New research has suggested that mimicry may not always lead to positive social outcomes. In fact, sometimes the smarter thing to do is to refrain.
n a study Piotr Winkielman and Liam Kavanagh of the psychology department at the University of California, San Diego, along with philosophers Christopher Suhler and Patricia Churchland, also of UC San Diego, noted that in real-life situations there are often observers to the mirroring that takes place between two people. This led them to wonder whether mimicry sometimes comes at a reputational cost. Are there cases in which an observer might actually think less of a person for mirroring the behaviour of another?
Results of three experiments suggested that mimicry is more nuanced than previously thought and not, the authors wrote, "uniformly beneficial to the mimicker."
"Mimicry is a crucial part of social intelligence," said Winkielman, UC San Diego professor of psychology.
"But it is not enough to simply know how to mimic. It's also important to know when and when not to. The success of mirroring depends on mirroring the right people at the right time for the right reasons. Sometimes the socially intelligent thing to do is not to imitate," added Winkielman.
Our social lives are incredibly complex, said Winkielman, and in order to build or maintain relationships we have to keep in mind a variety of factors.
"It's good to have the capacity to mimic," he said, "but an important part of social intelligence is knowing how to deploy this capacity in a selective, intelligent, context-dependent manner, and understanding, even implicitly, when mirroring can reflect badly on you."
The study will be detailed in Psychological Science.