What Is The Chameleon Effect And Is It Real?

Updated November 15, 2018

Reviewer Whitney White, MS. CMHC, NCC., LPC

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The chameleon effect may be something you've personally experienced or something you've even tried on others-knowingly or not. It seems as if there's two types of the same behavior: intentional mimicking and unconscious mimicking.

We hear the phrase "mimic" often, whether it's from dating advice columns (men are told to mimic the gestures of the woman they're dating), or even from tips on negotiation and public speaking. We try to mimic other people in various social situations to create a rapport with them. However, understanding the so-called "chameleon effect" is a little more complicated than just "doing what she's doing." Consider the origins of this theory.

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.

Professors Chartrand and 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.

Furthermore, understanding the secret communication of body language may be closely related to the effect. Included in the list of mimicry behaviors according to Chartrand and Bargh's studies, were posturing, mannerisms, facial expressions, and vocal tones, including 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.

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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 now see you as someone who understands them and sees the world in a similar way. If not a friend, then at least a friendly acquaintance.

This leads us to the question…

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-perhaps even creating an antagonistic relationship. How is this possible, since when the mimicry is "sincere" it makes them like you more?

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 means everything. Perfecting the timing of mimicry and making it appear natural, as opposed to deliberate and or overly strategic, would involve a deeper understanding of people and the unique relationship.

For instance, do you understand how a person would react to certain mimicking gestures? What are the specific goals? If you want to convey that you like a person, you could be more obvious with the mirroring signals. But if you're talking to a superior at work, there is a power shift. The boss knows you "like" him or her, and so deliberate mirroring may appear to be insincere flattery. The gestures would have to be subtle. Posturing and tone of voice may be more important in this scenario. Mirroring requires a good understanding of people and relationships.

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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 (which has only positive effects) comes when the person has true empathy for the person they're interacting with. Chartrand even said, "Those who pay more attention mimic more."

The result of a person with low empathy who still tries to mimic 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 the ability to see and feel things from their perspective, not just one's own.

Another component to mimicry: 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 in you they need 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 that 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.

This is a given 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. 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.

Why is It Called the Chameleon Effect?

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Perhaps a better understanding of the chameleon, that's right, 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.

The Importance of Learning Social Signaling

Websites like BetterHelp, found at https://www.betterhelp.com/start/, offer online therapy and counseling. What might this have to do with the chameleon effect? 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. Not only does it help teens in dating, but it can also help adults better cope with stress, and to help a person to excel professionally.

Learning social signaling is necessary for survival and prosperous living in a variety of situations. Learning to effectively communicate with others, friends, family, and even your enemies, will provide an advantage. It will allow you to speak without awkward pauses or without changing the subject and losing the other person's interest. It can help you better learn when humor is appropriate. These are subtle cues that are often ignored, giving those who know them an advantage.

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