Who could better than you?

You get a kick out of you. Psychologists have known for decades that people create rapport through mimicry. Friends, family and flirters adopt our intonation, gesture and posture, and we love those people for their similarity to the supreme ruler of our own little world. But according to some new, tech-savvy research, your aper need not be someone you know. In fact, he or she need not be a real person at all.

Two researchers in Stanford University’s communications department, Professor Jeremy Bailenson and grad student Nick Yee, recently found that virtual, computer-generated people that mimicked test subjects were more influential and better-liked than those who didn’t.

The subjects wore a two-foot piece of head gear that both showed them a virtual person and monitored their head movements. The virtual person, who could move his or her head, lips and eyelids, pitched a new campus security policy to the Stanford students taking part in the experiment. For half of the subjects, the virtual person mimicked the subject’s head movements at a four second delay. For the other half of the subjects, the virtual person mimicked the head movements of an earlier subject.

According to Bailenson, students who were mimicked were more likely to accept the proposed policy, indicate that the virtual person was a good speaker, and indicate that they would like to spend time with the speaker. Bailenson also noted that some of the students who were mimicked looked at the speaker more often, compared with students who weren’t.

Frank Bernieri, a psychology professor at Oregon State University, was surprised and impressed to learn that these results were obtained with such a simple, artificial mechanism. “The methodology is terrific for decomposing the infinite number of factors that drive human interaction,” he said. “I like the idea that if you take it to the virtual environment you can find out which factors are important and which factors are not.”

If Bailenson and Yee had used real human interaction, Bernieri said, their results would have been contaminated by other factors, such as eye contact. With the use of a virtual person, the researchers created a test that isolated the variable of mimicked head movement.

The jury of psychologists, may we never face them in court, is still out on the origins of mimicry. Bailenson said some scientists believe that the origin of mimicry lies in the evolutionary advantages it can provide: if people mate with those genetically like themselves, their genes will be better represented in future generations.

Bailenson said he subscribes to a theory of mimicry rooted in social psychology. He thinks that love of mimicry boils down to a love of self.

“If there’s one thing that social psychology has told us unequivocally, it’s that we love ourselves,” he said. “No one can deny that similarity is one of the largest driving forces in human interaction. Nonverbal mimicry is a way to make someone seem more similar to you.”

To illustrate his point, Bailenson cited a study he did shortly before the 2004 election. He divided subjects into three groups. The first group received pictures of Bush and Kerry. Each subject in the second group received a picture of Bush’s face morphed with his or her own face and a normal picture of Kerry. The third group were morphed with Kerry and received a normal picture of Bush. The subjects were then asked who they’d vote for in the election. The control group reproduced the actual election results, with Bush winning by a small margin. In the group where the Bush pictures were crossed with the subjects’ pictures, Bush won the election by 14 points. In the Kerry group, Kerry won the election by seven points. People preferred the candidate who bore an uncanny resemblance to themselves.

None of the subjects in the election experiment, and fewer than one percent of the subjects in the mimicry experiment, explicitly noticed the morphing or mimicry.

“The results of [Bailenson’s] study suggest that these are relatively unconscious processes,” Bernieri said. “The fact that he’s drawing our attentions to these thoughts of which we are not aware, I think that’s terrific.”

Bailenson said his research could be used for either good or evil. If computers can harness your movements and use them to mimic you, salesmen could use this technology to sell you products, politicians could use it to get your vote, or teachers could use it to make their students more attentive, he said.

Marianne LaFrance, a psychology professor at Yale Univeristy, disagreed, saying her research indicates that deliberate mimicry elicits a very negative response.

“We were expecting the greater the mimicking the greater the rapport. Not only did we not find that, we found the opposite,” LaFrance said of her study. “I think people are inordinately sensitive to non-verbal behavior that in some way feels a little strange or awkward.”

LaFrance said it might be better to use the idea of mimicry as a diagnostic tool. She believes that teachers and parents can evaluate their relationships with children based on synchrony and eye-contact.

Originally published September 30, 2005

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