Why do we mimic each other?

Whenever I think of human mimicry, I am hearkened back to the Office episode where Andy Bernard mentions that among other things he is going to win people over through imitation.  He then proceeds to become a near replica of Michael Scott (Steve Carell).  Perhaps not surprisingly, Michael starts to warm to him a bit.  This reality has probably struck us in our own daily life.  I often find myself morphing into my own friends, taking on their tonal inflections and gestures.  We often find ourselves engaging in mild mimicry of those around us either to endear them to us or out of pure instinct.

Humans are not the only animals that engage in mimicry as a form of survival.  A recent New York Times article by Natalie Angier discusses how multiple species, not just humans, engage in mimicry.  For instance, margays mimic the sounds of a crying tamarin pup in order to lure their prey toward them.  The mimic octupus of Indonesia mimics a wide array of marine life to ward off predators.  These accounts of animals displaying mimicry are fascinating, but they all have one thing in common: they are mimicking other species.  Thus, it appears that humans might be the only species that engages in within species mimicry.  Why?  Mimicry affords individuals the opportunity to strengthen social bonds.  Bottom line – we like being imitated.  Apparently, waiters who display mild forms of mimicry to customers earn higher tips than those who do not.  There is a plethora of research in social psychology examining the social and psychological benefits of mimicry.  Furthermore, psychologists have demonstrated that humans mimic others without awareness.

So why do humans differ?  I can only speculate on this point.  And as we all know, speculation without data is only one thing: a hypothesis that must be tested, nothing more.  But I wonder if it has to do with what behaviors promote the survival of species.  For wild animals, catching prey and warding off predators are essential to surviving.  However, one of the best ways to enhance chances of survival among humans is to form social bonds.  We are social creatures in need of social bonds to survive.  With larger tribes, humans are more likely to ward off predators, increase skill set available to them, and to be protected or taken care of in times of need (whether physical or psychological need).  Thus, it makes sense that our form of mimicry would take place within our own species.  So I will continue to “morph into my friends” as they will do the same because it is what we are hard-wired to do.  And let’s face it, we like people like ourselves.

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About Megan Johnson Shen

I am a social psychologist graduating with my Ph.D. from Baylor University this May and moving to NYC this summer to start a new job as a postdoctoral researcher at Mt. Sinai School of Medicine in the Cancer Prevention and Control Department. I love the brain, human behavior, and anything to do with understanding them better. I love research and a good dinner party. Fine wine and cheese - I'm there. Interesting experimental data? I'll probably show for that too. View all posts by Megan Johnson Shen

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