Tuesday, 23 June 2015

The curious psychology of verbal mimicry

A surprising result: In the study, open-minded participants
were especially likely to adopt their partner's speech-rate 
When deep in conversation, I sometimes catch myself mimicking my companion; mirroring their body language, echoing their speech. Research suggests there are likely even more of these moments to which I’m oblivious. Luckily, mimicry is a useful habit: for instance, we prefer conversation partners whose speech rates mimic our own to those whose speech is jarringly different. As a result you might expect that the tendency to mimic might be particularly strong in people keen to be liked. But although past research has loosely supported this belief, a new study, the first to systematically look at mimicry across the five major personality domains, suggests a more complex picture.

The 24 participants believed they were contributing to research on the morality of fairy tales, and at the start of the study were asked to summarise a fairy tale to camera, which provided a benchmark of their normal talking rate. Each participant was then joined by another "participant", in truth an experimental confederate, and both of them were asked a series of four questions about the fairy tale, with the confederate always being the first to answer each question. The participants then repeated this process with a second confederate; the trick, of course, was that one confederate always spoke slowly and the other quickly. A team of coders then analysed the recorded speech to determine how fast the real participants spoke normally, and after exposure to each of the confederates.

Study author Elena Kurzius expected the slow- and fast-talking confederates to influence the participants’ speech rate – or some participants, at least. Once the study was over, she asked everyone to complete a classic measure of the Big Five personality traits, the NEO-PR, predicting that two of the five traits would turn out to be crucial: agreeableness (high scorers on this trait are very friendly) and extraversion (high scorers like to seek out social contact).

Extraversion turned out to influence mimicry. For instance, in the fast-talking condition, introverts lingered at about 130 words per minute (wpm), whereas extraverts sped up to 143 wpm, not far off the confederate’s speedy 155wpm. But agreeableness had no significant association with mimicry. Instead, an association was found with another trait, openness to experience. Openness isn’t really a social trait, but is characterised by thoughtfulness, unconventionality, and curiosity, making its association with mimicry as surprising as agreeableness’ irrelevance. So what’s going on?

Kurzius speculates that high status, which is present in Extraversion and absent in Agreeableness, may be an important, hitherto under discussed ingredient. Extraverted people enjoy the social domain and actively want to be liked, indeed popular. As such, they may (whether consciously or otherwise) devote more behaviours to making a good impression and having an influence on others. Agreeable people care about social interactions, but the focus is more on harmonious relations between all parties than coming out looking good. A low status person might even avoid mimicking others so as not to seem to appear presumptive.

This status explanation also gives some sense to the significance of openness to experience. Openness and extraversion are considered as the two components of "plasticity": exploring the world as if you are entitled to tinker with things, whether they be ideas, objects, or social dynamics, which obviously implies a high status, presumptive attitude. Openness’s experimentalism could easily extend to trying out someone else’s style; after all, mimicry is a core way of learning about the world.

I like the idea that two human chameleons may be motivated by quite different incentives: one a confident gambit for affiliation and popularity, the other a curious exploration of other ways of being. Ultimately, more research is needed: aren’t you curious why your deskmate tugs his ear whenever you do?

_________________________________ ResearchBlogging.org

Kurzius, E. (2015). The Extraverted Chameleon Journal of Individual Differences, 36 (2), 80-86 DOI: 10.1027/1614-0001/a000159

--further reading--
Mimicry improves women's speed-dating success
For mimicry to flatter, it's all about the body part, not the action
Money makes mimicry backfire
Mimicry the best form of flattery for computers too

Post written by Alex Fradera (@alexfradera) for the BPS Research Digest.

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