The Situationist

Archive for August 17th, 2009

The Situation of Imitation and Mimickry

Posted by The Situationist Staff on August 17, 2009

MonkeyJohn Cloud has an interesting article, titled “Monkey See, Monkey Do: Imitation Breeds Bonding,” in the latest issue of Time Magazine.  Here are some excerpts.

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. . . . A new paper in Science . . . [investigates] whether a widely documented human phenomenon — the fact that we tend to prefer people who behave the same way we do in social interactions — exists in other species.

It turns out it does. Adhering to the old saying “monkey see, monkey do,” monkeys in the study appeared to favor those who mimicked them — even when the imitator was a member of another species (Homo sapiens). The authors of the paper, Annika Paukner of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Animal Center, who worked with her colleague Pier Ferrari as well as two Italian researchers, structured their study this way: Two experimenters, each holding a small plastic ball, faced each monkey in its cage (10 monkeys in all participated). The monkey was given an identical ball. One of the experimenters imitated whatever the monkey did with the ball — poking it, mouthing it, pounding it. The other experimenter didn’t imitate the animal.

The advantage of mimicry was clear. Monkeys looked longer at the imitator than they did at the other experimenter, and they chose to stand in front of the imitator more often. The monkeys also exchanged little tokens (in return for a bit of marshmallow) more often with the imitator than with the non-imitator.

The study reconfirms the notion that imitation is not uniquely human (past research has also shown that apes and monkeys easily recognize when they are being copied), and that our affinity for it may have roots in our evolution. What has never been precisely understood, though, is why we like to be parroted so much. One theory is that mimicry somehow promotes safety in groups of animals by binding them together — that mimicry is a kind of social glue.

That hypothesis certainly supports the human tendency toward “reflexive imitation,” a term coined in the 18th century by Adam Smith to describe the psychological act of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes and experiencing their feelings — you wouldn’t do that unless you were after some sort of social bond. Some years later, 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, who is now at Duke, and [Situationist Contributor] John Bargh, who is now at Yale, 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 behaviors; instead, they adopted a neutral tone and body language.

None of the kids noticed that the researchers were mimicking them. And yet compared with those who were not imitated, the students 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.

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To read the entire article, which includes a discussion of how Chartrand and Bargh’s work has been expanded and some of the consequences of mimickry, click here.  For a sample of related Situationist posts, see “Monkey Fairness” and “The (Unconscious) Situation of our Consciousness – Part I.”

Posted in Life, Situationist Contributors, Social Psychology | 2 Comments »

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