Chameleon effect: when you imitate the other without realizing it

If you’re familiar with nature documentaries, you’ve surely noticed that animals do all kinds of weird things to better adapt to the environment. One of the most striking strategies used to survive in environments with biodiversity, for example, is imitate other species.

As representatives of this example, we have butterflies claiming to have faces on their outstretched wings to harmless snakes that have evolved to look like deadly stinging vipers. As flashy as this sort of disguise may seem, what is clear is that it works for them: otherwise, natural evolution would not have cut out their masks with such precision.

This ability to mimic other organisms is known as mimicry, and humans use it as well, although we usually don’t realize it. This phenomenon is known as the chameleon effect..

What is the chameleon effect?

Known as the “chameleon effect” the tendency to subconsciously imitate the people with whom we interact.

The existence of this pattern of behavior is well documented and appears to be triggered by the mere perception of the other person. As soon as we come into contact with her, we have a good chance of starting to mimic her tone of voice, posture, and other subtle aspects of non-verbal language.

The reason for the chameleon effect is believed to be come and establish something akin to synchronization with the other person it makes it possible to love more and to facilitate communication. Additionally, more empathetic people tend to focus more on the task of imitating the interlocutor. On the other hand, it is very likely that mirror neurons are directly involved in this curious phenomenon.

The disadvantages of unconscious mime

However, the chameleon effect is a double-edged sword. Not only are the positive aspects of the other person imitated, but also those that predispose to having a communicative and open attitude: negative aspects are also imitated. In other words, our tendency to establish synchronies with the interlocutor is not to use a certain non-verbal language and a whole voice to fall in love with the other, on the contrary.

Due to the flexibility required to treat many people in many different moods, the Chameleon Effect it is about reproducing parts of the behavior of the other, whether friendly or not. It can be detrimental to us, as has been proven in recent research.

The chameleon effect experience

In this experiment, a mock telephone interview was conducted with a number of job applicants. The questions were recorded and phrased in a negative tone of voice (previously these recordings were rated on the “arousal-boredom”, “positive-negative” and “cold-hot” scales). Throughout the job interviews, it was confirmed that the candidates tended to mimic the tone of voice of the recordings, Although no one realizes it.

In addition, the adoption of a negative voice as a whole significantly damaged the impression they made on a jury tasked with evaluating them as potential employees. This creates a vicious cycle or, in this case, a self-fulfilling prophecy: the interviewer who has low expectations of being satisfied with the candidate uses a negative voice as a whole. The candidate, in turn, embraces this tone of voice and causes the interviewer to reaffirm his prejudices, when in reality he sees only the reflection of his own communicative disposition. And all of this is happening, of course, without any of them realizing the irrationality of this dynamic.

Its application in marketing

It is clear that if the chameleon effect recalls the mimicry used by certain small animal species, its function is not the same. In the first case, the goal is to survive, while in the second … it’s not clear. In fact, this tendency to subconsciously imitate may be of no use; after all, not all characteristics of biological evolution are practical.

However, they have one area in which this mime is used as a resource: that of sales. Experienced salespeople learn to imitate the gestures, rhythms and even postures of their interlocutors to better convince them by creating a “state of mutual harmonization”. Whether or not this measure is really effective is, in any case, very debatable.

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    Bibliographical references:

    • Chartrand, TL and Bargh, JA (1999). The chameleon effect: perception-behavior link and social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 76 (6), pages 893-910.
    • Smith-Genthôs, KR, Reich, DA, Lakin, JL and de Calvo, MPC (2015). The tongue-related chameleon: the role of unconscious mimicry in the process of confirming behavior. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 56, pages 179-182.

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