such as face rubbing and foot tapping. BECAUSE as we find out in Experiment 2, our second Pin, people like interactions more with people who are mimicking them.

Maybe we know and understand this innately so our brains are one step ahead of the research. Perhaps Experiment 1’s outcome occurred exactly BECAUSE of the results in Experiment 2. We like people more who mimic us. We crave people to like us (unconsciously), and so we (unconsciously) mimic others to the extent we can to get them to like us. It’s an empathy circle.

And those who are the most empathetic also reach out the most to connect, so they mimic unconsciously the most.

There is a long list of practical applications. Sorority bonding, concerts or sporting events in unison, people in fields with lots of human interaction being more animated and reactionary (HR, sales, customer service). If you want people to like you and try to bond with you; try mimicking their energy, behaviors, and mannerisms.

Chartrand, T. L., & Bargh, J. A. (1999). The chameleon effect: The perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology76(6), 893-910. doi:10.1037//0022-3514.76.6.893

Episode 22: Affect, Cognition, and Awareness
Episode 20: What is Economics Useful For?

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