Empathy research of the last 15 or so years has reinforced the mantra that mimicry–the tendency to imitate the behaviors and expressions of other people–not only smooths the wrinkles of social interaction, but also facilitates better emotional understanding. The idea being that mimicry helps people feel what others are feeling and more accurately understand one another.
And when it comes to truthful interaction, plenty of studies suggest this is the case. But what about during deceptive interaction? If mimicry helps me better understand you, will it also help me to know when you are lying?
A new study in the journal Psychological Science set out to answer that question. Participants were asked to interact with and mimic or not mimic people who claimed to have made a donation to charity — some of whom really had made a donation, others of whom were lying. In total, the experiment included three participant groups operating under three conditions: (1) Told to Mimic, (2) Told not to mimic, (3) Control — no instructions given.
The results: Nonmimickers were significantly better at identifying the liars than mimickers — and this result held true when comparing the nonmimickers to mimickers and to the control group. Also worth noting is that all three groups were generally not very good at detecting lies (though the nonmimickers were the best), which buttresses another well-tested theory that, overall, people are just not very good lie detectors.
These results have several implications. That used car salesman who is trying to put you into a “great deal” — be careful not to mimic him. Ditto for just about any salesperson you come in contact with; while they may or may not be lying to you, it’s best to put as much objective distance between you and them as you can, and evidently mimicry reduces that distance. And that guy who shoulders up to you at a bookstore or coffee shop to tell you about a “great business opportunity” — don’t even talk to that guy.
And a word to the police: when you’re “good copping” someone you think might have committed a crime, watch out because the perp might be working you over. Previous studies have shown that mimicking a suspect may influence the interviewer’s feelings about the suspect’s trustworthiness, and that can bias the investigation in the wrong direction.
The big takeaway: keep tabs on your mimicking and you’ll likely get played less often.