Research Of The Effect Of Mimicry On Prosocial Behaviour


People are naturally inclined to mimic. Mimicry has been observed across all cultures and ages in peculiar phenomena like contagious yawning or laughter. Chartrand and Bargh (1999) noted that people frequently imitate others’ posture and facial expressions unintentionally, and Bandura (1977) demonstrated the essential role of mimicry in development through Social Learning Theory. Mimicry seems to be an integral part of our social lives, therefore it is important to understand the implications of mimicry in social contexts.

Previous research by Van Baaren, Janssen, Chartrand, and Dijksterhuis (2009) demonstrated that being mimicked can cause individuals to become more attuned to similarities in neutral stimuli, suggesting that mimicry may enhance feelings of connectedness. Furthermore, research by Bastiaansen et al. suggests that emotional responses share a considerable amount of the neural correlates found in mimicry. This overlap may indicate that imitation can enhance empathy. Mirror neurons offer an exciting perspective into our natural predisposition to imitate others. It is well known in the literature that these specialised neurons allow us to encode observed sensory information of actions as a ‘motor echo’, therefore activating the same motor neurons as if we were performing the action ourselves. Although this seems to explain ‘contagious behaviours’ such as yawning or laughing, mirror neurons also play a role in empathy, social interaction, and social learning and abnormal mirror neuron functioning has been observed in patients high on the Autism Spectrum.

The effects of imitation on feelings towards others have been widely explored, and one phenomena that has emerged from the literature is the Chameleon effect. The effect proposes that autonomous acts of mimicry in social situations lead to subsequent positive emotions, such as trust, towards other individuals. Previous research highlights the substantial role of mimicry in social learning, connectedness, and empathy. However the significance of this effect expands further than social learning and contagious laughter, to everyday prosocial behaviour within society. The Empathy Altruism model, developed by Bateson (1991), states that empathy towards others will subsequently motivate an individual to act more positively towards another individual. This theory is supported by research showing that enhanced empathy, and feelings of trust and connectedness increase prosocial tendencies such as cooperation. Therefore this review will hypothesise a positive effect of mimicry on prosocial behaviour. The evidence suggests that mimicry will lead to feelings of connectedness, which in turn may stimulate prosocial behaviour. This literature review will aim to answer the question regarding the effect of mimicry on prosocial behaviour.

In order to thoroughly understand whether mimicry has a positive influence on prosocial behaviour it is important to consider the components of what defines prosocial behaviour. Two important sub-constructs when looking into prosocial behaviour as a whole are generosity and helpfulness. People may act generously in situations where they make a sacrifice for the better of someone else, yet they may act in a helpful way when they assist someone in a certain situation. In this research description generosity is considered as offering money and helpfulness is considered as offering assistance to others. Both generosity and helpfulness are important to consider separately to ensure this review will come to a valid conclusion on the effects of mimicry on prosocial behaviour because they both consist of different sets of elements that underpin prosocial behaviour. This literature review focuses on answering two important sub-questions regarding the effects of mimicry on generosity and helpfulness, respectively.

The Influence of Mimicry on Generosity

This section will address the effect of mimicry on generosity. Previous research has shed light on our natural inclination to imitate others and the positive effects of this mimicry on social interactions, and has accepted the notion of the Chameleon Effect. However, it is still unclear whether mimicry will increase generosity specifically as a result of the chameleon effect. According to Bateson’s Empathy Altruism Model (1991) we should expect to see a positive effect of mimicry on generosity. Therefore the hypothesis for this section is that mimicry will have a positive influence on generosity. The following section will explore the effect of mimicry on generosity.

Van Baaren, Holland, Steenaert, and Van Kippenberg (2003) researched the influence of mimicry on generosity. In a restaurant 60 groups of customers were randomly allocated into either a control or experimental condition. In the experimental condition a waitress repeated the exact order of the customers, and in the control condition she did not repeat any of the orders given by the customers. They investigated the frequency and size of tips given by customers as a measure of generosity. The researchers found that there was an increase in the average tip size and frequency of giving tips in the mimicry condition compared to the average of the control condition. These findings demonstrate an increase in generosity as a consequence of mimicry.

The study by Van Baaren, Holland, Steenaert, and Van Kippenberg (2003) assessed the tips given to a waitress in a restaurant following a mimicry and a control condition. However, the waitress could have appeared more focused on serving the customers when she repeated their order in the mimicry condition compared to the control condition where she simply commented on the order. The unconscious representation of a more attentive waitress may have led customers’ to an expectation of better service, therefore priming their experience of the service by the waitress and subsequently influencing them to provide her with a larger tip. Therefore the observed increase in tip size may be due to primed expectations of good service, and therefore confounds the effects of mimicry on the observed generosity. This is significant because these findings may be investigating an indirect effect of mimicry on generosity, where mimicry leads to certain expectations and not general positive feelings as suggested by the literature. The following study by Fischer-Lokou, Martin, Guéguen, and Lamy (2011) is not presented with this confounding effect of mimicry since generosity towards another confederate, and not the mimicker, is measured. Therefore the expectation effects of the mimicker will not be translated to, and have no effect on, the perception of the second confederate in the test condition.

A study by Fischer-Lokou, Martin, Guéguen, and Lamy (2011) investigated the consequences of mimicry on generosity. They observed an opportunity sample of 110 participants passing by on a busy street in France. The sample was allocated into one of three conditions: a verbal and physical mimicry condition, a verbal mimicry condition, and a control condition. In each condition confederates approached participants and asked for directions to the City Hall. Following this interaction, participants later encountered a second confederate who asked for some change to catch a bus. In this study generosity was measured by the frequency in which participants gave money to the second confederate. In the verbal and physical mimicry condition more participants were willing to give money to the second confederate, compared to the control condition. These findings may indicate that mimicry, both verbal and physical, can have a positive influence on helping behaviour.

This section demonstrates that mimicry has a positive effect on observed generosity. In natural conditions, when people are mimicked, they are more inclined to act generously towards both the mimicker and other individuals who did not mimic them. It is worth noting that the opportunity sampling made both studies unable to control for situational or dispositional variables that may have confounded the results. However, the naturalistic design employed by both studies promotes strong ecological validity when extrapolating the findings to everyday settings. Therefore it is reasonable to accept the hypothesis that mimicry can cause an increase in observed generosity.

This subsection demonstrated the effect of mimicry on generosity, however the effect of mimicry on individuals’ inclinations to offer help has not yet been covered. Since the measure of generosity in the previous studies exclusively refers to monetary offers this only partly concludes an effect of the main construct prosocial behaviour. It is unclear whether mimicry will have the same effect on helping behaviour, which may require more effort and personal involvement than giving money. Since prosocial behaviour is a broad concept, it is important to investigate the role of mimicry on helping as it may require different prosocial characteristics, for example sociability. The following section will explore the role of mimicry on helpfulness as an important component of the main construct prosocial behaviour.

The Influence of Mimicry on Helpfulness

Until now, the research discussed has measured how mimicry influences individuals’ behaviour when giving money to strangers in different situations, to assess generosity. The effect mimicry could potentially have on helpfulness has not yet been explored, and as established earlier, helpfulness is an important sub-construct within prosocial behaviour.

Research by Carpenter, Udebel, and Tomasello (2013) explored the influence of mimicry on helpfulness of 18-month-old infants. Forty-eight infants were recruited from a group of volunteer parents. They were randomly allocated into either a mimicry condition or a control condition where they would play with an experimenter. Both of these groups were then split in half again for the subsequent ‘helping’ conditions, either with the first experimenter or a new experimenter. In the mimicry condition the first experimenter would copy the actions of the infants, whereas infants in the control condition were not mimicked. After playing with infants in either condition, the first experimenter would leave the room briefly and return or be replaced by an unfamiliar experimenter for the helping condition. During the helping condition, experimenters ‘accidentally’ dropped a box of sticks on the floor. Helpfulness was measured by how often the infants helped pick up the sticks without being prompted to. Next the experimenter attempted to open a cupboard with full hands, the helpfulness of infants was measured by how frequently they helped the experimenter open the cupboard. The percentage of infants who helped the experimenter following the mimicry condition was higher with both the familiar and unfamiliar experimenters compared to the percentage of infants in the control condition. The findings show that mimicry had a positive effect on helpfulness for both familiar and unfamiliar experimenters.

Carpenter, Udebel, and Tomasello (2013) studied the effect of mimicry on helpfulness among 18-month-olds. Although these findings could lend an explanation of our biological predisposition to respond to mimicry, they may not be measuring the influence of mimicry on helpfulness but rather the infants’ inclination to act in a helpful way towards the adult figures as a result of innate mechanisms which promote infant survival. This is problematic to the conclusion regarding the effects of mimicry on helpfulness as the possibility of these confounds cannot be eliminated. Therefore the following study will investigate whether this effect is true in adult populations as they are more independent than infants and this effect should not be present.

Van Baaren, Holland, Kawakami, and Van Kippenberg (2002) further investigated the influence of mimicry helpfulness. The participants included 17 volunteer undergraduate university students at Nijmegen University (Netherlands). The participants were randomly assigned to one of two conditions; the experimental condition or the control condition. During the experimental condition participants were seated at a desk with the experimenter and asked to give their opinions on different types of advertisements while the experimenter mimicked their posture. During the control condition, the same procedure was followed and the experimenter maintained all aspects of behaviour, without mimicry. The experimenter then left the room to collect an unrelated task for the participants and upon returning ‘accidentally’ knocked over a jar of pens on the desk. A ten second interval was allowed for the participants to pick up the pens before the experimenter did so herself, and this was used as a measure of helpfulness. The results show that more participants picked up the pens in the experimental condition than in the control condition. The results indicate a positive effect of mimicry on helpfulness.

This section demonstrates that mimicry has a positive effect on helping behaviour in both 18-month-olds and adult populations. Therefore the hypothesis that mimicry increases helpfulness is accepted.

Conclusion and Discussion

This literature review concludes that mimicry has a positive effect on prosocial behaviour. The first subsection highlighted the positive effect of mimicry on generosity, while the second highlighted the positive influence of mimicry on helpfulness.

As hypothesised, this review demonstrates that mimicry has a positive influence on prosocial behaviour. This effect may be evident due to the enhanced feelings of trust and connectedness that arise as a result of mimicry, as illustrated in the literature by the Chameleon effect. In accordance with these feelings of connectedness, Bateson’s Empathy Altruism model (1991) states that individuals will subsequently be motivated to act cooperatively and collectively, which may explain the positive effect of mimicry on prosocial behaviour.

However, prosocial behaviour is a very broad construct that entails many levels and components. Since this review only explored two sub-components of prosocial behaviour, an account for the effect of mimicry on prosocial behaviour as a whole cannot be made. It is important to understand that prosocial behaviour is reduced to certain sub-constructs in particular situations for the purpose of objective measurement in the studies mentioned above. For example, both studies on the effect of mimicry on generosity only considered generosity as giving money. As well as this, the studies regarding the effect of mimicry on helpfulness only studied helping behaviour in particular situations such as picking up pens. Although the ecological validity of these studies is maintained, the findings cannot imply any broader effects of mimicry on prosocial behaviour in serious, real world contexts like volunteers fighting for the rights of asylum seekers or collecting donations after a natural disaster destroys a city. It is arguable that understanding the role of mimicry in important contexts is far more valuable than trivial situations studied in the given research. Reductionism eliminates elements of prosocial behaviour and its complex interaction with empathy and mimicry in the real world. Furthermore, prosocial behaviour extends beyond generosity and helpfulness, including collaboration and sociability. Therefore in order to obtain a more holistic perspective of prosocial behaviour, meta-analyses including observational case studies and experimental research can be conducted.

Secondly, the studies referenced in this review are Eurocentric in nature and only include a European sample. The concepts used when measuring prosocial behaviour are culturally bound operationalisations that are not applicable across all cultures. For example, it is a social norm in most western societies to give tips to waiting staff in restaurants, yet this idea is alien to other cultures, such as the rural Malawian culture, and therefore this measure of generosity is invalid outside of western contexts. The concern with the lack of global representation within the research highlights the important need for a more inclusive view of the potential effect of mimicry on prosocial behaviour in varied cultures. Since mimicry is observed in all cultures, and since prosocial behaviour is an integral component of human nature, it is essential to explore it from a wider perspective. This will allow the findings to be more widely applicable and could help identify certain patterns and devise rules through extensive research. A suggestion for future studies in this area is to develop more standardised measures of prosocial behaviour that can be studied across cultures.

Mimicry has been shown to encourage prosocial behaviour. It is an integral part of our social lives, and may have shaped the way we function in communities today. With an increasingly globalised world, an understanding of stimulating connectedness and cooperation could have large implications in reducing violence and discriminatory hate crimes and well as increase volunteering and involvement community projects for the better of society.


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01 February 2021
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