Cracked Mirrors: The Downside of Mimicry
Chapter five of On Second Thought, called The Mimicry Heuristic: Feeling Your Inner Ape, is about our powerful and automatic tendency to connect with others–emotionally, neurologically, physically. And–like the entire book–it’s about the perils of letting those automatic tendencies go unchecked. Here is a new piece of research that adds to the view that the mimicry heuristic is irresistible–yet not always advantageous: In short, being observed mirroring someone else could reflect poorly on you. Here, for background, is a short excerpt from the mimicry chapter:
“Moving a couch into a third-story walk-up is one of those everyday miracles that isn’t celebrated nearly enough. The couch is heavy and unwieldy, the staircase is steep and angular, and the banister is always in the way. There is no way you can manage this job by yourself, but the cousin who agreed to help out is surely more trouble than he’s worth. Yet somehow you do it. Grunting, not speaking, often without eye contact, the two of you nudge and jostle and heave and just when the threshold seems impossibly narrow . . . it’s in!
But how? Men and their cousins have presumably been performing these feats of cooperation for centuries, eons probably, though perhaps with felled trees or bison haunches instead of couches. It’s so fundamental to our nature that we don’t even need to talk in order to coordinate; indeed talking is often a hindrance. But how do we do it? How do we get two complex, independent nervous systems to work together on such a complicated task? The answer is the mimicry heuristic, which often works in subtle ways.
Northwestern University’s Kyle Reed put together a team of psychologists and engineers to explore this phenomenon in a laboratory, to see how perception and touch combine in everyday acts of cooperation. He needed the engineers to devise a complex piece of equipment, meant to simulate the act of cooperatively moving a couch up the stairs. Two laboratory “cousins” held the two ends of a crank; separated by a screen, they couldn’t see each other or talk to each other, but together they had to manipulate the crank to play a rudimentary video game. Each also had a go at doing the task alone.
The findings, from hundreds of trials, were somewhat surprising. Each of the participants worked harder when paired with someone else, exerting more force on the crank than when they worked solo. But here’s the interesting and counterintuitive part: The participants sensed that they were using the extra exertion to work against the partner, not with him. It’s was like being convinced your cousin is useless. Some volunteers actually complained afterward that the partner was more of a hindrance than a help.
But this perception was wrong. When the actual times were tallied, the participants consistently did better working together than either of them did working alone. The physical resistance that they felt the other exerting was real, but it was somehow contributing to their shared success. The researchers speculate that the two participants’ physical contact, even though it was by way of a mechanical device, acted as an effective form of communication. They used this tugging and pulling to come up with a cooperative strategy that even they were unaware of.
This mundane life activity illustrates an important point, that the mimicry heuristic acts constantly and out of awareness. We can all think of many more: a military battalion, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, two lovers strolling hand in hand down a busy city sidewalk. But the mimicry heuristic is not confined to acts of physical contact. That is probably how it originated, but today it influences all sorts of social interactions as well, for better or worse.
Consider this example from Seinfeld. Fans will recall the episode where the hapless George has a crush on Elaine’s latest boyfriend, Tony. It’s a non-sexual infatuation: George is attracted by Tony’s confidence and daring, and wants desperately to be like him. At one point, George and Tony are at the diner, facing each other in a booth, and Tony has his baseball cap on backwards. George is also wearing a cap, the conventional way, but as they chat, George gradually turns his own cap around. At the end of the scene, he is an exact mirror of his hero.
This bit of comedy captures the mimicry heuristic, the barely conscious aping that serves a vital part in human connection. It’s not always as obvious as George’s pathetic mirroring, but it is often literally a physical kind of imitation. I once had a colleague who, whenever I spoke to him, would inaudibly mouth my words, milliseconds later. There was no doubt that he was listening to me, because he always got my meaning, but while listening he would simultaneously be moving his lips. I am convinced he did not know he was doing this. And good thing, too, because otherwise I would have felt that he was mocking me.
Well it turns out that he was mocking me, though in a literal rather than malevolent way. My friend’s tic may have been an aberration, but we all use (mostly undetectable) physical movement as a way to help us make sense of the world. Indeed, it turns out that perception is inextricably tied up with the brain cells that control movement. In order to understand me, he was “trying on” my actions for fit—or “reliving” them. We all do this kind of cognitive processing, though most of us do it internally, where it’s not so distracting or annoying. Indeed, new research is demonstrating that the brain is hard-wired for aping, and that such mimicry is essential to our very existence as social beings.
But let me back up a bit. Psychologists used to think that perception and movement were two completely separate processes, lodged in different regions of the brain. The common wisdom was that we perceive the world with our eyes and ears and so forth, and send that information to the mind, which processes the data and in turn instructs the limbs and lips to act in certain ways. But apparently it’s not so tidy. According to Rutgers University psychologists Gunther Knoblich and Natalie Sebanz, the latest evidence suggests that it doesn’t matter whether we’re performing or observing: Each mental task activates the mind’s mimicry heuristic.
This is why some undisciplined soccer fans twitch and squirm in their seats when they watch their favorite striker fake out an opponent. Or why even professional golfers try to use their hips to steer a putt toward the hole. Animal studies also provide biological evidence for this heuristic: The same nerve cells in monkeys’ brains will fire off whether the monkey grasps an object or watches someone else grasp it. Doing is a reflection of watching, and vice versa.
So the brain helps us—makes us—connect to the rest of humanity, but the neurons must also allow us to function as individuals beings. To do that, according to Knoblich and Sebanz, we carry “common codes,” or scripts, in our mind for specific kinds of movement, like dancing. They are much like computer coding, and like computer coding can be very precise. For example, the brains of highly trained dancers react more quickly and intensely to their dancing codes if they are watching the kind of dance they are trained in—ballet, say, or flamenco—than if they are watching something unfamiliar. And there is even more brain activity if the dancers are watching videos of themselves dancing rather than someone else. Knoblich and Sebanz speculate that this selective activation of the internal repertoire is what allows us to distinguish our own actions from those of others. Seeing ourselves in action has greater resonance in the neurons, even though we don’t see ourselves all that often. There are also common codes for hearing: Our brains respond to our own clapping or piano playing more than to someone else’s, because our particular clapping or piano playing “style” in encoded in the mind.
Knoblich and Sebanz thought that the common code hypothesis might explain how we do things together: things like playing duets and rowing a canoe or moving a couch—all the things that make us social animals. They decided to do a scientific simulation of this dynamic. They devised a simple task in which participants, working together, had to push certain buttons in response to red and green lights. Then they tried to confuse just one of the participants with another stimulus. They found that both participants were thrown off by the distraction—and therefore more hesitant in their responses. It appears that people cannot help aping what others do, even when doing so hurts their own performance. I noticed this myself just recently, in the spinning class I take at my gym. With this kind of group exercise, you’re supposed to mimic the leader, and I try my best to follow his pacing as closely as I can to get the full benefit. But if there is another spinner in the class who is pedaling at a noticeably slower or faster pace, I find it very difficult not to get out of sync with the instructor. I actually have to look away.
So there is a constant tension in the mind, between the need to connect and the need to individuate—and studies of actual brain waves confirm this. When participants were asked to wait their turn but had to watch someone else, it took much more mental effort not to act than when they were waiting alone.
The psychologists take all this evidence to mean that the mimicry heuristic is a crucial building block of all social understanding and social interaction. Indeed, it may be that over eons the demands of being social creatures have shaped our basic psychological processes like perception, action and cognition.
Many heuristics were first learned by the body, but today are applied to a range of social activities. We looked at some of these visceral heuristics in Chapter 1. As with those primitive tendencies, the mimicry heuristic is sometimes a social lubricant, other times a trap. Here’s an example: I attended an all-male college where the Greek system dominated residential and social life. Each year in the winter, most of the freshmen would rush a particular fraternity house, and rush week was little more than a ritualistic way of declaring: “Take me in, please. I’m just like you.” The ones who were accepted would “pledge” themselves to the house. But many of the hopefuls were not accepted, and the rejects were often deeply disappointed.
The Greek system embodies much that is sad and unflattering about human nature, especially the cruelty of exclusion and the often desperate need to belong. Psychologists are very interested in these dynamics, because they apply beyond the frat house. Why is inclusion in groups and clubs so important to us, and what cognitive and emotional resources do we use to avoid rejection? Or, more important, to deal with the inevitability of rejection?
Psychologist Jessica Lakin of Drew University suspected that connecting is so essential to human functioning that we have deep-wired strategies for gaining entry to life’s groups and clubs. But what are these strategies? One possibility, she theorized, is that people threatened with social isolation resort to automatic mimicry–a primitive, pre-linguistic form of beseeching the in-group and pleading: I’m really am just like you. Think back to George Costanza’s insecure aping with is baseball cap. Lakin and her colleagues set out to prove this connection between physical mimicry and desire for belonging.
Lakin had a group of student volunteers play Cyberball, an arcade game loosely based on American football. The volunteers thought they were playing with and against other volunteers, but in fact a computer was controlling much of the play. The computer was programmed to “include” some players—that is, give them the ball about as much as everyone got it—and to “exclude” others. The volunteers came away from the game feeling either accepted or rejected by their fellow students.
When the Cyberball game was over, the scientists devised another ruse, which they videotaped. They had the students sit alone in a room for a bit and videotaped their natural foot movements. Apparently some people naturally fidget more than others, and the scientists used this natural movement as a baseline for the study. After videotaping the volunteers, a young woman entered the room to ostensibly take part in a shared task. But the task was fake; the woman was part of the experiment, and her real purpose in the room was to deliberately move her foot around, back and forth, up and down. She was a hired fidgeter.
The idea was to see if the volunteers increased their own foot movements once the woman entered the room and began her deliberate movements. They wanted to see if the students who were feeling rejected after Cyberball did more unconscious aping than those who felt included. And that’s precisely what they found. People apparently “recover” from rejection by unconsciously attempting, through physical mimicry, to affiliate with someone new. Hey, I may not be like them, but I’m just like you!
But the “someone new” in this study was basically the first person to come along. She didn’t do the actual rejecting. Lakin and her colleagues wanted to see if this unconscious mimicry is indeed indiscriminate, or if people use these rudimentary attempts at affiliation more strategically when (as in most of real life) they know who is rejecting them. So in a second experiment, only female volunteers played the Cyberball game, some against men and some against other women; some were rejected and others, not. Then they all took part in the foot movement study as before.
The psychologists predicted that the women would feel rejection more acutely if rejected by other women, their “in-group,” and that these rejects would subsequently make a greater and more selective effort to win over another woman rather than a man. And again that’s what they found. Even though the mimicry and supplication were completely outside of conscious awareness, they were strategically targeted at those in the in-crowd. Put bluntly, rejects didn’t kiss up to just anyone simply because their feelings were bruised. They had a clear goal: to belong to the group that didn’t want them.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the need for belonging is so basic to our nature. The “clubs” of our primordial ancestors were basically survivalist groups, and rejects didn’t last out on the savannah alone. But rejection is not often life-threatening these days, and the desperation to be included appears not nearly so adaptive as it does unseemly.
The fraternities of my day had this especially perverse ritual called “post-rush.” Sometimes a house would not get as many new pledges as it had hoped, so a couple weeks later they would host beer parties and such to let the rejects try again. Here’s where the real bathos played out. Already excluded once from membership in the club, the also-rans would do anything they could to show that their rejection had been a mistake and they really did belong: they would laugh unnaturally, drink inappropriately, and vigilantly scan the room for any clue to how a real fraternity man acts. Everything short of outright yelling: Hey, I’ll do anything! I’m just like you! They’re desperate to be accepted into a group that’s already proved itself too exclusive for them. This brings to mind the dark humor of Groucho Marx, who quipped: I refuse to join any club that would accept people like me as members.
Not all social mimicry is so sad. Indeed this basic human impulse may play a crucial role in the cohesion of groups and societies. Think about this: There was a time when soldiers went into battle in columns and rows. They would line up and march in orderly formation toward the enemy, armed with spears or bayonets or some other weapon of close combat. The enemy would do the same thing, and one of these well-oiled formations would kill more soldiers than the other—and win the battle.
Advances in firearms long ago made the marching formation obsolete. It just doesn’t work with machine guns and IEDs. Yet armies all over the world still train for this archaic kind of warfare, drilling soldiers in precision and synchrony that will almost certainly never be used on a battlefield.
Why is that? Or for that matter, why do high schools have marching bands? Why do churches have choirs? And perhaps most perplexing of all, why does synchronized swimming even exist? What is it about moving and chanting and singing in unison that appears to have universal appeal?
Anthropologists and cultural historians have offered up a variety of theories about synchrony over the years, mostly having to do with group coherence. One theory, for example, holds that various communities benefit from the actual physical synchrony—or “muscular bonding”—which builds group cohesiveness. Another idea is that synchronous activities lead to “collective effervescence”—positive emotions that break down the boundaries between self and group.
But neither of these theories has been proven, and what’s more, neither is complete. Muscle bonding may explain the coherence of the 14th Infantry Regiment, but those guys don’t seem very effervescent—not in the way that, say, carnival revelers are. And gross motor coordination doesn’t explain the almost motionless chanting of a roomful of Tibetan monks. Psychologists have been looking for a unifying theory for the appeal of synchrony.
One idea, put forth by psychologists Scott Wiltermuth and Chip Heath of Stanford University, is that all synchrony—movement and sound and both together—is an ancient ritual that evolved for the economic benefit of the group. The primary goal of rhythmic dancing and marching and chanting is to solve the problem of the freeloader—the community member who hurts the collective good by taking but not contributing. Here’s how they demonstrated this idea in a series of laboratory experiments.
In the simplest version, the researchers simply took groups of Stanford students on walks around campus; some were instructed to walk in step—marching basically—while others just strolled the way students usually stroll. Later, after the students thought the experiment was over, the psychologists gave them all what’s called the “Weak Link” test. In this test, each volunteer chooses to act either self-interestedly or cooperatively—giving or withholding resources—depending on what he anticipates others will do. The test basically measures the expectation that others will value the group over themselves.
The marchers acted more cooperatively than the strollers. They also said that they felt more “connected” than did the strollers. Notably, they did not report feeling any happier, suggesting that positive emotions were not necessary for achieving the boost in group cohesiveness.
The psychologists wanted to do a more fine-grained test of their idea. It’s well known that a sense of common identity and shared fate boosts group cohesiveness, but the researchers wanted to see if synchrony contributes to group cohesiveness above and beyond this. They did a rather elaborate test to sort this out. They had students perform tasks—moving plastic cups—that required differing degrees of coordination with others. While doing this, they listened to “O Canada” through headphones; some sang along and some didn’t. Remember that these were Stanford students, so the Canadian national anthem presumably had no emotional resonance for them; singing was merely a synchronous act.
So some of the students sang and moved the cups in rhythm, while others just sang in unison with the song and others merely read the lyrics silently. Still others sang and moved to different tempos—sort of like a really bad dancer moving at odds with the music. Then the researchers did the same “Weak Link” test on all of them. Like before, those who had experienced synchrony were more cooperative and community-minded than those who had not. The bad dancers were bad citizens, but the physical movement otherwise made no difference; choral singers were selfless with or without the swaying, suggesting that muscle bonding is (like joy) unnecessary to get the desired group coherence. The swaying may be enjoyable, but the group singing was sufficient.
Wiltermuth and Heath did this “O Canada” experiment again, but instead of the “Weak Link” test they used what’s called the “public goods game.” This game uses tokens, and participants choose whether to contribute to a public kitty or their own private savings account. Self-interest has a higher payoff in the game for individuals, but the group benefits more if everyone acts unselfishly—so there’s a conflict between self and community. They got the same results as before, but the interesting finding was this: The game has several rounds, and over time the choral singers increased their contribution to the group, keeping less money for themselves. They gave much more to the community fund in the last round than they did in the first, suggesting that the synchrony has persistent and growing effects.
The choral singers also said they felt more part of the team. They felt they had more in common with the others, and they trusted them somewhat more. Interestingly, they also made more money in the end, because they shared in the group bounty.
So synchrony rituals are powerful. So powerful they may have endowed certain groups with a competitive advantage over the eons, perhaps even causing some cultures to flourish while others perished. It’s no wonder then that such powerful impulses remain entrenched in today’s churches and armies—even in ritual-for-ritual’s sake, like synchronized swimming.
Is there a downside to this highly prized synchrony? Our tightly entwined nervous systems may benefit the community, but how about the individual? Some psychologists are now exploring the possibility that we pay a price for our cohesion. Think about it this way. I used to jog a fair bit, and when I did I loved having a regular running partner. It’s not that I’m undisciplined, but my friend’s company nudged me to run just a bit farther or faster than I might on my own. And some days the encouragement went the other way. It’s like we drew motivation and stamina from each other’s presence.
This will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever enlisted a friend to go on a diet or joined a group to quit smoking or drinking. But is it possible that we might also be emotionally and physically depleted by others’ efforts? In other words, can your self-discipline literally wear me out?
Psychologists are very interested in the power of vicarious thoughts and feelings, because they have clear implications for everything from public health campaigns to personnel management. What if cohesion and camaraderie are actually taking an unseen toll on workers and dieters and recovering addicts?
Yale University psychologist Joshua Ackerman and colleagues wondered if we might automatically and unconsciously simulate the behavior of others around us—and if such internal aping might lead to real mental exhaustion and breakdown of discipline. They devised a couple of clever experiments to test this theory of vicarious depletion.
In one study, they had a group of volunteers read a story about a waiter at a fancy restaurant. The waiter arrives at work hungry, but he is prohibited from eating any of the restaurant food. The story describes in mouth-watering detail the meals that the hungry waiter must serve: Imagine cold poached salmon, roast chicken and fresh asparagus, chocolate mousse cake. Some simply read the story, but others were told to put themselves in the waiter’s shoes, to imagine his thoughts and feelings.
Then all the volunteers played a version of The Price Is Right. They estimated the value of goods like watches and cars and major appliances and bid on them. The idea was to see if vicariously experiencing the waiter’s self-discipline would deplete the volunteers own self-discipline—and if that depletion would affect their behavior in a completed unrelated realm, namely shopping. Would the torture of denying oneself all that delicious food make the volunteers into spendthrifts?
And it did, dramatically. Those who suffered along with the fictional waiter spent a full $6000 more than the others on imaginary luxury items. The psychologists did a separate test of mood just to rule out the possibility that they were not squandering their cash because of grumpiness. They weren’t. It appears they exhausted their reserve of self-discipline in the restaurant and that the exhaustion carried over.
The psychologists wanted to double-check these findings using a more realistic and complex scenario. Some of the volunteers did the same hungry waiter exercise, but others read about a well-fed waiter who worked in a mediocre fast-food joint. Afterward they had them complete a difficult and time-pressured word problem—one known to tax a host of executive skills like concentration, motivation and information processing.
The results were interesting and not entirely expected. Again, those who actively empathized with the hungry waiter became cognitively depleted—leading to inferior performance on the problem-solving task. But those who merely witnessed the waiter’s self-control were better problem-solvers than those who witnessed the well-fed waiter. That is, seeing someone exert control sparked the idea of discipline and reinforced the goal, but actually experiencing the denial led to vicarious exhaustion.
This raises an intriguing possibility. It’s well known that dysfunctional groups don’t perform well, but these findings suggest that group coordination can also work “too well.” That is, if group members—workers, exercisers, addicts—are too tightly synchronized with each other, the exhaustion of one group member can spread to the entire group. Despite its name, self-control is a social enterprise, which means that our own successes and failures may be shaped by others more than we like to think.
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