The Chameleon Effect: Why Mirroring Happens

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The Chameleon Effect: Why Mirroring Happens

The chameleon effect is explained as copying unconsciously copying the other person's mannerisms which is one of the ways of blending in. / Photo by: Brainsil via Shutterstock


In social situations, people have the tendency to mirror other people’s behavior, especially during conversations. This occurrence is what the researchers Tanya Chartrand and John Bargh called the Chameleon Effect.

According to, through three experiments, they have demonstrated that people are inclined to have an affinity for those who behave in almost the same way as they do. Their research, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, shows that imitating another person’s mannerisms results in an improved relationship with others founded on trust and attractiveness.


Chameleon Effect Definition

Prevention defines the Chameleon Effect as “the natural tendency to imitate another person’s speech inflections and physical expressions.”  Curiosity describes it as people’s way of blending in. When someone socializes with others, they have the unconscious tendency to mimic other people’s gestures, postures, expressions, and other elements of their behavior.


Chameleons and Human Socialization

Betterhelp states that it was dubbed as the Chameleon Effect because it was based on the chameleon’s defense mechanism, which is to change the color of its skin to camouflage with its surroundings. It camouflages itself so it could hide from its predators. The skin color changing also happens as a response to different temperatures and for social indications. When a chameleon shows other chameleons bright colors, it exhibits aggression. Meanwhile, dark colors show cooperation.

The changing of colors depends on the appropriate timing. They know when to stay naturally green and when they have to shift their skin pigmentation for their survival and for social signaling. Similarly, people who want to explore the Chameleon Effect must educate themselves on social signaling as well as the decorum that is expected by humans in particular circumstances.


Chameleon effect was derived from the chameleon's defense mechanism where its skin camouflages with its surroundings. / Photo by: Lutralutra via Pixabay


Chartrand and Bargh's Research Method

In the first experiment, subjects had to work with partners. They were unaware that their partners were actors. Both were tasked to take turns to describe a picture. The experimenters observed that when the subjects were likely to imitate their expressions and mannerisms, which were smiling, having a blank expression, shaking their foot or rubbing their face. After the experiment, the subjects were interviewed about their partners’ mannerisms. The subjects replied that they did not take note of their partners’ mannerisms and none of them commented on the mannerisms being observed by the researchers.

In the second experiment, the subjects were paired with actors again. This time, the actors were requested to either imitate the subject’s behavior or to act neutrally. After the second experiment was conducted, it was shown that the participants had the tendency to be drawn to the actors who mimicked their behavior and were more prone to say that their interaction went well, rather than the subjects whose partners remained neutral.

For the third experiment, the researchers gauged the empathy of the participants with the help of the Davis Interpersonal Reactivity Index, which assesses how willing someone is to see something through someone else’s perspective. They discovered that individuals who had more empathy were more prone to imitating others’ mannerisms because they focus more on other people and have a greater perception on them.


What Causes the Chameleon Effect?

Chartrand and Bargh propose that the Chameleon Effect is caused by the perception-behavior link. This means that when a person sees an individual carry out an action, they are also more likely to do it. This can be seen in a person’s speech patterns, moods, and gestures. All actions that people do in front of others is considered “contagious”.

Imitating someone else’s mannerisms helps people bond and strengthens the unity of a group. It also aids people in relating to others unintentionally. For example, in dealing with a stranger, when a person unconsciously mimics their behavior, it can make their interaction more pleasant.



Intentionally Copying Behavior Negates the Chameleon Effect

Betterhelp emphasizes, “...  The less conscious you are that you’re mimicking the other person, the more sincere you will appear to them.”  If an individual imitates someone without intentionally doing it, it shows that they are not trying to gain favor from the other person but that they are just having fun talking to them. The speaker will feel more heard and that what they are doing is also being witnessed and felt by the listener. In the unconscious copying of behavior, this allows them to influence them. By allowing them to influence the person, the person gets their trust and confidence. Eventually, this can develop into a lasting friendship.

However, if someone who has a little empathy tries to fake the Chameleon effect, the interaction will end up negatively. It will expose a how shallow a person’s interest is in the other person. This will also make the other question the individual's goals in approaching them. In a study conducted by researchers from the University of California San Diego, it was shown that experimenters who blatantly mimicked the subjects were perceived as arrogant. Those who were also seen intentionally copying behavior were also viewed as incapable.

It is good to want to connect with another person by copying them, but they must also consider the timing. To be able to master the perfect timing for imitating others, as well as being able to make those actions look natural rather than intentional and planned, they should try to gain more understanding about others and their special connection.

Learning how to read and decode body language may help one to apply the Chameleon effect. Some behaviors included that should be naturally imitated are a person's vocal tones, their posturing, mannerisms, and their facial expressions. Under the vocal tones, an individual must be able to have a similar power, pace, and pitch. Additionally, learning to be able to verbally mimic them will make the interaction become smoother. The person should not only be able to reflect how another person feels, but also be able to employ the same words and type of language they are using. If a person is able to effectively verbally mirror someone, this will make their communication have more impact and this will also show others that they are friendly. 


When a person unconsciously copies another person, they gets their trust and confidence and will end up with a lasting friendship. / Photo by: Flamingo Images via Shutterstock




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