Business Psychology - Latest Findings

Article No. 305
Customer Psychology Findings, by James Larsen, Ph.D.

The Persuasive Role of Mimicry

Researchers discover a surprising potency in a simple action.

Here�s an exercise for you.

Sit down opposite your spouse (or significant other) and start a conversation. Watch and listen closely, and copy what you see and hear following these rules: 1) Mimic major body movements after a 2-4 second delay. If you see leg crossing, cross your legs. If you see a face touch, touch your face. 2) Be careful to move the opposite side of your body so your movements match your partner�s movements. If you see a face touch with the right hand, copy this movement with your left hand. To your partner, your movements will resemble looking in a mirror. 3) Restate every other comment your partner makes using the same words you hear. If your partner says �I don�t think I like Billy Johnson one little bit,� you say �You don�t think you like Billy Johnson one little bit.�

When you do this exercise, you should notice two things. First, your partner will be relaxed and comfortable, and possibly very agreeable. Second, your partner won�t know that you�ve been deliberately copying his/her words and actions. By carrying out this exercise, you will have recreated the experimental condition of a fascinating consumer psychology experiment carried out by Robin Tanner from Duke University. You will also be well on your way to adding a new persuasion technique to your business skills. Here�s the story.

We train our children from an early age to mimic. When we smile and an infant smiles back at us, we experience paroxysms of delight. When we speak to our toddlers, we encourage them to repeat our sounds: �da da� �ma ma.� Acquiring language is largely an act of mimicry where children imitate sounds and gradually piece them together with meaning. When children become teens, their mimicry continues, but now they mimic each other. Clothing, personal grooming, and behavior fads race through the population, enabled largely by mimicry.

The heart of mimicry is fitting in. Whether its infants smiling at doting parents or teens piercing their bodies, mimicry reflects an innate drive to belong, and it occurs largely without our awareness. The father who challenges the new tattoo that graces his daughter�s neck can hardly believe her retort that she really likes it and would have gotten it even if her best friend didn�t have a similar tattoo in the same place. But the bottom line for the teen is that mimicry causes her to feel close to the person she mimics, and it causes the person she mimics to feel close to her. Their feelings of belonging are strengthened, yet neither teen is aware of the role mimicry plays in strengthening this feeling.

Robin Tanner recognized that the drive to belong doesn�t disappear when teens become adults, and she surmised that mimicry continues to play an important role in our adult lives. Others have explored mimicry. For example, one researcher instructed waitresses to repeat customers� orders using the same words the customers had used. These waitresses received the largest tips. Ms. Tanner decided to build on this work, so she carried out three experiments exploring the role mimicry plays in consumer choice.

In her first experiment, she learned that consumers automatically mimic another in their choice of snacks and that preferences follow the choice rather than guiding it. When people freely choose after observing another person make a choice, they tend to make the same choice and claim their preferences guided them. Tanner�s experiment demonstrated this wasn�t true. Consumers chose because of automatic mimicry, have no awareness of it, and then justify their choices with newly formed preferences.

In her second experiment, she trained experimenters to mimic her subjects in marketing research interviews. Remembering the example of the tattooed teen, people who were mimicked felt closer to experimenters who mimicked them and a stronger desire to buy and use the product described by the experimenter. This demonstrated the usefulness of mimicry to influence consumer choice.

In her third experiment, she repeated the marketing interviews but added a new element. She added a comment of need. When the experimenter told the subjects that he would materially benefit from the success of the product, the reactions of mimicked subjects became significantly more positive.

Ms. Tanner was particularly struck by this finding. In most sales situations, the salesperson directs attention away from the benefit he/she has in a successful sale. Ms. Tanner discovered that the feelings of closeness engendered by mimicry overwhelm normal consumer caution and leads them to want to help the salesperson by buying the product.

People in business often find themselves needing to fit in and needing to persuade others. It may be employees who need to feel good about the boss and need to give a good day�s work. It may be creditors who need to give a little more time, or it may be customers who need to buy a product or service. Mimicry is a socialization and persuasion tool that has proven to be so potent that business owners can�t afford to be without it, yet they need to use it judiciously.

Reference: Tanner, Robin, Rosellina Ferraro, Tanya Chartrand, James Bettman, and Rick Van Baaren (2008) Of Chameleons and Consumption: The Impact of Mimicry on Choice and Preferences. Journal of Consumer Research, 34, 754-767.

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