Nuances with the Modeling Mirror

Other Guys, especially when Low WATT, are responsive to your nonverbal actions. Merely mirroring the nonverbals of an Other Guy is often enough to get that Other Guy to like and trust you. Thus, if the Other Guy likes to gesture with an arm in the air, if you model this move and mirror it back, the Other Guy will move toward you both physically and psychologically. This kind of persuasion play is sometimes a useful element in therapeutic settings, as the therapist mirrors the client, thus demonstrating empathy without saying anything out loud. This modeling (or mirroring or mimicking) play is sometimes offered as the Persuasion SureThing #47 from those fast talking masters selling a book or a seminar. Modeling can work like this, but not as a Sure Thing. Here’s a nice experimental demonstration.

A research team tested this mirroring effect in three lab experiments where participants were exposed to a source that either mirrored them nonverbally or did not. After the interaction, the participants were asked to rate the temperature of the room as an attitude proxy. Rather than directly ask if the participant like the source, the researchers ask that temperature question arguing that the more you like the source, the warmer the room would feel.

Now, here’s the nuance to the mirroring play. In addition to manipulating the source’s mirroring actions, the researchers also varied: 1) the goal of the interaction, task or social, 2) the race of the people, same- or cross-race, and 3) a personality measure of independence versus cooperation. In the three experiments, mirroring did not work the same way across these manipulations. Sometimes mirroring made the room feel warmer, sometimes mirroring made the room feel colder.

When the source did the mirroring in the Social situation, mirroring made the participant feel warmer; in the Task situation, mirroring made the participant feel colder. In same-race interactions, mirroring made the room warm. In cross-race interactions, mirroring made the room colder. And finally, on that personality variable, mirroring with cooperative people made the room warmer, while with independent people, mirroring made the room feel colder. Here’s a graphic from the first experiment showing the temperature ratings by mirroring and goal to illustrate this interaction effect.

You see how mirroring (or mimicry) reverses across the goal conditions of task versus social. This same kind of cross over interaction occurred in the other two experiments. And, the effect sizes were Medium Windowpanes, ranging around 35/65. So, we’ve got three experiments with randomization and control, three different interaction variables (goal, race, and personality), and practical effect sizes. Now, this was done only with the persuasion lab rat also known as the 19 year old college sophomore all enrolled at Duke University. How well the effect generalizes to other populations and contexts is an open question, but given these manipulations and a large research literature, I’m pretty sure the basic finding would hold.

And, what is that basic finding? You’ve got to match the mirroring to what the Other Guy expects. While none of the experimental participants had any idea that mirroring was part of the study, it is obvious that on an unconscious or very low conscious level, sometimes mirroring felt good and other times it felt wrong. When the situation required a task focus, mirroring didn’t work. When the situation crossed race, mirroring didn’t work. When the situation had independent people, mirroring didn’t work.

You see the pattern. Mirroring works in sociable, familiar, and cooperative situations. When the situation is more formal, constrained, and autonomous, mirroring offends. Consider the implications for two settings where persuasion experts have recommended mirroring: 1) as a bar pickup strategy and 2) as a face-to-face sales strategy.

The experiments here clearly recommend mirroring in the bar. People seek bars for the social environment, expect cooperative interactions (rather than independent ones), and typically seek obviously similar others. If you as a persuasion source want to use mirroring here, you just have to judge whether your Other Guy sees the situation as sociable, you as similar, and the interaction as cooperative. If you’ve got that, mirror. If you sense the Other Guy is more task oriented (I’m trying to find my drunk roommate who has the keys), obviously dissimilar (race as an easy illustration), and independent, mirroring would probably fail.

Now, consider the face-to-face sales setting . . . and you’re probably ahead of me. Not exactly a cooperative, social setting and it often matches people who are obviously dissimilar (age, sex, clothing). Yeah. Go ahead. Mirror your way to greater sales. Certainly as a standard persuasion play, mirroring may be one of the dumber moves a source could try here. But, realize that this all depends upon the Other Guy. In some sales settings, the Other Guy may see it as sociable, cooperative, and find great similarity to you. Then, mirroring would work.

You see the complexity here. You need to understand how the Other Guy sees the situation as something that is easy, fun, and popular or not. Nonverbal modeling flies under the radar with a Low WATT Other Guy who’s feeling that sense of easy, fun, and popular. With High WATT Other Guys moving in a world of difficult work no one wants to do, mirroring is a quick way to get yourself noticed and not in a good way. You are warned.

You are also advised to read the research paper rather than my summary. As is typical with the Persuasion Blog, I have pulled and pushed this work in directions the authors did not intend, foresee, or perhaps even support. In this instance, the main point of the effort aimed at Embodiment Effects and that theory development. I’m finding practical persuasion implications from this theory-testing. So, if you’ve got any interest in that line of persuasion, please read the paper. It’s a nice piece of work.

N. Pontus Leander, L. Chartrand, and John A. Bargh (2012). You Give Me the Chills: Embodied Reactions to Inappropriate Amounts of Behavioral Mimicry. Psychological Science, first published on May 18, 2012.