By Steven G. MehtaSteve Mehta

The old saying about imitation is a form of flattery may hold more truth than one might think.  Based upon recent research, it also may be an ancient interpersonal mechanism that promotes social bonding and for creating friendship and trust.

According to researchers at the National Institute of Health, they discovered that  capuchin monkeys preferred the company of researchers who imitated them to that of researchers who did not imitate them. The monkeys not only spent more time with their imitators, but also preferred to engage in a simple task with them even when provided with the option of performing the same task with a non-imitator.

“Researchers have known that human beings prefer the behavior of other people who subtly imitate their gestures and other affects,” said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, where the NIH portion of the study was conducted.

The study appears in the Aug.14 issue of Science.

According to the authors, people will take on body postures, make gestures, and display the mannerisms of people they encounter.  For the most part, this behavior is unconscious, with both the imitator and the person being imitated unaware that the behavior is taking place. In fact, studies have shown that people are more likely to help their imitators, and under appropriate circumstances, even leave them more generous tips. Such imitation is thought to provide the basis by which human beings ultimately form lasting social groups.

Before the current study, however, no one had ever determined if nonhuman primates were also predisposed to bond with individuals who imitated them.  This research demonstrates that such socialization skills are deep into the human development.

The researchers have theorized that such behavior matching may provide the basis for the formation of social groups. They believe that people who match each others’ behaviors feel a sense of affinity for each other, making conflicts less likely, and cooperation more likely. Eventually, such connections extend throughout the group.

“It has been argued that the link between behavior matching and increases in affiliation might have played an important role in human evolution by helping to maintain harmonious relationships between individuals,” the study authors wrote. “We propose that the same principle also holds for other group-living primates.”

This concept of imitation has also been called mirroring in pyschology.  According to Wikipedia, Mirroring is a human behavior characterized by copying someone else while communicating with them. It is often observed in people exhibiting similar postures, gestures, or tone of voice. It may include miming gestures, movements, body language, muscle tensions, expressions, tones, eye movements, breathing, tempo, accentattitude, choice of words, metaphors, or other features discernible in communication.

This research helps to understand some of the dynamics in negotiations and mediation.

First, empirical research has shown that mirroring behavior has increased the level of trust and rapport between people.  Let’s face it, mediation and negotiation is – in large part – about trust and rapport.

Second, according to other researchers, mirroring behaviors increases the likelihood that people will comply with your request.  Thus it is essential to understand that mirroring helps with persuasion.

Third, it is important to understand guidelines regarding mirroring:

  • Never do mirroring in a conspicuous way
  • Mirroring behaviors and actions are very subtle.  They can be as small as moving your hand to a similar spot on your body as the other person or crossing your leg in a similar fashion
  • Don’t force any actions or behaviors that you are not comfortable with.  It will immediately show as being contrived.
  • Remember that mirroring is only one small piece of the persuasion puzzle.  You must combine all aspects of persuasion in a genuine way.

Research Source:

NIH/National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (2009, August 15). Imitation Promotes Social Bonding In Primates. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 20, 2009, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2009/08/090813142133.htm

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