Fear is often a matter of perspective. Interpreting the emotions and expressions of others is a valuable survival strategy, but reading the fear on someone else’s face isn’t as chilling as staring danger directly in the face. When someone else is frightened, you probably track their gaze before reacting yourself.
How imitation can help and hinder your odds.
If you’ve ever played the childhood game of rock-paper-scissors—and who hasn’t?—you may have wondered why it usually seems to end in a draw, even though the laws of chance would dictate that over time, each player would win a third of the time.
In a study published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B in 2011, University College London researchers set out to find the answer. They discovered that when they blindfolded both subjects in rock-paper-scissors games, the win-lose-tie proportion was exactly as probability would have it. When one or players could see, however, ties frequently occurred. Our brains, as it turns out, are wired to be great at spotting another person’s physical movements and imitating them so rapidly that it appears that we’re moving in sync.
That result didn’t surprise the study’s lead author, cognitive scientist Richard Cook. Human beings, he noted, are born mimics. The urge to imitate other people is so deeply ingrained in our DNA, he said in a press release, that "when one person starts tapping their foot in a waiting room it is not uncommon for the whole room to start tapping their feet without thinking."
We all like to think of ourselves as individuals who think and act as we choose, based upon our own free will. But in reality, you’re continually being influenced—often without your even realizing it—by people around you. You’re continually playing a game of "monkey see, monkey do," in which many of your perceptions and actions, from your mood to your physical movements, are actually the result of your innate tendency to get in sync with others by mirroring their behavior.
But while it might sound as if you’re in the grip of a world full of Svengalis, but don’t freak out. Our proclivity for following those around us is mostly a positive thing, because it helps us to connect with others and form relationships, and to function in a larger society—though it does also leave us potentially vulnerable to manipulation, if we’re unwary. In this article, we’ll look at the neuroscience behind our copycat tendencies, and tell you more about how mirroring subtly shapes your existence in ways large and small.
Your Copycat Brain
We start paying attention to other people and being influenced by what they do at an early age. Children as young as six months old, if they see another person looking at a particular object or in a certain direction, usually will follow that person’s eyes. This phenomenon is called deictic gaze, and it’s found not only in humans, but in other primates and dogs as well. Some scientists suspect that this adaptation was favored by evolution, because it enables us to point out prey or predators inconspicuously, without alerting the subject of the attention. But scientists believe that deictic gaze also helped humans to develop more sophisticated social skills, because it enabled them to anticipate what actions other people were about to take, and identify to whom facial expressions were directed.
In a study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human Perception and Performance in 2003, researchers found that subjects noticed and followed another person’s gaze, even if it lasted for an interval as brief as 14 milliseconds.
Gaze-following is so important to humans, apparently, that our brains and visual systems seem to have two systems for doing it. There’s a quick-response, reflexive system that sends signals from the retina to the amygdala, your brain’s fear center, which looks for signs of danger. That’s complimented by a slower network that transmits information to the brain’s visual cortex for more nuanced analysis. That system is integrated with other parts of the brain that help us to recognize faces and scrutinize and process information gleaned from other people’s expressions.
But while deictic gaze is important, a study by British researchers, published in 2011 in Journal of Neuroscience, suggests that direct gaze—when you and another person are staring into one another’s eyes—is what invites triggers our powerful urge to copy another person’s facial expressions and movements. The researchers found that when subjects were asked to copy an actress’s hand gestures, they did it more quickly when she was looking directly at them.
As University of Nottingham psychologist and study co-author Antonia Hamilton explained, "eye contact seems to act as a message that says "Copy me now."
When the researchers scanned subjects’ brains, they discovered that mimicry involves the medial prefrontal cortex, an area associated with planning complex behavior, making decisions and responding to social situations. Interestingly, these areas are less responsive in people who suffer from autistic spectrum disorders, who have difficulty fitting in with others’ behavior in social situations.
"Your brain is built to decode thousands of tiny verbal and nonverbal cues that are transmitted while communicating," explains Harvard University social scientist Amy Cuddy, a specialist in body language. "When these cues sync up between two people, it’s called "mirroring." When people form a connection, their breathing, voice tempo, and rapid eye movements may also synchronize.
And to a large extent, you can’t help but be a copycat. When you see another person yawning, for example, you’ll feel the urge to yawn as well. Your perception of another person’s yawn triggers a reflexive behavior in an area called the medulla oblongata, the lower half of your brain stem, which regulates automatic functions such as breathing, heart rate and blood pressure. Some researchers believe that contagious yawning evolved because it was useful for early humans to go to sleep at the same time and synchronize to a common schedule.
Humans have an unconscious response called "automatic imitation," in which they will feel an urge to mimic another person’s movement, without even realizing until they’ve done it. Some researchers have hypothesized that automatic imitation is caused by mirror neurons, special cells programmed to understand others’ actions and imitate what we see. In a 1992 study involving macaque monkeys, Italian researchers found that the mirror neurons fired both when the monkeys completed an action and when they observed another monkey doing it.
How Imitation Can Be Useful
Our capacity to imitate others and follow the leader has come in handy throughout human existence, dating back to the days when our primitive ancestors lived in small packs and depended upon cooperation to hunt, forage, and fight off intruders and predators. Imitation also seems to play a role in the development of empathy and morality, key qualities that help us to cooperate with one another and live and work together. In a 2004 study published in Psychological Science, Concordia University researcher David Forman found that young children who enthusiastically imitated their parents developed a sense of right and wrong earlier than those who didn’t.
Conscious imitation also plays an important role in learning ritualistic behavior that gives us a sense of belonging to a particular social group. In a study published in 2013 in the online journal Cognition, University of Texas at Austin researchers had preschool-age children watch videos of two people performing the same actions simultaneously. The children were able to imitate the behavior with a higher degree of accuracy when the video was preceded by an explanation that the action was something that a group did, as opposed to something that they should do to achieve an individual goal.
As adults, that ability to mirror behavior can be a useful tool for making the connections necessary to get ahead in life. A 2013 Forbes magazine article, for example, advises job seekers to subtly imitate the behaviors of a prospective employer during an interview. "If an interviewer rubs his nose or puts his hand on his chin, you should wait about 30 to 50 seconds and then touch your face in a similar way," the article recommends. Forbes even suggests that interviewees also should listen carefully to the language used by an interviewer, and try to replicate the phrasing, language and sentence structure. "People trust those who are similar to themselves," the unnamed writer notes.
"Mirroring really makes people feel like they’re thinking on the same wavelength," Harvard social psychologist Amy Cuddy says. "But that feeling of emotional affinity is just a side effect of how you’re hardwired to physically mirror other people’s behavior."
How Much Influence is Too Much?
But you’re influenced by people in other ways—when you find yourself looking at viral videos posted to Facebook, or when you use online reviews to help you pick a restaurant or a product on Amazon.
Social scientists have discovered a phenomenon called informational social influence, which in which people rely upon others to determine their course of action. "You are much more likely to use informational social influence when a situation is ambiguous, such as in a crisis, and you are uncertain about what to do," says University of Pennsylvania consumer psychologist Jonah Berger, author of the book Contagion: Why Things Catch On.
But informational social influence has a serious drawback. While looking to other people can help ease fears or erase doubts, the choice that you make may not always be the best one for you. In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2013, for example, Duke University researchers found that players in an arcade game will synchronize with and imitate slower opponents, even if it interferes with their ability to win a money prize.
- Rhesus Monkey
- Tree Cricket
- Northern Mockingbird
- African Grey Parrot
- Stick Insect
- Answer: Northern Mockingbird
- Answer: 22
- Answer: Memory
Knowing When To Mirror
The dos and
don'ts of mirroring.
In the Brain Games episode "Follow the Leader," you learned that you are hard-wired to mimic gaze, gestures and even patterns of speech. You can utilize mirroring in order to form connections with other people, and to persuade them to give you things that you want. But it also can go disastrously awry. "Mimicry is a crucial part of social intelligence," University of California-San Diego psychology professor Piotr Winkielman explained in 2011. "But it is not enough to simply know how to mimic. It’s also important to know when and when not to. The success of mirroring depends on mirroring the right people at the right time for the right reasons. Sometimes the socially intelligent thing to do is not to imitate." Here is some advice on when NOT to engage in mirroring:
Don’t mimic someone who is hostile to you. Mirroring, in the right instances, can help make a person seem more competent. But sometimes it backfires. In a 2011 study published by Winkielman and colleagues in the journal Psychological Science, the researchers had subjects watch mock job interviews, including some in which the interviewers were condescending to the interviewees. In those interviews, the observers rated interviewees’ competence as lower if they tried to mimic the interviewers’ gestures. So if you’re talking to someone who is hostile, you’re better off just being yourself.
Don’t be too obvious. People don’t like the feeling that they’re being manipulated. So as a 2013 Forbes article on job interviewing techniques notes, it’s important to be careful not to tip off a job interviewer that you’re deliberately imitating his or her gestures. Instead, wait for 30 to 50 seconds before imitating a physical gesture, or slightly modify the gesture so that it’s similar but not precisely identical to what the interviewer did.
Don’t get too wrapped up in mirroring. As Forbes points out, even if you deftly mimic a job interviewer’s mannerisms and speech, you’re going to waste that effort if you neglect to listen to the interviewer’s questions and answer them thoughtfully. "Remember that one of the reasons mirroring establishes rapport is that it forces you to see things from someone else’s perspective," the magazine advises.