What Is The Chameleon Effect And Is It Real?
By Ashley Brown
Updated November 20, 2019
Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC
Have you ever noticed that you begin to act and talk like the people around you? That some of their mannerisms, sayings, and even interests become your own? If this describes you, you may think that this is abnormal. However, this is not the case. This is a normal phenomenon called the chameleon effect, and almost everyone experiences it at some time. This article will look at the concept itself in order to help you understand it more thoroughly.
What is Mimicking?
The chameleon effect may be something you've personally experienced or something you've even tried on others, knowingly or not. Essentially, there are two types of the same behavior: intentional mimicking and unconscious mimicking. We hear the phrase "mimic" often, whether it's from dating advice columns or from tips on negotiation and public speaking. We try to mimic other people in various social situations to create a rapport with them.
A particular study found that the average person will even mimic a stranger, so it isn't something that is a big deal. Overall, it may make you more likeable to friends and prospective friends. In fact, many people have made friends using this strategy. However, understanding the chameleon effect is a little more complicated than just doing what someone else is doing.
The Chameleon Effect Shows Positive Results
The chameleon effect is not a strategic facsimile of a person's gestures and facial expressions. It's more natural. It's a tendency we all have to imitate someone else's voice and physical gestures to create a bond of intimacy and friendship. This can be done either consciously or subconsciously.
Professor Chartrand and Professor Bargh published a study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, where they met with 72 college-aged test subjects. Half of the subjects interacted with a neutral interviewer; the other half interacted with an interviewer who tried to mimic their natural posture and gestures. The students that met with the "mimicking" interviewer reported better interactions and described those interviewers as more likable. This proved that mimicking can be used as an effective strategy to gain trust and build relationships.
The types of mimicking used in the study and in our daily lives, focus on many different types of mimicking. One of these is mirrored body language. Also included in the list of mimicry behaviors according to Chartrand and Bargh's studies, were posturing, mannerisms, facial expressions, and vocal tones, such as pitch, power, and pace. Verbal mirroring can also be an effective way of communicating and conveying friendliness- not only in mimicking the emotion but even in mirroring back the words and type of language the other person is using. For example, if the other person were using specific words like "embarrassed" or "anxious", you would also use those words, showing that you're listening and feeling what they feel. You may even notice that when you assume the posture of someone or talk in a tone of voice like theirs, they seem to respond better to you. They may now see you as someone who understands them and sees the world in a similar way.
Why is It Called the Chameleon Effect?
Perhaps a better understanding of the chameleon, the reptile, will help to illustrate the quality of naturalness. The chameleon changes its skin coloration, as well as the pattern, to various combinations. The most superficial layer contains pigments while the underlayer contains what are called guanine crystals. These two elements work together to create camouflage, which is a defense mechanism against predators. That isn't the only reason these lizards change color. They also do so for social signaling, as well as to react to temperature changes. The color change indicates the chameleon's physiological condition and intentions to other chameleons. Darker colors indicate cooperation and brighter colors indicate aggression.
Therefore, a chameleon knows when it's time to camouflage its colors. Then again, the lizard also knows when to remain just as he naturally is. He doesn't constantly change colors but surveys the situation and does so for survival or for social signaling. This should emphasize to those attempting to study the chameleon effect to take the time to learn social signaling and the etiquette that human beings expect from one another in certain situations.
If the Chameleon Effect is Natural Why Doesn't Blatant Copying Work?
When people notice that you are imitating them, they resist your desire to bond. You lose their trust and make them uncomfortable, or perhaps even creating an antagonistic relationship. How is this possible?
Researchers at UC-San Diego discovered in their own tests that the deciding factor was that intentional mimics seemed condescending to the subjects. The ones who were caught intentionally mimicking were even seen as incompetent compared to those who had natural gestures.
The theory of mimicking people you want to bond with is good, but timing is everything. Perfecting the timing of mimicry and making it appear natural, as opposed to deliberate and or overly strategic, involves a deeper understanding of people.
For instance, do you understand how a person would react to certain mimicking gestures? If you want to convey that you like a person, you could be more obvious with the mirroring signals. However, if you are talking to a superior at work, there is a power shift. The boss knows you "like" him or her, so deliberate mirroring may appear to be insincere flattery. The gestures would have to be subtle. Posturing and tone of voice may be more effective in this scenario. Mirroring requires a good understanding of people and relationships.
What Chartrand and Bargh Understood About the Chameleon Effect
This leads us to another point referenced in Chartrand and Bargh report. They stated that "students who rated high on empathy were more likely to imitate others." Therefore, the naturalness of this mimicry comes when the person has true empathy for the person they're interacting with. Chartrand even said, "Those who pay more attention, mimic more."
If a person with low empathy tries to mimic someone, then the results will be largely negative. Their shallow interest in the other person will be obvious. Deeper connection requires deeper empathy and understanding. It may not even be worth faking mimicry or the chameleon effect at all. The better strategy would be to work on developing true empathy for the other person, such as the ability to see and feel things from their perspective, not just your own.
Another component of mimicry to consider is that the less conscious you are that you're mirroring the other person, the more sincere you appear to them. They feel that you are listening to them and seeing or feeling what they do. You are not seeking advantage or favor but are simply enjoying a conversation. You are giving them the power to influence you. This is what gives them the confidence to trust and create a bond of friendship. A single encounter may not earn someone's trust completely. Over time, the chameleon effect, employed with empathy, may help to forge a friendship in many cases.
Politicians and businesspeople are taught to empathize with the contacts they meet, so their gestures and postures appear more natural. In negotiation, your contact wants to know that their viewpoint is understood. Sometimes it's not even about the view but about the feelings behind them. For example, in customer service when an angry customer demands to speak to a supervisor, there may be nothing the supervisor can do in terms of protocol, but by showing empathy and naturally mimicking the feelings of frustration the customer feels, progress is made. The customer feels validated, even if they don't get what they want. The chameleon effect works in this case because you feel what they feel and you offer emotional validation.
How to Perfect the Chameleon Effect
If you want to practice this effect, in order to make more friends or hone your empathy for others, there are some things you can do.
- Cultivate a Relationship
One thing is to take the time to cultivate a relationship with someone. When you mimic someone that you have spent time with and have shared experiences with, it is something that is often quite welcome.
- Adapt to Different Situations.
Another thing you can try is to adapt to certain situations throughout your day. For example, nurses have to keep being supportive of all of their patients each day, as well as making sure they are getting along with their co-workers. You can try to do this to, so you can note what works and what doesn't.
- Be Natural.
It is most important for you to let things happen naturally. If you just decide to mimic people, instead of being genuine, you will not get good results. Furthermore, you don't want to forget who you are, so be sure that you still keep your own mannerisms, interests, and speech patterns. Doing this will mean that when you are using the chameleon effect, it will be spontaneous. In other words, it will just happen because you enjoy hanging out with someone and genuinely want to connect with them. This will help ensure you won't fail at building relationships and being likeable.
At the same time, if you don't have a solid understanding of who you are and how you want to act, there is help out there. You can also learn the nuances of the chameleon effect from a professional.
BetterHelp Can Explain the Chameleon Effect
Websites like BetterHelp offer online therapy and counseling. Many people have found that talking to a counselor about life, growing up, and getting along with people has been very beneficial for their social life. You can talk to someone about figuring out more about yourself and how to interact with others effectively- using this concept. Below are some reviews of BetterHelp counselors, from people experiencing a range of issues related to communicating with others.
"Lisa has made a big difference in my life. I came to her feeling pretty hopeless and she got me excited to do the work I needed to learn new behavior. Friends, family and co-workers have all noticed the positive changes in my behavior. I have overcome a lot of personal problems and learned new ways to cope with stress. I'm now a non-smoker and have lost weight because I have a healthy lifestyle physically and emotionally. "
"Jeanette has been an exceptional support for me over the last two months. Our work together has unlocked learning and growth. She helped me find a deeper compassion for myself. She was an open-hearted and minded listener. I'm very grateful for our time."
The chameleon effect is a concept that can help or hurt you, depending on how you use it. At the same time, there are steps you can take to become more empathetic to others, or you can talk to someone who can help you figure out the process. Either of these things will allow you to mimic others in a respectful and helpful way. This can allow you to become more likable or let people know that you care. Take the first step today.